The value of essays

I recently read an article in Gold’s Debates in the Digital Humanities in which the author argued that undergraduate essays were an outmoded waste of time.  No-where else, he argued, were people evaluated on things they wrote that no-one else read.  Instead he used class assignments that involved postings online (like this) and other approaches that tried to get the students’ work out and give them a feeling that their work was more than just grist for a professor’s mill.

I must disagree.  University, particularly the first few years, are practice.  The point is to teach how to write, the underlying assumption being that they’re not doing it correctly or they wouldn’t be in school.  While indulging students’ creative faculties may be empowering for the student, and they may enjoy the feeling of importance attached to seeing their work available for the world to see, I have to think that at the end of the day this is both a disservice to society and a disservice to the student.

It is a disservice to society because it is rewarding without reason the egotistical tendency of people in general and this segment in particular.  Society, web-users, have that much more questionable material to wade through in their search for useful information.  Instead, post only the best material online – perhaps all “A” papers; it could be a reward for the exceptional student’s hard work and intellectual ability.

It is a disservice to the student for two reasons: 1) it tells the student that life will conform a format that fits their whims and talents, which is rarely true, and 2) it fails to teach essay-writing.  The ability to structure thought in a thesis-defense format, I can attest from my experience as a Fulbrighter in the Balkans, is centrally connected to an individual’s ability to form a coherent, internally consistent argument for or against an idea.

Is the undergrad essay an anomaly?  Yes, but that does not make it worthless.  Essays teach a method of thought and articulation that will serve a student later in life; are there other assignments that are valuable?  Certainly, but throwing out essays because they are hard and student’s don’t like them, or they seem un-creative, or they don’t have a direct parallel in the “real world” misses the point.

Credit, Money, and Digital History

Dr. Sword’s comments on the place of digital history within academic programs (http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/issues/952/interchange/index.html) struck a chord with me.  There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the open possibilities created by the egalitarian internet, but the truth is that in this day and age few casual or unsupported projects have much hope in capturing a meaningful audience.  Digital history requires both digital and historical skills (obviously), and it is the rare individual who is strong in both of those disciplines.  I, as a budding historian, feel that I could probably put out some good ideas, historically speaking, but it would look like a seventh grader did them.  Smaller projects run the risk of being sidelined, overshadowed, or constrained enough that they do not really add to the whole.  While I understand the argument that something is better than nothing, even something costs a fair bit of time and money to establish.  If in the end that something is going to be essentially wasted…  Hence the problem with having online projects part of a class curriculum.  There is a very significant hurdle technically moving from one-person negligible-cost projects to meaningful work – in contrast to the building-block approach of academic writing.  Until that hurdle is worked around (and I believe the issue is getting worse, not better) then these types of projects are best re-evaluated.

Truth…and how to find it

We were asked to read a rather fascinating New York Times post regarding one man’s quest to answer a simple question: which of two historical photographs were taken first – because one of them was staged.  http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/25/which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg-part-one/?_r=0 I’ll not try and recount the issues, the story, or the saga, but if you have a few minutes I very highly recommend that you read this article.  It is fascinating history and rich food for thought.

As a historian, the takeaway was this: how do we elicit Truth from the evidence that has come down to us?  What assumptions are we making, why, and can they truly be supported by nearly-irrefutable evidence?  Specifically, how frequently do we revert to psychological assumptions as evidence for past events and motivations.  The author’s final conclusion was that many on one side of the debate were right, but none of them had been right for the reasons that they had laid out in support of the arguments.  All had essentially based their arguments on what seemed to make sense to them, as had their opponents.  The truth came down to tiny details from the most humble of sources and based upon the basic laws of nature.  Entirely insignificant in appearance but once realized, nearly irrefutable.

This was a good reminder for me, because I am want to try and understand the past, to draw parallels of experience and empathize with the subjects of my research.  This was a reminder that Truth in human action is extraordinarily difficult to elicit based upon one’s impression of what ‘makes sense’ or ‘seems right’ – sometime we have no other options, but as this author has shown, sometimes we just need to look at a problem with a new light.

