Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Traveling shows

In one of the threads, Ed asks whether there is a relationship between the experience of visiting a museum and a website -- and how the past is "contained" or made "digestible" to the viewers or participants in either case. Where do new media and traditional museums intersect to address difficult questions about the past? Is "interactivity" simply another word for entertainment, as Stephen Mintz suggests?

The documentary Scars of Memory (in Spanish, Cicatriz de la memoria), which was made about the massacre of thousands of peasants in El Salvador in 1932 and particularly about the memories of the survivors and their children, is in my opinion one such place of intersection. The documentary was a result of a collaboration between Jeff Gould and the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (MUPI). Dozens of survivors were interviewed over the course of 3 years; while Gould took these interviews as the material for his book of oral history on the massacre, the museum took the footage and made a documentary that loosely parallels the argument of the book. The interesting thing about this project, though, was not only the documentary itself but the way in which it was distributed. It essentially went on tour with the museum throughout El Salvador, traveling to rural areas and screened in community centers, churches, and schools. Screenings would always be followed up with discussion sessions, where people would get quite emotional or confrontational. For a population who to a large degree can't read, especially the older people, this offered them, quite literally, a "say" in the production of history.

I think that the role the museum played in this process was essential. While the film was available online and was made using digital technology, the screenings and discussions were decidedly old school: a projector, lots of plastic chairs, coffee, and conversation. I think it is very important that the post-screening conversations - which could become very heated, I've heard - happened while members of the community tried to make sense of the past together, face-to-face. To what extent could this sort of experience be recreated online in a forum? The museum's role was to moderate discussion but to also get people together to discuss their past, not just the past. The museum moderators never placed themselves as "experts": they, like everyone else, were still trying to make sense of what happened. In fact, these traveling screenings of the film were interactive but they were not about entertainment; people were jointly contributing to the production of history in their communities.

In countries like El Salvador where literacy is not universal and access to computers, let alone the Internet, is not the norm among the majority of people, this kind of hybrid and flexible approach makes sense. There is a highly technologically conscious urban core in the major cities, but elsewhere most people only have access to radio and television. Digitized sources make it much easier (and cheaper) to create audio-visual materials with historical content, but the medium through which it is accessed (or could be accessed) is not digital.

The audio-visual medium opens history up for people who cannot read or write, but who have a stake in how the past is remembered. The museum, in this case, functions as a moderator or facilitator in a dialogue.

Some thoughts on digital history

I took Kirsten Sword's History and the New Media course last year and have been "listening in" on the conversation about digital history at the JAH, as a way to re-engage with many of the questions we covered in class and prepare for my comprehensive exams. Reading all the contributors' posts, however, has done more than that -- it has reminded me of how excited I was last year when we started to explore the potential of digital history, which up that point had simply not been on my radar as an academic historian, particularly as a historian of Latin America, where the digital archive has yet to become infinite, to say the least.

What is digital history anyway? Given the range of new media, it can refer to audio or video archives of interviews, databases, video games with historical content, as well as carefully framed websites about a given historical topic. The conversation at the JAH has produced a number of approaches to the definition of digital history. Dan Cohen brings up Roy Rosenzweig's article, "Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era" and concludes that, today, it turns out that one of the main challenges of digital historians is dealing with the unprecedented abundance of historical sources. Digital history is, then, the "theory and practice of bringing to bear technology to address the abundance that we now confront."

Will Thomas adds that the medium through which digital history is practiced is continually in flux: unlike a book that is finally pried from a historian's hands and sent to the press in one final form or other, digital projects invite revision, critique, conversation. Thomas argues that we should "embrace the impermanence of the medium, use it to convey the changing nature of the past and how we understand it. I consider these projects "open research platforms" for scholars to build interpretive models." Bill Turkel agrees that these are perfect platforms for students to understand that "history that isn't undergoing revision is basically dead," since revision is almost intrinsic to the medium.

The conversation in "Digital History 101" inches toward a practical definition of digital history by discussing its place within the discipline of history. While everyone seems to agree that technical know-how is not the greatest priority in digital history, some consider basic technical literacy to be necessary in order to get what you want out of a project. Cohen writes, "This is much like the advanced language training that classicists or medievalists must have to do sophisticated, thorough work in their fields." He reminds us, however, that the tools needed to practice digital history continue to become increasingly accessible. When Kirsten Sword wonders whether Digital History should be considered a field or a method, Dan Cohen seems to be leaning on the side of method -- everyone should acquire some kind of literacy in the method, which will become easier as time goes on. If we consider it a field, it might end up breaking off from the discipline. (I can't help but wonder, though: if it is not made a concentration in its own right, won't it always be considered something that people should do "on their own time"? There should be, as mentioned in the threads, some sort of incentive to carry out these projects).

