Blog Post

Searchable NPR Book Concierge: 2008-2018

Pile of books in shape of Christmas tree
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

In this post:

Intro: A reading list for the new year

NPR Love, Meet Dissertation Data

Snapshot of the Last 10 Years: Visualizations



A reading list for the New Year

It is indeed still Christmastide! So I have a gift for everyone who has already blown through the books they found under the tree (or knows they will in this glorious lull between Christmas and New Year’s).

I web-scraped the NPR Book Concierge and Best Books of the Year pages from 2008 to 2018. And then I compiled them into a nifty spreadsheet that is searchable by tag and author or filterable by any category.

The spreadsheet contains 2323 books from the past 10 years of NPR’s “best of” lists. Search the tags to find new favorites in your most-read genres to take a chance on the “no-tag” books to discover something new.

For more on the process, keep reading the post. Though I understand if you go off and read the 2000+ awesome books from NPR’s Concierge instead :).

You can view the spreadsheet: 2008-2018 NPR Books or download a copy for yourself: Make a copy of 2008-2018 NPR Books

NPR Love, Meet Dissertation Data Skills

Since this year’s Book Concierge marks the 10th anniversary of NPR’s end-of-year recommendations, so I thought it’d be a fun side project to compile the lists from 2008 to 2018. This also gave me a chance to practice three of the digital humanities skills I’ve been using for the dissertation: web scraping plus tidy data and visualizations in R.

Web Scraping with OutWit Hub

First, I employed web-scraping using OutWit Hub. This is a method of harvesting data from a webpage by asking the scraping program to look for specific patterns in the HTML code behind a web page. 

Scraping the 2013 to 2018 pages was a breeze. The web app format NPR has used for the last five years is tagged well. For instance, <author> precedes the author’s name in the source code. The tags made it easy to identify common, unique patterns to plug into OutWit Hub’s desktop app.

Scraping the pages for 2008 to 2012, on the other hand, was a pain. (I’m still fairly new to web scraping and it stumped me.) The flow of the pages is inconsistent and I found it tricky to scrape just some links instead of all of them. Honestly, I ended up doing a lot of manual clean up, especially for 2008, 2009, and 2010. But okay. Worth it.

Tidying Data in RStudio

I also did some data tidying using the tidyverse and tidytext packages in RStudio. (I used Text Mining with R by Julia Silge and David Robinson as my bible for this work, as always.) Essentially, tidy data means that every instance of an observation has its own separate row in a table. For example, a book from the Concierge with two tags appears in two rows rather than one. (One for each tag.) To give a super simple example of untidy vs tidy data:

Figure 1: Untidy Data

Anne LeckieAncillary Justicescience-fiction-and-fantasy,

Figure 2: Tidy Data

Anne LeckieAncillary Justicescience-fiction-and-fantasy
Anne LeckieAncillary Justiceit’s-all-geek-to-me

Snapshot of the last 10 years

I mainly tidied the data so I could show off some visualizations. 🙂 Voila –  total counts for year and tag plus most used tags by year.

Total number of books per year

Graph: Total books per year

Column graph total books by year. See Table: Total Books by Year for accessible data.
See Table 1: Total Books by Year for accessible data.

Interestingly, a bit of a dip in the number of books in the concierge this year (2018). But otherwise the count keeps going steadily up. We should see upwards of 320 in 2019 at least.

Top 20 Tags (2008-2018)

Over the last 10 years, the “best of” lists utilized 74 distinct tags. This gets visually messy, so I’ve opted to show just the top 25 here. I removed the “no-tag” label, which applied to all books in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 “best of” lists.

Please also note there’s some overlap. “Staff-picks” and “npr-staff-pics,” for example, are essentially the same thing. Overall, 760 of the 2323 total book (37.72%) carry one of the “staff-pick” tags.

Graph: Top 25 Tags (2008-2018)

Column graph, top 25 tags. See Table 2 for accessible data.
See Table 2: Top 25 Tags (2008-2018) for accessible data.