Masses of Data

To be sure, I, a budding historian, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about preserving the history that we are making now for future generations.  My interests lie far in the past, in eras where (I thought) there was little to be gained through the digitization of information we are now bearing witness to.  All is not as it seemed.

For a moment, a focus on one element of these issues.  The availability of massive amounts of information is slowly being unlocked through the specialized and very powerful search tools discussed by Cohen (http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=40).  One potential for these tools is an ability to cross-reference (to some inherently limited degree) ideas we have had regarding what we can infer from evidence.

As historians we are often faced with limited amounts of data from any particular individual.  By examining those documents against writings of the person’s peers and the events of the period we make deductions about motive, intent, etc.  Perhaps our burgeoning ability to access vastly larger quantities of information from much wider scopes about a particular subject or activity will allow up to test assumptions that we would make about that subject were it a more limited historical source in an effort to better refine our analytic process.

There are, to be sure, many limitations to this possibility, most notably the way in which individuals are products of culture in time and whether or not assumptions based upon actions taken in one time period can be used to draw parallels with actions taken in a different time period (or worse yet, in a different time period and a different culture).

 

Open Access Research

What an issue!  It sits at the heart of academia, society, and manages to pull in a bewildering array of issues from the state of the academy to the role of government in academic research and the nature of ownership of that research’s results.  I have a general observation and a follow-up of a more particular and personal nature.

With regard to open-access scholarship and government funding.  I have been of the opinion that research (often scientific) that was government funded should be made publicly available.  This makes intuitive sense – the government used taxpayer dollars to help create a good (the research) which will, ideally, lead to societal improvements of some sort.  Allowing that research to be openly available increases the likelihood that the taxpayer will realize a benefit for their investment.  However, we regularly fund all manner of companies, programs, etc. through the government that do not have a direct positive impact and which are under no further control or access by the public.  Farming subsidies, tax breaks for corporations or non-profit groups, etc.  All of these have been granted because there is an assumed benefit to society worth the tax money spent to support them, but once spent the taxpayer has no further control over the results.  Oil companies are not required to make the results of exploration public, they are not required to reveal the results of their R&D public, etc.  Farmers who receive subsidies are not required to allow gleaning and non-profits that receive government funding or tax breaks are not obliged to make their work publicly available.  So why is academic research different?  In my opinion, it’s not, but it’s the other systems that need to be fixed as well.  Why treat academic research differently?  Instead, it’s time to even the playing field.  If there were more strings attached to taxpayer’s dollars than perhaps fewer people would want them, and we would be left with both a lower burden on the taxpayer and more public benefits for those dollars that were spent.

On a more personal note.  I have both edited for and published some of my work in an online, open-access undergraduate research journal (Vexillum: An Undergraduate Journal for Classical and Medieval Studies; http://www.vexillumjournal.org/vexillumjournal/index.php/Vexillum).  I was proud to have my work made available after being reviewed, edited and improved on in a professional manner.  Recently though, I came across an unpublished manuscript with the potential for some very interesting follow-on research.  What followed was a fascinating internal debate over whether I should immediately post the information I had found and try to leverage the internet’s crowd-sourcing potential to move forward or horde the data to myself, ask more discreetly around the professors I am studying with, and utilize a more traditional approach.  In the end, I went with the latter.  Why?  Because it wasn’t just about the freedom of information, it was about my future.  The way the system works right now, there’s nothing to keep someone else from finding that manuscript that I posted online, taking my initial thoughts (not that they were wildly insightful) and *gasp* publishing first!  Should such happen, I’m out the potential for an early leg up in this cut-throat academic world.  If I went with the information online what do I get out of it?  Some potential gain, but a great deal of risk.  Until the system of the academy is completely overhauled and its system of rewards re-vamped, there is little hope that things will change.