While "medium" is offered as an alternative term to the question of field/method, Kirsten Sword still thinks that "field" more clearly captures what the debate in some institutions eventually boils down to: resources. In most cases, successfully carrying out a digital project will involve some kind of institutional collaboration, a pooling of resources. Will Thomas reminds us that the most successful digital projects have "been perceived as large scale work, grant funded research, requiring access to technical services and equipment. It has required at nearly every stage an intense level of collaboration among librarians, technology professionals, programmers, information designers, and historians."

From the perspective of Latin America, this is both daunting and encouraging. The digital abundance that Dan Cohen mentions in the very first thread is only starting to trickle down to historical materials relative to Latin America. The first large-scale efforts at digitizing Latin American newspapers only started in 2007. The large amounts of money needed to carry out (and maintain) a large-scale digital project such as those mentioned in the Interchange is out of reach for many Latin American institutions.

There is a productive future, however, in collaborations between U.S. and Latin American institutions. Jeffrey Gould, for example, worked with institutions in Central America and Mexico, as well as with programmers and librarians from IU, to create CAMVA (Central American and Mexican Video Archive), which will digitize hundreds of videos and film reels taken during the revolutions of the 1970s and 1980s -- the originals of which had been stored in less than ideal circumstances for many years, and which could only be accessed during a visit to these institutions. Because the project involved so many people with specialized knowledge, Gould did not necessarily need to be very skilled in the newest technology to carry out the project; instead, he worked with the directors of the other institutions to design the larger contours of the project. Much of the labor of actually digitizing the videos will be carried out in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Mexico. When the project is completed, thousands of hours of video archives will be freely available to students all over the Americas.

But where does that leave the individual researcher (or the graduate student struggling to keep up with the traditional requirements of the discipline) interested in digital history? Are large, collaborative projects the only way to enter into the digital world creatively as academic historians? As Dan Cohen notes, the tools for engaging in digital history are becoming increasingly accessible and I think that, at the very least, students should be encouraged to take advantage of the resources that already exist. In the case of Latin America, Wikipedia remains wide open. While no original research is to be published in Wikipedia, it offers a way to put issues and events in Latin American history out in the public for discussion -- in both English and Spanish. Interesting things can be done with Google maps, such as tracing historical journeys. Editing video content has become much easier and cheaper in the past few years and can reach anyone on the globe with internet access through YouTube. And of course, websites are becoming easier and easier to make. These things, however, take time - and perhaps it is better to not go at them alone. I just think it's interesting that many historians - grad students included - don't take sites like Wikipedia too seriously, even though that is where most of their undergraduate students will go for quick reference.

Friday, April 20, 2007

spaces acquiring stories and a short exercise in terror

"Traditions and Cultures at IU" incorporates many of the things we have been talking about in class this semester quite gracefully. And as with all things that are graceful, it appears almost effortless. First of all, it is surprisingly easy on the eyes. This seems simple enough, but we have seen how websites that are too busy are difficult to follow and therefore interfere with viewer engagement. Good design equals better navigation and ultimately better learning.

The sections are made up 15 to 30 slides with images that are accompanied by a short paragraph. Where appropriate, the slides are also accompanied with audio clips. For example, one of the slides about Hoagy Carmichael has links to three of his songs. This is a way to incorporate primary source material that seems quite natural and organic (as opposed to having it be a separate section that seems contrived). The slides are framed by an introductory audio clip and a quiz.

What I like about the site is that, while it is easy to follow, it is not necessarily linear. The sections are grouped according to chronology but also according to themes. Having the content of the entire course available to you as soon as you log into the site gives you a certain amount of room to wander; the great thing about having a class on a space that students also roam in their daily lives is that the buildings they enter physically literally acquire a story as the semester progresses. History is not something that happened long ago in a place far away, but something that they, too, participate in.

