Author Archives: Caleb McDaniel

Group Presentations

In the next two weeks of class, we will divide our labor so that we can learn about some different kinds of digital tools that might help us answer (or more effectively present our answers) to our questions about slavery and runaway slave ads in Texas.

You will work with a partner to work through some tutorials (much like you did for Homework #3), and then talk with your partner about how this tool (or others like it) might be useful for our class. Your final task will then be to report back to the class on what you have done with an oral presentation that gives your classmates a sense of what the tool can do and what it might do for us.

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Our Questions

Data Analysis Questions

  • What was the typical profile of a subscriber?
  • What was the typical profile of an advertised runaway slave?
  • Did people advertised run away in groups, and if so, what kinds of groups?
  • How long did an ad run, how often was it reprinted, and did rewards increase over time?
  • What techniques did runaways use to escape? How often did they succeed, or try again if they were captured?
  • Why did particular individuals run away, and where were they suspected to have gone? (How did slaveholders answer these questions, as opposed to the answers runaways would have given?)
  • When (in the year, or in all the years) were runaway ads most likely to appear?
  • How did subscribers describe or think about enslaved people advertised in the ads? As individuals or anonymous laborers? How do slaveholders react to runaways?
  • What systems or factors prevented successful escapes? What were runaways up against?
  • How long after an escape did slaveholders wait to advertise?
  • How often (and how widely) were ads reprinted?

With regard to all of these questions, we also have been wondering:

  1. What difference did the distinctive characteristics of Texas make for the answers of any of these questions? Did Texas depart from or conform to patterns like those shown in the Franklin and Schweninger book?
  2. How did the answers of any of these questions change over time?

Data Visualization Questions

  • Would it be possible to visualize, using the ads, the differences between the slaveholders’ “geography of containment” and the slaves’ “rival geography”?
  • What visualizations of our data would most effectively communicate what slavery meant or was like for the enslaved? Which visualizations might persuade even better (or in a different way) than a written historical narrative?
  • Which visualizations might allow us to better see answers to our analytical questions?
  • What would be the purpose of different visualizations of the data, ranging from numbers on a table, to a map, to images, to an interactive game?

Data Exploration Questions

  • Would it be possible to make the discovery of runaway ads more automated, using page images or OCR text of the newspaper pages?

Comments on Metadata

Our collaborators over at the University of North Texas have been posting about questions related to metadata in their runaway slave ad database. Use this post to comment on their posts, linking directly to the post(s) you want to respond to.

Photo Exhibit Tonight and Tomorrow

Want a break from your homework? Looking for something interesting to do this weekend that would give you some interesting perspective on our course? Consider attending either the reception or the gallery talk for this photo exhibit on antebellum slave plantation homes in East Texas. If you are able to make it and want to write a comment on this post about what you saw and heard, I am willing to add two extra credit points to one of your grades from Homeworks 1 to 3.

Homework #4: Reading Questions

For this homework assignment, you should write a comment on this blog post that responds to the readings and discussions that we have been doing in class, including the readings for Monday.
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Homework #3: Using and Understanding MALLET

If you prefer, you may download this assignment in PDF form.

For our January 31 class, you read several articles about using a method called "topic modeling" to "read" texts algorithmically. In this homework assignment, you will have a chance to use MALLET, a topic modeling software package, yourself and then write a reflection on your experience that applies what you have learned to our class project.

Before You Begin

This assignment will require you to use the command line on your computer. I recommend that before you begin, you review some of the material on this that we covered in class on Friday.

If you have a Mac or Linux machine, the Command Line Bootcamp from the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia is a useful place to begin, and it is aimed at humanities students and scholars. If you have a Windows machine, here is a basic introduction to the DOS prompt.

Regardless of your machine, there are three main things you will need to be able to do in this assignment from the command line, so make sure you understand how to do each of them:

  • See what directory you are currently in.
  • Change directories.
  • List the contents of the current directory.
  • See inside the contents of a file.

You may also want to know how to clear your terminal screen if it becomes too crowded with text. You can do this with the command cls at the Windows command prompt and the command clear at the Unix/Mac command line. (Even after clearing the screen, you should be able to scroll up in your terminal windows to see what you’ve done in the past.)


  1. To gain a basic familiarity with the command line.
  2. To install and use MALLET with the sample data included in the package.
  3. To reflect on the uses and limitations of topic modeling in historical research.
  4. To gain experience and confidence in following a detailed tutorial for an unfamiliar tool.