Punctuated Equilibrium

I have found the model of punctuated equilibrium to be the most convincing analogy/model for historical change.  During my undergraduate work I conducted research for the Honors History program which revolved around the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux (a 12th century French monk).  That essay began with research on the topic of the Peace of God Movement, which predated the First Crusade by about a century.  Reading through the Peace of God movement, the First and the Second Crusade (which Bernard preached) and the early years of the Military Order of the Poor Knights of Christ (the Templars) seemed another example of this punctuated equilibrium.  Society was developing along a line, with dead-ends, fits and starts, that had at its core ideas about masculinity, religion, and warfare.  There were moments, such as the Peace of God movement or the formation of the Military Orders, that jumped the entire process ‘forward’ – they were too novel to be seen as simply the next small step in a cultural chain, but they were clearly not absent from the ideas that came before.

The arguments about the nature, and especially the timing, of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) provides another interesting example of this.  Argument for the location of the RMA range from the nineteenth back to the fourteenth century – once you’ve read the argument that a ‘revolution’ which resulted in what we had in the 20th century began six hundred years earlier it becomes hard to see it as a revolution and much easier to see it as a process.  That process was certainly not constant, and those moments that are usually picked out for particular argument as the ‘one’ temporal location of the RMA seem to be more the moment of punctuation within the gradual flow of change.

This model allows for both the influence of history, culture, tradition, and learning on human development, but it also allows for the impact of imagination, genius, and congruence of circumstance.

More Grounded Realms

Our course has moved from the philosophical nature of knowledge and history to the more practical issues of digitizing, posting, and making meaningful historical information.  I have some experience with a large digitization project and I thought I would lay out some of my experiences (January-August 2012) and how they parallel issues raised in Digitizing History.

The Veterans Curation Program (VCP) is a contractor-executed, Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE) initiated and overseen program that seeks to serve two purposes: 1) provide veterans with term full-time employment in a civilian office setting and while doing so teaching digitization, database use, etc.  The program also aims to 2) provide industry standard curation for the artifact and associated documentary collections possessed by the ACoE.  More information on the program is available at http://www.veteranscurationprogram.org/, the Alexandria (local) office website is at http://www.veteranscurationprogram.org/#/alexandria-va/4554896248, and their facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/VeteransCurationProject.

While at the VCP we recorded data regarding the artifacts in the collection, populated that data into databases, and digitized all of the paper records (field notes, maps, forms, etc.) associated with the dig sites.  Finally, all examples of certain artifact types and a representative sampling of less significant artifact types were photographed with state-of-the-art technology resulting in publication or museum quality photographs.

All of this information was, of course, public domain (as far as I am aware), and one of the ongoing high-level discussions was how to get this data online, how much of it should be presented, in what format, aimed at what audience, and at what expense.  The paper records were scanned, but not yet marked up, and the entire collection to be digitized is thousands of boxes – I had heard that at current rates (three offices with roughly a dozen technicians apiece running several classes a year) there were still many years of work to be done.  Marking up those documents, many of which were standard forms, but which also included poorly written field notes, would be a monumental additional undertaking.  At the moment, we were simply saving the documents using the identifying dig site information.  Was this sufficient?  Did the notes warrant transcription or markup?  To a large extent that depends on the audience, which I’ll return to in a moment.

The photographs were another issue.  We took extremely high quality images, ones that could use the entire screen of a large television to view.  That quality would allow researchers to zoom in very close – close enough to get a meaningful look at the texture of the edge of a projectile point or a thin pottery sherd.  The flip side was, naturally, the enormous size of those photographs.  Saving and putting those pictures up on the web will require an enormous amount of space and will require a very quick internet connection to use effectively.  The solutions to this largely come back to cost, intended use, and audience.