The Wikipedia exercise was harder than I had thought. I had planned on entering my own research on the Salvadoran novelist Maria Alvarez all week, only to find that Wikipedia strongly discourages original research. The "encyclopedia" mode of writing is also surprisingly alien to me: what, no argument? The guidelines that the administrators have regarding "neutrality" struck me as particularly old fashioned. So I though I would enter some interesting things, or "facts" that I found about the Cathedral of San Salvador during my research, but once I was about to edit an existing page with a few pages of information, I suddenly had a terrifying thought. What if I try to publish my work on the cathedral in the future and someone thinks that I copied it, word for word, from Wikipedia? Paranoid, yes, but plausible enough. So finally I figured that the only appropriate sort of thing to publish on Wikipedia would be a short article about a fantastic museum of history in El Salvador that usually falls under the radar of tourists because it tends to not be affiliated with the department of Tourism precisely because they are engaging with memories that are difficult and controversial (the civil war, the massacre of 1932). I am still working on that entry, but will have it up this weekend. I just never thought it would be so difficult to get out of the "original research" frame of mind.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

new modes of storytelling

Of all the websites I explored this week, only Raid On Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704 seems to have answered Steve Dietz's call for moving toward a kind of procedural authorship rather than object-centered exhibits. Dietz likens procedural authorship to baseball: "Every game, hundreds of thousands of them each year, is the same--set of rules. Yet every game is different. Each game has its own personality, based on the interactions of the players." Thus it is never like reading a book but it is still highly structured. The creators of the Deerfield website add to the idea of procedural authorship another layer: the lure of the story. Their approach is like nothing I've ever seen. They dramatize the stories of the many people involved in the raid. They also provide historical and cultural context, the usual timelines, songs, maps, and, of course, artifacts.

I felt myself drawn to the story menu more than anything else, because it was what I found truly novel. Songs, maps, artifacts, etc, with pop-up explanatory captions I'd seen before. But the story menu, with its five tabs for the different perspectives (English, French, Kanienkehaka, Wendat, Wôbanaki, along with the Overview), allows you to click on a reconstructed image of a scene along the timeline. Depending on the tab you choose, certain figures are highlighted. Then you click on the figure and read their story--a dramatized story, from their point of view. It is all very well-researched an footnoted appropriately, but like the scenes illustrating the progression of events before, during, and after the raid, they are informed reconstructions. Historical fiction. But it's so much better than a book or a film, because the medium allows for the tabs to show you all these interlocking points of view, so that there is no overarching narrative dictating what is important and what is not (of course, that too can function as an illusion -- it is laid out to be explored in a particular way). And it's engaging.

However, I wonder if a person would look through this site if they weren't either very much into history, or doing an assignment. I know I would. But the website feels a little clumsy at times (the link between entertainment and learning that can be a little stiff and forced at times). However, the possibilities it opens up are enormous. The authors of Less Clicking, More Watching emphasize that people tend to like "TV-like experiences where users watched experts and artists talk about art and culture, augmented by links to additional and in-depth information." Although the creators of the Deerfield website used a video to introduce the visitor to the site, they could have made more use of it in their creative reconstructions. They also could have linked songs and objects to the storylines. Regardless of these things, however, the site offers a compelling vision of where the web can take us as a radically different medium than text or film. This site could not have been recreated as a book or film. Object-centered sites, though interesting and "neat," just don't have the ability to pull us in the way clashing versions of an event does. It's the lure of the story. The creators of Raid on Deerfield seem to have caught on to that and begun an interesting negotiation between history, fiction, and image-making that will lead to interesting places.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

archives of melodies, laughter, accents & bad hair

It was quite a journey from Historical Voices to YouTube. I started off listening to William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold Speech," enjoying his warm yet no-nonsense voice, and ended up watching a video of a local Salvadoran band, shot with a predictable fisheye lens. I found it more difficult than ever to stay focused on the original question this week. After a few hours to collect my thoughts, however, I became interested in what it was exactly about the material that made it so easy for me to lose my way.