Top 10 Tags by Year (2011-2018)

The most popular tags have shifted from year to year, with some tags fading out altogether over time. The facets below show the most popular tags per year from 2011 to 2018 (since no tags are available for 2008-2010). My apologies for the messy visualizations. I’m still working on how to sort the darn things properly…

Top Tags by Year. See Table 3: Top Tags by Year for accessible data
See Table 3: Top Tags by Year for accessible data.


This was a fun project for my winter break and definitely something I’ll use going forward. My next step is to start tracking which books I’ve read and locate the ones I most want to read in my local library.

Suggestions welcome for other improvements. Otherwise, happy reading!


Table 1: Total books per year

YearTotal Books

Table 2: Top 25 Tags (2008-2018)

TagTotal Books

Table 3: Top 10 Tags by Year

Blog Post, Scholarly Work

Accessibility & Digital Environments (Faculty Brown Bag Session)

Bringing DHSI to UB-SIM

I attended the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI)in June 2017 and completed the Accessibility and Digital Environments course, led by the wonderful Erin Templeton and George Williams. Today, I’ll be sharing a little of what I learned with the faculty of the University at Buffalo program in Singapore during an informal brown bag lunch session.

For faculty who are not able to attend – and for general visitors to the blog – I’ve included slides and an outline with links are below. Questions are always welcome in the comments or via email (hb24 at or Twitter (@heatherlynnsg).


To view and download a PDF copy of the slides: Accessibility & Digital Environment Slides

Outline & Relevant Links

Key Questions:

  • What is accessibility?
  • Why is it worth planning ahead for accessibility?
  • What are some practical steps toward creating accessibility?
  • What are the challenges to creating accessible environments?

Accessibility vs. Accommodation

Brainstorming session among the faculty. What do you think of when you hear “accessibility”? How about “accommodation”?

Models of Disability

The Medical Model vs. The Social Model of Disability

Why plan ahead for accessibility?

Practical & Humanistic Reasons to Plan Ahead

Practical Steps

UB’s Course Management Systems

Accessibility features on UB Learns & Digication

Document Design

Designing Syllabus Documents

Websites and Media for Teachers and Students

Overarching Practical Application

Involve students (especially students with disabilities) from the very beginning.

Some perspective on accessible designs

Deaf Space: What would spaces built for Deaf people look like? How do hearing-oriented spaces exclude Deaf people?

Frozen Descriptive Trailer: A fun example of visual content represented in descriptive ways that are accessible to people who are Blind or low vision.

General Resources

DHSI: Accessibility & Digital Environments Course Page

Collaborative Bibliography of Accessibility Resources on Zotero

Everything from WebAIM

Blog Post, Process Blog

To Panicked Dissertation Writers Everywhere

Words of Comfort from E.H. Carr

I plan to begin writing the dissertation in earnest next month, but it’s hard to quiet the voice in my head that shouts, “You aren’t ready yet!” My reading isn’t “done”; corners of my data remain unexplored. I’m not totally certain my original thesis still holds and any outline I write seems destined to change almost immediately.

I suspect this feeling of uncertainty is common to most dissertation writers – or perhaps just writers in general. Still, it was a great comfort to come across this reflection on writing by the historian E.H. Carr in his 1961 lecture series publication, What is History?

As soon as I have got going on a few of what I take to be the capital sources, the itch becomes too strong and I begin to write – not necessarily at the beginning, but somewhere, anywhere. Thereafter, reading and writing go on simultaneously. The reading is guided and directed and made fruitful by the writing: the more I write, the more I know what I’m looking for, the better I understand the significance and relevance of what I find.

Phew. Right.

I don’t know that I consistently share his “itch” to write, but I get glimpses of it sometimes. (I was definitely eager to explore the “history is boring” idea after rediscovering Professor Binns this summer.) Mostly, I just appreciate knowing that Carr, who is so foundational to historical thought and process, thought writing was a messy process too.

So. Repeat after me, fellow writers of dissertations: Writing is a process. It won’t be perfect from the start. I’m not the only one still figuring out what I’m doing.