Thirdly, the way that artifacts were described were a conscientious compromise which, as all compromises are, solved a problem but left some unhappy with the results.  Experts can provide extremely detailed (and thus, to them, useful) descriptions of artifacts.  To use a biology analogy, a botanist can provide scientific taxonomy down to the subspecies of an encountered plant.  To another botanist that specificity is not just useful, but fairly critical.  The level of description we were providing was more analogous to the common name of said plant.  Useful for pedestrian purposes, and enough to give an expert an idea of the possible specifics, but not specific enough for detailed research.

All of these issues came back to budget, purpose and audience.  Further detail required more man-hours, and the purpose of the project precluded shipping the artifacts off to India (were that to be a practical or legal option at all).  Given the enormous size of the collection increasing the specificity required will have a significant impact on the project’s manpower cost.  Similarly, changes in standards for the data storage (marked-up documents, more exhaustive photography) would have massive impacts on both personnel and storage costs.  The project is also inherently inefficient (on the surface) because it rotates through groups of individuals who have no prior experience with curation.  This results in approximately one to two months of the standard six-month course being spent getting up to speed on the job at hand.  The project could be done more efficiently if a standard cadre of full-time curators were working on it, but the program was intended to help provide job experience and placement in addition to the direct curation responsibilities.  That social service aspect of the project (presumably) pays off in the long run, helping the veteran participants to find more stable long-term employment which will have long-term economic benefits.

With regard to purpose and audience, what is the role of the VCP, and ACoE curation efforts more generally?  As I understand it, by law the ACoE is responsible for keeping its collections preserved and available.  Traditionally they have been housed in archives (or the basements of Universities) and have been hard to access.  The VCP is part of an effort to not only meet the minimum requirements of preserving those collections, but rendering those collections useful to the American public and researcher.  So, how much money is justified for such a purpose?  Is it good enough to just store these assets, need they be digitized, and for whom?

The intended audience is a major issue; if these collections were to be maximally useful for researchers then the necessary additional data would be very large.  As it is, some use will be able to be had from the digitized collections (certainly a great deal more than before), but trips to the archive might still be necessary.  If, however, the audience is intended more for the general public or the school system (a much easier sell in a time of constrained budgets!) then the data provided will be sufficient.  The one great caveat is that the records cannot be easily amended later.  Once begun, major changes to things like description standards would essentially require redoing all aspects of the project that have to be amended.

This post has already been longer than I intended, but it has ignored major aspects of the program, including website hosting, the social benefits of the program, the collaboration it has required and sparked, and more.  I hope that this post has accomplished its goal of putting some concrete examples to some of the issues with major historical (or, in this case, archaeological) digitization projects.

Number, graphs and statistics, oh my!

I had some very unpleasant surprises when I was finally made it through the rigorous selection process and became a Marine Corps scout-sniper.  Along with the expected physical difficulty of the job came an even ruder awakening – we had to do math, and draw!  Long division, algebra and simple trig, without calculators, under field conditions, and while our partners were waiting for a firing solution.  Complicated scenarios could involve over a half-dozen calculations filling an entire page of notebook paper.  Most of us had not enlisted into the Marines to hone our math skills, and it had generally been years since we had worked formulas like this out.

Asking historians to do math is a lot like insisting that enlisted infantrymen use math, only you’re asking, not insisting.  There is usually a fundamental resistance to this kind of interdisciplinary integration because most historians 1) don’t like math, 2) aren’t good at math, 3) don’t really understand math and 4) were in competition in High School for the Biggest Nerd Award with the math geeks.  More seriously, though perhaps no more importantly, the use of numbers by historians implicates certain philosophical views of history.  Historians use numbers as a way to try and prove a point more completely.  If the historiography of history has a long link to the structuralist and objective nature of scientific thought, using numbers is a concrete way for historians to try (consciously or not) to get closer to those ideals.

