Tag Archives: Wheaton College

Is It Out There?: Undergraduate Research as Digitization at Analog Pace

In the poster session at the NITLE Summit, I presented the portion of the Wheaton College Digital History Project on which my students are currently working.  This is the second time that students in my iteration of the methods course for history majors have transcribed and encoded transactions from a daybook that Laban Morey Wheaton kept in Norton, Massaschusetts, between 1828 and 1859.

Viewers of the poster saw images of Wheaton and his wife, Eliza Baylies Wheaton, as well as sample images of the daybook, XML files, and a visualization based on student interest in commodities traded on days of the week from spring 2009.  I explained that asking students to transcribe and encode financial records gives them an opportunity to learn a host of principles and skills meant to prepare them for doing their own research in primary sources for their senior seminar projects.

More than once, viewers asked me whether the data was “out there” for other students and faculty members to use, and I had to reply that we have not yet reached that stage.  Our college is participating in a planning grant for a presentation tool, but the tool is very much still in the planning stages.  Which leads me to reflect that producing data through undergraduate pedagogy might appear at a pace closer to that of analog publication than we are accustomed to in a digital world.

As a comparative novice in TEI, I have only recently come to realize some of the complexities that result from our collaboration among students, the College Archivist, an academic technologist, and a faculty member.  Among these is the fact that we are creating digital versions of documents for at least three related but distinct purposes:  pedagogical, archival, and scholarly.  And for all three of these, results and publication are far from instant.

As students transcribe and encode the daybook, the pace can seem positively glacial, not least because learning to decipher nineteenth-century handwriting takes time.  We assign each student a single page spread, so at the end of this semester, we will have completed transcription and encoding of about forty pages.  And the daybook is only one of numerous account books in the collection.  From a certain pedagogical perspective, pace does not matter, and we will have plenty of material for the students to work on the next many times I hope to teach this assignment.  Aggregation of the data means only that future students will have more material to query.

Similarly, for archival purposes, pace is less important than having someone do the work.  And from the archival perspective, accuracy of transcription is often more important than speed.  In fact, the need for multiple instances of proofreading has become one of the most significant obstacles in online publication of the letters, travel journal, and pocket diaries that student workers finished transcribing, encoding, and proofing at least two summers ago.

And, as having adequate time available to proof behind the students stalls archival publication, lack of time slows my own ability to reflect and produce scholarly versions of this material.  Scholarly use of the financial records awaits digitization of adequate amounts of data to aggregate and query meaningfully.

So, no.  The data we are producing is not out there yet.  Digital methods offer important learning opportunities for our students.  They do little to speed the pace of careful archiving and scholarship as yet.  I do remain convinced that eventually there will be significant research value in the data that we will produce.  Especially if we can manage to tolerate the incremental (analog) within the digital.





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Filed under digital humanities, education, Laban Morey Wheaton Financial Records, Wheaton College Digital History Project

Tweeting Conferences: NITLE Summit and UVA Shape of Things to Come

By about 4:30 yesterday afternoon, John Unsworth had reached the conclusion that Brett Bobley’s tweet had foreshadowed for me the previous evening.  As he was arriving in Charlottesville, Bobley had tweeted he could feel emanations of Worthy Martin’s presence.  I had replied that he was in New Orleans, but I had left off the NITLE hashtag.  (Someday I will become a more adept tweeter.)  Fortunately, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who was also following Bobley, included it.

In the morning I sat in the first session of the NITLE Summit, ready to tweet Brian Hawkins’s talk on the role of information professionals in our current brave new world.  I noticed Bethany Nowviskie’s tweet from UVA and retweeted: “RT @nowviskie #uvashape: Robert Darnton calls for creation of a National Digital Library. #NITLE Wonder what Brian Hawkins might think.”

More and more, as I followed the backchannel from UVA and tweeted from NITLE, I experienced the convergence of the two conferences.  At one point I tweeted: “weirdness of reading @mkirschenbaum ‘scholarship has to accommodate the idiosyncratic’ while Hawkins talks learning from for-profits #NITLE.”  And soon, I was seeing numerous tweets about others following multiple streams at once.  Mark Wardecker tweeted: “Too many great conferences to listen in on today. Great stuff fr the #NITLE Summit in NOLA and Mediterranean Identities #medid.”  Others were following a conference for education leaders at Yale and a Turning Technologies User Conference at Northwestern.