Now let’s go write some stuff.

Blog Post, Process Blog

Harry Potter and the “History is Boring” Trope

[Edited 31 October 2018]

The importance of Harry Potter

The Harry Potter books are, arguably, the defining cultural touchstone for the millennial generation – of which I and my students are a part. Most of us can tell you what house Pottermore sorted us into (Gryffindor) – and which we really feel affinity for (all of them). We wish certain spells existed (Accio, please) and punctuate our tweets with Hermione GIFs. The life and death of Severus Snape give us a better understanding of redemption.

It’s worth paying attention, then, to how this series deals with history – and how that might influence students’ perceptions of history.

History of Magic: “the most boring class”

Most of the teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are competent individuals. But then there’s Professor Binns, the History of Magic instructor and the only ghost on the Hogwarts staff.

Rumor has it that poor old Binns died in his sleep after dozing off in the staff lounge. Undeterred by death, he woke up the next morning, left his body behind, and went to work as usual.1 Far from seeing this act as dedication to his craft, the students assume Binns has always been so uninteresting it didn’t make any difference to him or anyone else whether he was alive or dead.

A stylized Hogwarts crest featuring the lion, snake, badger, and eagle that represent the four houses.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, History of Magic is “easily the most boring class” on Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s schedule. Things do not improve by the students’ second year.2 In Chamber of Secrets, Binns lulls students into a stupor while he reads his lecture notes “in a flat drone like an old vacuum cleaner.”3 Indeed, Binns makes so little effort to engage his students that he’s genuinely surprised when Hermione raises her hand to ask about the legend of the Chamber of Secrets. He ultimately dismisses her question, declaring: “I deal with facts, Miss Granger, not myths and legends.”4

In short, Binns is so boring that he serves as shorthand for other exceptionally uninteresting tasks. When the odious Dolores Umbridge commands her students to read the first chapter of Defensive Magical Theory, Harry finds the reading “desperately dull, quite as bad as listening to Professor Binns.”5

Is Harry Potter really to blame?

Obviously not. J.K. Rowling did not originate the idea that history is boring, of course. Before Professor Binns, there was Ben Stein’s brilliantly monotone performance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Stein portrayed an economics teacher, but his subject in the “Anyone? Anyone?” scene was historical change. Incidentally, if you Google “boring history teacher,” this scene is the first hit.

However, my students never referenced Ferris Bueller. Tweets and GIFs about Harry Potter, though, appeared throughout the semester. A total of twenty-four student tweets (out of 11,819) alluded to Harry Potter. Thirteen of the references were GIFs. Four tweets referred to Remus Lupin (thanks to our study of the Romulus and Remus legend in class.) Hermione Granger, Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter, Molly Weasley, Ron Weasley and Argus Filch also appeared in the GIFs or text of tweets.

All told, only 0.2% of the semester’s tweets allude to the series in some way. None of the tweets or GIFs referenced Professor Binns.

So again, I’m not blaming Rowling’s portrayal of Binns for students’ assumption that history is boring. I just think it’s interesting that students consistently referenced a book series that also contains a deathly dull history professor.

“History can be boring”

I suspect students often conclude history is boring due to experiences with instructors like Professor Binns. At the start of this semester, for instance, a number of students approached me to ask how much they need to memorize for the class. This is despite the fact that exams are open book and discussions take up more class time than lectures. Yet many students assume history = memorization. This implies much of their past experience with history took place in a classroom like the one run by Professor Binns. “History” means a series of lectures, memorization, and grueling tests. Students don’t perceive the history classroom as a place for relevant and engaging discussion.

Creating Engaging History

In addition to anecdotal evidence, the tweets produced for Class 5, our first workshop for the group blogging project, suggest students think it’s difficult to make history interesting. Upon their arrival in class, I asked students to tell me either something they found challenging/daunting about the blogging project OR something they thought was exciting about the project. The students produced 165 tweets related to this question for Class 5.