There are both technical and non-technical requirements for this assignment, but the two parts are separable. I recommend that you attempt the technical part first since it will probably take longer, but if you get stuck, you should be able to answer the questions in the non-technical part before completing the techy stuff.

Technical Requirements

Complete the tutorial on Getting Started with Topic Modeling and MALLET at the Programming Historian, which will show you how to install MALLET and then use it on the sample documents included with the package.

This requirement will be completed when you tweet two screenshots of your work to the course hashtag #ricedh. More specifically:

  • One screenshot should, like Figure 8 in the tutorial, show the output of a train-topics command on the sample data set discussed in the tutorial, but should show that you generated 15 topics instead of the default 10.
  • One screenshot should, like Figure 10 in the tutorial, show a screenshot of the tutorial_composition.txt file generated by your 15-topic model opened in Excel. (If you don’t have Excel installed on your computer, you can also satisfy this requirement by creating a GitHub Gist containing the contents of your tutorial_composition.txt file and tweeting the link to the Gist instead.)

If you are not familiar with how to take screenshots on your computer, do some Googling to find out the answer, or ask on Twitter for help. You will also need to learn how to post photos on Twitter.

Non-Technical Requirements

After reading the Friday texts about topic modeling and trying out MALLET yourself, you should be able to figure out answers to the following two questions:

  1. Suppose we wanted to create a topic model of the runaway slave ads we have collected on our Google Spreadsheet. What first steps would we have to take to get from our spreadsheet of permalinks to a *.mallet file that we could train topics on?
  2. In his Mining the Dispatch project, Robert K. Nelson used MALLET to find articles that were likely to be fugitive slave ads in a large corpus of digitized newspapers. What feature(s) of the Portal to Texas History would have prevented us from using the same method to discover ads in the Telegraph and Texas Register? Be as specific and thorough as possible. (Here’s a hint: do some searching for keywords in the Telegraph and Texas Register on the Portal, and notice what kinds of results you get back. Does the kind of result returned by a keyword search tell you something about the way that the underlying text documents in the Portal are stored and separated from each other?)

Write up an email to me answering both of these questions. You should be able to answer them with just a few sentences in each case—no more than two good-sized paragraphs should do the job.

Summary and Evaluation

Successful completion of this assignment will include:

  • Two screenshots posted to Twitter to satisfy the technical requirements.
  • An email to me answering the two non-technical questions.

Because this assignment has several, separable parts, I will divide up the points for the assignment this way when evaluating your homework: two points for each screenshot, and three points for each answer in the email.

Help! I’m Stuck!

There is a good possibility you’ll encounter technical difficulties when doing this assignment. Don’t fret or bang your head against the wall all weekend if you are getting an error message that is not mentioned in the tutorial, or if you are having trouble getting the same results shown in the tutorial. Instead, get help!

You can always take to Twitter if you need help. If you are getting error messages in your terminal that are longer than 140-characters or difficult to explain, you can also use a Gist, as you did in the first homework, to get help. Copy and paste the strange output of your terminal into a Gist, putting an explanation of what produced it in the Gist "description," and then tweet the URL to that Gist to our course hashtag to see if I or another student can help. (And remember, helping out other students is a way to score well on the Team Participation part of your grade.)

Remember, though, the academic integrity policies for the course. Do not get someone else to do the work for you and be sure to acknowledge any pointers or technical assistance you received—in this case by noting it in your email to me.

Defining Digital Scholarship

As mentioned in class and on the syllabus, we will be collaborating some this semester with a group of graduate students taught by Andrew Torget at UNT. This week, our collaborators have also been doing some thinking about what digital scholarship means. Check out what they have to say!

Video Game History

Yesterday we talked briefly in class about two web-based role-playing games in which the player assumes the role of a runaway slave. Both are called "Flight to Freedom," the first at Bowdoin College and the second at the NEH-sponsored site Mission US.

Screen shot from Mission US game

Screen shot from Mission US game, Flight to Freedom

One of the issues that came up in our discussion was whether "gamifying" the history of slavery is ever appropriate, and as it turns out, this issue has just been in the news because of a new slavery-centered game in the Assassin’s Creed series.

Another question that our discussion raised was whether video games can be considered "history" at all. This, too, is a long-standing question, and there is a very thoughtful group blog called Play the Past devoted to considering it. It’s a blog often written for historians by historians, and just yesterday historian Trevor Owens argued that games can be historical scholarship. His argument hinges on many of the points that came up yesterday in class about the widening of access to history, and the benefits of breaking away from a linear narrative form of argument that is itself no less interpretive than a "non-fiction game" would be.