I think more than anything it has to do with lack of practice. Digital collections of oral histories make interviews available across the world that might have been sitting quietly in a dusty drawer. For someone who is accustomed to working with text rather than voices, it might take some time to develop new skills to "highlight" relevant information. The Black Oral History project on the Washington State digital sound archive makes interviews accessible in a variety of ways. Each interview is accompanied by a kind of abstract that identifies the person, the date of the interview, and (importantly) an outline of the topics brought up during the interview. What I found particularly impressive about the outline is that the topics are linked to other interviews. For example, clicking on the topic "voting" will take you to the result page with all the other interviews with people who talk about that same topic. This linkage of information would have been a little clumsy in a written format, like an index. On the database it seems to be the logical thing to do. I found this to work much better in the African American Oral History collection of Washington State than in Historical Voices (the "transcript" option on the website did not work on my computer, although I was surprised to learn that I didn't need it too much).

I think it's also important to make a distinction between audio-visual material and audio-visual material on the internet. When I watch a documentary on a DVD or on television, I do not try to find out about it until afterwards, if at all. Even when I listen to the radio, or a recording, I am much more passive. I receive the information, I think about it (maybe) and later I try to find out more about where it came from and why (sometimes). But today I caught myself wandering into Wikipedia, or simply googling key terms, again and again to shed further light on what I was listening to or seeing on another screen. I know we should be all for engagement and actively shaping how you receive information, and the internet is good for that - but it also makes it a lot easier to simply forget where you started and why.

Friday, March 23, 2007

detectives with cliolators

(sorry this is late)

Cohen and Rosenzweig argue that a rapidly approaching fact-checking gadget that they (ingeniously) call the cliolator will soon be to history as the calculator was to math. After our discussion in class today regarding the difference between learning history and "doing" history, I'm still not sure what to make of the idea of the cliolator. Cohen and Rosenzweig use their example primarily with dates. But even dates are not numbers the way that they are in an equation. There are an infinite number of "facts" in the world. Historical "facts" such as dates are created by the people who single them out as significant. Events become historical facts only after they have been afforded some attention, and with attention come all sorts of arguments about why they are significant.

Dates themselves are embedded in certain historiographical arguments, or in popular narratives. What does this mean for students? Will having a fact-checking device make them more or less critical about pre-sorted information? Would it be like having an open-notebook test, which forces you to only single out information that is relevant to an argument, rather than try to impress your teachers with your ability to retain information?

My other concern is the murky line between understanding historiography and "doing" history. To use an analogy from English Departments: are students in a literature class, in which they read and study texts, learn how they are constructed and also the content, or are they in the creative writing class, in which they are taught how to construct those texts themselves? Anyone who has sat down with fifty different newspaper articles regarding one event can attest to how bewildering it can be to simply figure out what happened. A website like Who Killed William Robinson opens up the excitement of history (the detective work) to students who might otherwise never quite understand how every history book is doing exactly that (drawing on evidence to make more--or less--plausible arguments) on a larger scale.

It's interesting that both having instant access to historical "facts" and being able to immerse yourself in primary documents to make sense of an event on your own have the effect of displacing historiography. While very exciting, it makes it far too easy to get lost in all the disparate information.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Putting the final project to work, slowly

After talking to my advisor for a while about summer research, I've decided to use the original idea for a database that George Alter suggested last month. I'm applying for funding for it next week. My proposal draft still needs to include a more thorough discussion of the methodology (George Alter suggested a few articles that I still need to read) as well as a more detailed description of what the database would be like. But it provides a general idea of how a database like this would really help address several problems in the historiography. So here is the general proposal, which I plan to keep working on throughout the semester in order to have the database ready to go for the summer.

Rough Draft - proposal

The overwhelming attention given to the development of progressive Catholicism in El Salvador in the wake of the Vatican II and Medellín has created a powerful historical narrative involving a "break" between traditional and progressive Catholicism, with the Pastoral Week of 1970 marking the split between two eras. Underpinning this narrative is the assumption of a two-tiered model of religion: elite and popular. Before the break, the Salvadoran Catholic Church was the defender of the status quo, providing a justificatory religious framework for the elites; after the break, the Church questioned the status quo by redefining sin as primarily social and structural and embraced the opposite side of the binary--"local," decentralized, or popular religion. Although in this narrative there is a distinction between progressive and "local" or popular religion, the former is seen as growing out of the latter, while shedding along the way "magical" or deterministic explanations of poverty and suffering. Less attention has been paid to clearly defining what is meant by "religion of the elites" or "traditional" Catholicism.

During the peak of Catholic Action involvement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, members of the clergy involved in the movement were effectively horrified at members' lack of Catholic instruction or understanding of the basic catechism. Underlying the assumption of the "break" there is an assumption of a widespread influence of "traditional" Catholicism, yet we have little knowledge of how Catholicism was traditionally practiced. To what extent was Catholicism a part of people's everyday lives in the mid-twentieth century?