A column chart showing the number of tweets in which students expressed something challenging, exciting, or challenging/exciting. There is also an uncategorized category.

Thirty-three of the tweets included something the students thought was exciting. One hundred and ten stated something a student found challenging/daunting. Four contained both an exciting and challenging element. I left eighteen of the tweets uncategorized. Uncategorized tweets typically were too vague, asked a question, or seemed unrelated to my original question.

What did students find challenging?

The chart below details what students considered challenging or daunting about the project. For the most part, their responses closely mirrored the rubric. Concerns about working with others and dealing with the amount of information in their sources also surfaced.

However, making the post interesting and engaging to readers was clearly the greatest concern.

A column chart showing what students initially found challenging/daunting about the blogging project.

Why were they concerned about engagement?

History is just plain boring

Students concerns about engagement partly had to do with their perception of history as an innately boring topic.

@VirginiaUGC111, for instance, wrote:

I think it will be challenging for me to write about a history topic in an engaging manner #hwc111 #c056

@pripri1816 echoed her peer’s perception, writing that making the blog post fun would be difficult precisely because it was related to history.

A third student, @ShrutzUGC111, chimed in along similar lines:

It would be challenging to turn something historical and content heavy into a fun writeup #hwc111 #c057

For @VirginiaUGC111, @pripri1816, and @ShrutzUGC111, the problem was simple: history is boring and “content heavy.” Making it engaging seemed innately challenging.

History can be confusing, easily skewed, or appealing to only some people

Other students, though, were more specific about why it might be hard to make history intriguing. Most commonly, students perceived history as complicated and confusing. For @HelloThisIsABot, the problem lay in the “dull past texts” that provided the source material for the blog post:

@yunpingugc expressed similar concern regarding the complexity and density of historical materials:

Other students worried less about confusion and more about accuracy. They articulated a different complication: how to communicate history in a way that was both informative and engaging. @kimblychang noted the challenge of bringing history to life in a way that accurately represented “the facts:”

@yzising expressed a different worry, namely avoiding personal biases that might skew history:

Both @yzising and @kimblychang, in fact, found it difficult to imagine presenting history in a way that was both true and interesting.

@jennjennjannah added an additional layer of concern: What if the post was interesting to the writers, but not the readers?

Finally, one dear student, @Fiworldciv, worried about narrowing down what was most interesting to their group and their readers:

History could be interesting for both @jennjennjannah and @Fiworldciv. The difficulty came in inspiring similar interest in others.


In sum, the content of the tweets makes clear that students do think history can be boring. The tweets also highlight the tension students’ perceive between informative and engaging historical content. Their reasons for this perception include (but are not limited to) concerns regarding:

  • the perceived dullness of history
  • the complexity of historical material
  • the difficulty of balancing accuracy and engagement and
  • the flexibility of the concept of “interesting”

The students’ tweets speak to many of the difficulties faced by professional historical writerstoo . More specifically, the students articulated difficulties related to how historians communicate history.

Indeed, how we communicate history matters. It takes a great deal of skill and practice to (publicly) communicate history in a way that is rigorously attentive to evidence, accessible to a broad audience, and both visually and intellectually interesting to a wide variety of people.

To return to Harry Potter…

Rowling recognizes the need for engaging historical communication in her penultimate reference to Professor Binns. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, readers find Harry in History of Magic for his last year of study (since, spoiler alert: Harry ultimately fails his History of Magic O.W.L exam):

Today they suffered three-quarters of an hour’s droning on the subject of giant wars. Harry heard just enough within the first ten minutes to appreciate dimly that in another teacher’s hands this subject might have been mildly interesting, but then his brain disengaged.8

Rowling recognizes history’s potential interest as well as the ways teachers consistently make it dull and dry. So I’d like to revise my opening statement.

Perhaps students don’t think history is truly boring. Maybe they simply recognize the reality that history is often taught in boring ways. They also acknowledge that crafting interesting and informative historical accounts is difficult and takes skill, effort, and practice. The beautiful thing is that this gives educators room to try – and fail – at the difficult task of creating engaging history. Our students are willing to learn alongside us.