Of course, even if we could agree that games could be history, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that the history of slavery should be represented with a game. At the very least, perhaps, the article on "Assassin’s Creed" suggests that with games, as with essays, there are better and worse ways to proceed. Play the Past has also published some past posts dealing with attempts to represent slavery in game-play situations, including this one by Rebecca Mir, and this one by Mark Sample about "playing the powerless in videogames about the powerless," which pointed me to the Mission US game in the first place.

In that post, Sample asks:

What are the limits of playing the powerless? What is lost and what is gained in portraying—and playing—a situation that has been well represented in other media? And what considerations should developers and players alike have with regards to responsibility and accountability?

If you’re interested in continuing this discussion, I’d be interested to hear your answers to those questions. Did you read the review of Assassin’s Creed, or play the Flight to Freedom games? What do you think about the limitations and possibilities of games as historical scholarship or as public history?

Homework #2: Finding Ads in POTH

If you prefer, you can download these instructions in PDF form.

Runaway slave advertisements from nineteenth-century Texas appeared in newspapers that have been digitized. That is, they have, like all digital representations of analog sources, been partially digitized. The Portal to Texas History at the University of North Texas contains full-page images of many nineteenth-century newspapers, together with metadata about the newspapers themselves and OCR text for each newspaper page that makes it possible to search for text.

But these newspapers have not been digitized so as to provide metadata or descriptions at the level of individual articles. That means, to paraphrase Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, part of the information visible to the eye (i.e., information about when a new article or ad begins and ends) has been lost (or at least not digitized) in the process of the newspaper’s "becoming digital."

This presents a problem for researchers, like us, who are interested in a particular kind of article—runaway slave advertisements. In this homework assignment, you will engage in the practice of digitization by looking through page images from one year of the Telegraph and Texas Register, identifying advertisements pertaining to runaway slaves, and inputting some basic metadata about the ad into the collaborative spreadsheet that you used in Homework #1. In the process you will also learn to pay attention to the "interface" of a search database and gather new information about how acts of resistance or flight by enslaved people were represented in primary sources.


  1. To gain familiarity with how one major digitization project has decided to produce and share digital objects.
  2. To generate new questions about the kinds of information contained in runaway slave advertisements and how they changed over time.
  3. To help complete a complete database of runaway slave advertistements found in one of Texas’s longest-running nineteenth-century newspapers.

Before You Begin

This homework assignment will require you to spend time using the Portal to Texas History, so begin by watching this introductory video about the project:

Also spend some time browsing the site and looking through the help guide for the site, particularly the one on using newspapers. Think about how the site is organized and what sorts of searching and browsing are possible (or not possible) with the user interface provided. Run a few searches about something that interests you, and click through on the results. Get a feel for how the site "works," spending at least 10 minutes on this before proceeding.

Now head over to this lesson from the Programming Historian website about downloading records. You’re not actually going to be "programming" for this assignment or doing any downloading; you should only read the first three major sections of this lesson: "Applying Our Historical Knowledge," "The Advanced Search on OBO," and "Understanding URL Queries." These sections give you a tour through the Old Bailey Online, whose search query interface is broadly similar to the Portal to Texas History. Pay particular attention to what the lesson shows you about "query strings." Then go back to the Portal and run some more searches, noting how the values in the URL query strings change as you navigate through the site or run different searches.

Now you are ready to proceed to the homework assignment.

Finding Ads

Step 1: Find Newspaper Issues

Each of you will receive an email from me assigning you a year (or the equivalent number of issues) from the Telegraph and Texas Register that you will be responsible for reading in search of runaway slave advertisements.

Your first task is to figure out how to perform a search (or modify a search URL) so as to pull up (in "date ascending" order) all of the issues from the newspaper in your time period.

Here’s an example of what such a "Search Results" page looks like for the 1843 volume of the Register:

Search Results showing all available issues from 1843

Once you have a page that you believe shows the first page of all the results from a search for issues of the newspaper in your assigned timeframe, tweet that URL directly to me @wcaleb with the course hashtag so that I can check the URL and make sure you have found all the relevant issues. I have to approve this URL by a reply tweet before you can continue.

Step 2: Find Runaway Ads

Now you will be ready to go into each issue and look for ads. You’ll click through to the "Read this Newspaper" tab of each issue, and then click on "Zoom (Full Page)" so that you can magnify the image. Use the arrow pages at the top to flip through the various pages (or sequences) of the issue. Even though the ads are most likely to appear on pages 3 and 4, make sure that you at least run your eyes over every inch of every issue.

This will take time so start early. I recommend that you time how long it takes you to get through one or two issues following the steps below, so that you can plan your schedule accordingly.