Examining the influence of the Catholic Church in El Salvador in the years prior to the Pastoral Week of 1970 poses two related problems. Articles books, homilies and symbols will only get us so far: these sources only provide a vision of interactions within the institution and how it was struggling to present itself to the laity. They offer little insight into how the Church was perceived by other institutional actors like the military, and even less of how it was perceived by lay Catholics and non-Catholics, making it almost impossible to determine the degree to which its actions were greeted with acceptance, hostility, or indifference. How many people read those journals or listened to those homilies? How many people could read at all? Who cared? The most readily available sources are one-sided and tracking direct responses to these is, in most cases, impossible.

If it is true that there was a marked shift in the Church during the tenure of Archbishop Chávez y Gonzalez, one angle into the problem of how this shift was perceived is to track how people came into contact with the Church at an institutional level throughout their lives and if this changed in the twentieth century. By creating a database in my History and New Media class with semester, this summer I hope to begin a data collection project employing a methodology used primarily within the historiography of eighteenth century France in the years prior to the Revolution. The approach is quite simple: tracking the percentage of marriages carried out during Advent and Lent, two periods in the Catholic liturgical year of fasting and "preparation," in order to determine the degree to which "traditional" Catholic rituals were observed. The Church officially frowns upon getting married during these periods, as marriage is a celebration of union not in keeping with the penitential attitude demanded of observant Catholics. Whether or not Catholics were observant, oblivious, or indifferent to the most important periods of penance during the liturgical year can be broadly determined by examining if and to what extent they were getting married during Advent and Lent. In eighteenth century France, there is a correlation between the increasing number of such marriages and the Church's gradual loss of hegemonic authority as the first stage of the Revolution drew nearer. What will this tell us in the case of El Salvador?

First of all, it will simply tell us the extent to which El Salvador was a strictly observant Catholic country at all. This, in turn, will give us the tools to determine the degree of hegemonic authority that the Church wielded, broadly speaking, over the laity. Most importantly, it will allow us to examine how this changed both through time and in different dioceses. I propose to start my samples in the 1880s, when civil matrimony became an alternative to marriage through the Church, and continue into 1962, the year of the Second Vatican Council, with five-year intervals. I plan to compare the dioceses of San Miguel, San Salvador and Santa Ana as well.

The variables in a marriage certificate include profession, place of residence, age, witnesses, and name of priest. Gathering this kind of data will therefore also prove fruitful on other fronts. We will be able to consider correlations between class and church membership, compare differences in urban and rural areas, as well as determine the presence of priests in certain areas (and by analyzing the name, whether they were foreign born). In sum, examining such data will prove invaluable to understanding shifts that are difficult to track on the level of discourse alone.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

strolling through an essay

I found it quite funny that when I tried to cut and paste several passages from Philip J. Ethington's website onto a word document for my notes, I kept getting a blank page. It took me a few seconds to realize that the font was white. It felt like he wasn't letting me pin down his words with my old fashioned note-taking.

"Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge" is an amazing project--in its broad scope and its approach to knowledge. Like the white font, it is also purposefully difficult to grasp at first. He means it to be approached as a "totality," read like a newspaper. While I admit that I was a bit annoyed with this at first, the approach grew on me. Unlike most articles I read, I thought about his website a lot afterwards. Initially, I kept thinking, "just get to the point." What is his point about literally mapping the past? I'm still not sure. Wondering what the point is... is his point, in a way.

Now, this is something that I spend most of my time doing with my own research, this searching for the point. Going off on tangents, making links between vastly different sources, wandering through a historiography and sometimes getting lost. I have come to believe that "the point" should assume these things but should be presented in final form free of them. In other words, it should be well stitched. We all know that it was formed out of disparate pieces of knowledge, but the art of it is creating something intelligible out of the mess.

But it's the mess that I always go back to, at least in my head, to wonder what other sort of thing I could have stitched with the same pieces. Ethington creates something of a controlled mess in which to wander, and in doing so challenges my urge to "clean up." It's not just a simple mess: it's quite well organized but it demands effort to engage with it. Like a good book, I know I'll go back to it, if only to try to figure it out again. And each time I'll probably learn something new.