Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Reflecting on my First Forays into the Digital Humanities

Like Dana I’ve never been asked to formally reflect on a class before but I’ve found that ultimately it is an interesting and worthwhile exercise. This reflection has allowed me to go back and consider my initial expectations, what I’ve learned, how my approach to public history has changed, and what I hope to learn in the coming semester. 
Practically from the moment I first navigated to the history department’s website and viewed last year’s digital history wiki page this past June I’ve been excited for History 9808: Digital History. I didn’t know what half of the topics were, for example I had to ask my brother-in-law what spidering is, but that didn’t seem to matter.  I think on some level I viewed (and still view) the Digital History class as the epitome of what a public history class should be: current, informative, and hands-on. Moreover, in my opinion the class addresses a topic that is distinctly lacking in most humanities, social sciences, and liberal arts degrees. In my undergraduate education the extent to which we were taught to effectively use the digital sources available to us was minimal. It was limited to a library research seminar here or there and in St. Mary’s required historiography course a guest lecturer who very briefly discussed digital history as an emerging market (a lecture that while a worthwhile introduction proved to barely touch upon what is available to us as historians in a digital world). Moreover, I felt like I, to some extent, had a bit of an advantage. I’ve been actively using the internet to communicate, play online games, and research for almost 10 years now. I felt on some level that I had a deeper and more meaningful relationship with digital technologies than the average person. Little did I know that my meaningful relationship barely scratched the surface of what the internet and digital humanities had to offer.
Probably the most meaningful thing I’ve learned this semester is just how little I know, and more so, just how much there is out there to learn. I’ve learned about copyright, open source technology, folksonomy, information trapping, collective intelligence, markup, mashups, and augmented reality. I’ve tried my hand at blogging, twitter, html, css, some basic text mining, image manipulation with The GIMP, and website design using Google Sites. The class also had a look at one of the many interesting sources available to us free on the internet The Eaton’s Fall and Winter Catalogue from 1913-1914. Outside of class I was lucky enough to try google wave and got the class into it as well with Tim’s help. I joined a number of academic waves and I’m hoping in the new semester to use it more actively as two of our classes will revolve more directly around group projects. I have on more than one occasion been confronted with topics that were completely new, for example: folksonomy- though in that case, it was perhaps more an issue of not knowing the appropriate name for a concept it turned out I had encountered before. I have yet to completely wrap my head around CSS, when I finally did get my CSS assignment working I had no idea how what I had ultimately done was different from an earlier permutation that for whatever reason was broken and did not work. Moreover, although I understand that APIs are good and useful I have not yet quite wrapped my head around how I use them. Apparently there’s  a book for that, though here is a question: is it available online?
Digital History has also changed my approach to Public History, where before I had an almost snobbish disregard for digital sources, now I look to them first. I have a new set of skills that to a certain extent make digital sources more useful that print sources and I know where to find the information I need and I know how to extract the answers I need from it. Moreover, I’ve learned to use the internet to my advantage I can create a working website and will hopefully be well versed in online interactive exhibit design after next semester.
When I started my MA in Public History I imagined that after my 12 months at UWO I would  be prepared to find employment with a museum or local history group. Perhaps I would be researching and designing exhibits or collecting oral histories, or maybe I’d decide to stick to a more directly academic context and I would contribute to the study of social memory and continue to be a good Atlantic Canadian historian by continuing to explore why the history of Atlantic Canada remains largely underrepresented on a national scale. Digital History has opened my eyes to so many different possibilities from digitization and visualization to publishing online and exploiting new and different sources. Moreover, digital history has helped me to understand the importance of a web presence, and has made the idea of becoming an independent contractor far more palatable. I feel ready for the world of public history with my handy digital humanities toolbelt and theoretical hard hat.

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