1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Kindle Edition (2015), 132-133.↩

2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Kindle Edition (2015), 132.↩

3. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Kindle Edition (2015), 148.↩

4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Kindle Edition (2015), 148.↩

5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Kindle Edition (2015), 240. This is the last reference to Binns in the series.↩

6. Tweet no longer available. Original ID: 831714658264363009↩

7. Tweet no longer available. Original ID: 831310714744680448↩

8.Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Kindle Edition, p. 228↩


Blog Post, Process Blog

Four Thoughts on Working With Twitter Data

My digital dissertation on historical thinking, social media, and the digital age primarily utilizes Twitter data to answer questions about students’ understandings of the significance of the practice and content of history. Working with Twitter data is new territory to me but I have a few thoughts on the process of cleaning and organizing the data thus far.

1. Twitter is a Hydra

Hydra: A mythological beastie with many heads. When someone lops off one head, two more appear. Also apparently exhales poisonous fumes. Heracles (Hercules) was only able to destroy the monster with the help of his nephew, who cauterized the stump of each head to prevent new ones growing.

The Greek hero Hercules battles a many-headed, fire-breathing, serpentine monster called the Hydra
Hercules, John Singer Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I didn’t know Twitter was going to be a Hydra, partly because the initial collection of tweets was super easy thanks to Ian Milligan, who generously set up and hosted a dnflow server for me this semester.1 (Because digital humanities people are awesome about helping new-to-DH scholars realize their projects.)

My students and I used a class hashtag (#hwc111) to organize our tweets and, once a week or so, I entered the hashtag into a search box on dnflow. The program created analytics regarding the most popular tweets, common images, and the number collected and I downloaded this data into a neat Google Drive folder.

The original data set was comprised of 10,486 tweets – but I knew that wasn’t all of them. Dnflow had trouble collecting retweets 2 and quoted retweets 3. Plus no one (myself included) tags their tweets perfectly all the time.

My initial, optimistic workflow looked a bit like this:

A young Bette Davis walks through a door, closes it, and collapses in hysterical laughter

  1. Compile all tweets from dnflow requests into a single spreadsheet.
  2. Review individual feeds.
  3. Add missing tweets.
  4. Categorize tweets based on which question in class, if any, the tweet responded to.

Simple, yes? Hilarious is more like it.

The second task “review individuals feeds” became an additional four sub-tasks and “add missing tweets” turned into adding not only un-tagged tweets, but also all replies by students because I decided halfway through that I wanted to explore whether a network existed among students and, if so, what it looks like. I also added new tasks as I started reviewing the data, such as creating a column to describe the media (GIFs, images, quotes from class readings) attached to tweets.

For this sort of work, the experience and assistance of other people is clearly beneficial. Something like Jessica Otis’s workflow for examining a conference network with Gephi would have been exceptionally helpful at the start of this process (and certainly will be helpful as I experiment with Gephi). To that end, I’ve documented the workflow that emerged for me (really, it’s more of a task list), available via Google Drive. Ideally, this will help other Twitter -data newcomers avoid similar pitfalls in the future.

2. How to be a historian who thinks with machines?

I ultimately added 1,671 tweets to the original 10,486 – about a 16% increase in the data set. I’m not sure yet whether or not this is a significant amount. (Though I’m sure some students or colleagues with working knowledge of statistics can tell me…)

I’m used to thinking like a historian in an archive, where documents are rare and every particular piece of evidence matters. This isn’t that kind of project, though. Instead, I’ll be visualizing and analyzing the contents of hundreds of tweets at a time. Will 16 extra tweets make a difference when analyzing a batch of 100?

My guess is that the additions may not make much of a difference to any text analysis involving large segments of the data set. Added tweets might, however, make a difference in the composition of the network of students. The new tweets might also contain some zingy and insightful quotes that allow me to make a point with a bit more panache. Like this one from a student processing the perspective and bias of the Greek historian, Herodotus.

