Category Archives: Debates

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?

The Futures of Publishing?

One of the subjects that came up frequently in our roundtable and comments thread, as well as my interview with Jason Heppler, was the future of academic publishing.

This is something I’ve thought about a lot lately, partly because I was asked to do a presentation on online publishing for a series being run by the HRC.

It’s also a subject that has come up quite a bit in my Twitter stream lately. Here are some highlights for your perusal:

Big issues remain with regard to the evaluation and financial sustainability of these new ideas about digital publishing, but it does seem like some promising conversations are already beginning. Feel free to post your reactions to any of these links in the comments.

Ontology, Taxonomy and Folksonomy

Last Friday, I attended the second meeting of the Digital Humanities group at the University of Houston and enjoyed the conversation. Because of the readings, some of the discussion revolved around whether digital technologies and humanities work are compatible or necessarily at odds.

Some scholars, like Gary Hall and Johanna Drucker, believe that what computers do and what humanists do are fundamentally different. One critique goes something like this: computers need reality to be comprehensible in terms of ones and zeroes, while humanists understand that reality is messy, ambiguous, and never fully captured by binary categories.

This reminded me of our discussion last month about the Emancipation Event Types on the Visualizing Emancipation project; part of the visualization’s power lies in its ability to filter out particular kinds of events, but some of you were uncomfortable with placing each event squarely within only one of these categories, while others questioned whether all of the event types should be considered “emancipation” events.
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More on Twitter

It’s great to see some of you from the Masterclass on Twitter! If you haven’t noticed from following our hashtag (#ricedh), you can now follow Christina (@QVillarreal), Whitney (@whitney_nell), Sophie (@SophieHaase1), John (@johngmarks), Kelly (@kbweber), and Ben (@benjamingwright) on Twitter. Let me know in the comments if there are any of you missing from this list. (Ed.–You can also follow Wright.)

Speaking of Twitter, there was apparently a big discussion last weekend about the uses of social media at academic conferences, and in response Kathleen Fitzpatrick (who has been mentioned on this blog before) posted a good run-down of advice about academic tweeting. I think this paragraph is especially worth highlighting:

Use your blog/twitter/whatever professionally. This ought to be completely obvious, of course, but the key here is to really think through what professional use means in an academic context. In our more formal writing, we’re extremely careful to distinguish between our own arguments and the ideas of others — between our interpretation of what someone else has said and the conclusions that we go on to draw — and we have clear textual signals that mark those distinctions. Such distinctions can and should exist in social media as well: if you’re live-tweeting a presentation, you should attribute ideas to the speaker but simultaneously make clear that the tweets are your interpretation of what’s being said. The same for blogging. The point is that none of these channels are unmediated by human perspective. They’re not directly transmitting what the speaker is saying to a broader audience. And the possibilities for misunderstanding — is this something the speaker said, or your response to it? — are high. Bringing the same kinds of scrupulousness to blogging and tweeting that we bring to formal writing are is key. [Edited 12.55pm. Bad English professor!]

What do you think about the potential for and challenges of Twitter and blogs at academic conferences? Feel free to share in the comments or on, er, Twitter!

Whither Publishing?

One of the issues that came up in our workshop discussion last Thursday was how and if new digital projects (or online communications in general) might challenge existing conventions for peer review. This is a subject that comes up frequently among digital historians (and digital humanists generally), and in fact it was in the news today.

First, the American Historical Association released a statement on Open Access calling for more conversation among historians about the implications of putting work online, in front of subscription-only paywalls. And on Profhacker (a good blog to follow), Adeline Koh introduced Anvil Academic, an experimental new initiative to publish “multi-graph” digital works instead of just “monographs.”

Sometimes I think that discussions about new models for academic publishing are unfortunately conflated with discussions about new models for peer review, when the two things can be kept separate. But there are also digital humanists who think that open access and open peer review should go hand in hand. These scholars are experimenting with new forms of review and peer review, as with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s CommentPress, which allows readers to leave comments directly on her work (i.e., “peer review”) before it is finalized.

Another model is the one being pioneered by PressForward at the Center for History and New Media. PressForward publications like the Journal of Digital Humanities use a mixture of social media analysis and editorial selection to draw attention to online scholarship. Global Perspectives on Digital History, for example, has algorithms that monitor RSS feeds and tweets to identify material online that will be relevant to readers, but its human editors also select some items to highlight as well. (Full disclosure: My earlier post for this course, Why Study Digital History?, was flagged as an Editor’s Choice.)

Most of these alternative models of publication and peer review are concentrated right now in the field of digital humanities and digital history itself, so it’s too soon to tell whether they will spread to other, traditionally defined areas within history or the humanities. On the one hand, as we heard over dinner last Thursday, the American Historical Review has introduced an award for the best digital article, and its current president William Cronon has been writing a series of articles on The Public Practice of History in and for a Digital Age. But today’s announcement from the AHA also signals some hesitance among the profession at large about some aspects of the digital age. What are your thoughts about all this?

UPDATE: Dan Cohen has some interesting thoughts today about the AHA statement.

Digital Humanities at U of H

Yesterday I drove over to the University of Houston for the first meeting of a Digital Humanities Reading Group there. The articles under discussion were:

  • Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?”  (online)
  • Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “The Humanities, Done Digitally” (online)
  • Rafael Alvarado, “The Digital Humanities Situation” (online

All three articles were drawn from an anthology called Debates in the Digital Humanities, and they prompted some very interesting discussion.
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