I adhere to the idea that to a significant extent we can know history; a belief predicated on the belief that humans are not fundamentally protean, and that “human nature” exists and shows remarkable continuity (fascinatingly variable via external influences) through history.  Because of this viewpoint I find the judicious use of quantifiable data a helpful and valuable addition to historical research.  History often takes a tree or forest-level approach, looking at individuals or groups of individuals based upon the interpretation of subjective data.  The use of objective data can either give us different perspectives on that same level of data or it can allow us to examine entire forest regions – even ecosystems in a way that is not practical with other types of information.  This has been common practice in archaeology for quite some time, and it can be profitably applied to history.

There is however, a caveat, and that is that quantitative data usually needs to be subjected to statistical analysis (SA) to be valuable.  Without SA the analysis of data becomes as subjective an endeavor as the evaluation of notes and diaries – the significance becomes purely a subject of the researcher.  If the whole purpose of working with quantitative data is to access a more “accurate” and “scientific” approach then SA is vital to actually reaching that goal.  Unfortunately, teaching historians SA is like teaching Marines how to apply trig to marksmanship – if given the choice most would probably prefer to work off of instinct.  Until they see the results, that is!  Publishers should expect and demand that work that includes quantitative data, especially if the thesis is based around quantitative data be evaluated with accepted SA practices.  There are a bevy of computer programs available to take the pain out of the work; the biggest challenge is selecting a SA method and understanding how to apply the data to that method.  Crossing the hallway to the archaeology or even (*gasp*) the math department would probably make this a reasonably quick and painless experience.

Fred Turner’s “From Counterculture to Cyberculture”

As near as I can tell, this is a story of a population segment distinct from the elite embracing a new form of communication and the cultural changes that resulted from that embrace.  This story seems very similar to that of the story of writing in general and printing in particular.  In both cases writing began as the purview of the social elite and its use helped to cement that elite’s position and more generally to maintain the order of society.  Over time these technologies diffused, and cultural groups that were outside that ruling elite gained access to the same tools of communication.  What resulted from that diffusion was change, the more open spread of ideas which were different than those promulgated by the ruling class.  The results of such communication tools become available to the non-elite have had different consequences in different societies, but change of some kind has always resulted.  All that to say, Turner’s book may not be “wrong,” but it should be taken for what it is: one narrative among many in social history.  It is a story that has occurred before, and while telling it again is not unreasonable, seeing it as a remarkable anomaly is.

Attention and Data

A response to the blog posts “ATTENTION AND INFORMATION” (http://theaporetic.com/?p=228) and “EVIDENCE AND SCARCITY” (http://theaporetic.com/?p=176).

I fear I stand in disagreement with the author (my professor) on both of these topics.  Though I applaud his recognition of the intellectual complexity of pre-modern life (something that many of these times miss) things go astray when the discussion turns to the profession of the historian.  That information is now more easily accessible is a given, but the assumption that this increased access automatically equates with increased efficiency is a stretch.  Just as the amount of time required for a housewife to keep house has not materially reduced despite all of the technological aids at her disposal, so too the historian’s work is not necessarily so reduced.  For one, the medium involved (the net) in accessing the data that used to be accessed by hand is not one that lends itself to the same level of effective intellectual collection that an archive is.  The increasing access to data requires more time spent reflecting on and integrating the wider body of evidence available, and that time is best spent off-line. (Carr, 2011)

I also fail to understand why, in an age of increased source access, that “It seems to me, as men­tioned, that his­tory will prob­a­bly become less about evi­dence and more about the struc­ture of the argu­ment.”  The author’s assertion that the traditional historian’s accumulation of sources as evidence as little more than a display of “triumph over scarcity” ignores the sources’ value as actual evidence (this may be the historical philosophy of the author in action).  Sources were evidence, and that approach is a byproduct of scientific influence, but the profession still expects that evidence to be at hand.  If the evidence is easy or hard to come by – if you were an employee in the archive or traveled half-way around the world made no difference, either way the sources, the evidence, was expected.  In this day and age I would expect a blend of the traditional citation – with increasing expectation of presence and diversity, and the search-parameter based information that the author proposed.  That balance will allow for the enriching of the profession.