I suspect I’ll return to the question of how much data is worth saving, adding, and exploring. This is an important question in the broader practice of digital history. How should digital historians balance a disciplinary preference for the particularities of individual documents with a methodology that requires setting aside the particular, at least initially, in order to extract generalizations from massive sets of evidence? What will that look like for this particular project.

3. Backtracking is disheartening, but necessary.

While reviewing the individual Twitter feeds created by my students, I came up with a clever idea I believed would expedite the review process: Save the missing tweets to a Twitter Moment a place to store and then return to record the retweets after completing the initial review of the feeds.


I tried this method over the course of two individual feeds and it seemed to be working. I also double checked Twitter’s support pages to ensure there was no limit to the number of tweets one could add; no limitation was obviously stated. I continued adding tweets to the moment as I reviewed my next 30 feeds and then proudly showed off my “Tweets to Add” Moment Peggy Olson from Mad Men slowly lowers her head to a desk in my supportive spouse – at which point I discovered that approximately 50 of the most recently added tweets were in fact saved to the Moment.4


Paige Morgan and Yvonne Lam, who led the Intro to Data Wrangling workshop at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, warned participants that starting over is always a possibility. Paige also noted in a recent talk/blog post: “I say that I work with data, but in some ways, it feels more accurate to say that I work with various types of mess.”5

I wholeheartedly agree with acknowledging that starting over happens and that data is usually some type of mess or another. And I suspect this won’t be the last time that happens. Backtracking is disheartening and time-consuming and that emotional toll perhaps could be better acknowledged in DH work – even if it’s a necessary part of the messy digital process.

4. It’s okay to leave some things for later.

In a recent chat with Veronica Armour, an Instructional Designer at Seton Hall University, I asked her what project management training she acquired before moving into her current field of work.6 Her answer was “not much” (which seems quite common), but she did recommend some online courses – particularly those that favor “agile management” over “waterfall management.”

Streams from a waterfall run down a bright green cliffside.
Sean MacEntee, “Waterfall,” CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

My understanding of these models is quite basic, but here’s the heart of it. Agile models make it possible and even desirable to move forward even if all the pieces aren’t yet in place; the object is to continuously work toward goals by testing, seeking feedback, and testing again as new information or materials become available. Waterfall models, by contrast, require everything from one step of the project to be completed before moving onto the next.

I’m definitely a “waterfall” person when it comes to my own projects. I don’t like the feeling of incompleteness and I prefer to explore every possibility before moving on.

But that is shaping up to be an ineffective way to work with data – especially data that acts like a Hydra. With the next few stages of the project, then, I’m hoping to become more okay with leaving things for later.


Blog Post, Process Blog

#dh/#dhist: Party of One

Republished from Storify. This sentence is the link to the original publication.

A quick clarification of terms (with thanks to friend and colleague Paul McAfee who asked me to define on FB):

  1. DH is “digital humanities” – a broad umbrella term for projects that utilize digital tools and processes to forward research in one or more of the humanities fields.
  2. dhist is one of many hashtags for “digital history” on social media. Digital history is a subset of digital humanities in which digital tools and methods are used to explore historical content.
  3. Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you aren’t actually capable of doing what you’re supposed to be doing/have chosen to do – and that sooner or later everyone else will figure that out too. It doesn’t always (or even often) mean the person doesn’t know what their up to – it’s just a persistent, nagging voice in the head to the effect of “not good enough.”
Blog Post

Digital Tools and Pedagogy – UB-SIM Workshop

[Feel free to view & download the slides here too:]


Welcome to the University at Buffalo, Singapore Institute of Management workshop on Digital Tools and Pedagogy. An hour doesn’t feel like enough to dig into both technology and how we teach, but we’re going to give it a go. Ideally this will be just the start of a collective, collaborative conversation about how we integrate our teaching concerns and practices with spiffy, useful, exciting digital tools. Here’s what we’re up to today:

  1. Introduction of Topic
  2. Goals for the Workshop
  3. Definitions: Pedagogy & Digital Tools
  4. Thinking Critically & Enthusiastically about Digital Tools
  5. Individual Reflection
  • What makes us enthusiastic about digital tools?
  • What makes us hesitant about using digital tools?
  1. Networking Our Knowledge
  • Padlet – on the web or via the app using this QR code:

Additional Resources

Digital Tools I’ve Used/Can Teach/Have Heard Of


I’ve used Twitter for two semesters of my course and the platform is a major part of my dissertation research. I’m pretty comfortable discussing the uses and challenges of Twitter in the classroom. It’s less daunting than you might think, but does take some patience and preparation.