The ads will come in different formats, and may have very different amounts of information. Some of the ads will be posted by subscribers who are seeking to find a slave who has runaway. Other ads will be posted by sheriffs or others who have captured a slave and are seeking the legal owner. If it looks like a runaway slave ad to you, or just looks like it has to do with runaway ads (e.g., a notice from the newspaper about how to submit a runaway ad, or an item about the different graphics used in ads), you should go ahead and enter it into the spreadsheet. Right now we just want to identify items of interest, so better to cast a wide net than a narrow one!

Once you’ve found an ad, you’ll need to enter it on the Google spreadsheet of runaway ads already collected. Be sure to carefully follow these instructions when you enter:

  • Before you start entering, find the appropriate "sheet" by looking at the tabs at the bottom of the window. Each year has its own "sheet" or tab, so find the one that belongs to your year.
  • As shown in the labels at the top of the sheet, you should list the year, month (as a number) and day (as a number) of the issue on each row.
  • Also include the full citation (which you can copy and paste from the top of zoomed page at the Portal to Texas History):
Full Cite Information for the Issue, as seen on Zoomed Page

Full Cite Information for the Issue, as seen on Zoomed Page

  • To generate a "permalink" URL that can be copied into the permalink column, first use the "Zoom" feature to enlarge the ad and center it in your browser’s viewing window. Make it as large as you can while still keeping all of the ad within view. Then click on the "Permalink" button while zoomed in on the ad.
Permalink button

Permalink button

  • If you think you recognize the ad as one you have seen before in a previous issue, identify it as a reprint by placing an asterisk in the final labeled column. You can use the other blank columns to the right to make any helpful notes to yourself (for example, by noting the names as a way of helping you to remember which might be reprints).

Finally, if you go through an entire issue of the paper and find no runaway ads, make a single row that indicates the date of the issue, and then type "None" in the "Full Cite" column.

Step 3: Reflect on Findings

After you have finished looking through all of your assigned issues, return to the JSON gist that you submitted for your first assignment and notice what pieces of information you found significant about the three ads you looked at then. In the process of going through your year of newspapers, did you notice new kinds of information that you had not seen before? Are there name/value pairs you would add to your JSON if you were doing it again? Was there anything about the newspapers (either in the ads or in the surrounding material) that surprised or interested you?

For the final step in this assignment, leave a comment on this blog post answering at least one of these boldfaced questions. You may use a non-identifying pseudonym as you make your comment, so long as you let me know which pseudonym you used.


To recap, successful completion of this homework requires:

  1. A tweet to me, with the course hashtag and the URL to the first page of search results from Portal to Texas History containing all the available issues of the Telegraph and Texas Register in your assigned time period.
  2. A completed tab in the Google spreadsheet that documents all of the ads contained in the paper in the time you were assigned.
  3. A brief comment reflecting on what you saw in the newspaper.

Points will be deducted from the assignment if the above technical requirements are not met or if the work contains numerous typographical errors, as well as for blog comments that do not seriously engage with the questions asked and reflect a thoughtful encounter with the newspapers you saw.

As in the first homework assignment, you can always take to Twitter if you need help, but in keeping with the academic integrity policies for the course, do not get someone else to do the work for you and be sure to acknowledge any pointers or technical assistance you received—in this case by noting it in your blog post comment.

Virtual Class!

In our readings for today’s (now cancelled) class, several authors pointed to the fact that doing history “in the digital” increases ease of access to sources and reduces the “transaction costs that historians have traditionally faced.”

Put another way, digital history means that a snow day freezing rain day doesn’t have to interfere with our discussion of the assigned readings! In fact, not having our face-to-face meeting today gives you a chance to try out your developing Twitter chops. I’ve posted several tweets to the #ricedh hashtag that pose questions about the readings. All of them have to do with the balance of “cost” and “benefit” that historians have to weigh when digitizing sources like runaway slave ads.

  • Based on the readings, what do you see as the major costs of digitizing sources? The major benefits?
  • What would be gained by “marking up” the text of fugitive slave ads like we did for Homework #1? What would be lost?
  • If pressed, how would you answer the question of what “digital history” is? A “method”? A “medium”? Something else?

With your extra free time today, please use Twitter to respond to at least one of these tweets, or tweet a question or comment of your own about the readings. If you need more space to answer the questions, you can also use the comment box on this blog post to write out your answer. This isn’t a full-blown essay assignment; just make the kinds of comments you normally would if we were having class face-to-face. And keep a look out on the blog for a post about Homework #2, which will still be due on Wednesday.