By the end of the session, my head was spinning, and I was having trouble coming down enough from the tweeting to focus on the next session, for which I had become the lone faculty member talking about digital humanities at liberal arts colleges.  After Worthy Martin talked about the opportunities that are offered by NEH Fellowships at Digital Humanities Centers, we presented in alphabetical order.  Janet Simons talked about her work at Hamilton College, where a critical mass of faculty members have brought about the development of a comprehensive institutional plan for presenting their work.  (Unfortunately, Angel David Nieves was unable to attend.  This is the second time I have missed meeting him.  I hope the third opportunity will be more successful when he returns to Wheaton in April.)  Bob Kieft presented the organization of the Center for Digital Learning and Research–directed by Marsha Schnirring–as the strategy for making sure Occidental College is ready for the influx of new digital-ready faculty members sure to come in the next five years.  And Scott Hamlin from Wheaton College described the project-based approach we have taken so far and how it has led to his collaboration with counterparts at several other small liberal arts colleges on planning a presentation tool for TEI projects with funding from the Institute of Library and Museum Services.

So my remarks came as testimonial to the way that opportunities through NITLE had led to my work with TEI in teaching, fundamentally redirecting and reinvigorating my scholarship.  When I started taking students in my course on nineteenth-century U.S. Women’s History to the archives and having them transcribe a woman’s journal, I learned the joy that students can experience from firsthand knowledge of a primary source.  I became an advocate for undergraduate research.  Students in my iteration of the methods course in history are transcribing and encoding financial documents from the second quarter of the nineteenth century.  And I now represent myself rather grandly as the director of the Wheaton College Digital History Project.

So when someone tweeted from UVA this afternoon about the potential for undergraduate collaborations in digital scholarship, I retweeted, adding:  “we do this @wheatoncollege.edu.”  I’m looking forward to discussing this with Ryan Cordell, who will begin teaching at a liberal arts college in the fall.

I agree with Unsworth: “It would be really interesting to do a contrapuntal edition of #uvashape and #NITLE tweets.”

And thanks for the dart game pics on Flickr, John.  Looks like fun.




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From Flogging Shoggoths to Blogging Clio

“Whosoever floggeth a shoggoth loggeth off.”*  I was sitting in front of a dumb terminal in the new computer science lab at Rice University.  The year was probably 1983, and my friends in comp sci/math sci were helping an academ newbie learn to type her papers in the word processor that was available on the mainframe for us non-SE types between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m.  They had shown me how to log on, type the correct commands at the flashing prompt, and now that I was finished with my session, they instructed me to type “Flog a shoggoth.”  Which prompted the above response.

I had neither read nor heard of shoggoths or H.P. Lovecraft before that day almost thirty years ago, though as a longtime fan of Star Trek I liked the idea of using a computer.  Since entering Rice in 1980, I had typed all of my papers on electric typewriters, which represented a considerable upgrade from my mother’s 1950s vintage manual typewriter that I had used in high school.  In my first post-college job, I parlayed my word processing experience into a position that was a step beyond data entry, and I moved up to a secretarial position where my computer skills scored me the opportunity to learn WordPerfect and serve as an expert on the program for my fellow medical secretaries.  By 1987, I had entered graduate school, and in the following year, I bought my first PC, with two 5-1/4-inch floppy drives.  I bought my first Mac when I took a teaching position at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in 1992.

The college was switching over from bitnet at that point, and I had many opportunities to think about the best ways to use technology in the classroom.  Having trained as an analog historian at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I was becoming a digital professor at a residential liberal arts college.  Following the breadcrumbs on the teaching and technology trail led to my learning XML/TEI in 2004, and my students began to transcribe and encode primary sources that fall.

Six years later, I am far from the first or only historian to turn to blogging.  Having come to digital history through exposure to the generous and long-standing digital humanities community, I think I might have something to contribute to the growing discussion about the application of digital methodologies to historical inquiry.

This blog will address topics in digital history and digital humanities, including my current project in which I am writing introductory essays for transcriptions of letters, pocket diaries, and a travel journal written by Eliza Baylies Wheaton, who was the primary force behind the founding of Wheaton Female Seminary in 1834.  My plan is to post at least weekly.

Flog a shoggoth.


*My discomfort with the reference to flogging and the implicit evocation of slavery is affirmed by Elizabeth Bear’s Hugo Award-winning “Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008).


Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom.” Asimov’s (2008). http://www.elizabethbear.com/shoggoths.html, accessed 3/20/10 1:30 PM.

H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness (1931). In The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, annotated and with an introduction by S.T. Joshi. New York: Dell, 1997.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoggoth, accessed 10/31/08 and 3/20/10 1:23 PM.

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