In addition, this Teaching with Twitter online course is how I got started, but there are lots of other resources out there.

The course has a fee ($400), but there are generous discounts for students & contingent/adjunct faculty (I think I paid $150 for the 6-week course)

Padlet (online corkboard; app or web-based)

Google Slides, Forms, Docs, and Sheets

Slides has an option for students to submit questions via a link, which could be helpful for participation

I’ve used Forms for long surveys, quizzes, and quick questions during class

My classes used Docs for submitting assignments – I can comment and they can write back in real time if they choose

I use Sheets for grading and share student grades via a web app (courtesy of this nifty tutorial)

Keynote slides

Apple only, alas, but very attractive layouts

I supplement with Toolbox for Keynote; paid, but worth it, I think (useful for tracking how many students/participants have clicked a link)

Squarespace (blogging platform)

WordPress (blogging platform; self-hosted and free versions)

Zotero (research organization program)

Zotero has a little bit of a learning curve, but is a flexible and customizable way to compile references, articles, webpages, and notes for a research project.

Zotero databases are sharable, which means users can collaborate with other researchers – definitely useful for faculty or students.

Evernote (note-taking app)

Socrative (clicker app)

Today’s Meet (backchannel/forum/questions app, web-based) (web annotation, good for collective reading)


Learning/content management system

More flexible and inviting than UB Learns, I think.

Also free! Also open-source code, for any coders among us.


Data visualization tool

Sometimes called the “gateway drug” to data visualization 🙂

For Thinking Critically About Technology & Pedagogy

There’s no good app for teaching” (Laura Moorhead, 2014, TED article)

Is it okay to be a Luddite?” (Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris, 2014, Digital Pedagogy Lab)

Are apps becoming the new worksheet?” (Lee Skallerup Bessette, 2017, Digital Pedagogy Lab)

From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able” (Michael Wesch, 2010, TEDxKC talk)

The Digital Era: 50 Years of Technology” (Ben Myers and Erica Lusk, 2016, Chronicle of Higher Education, access available through UB Libraries)

Agile Learning (Blog by Derek Bruff; generally useful and inspirational stuff)

HASTAC (pronounced “hay-stack”; Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory)

Creative Uses for Digital Tools in the Classroom

Professors Assign Students to Post to BuzzFeed. You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next. (Gabriel Sandoval, 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Twessays and Composition in the Digital Age (Donna M. Alexander, 2017, Digital Pedagogy Lab)

Lying About the Past (T. Mills Kelly; this prof and his students “hoaxed” Wikipedia as a class project)

The Pedagogy Project (from HASTAC)

Business Strategy Game (used and recommended by a UB-SIM instructor, Paul McAfee)

Practical Advice/Resources

Ed Tech 4 Beginners (Neil Jarrett – practical stuff like apps and tools + some ideas for assignments/activities)

Teacher Tech (Alice Keeler – especially good for Google Apps)

This Week in Web 2.0 (Larry Ferlazzo – an ongoing series of recommendations for websites, apps, and cool things on the internet)

25 Awesome Apps for Teachers, Recommended by Teachers (TED-Ed blog, 2015 tho…)

Blog Post

Notes from #aha17: Day 2

A lighter day on my end – and in Denver, where the sun came out and I had a view of the Rockies from my window. Win.

My brain is pretty mushy from trying to figure out a bunch of digital history tools at the moment, but here’s the (briefer than yesterday) highlights:

Praise for a colleague

First and foremost, Jordan Reed, fellow Drew grad student and digital historian, was one of today’s most tweeted persons thanks to his presentation with SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing)! Woot!

#aha17 #s110: Collaborative Digital History

Great panel/roundtable from Stephen Robertson, Jim Clifford, Ian Milligan, Emily Merchant, and Myron Gutmann – and the audience, which was gain full of live tweeters. (Seriously – such a joy to tweet with other people!)

The takeaways for me:

Digital history can be learned as projects are in-progress.

Woot! Every collaborator – even/especially grads and undergrads – deserves reward/credit for work

Because history is always-already collaborative – we just don’t tend to make that explicit

Do need to take care as we consider how to treat student collaborators, though. What work should be public? What work should be withheld? How are we ensuring that students have a clear and respected say?

Odds and ends about who we write for and what digital projects mean for securing jobs and/or gaining tenure

#aha17 #s117: Digital Drop-In

Pretty much sums up how I feel about this session:

Digital history is still a new community for me – but it is a community as far as I can tell. And a remarkably supportive, interested, and creative one in which resources are made to be shared.

Jeff McLurken welcomed me at the door, listened patiently to my project description and skills needs, and then pointed me to two different digital historians/humanists who had great suggestions for tools to use for data analysis.

I had the chance to speak with Ian Milligan again and he kindly re-demonstrated some of the web scraping tools from yesterday (Voyant and DocNow). I’m still putzing around with these tools and figuring out how to make them work for my needs, but I’m feeling on firmer ground with the dissertation after the drop-in session.

Blog Post

Notes from #aha17: Day 1


It’s 4° F in Denver. So obviously one of the most shared images on Twitter this morning was Jon Snow. This sort of thing might be what led to these shenanigans on Channel 9 News: History Buffs Tweet About Snow, Hilarity Ensues.

It is my intention to write a brief summary of each day at #aha17 (American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting) in Denver – but goodness knows I never finish series of blog posts. So this might just be a one-off thing. Here’s the highlights from today. Readers, beware. Herein lies an excessive number of links…

Personal Odds and Ends:

I was so grateful when presenters shared links to slides today! It meant I could happily toggle between tweeting, exploring the digital projects discussed, and browsing slides and links.

Okay. I give in. I’ll start providing slides before class. (It’s good to be a pseudo-student sometimes…)

#aha17 #gsdh: Getting Started in Digital History

Link to AHA Program

I attended the session on Web Scraping, led by Ian Milligan (@ianmilligan1). If you’d like to browse the slides and links, Ian was good enough to provide all of the materials for the session on his website.

Web scraping, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, means pulling all sorts of basic info off of a website. For instance, if you use a web tool (like on a website like a database of song lyrics (such as this example from Ian this morning), you can run a URL with the web tool and it will extract information like song title, artist, and relevant links from the webpage. This information can then be exported into a Comma Separated Values (.csv) file – pretty much an Excel file with a different ending. That data can then be run through any number of analysis tools (we used Voyant Tools) to study things like word frequency, spikes in popularity, and the context of specific words, people, or places.

For me, I plan to apply similar tools and methods for my social-media based dissertation. We spent some time practicing web scraping social media using Doc Now, which lets you run a hashtag on a given day, pulls all of the tweets and related RTs, and then allows you to export the data for analysis. Super useful given that I’m hoping to analyze upwards of 200 tweets per class meeting this semester…

After the Web Scraping Workshop, we broke out for lunch and “table talks” hosted by faculty and alt-acs who shared their experience in public history, choosing digital humanities tools, sustaining digital projects, and funding digital projects, among other digital humanities (DH) topics.

I attended the informal talk on DH jobs led by Rebecca Wingo who offered helpful advice about what jobs were out there, what degree programs might be most useful, and what additional certifications/experience would be useful for pursuing a DH job. The takeaway for me was a confirmation of the usefulness of George Mason University’s DH certificate program (which I may be looking at in the future) and her suggestion to attend digital history training opportunities to acquire skills and experience as needed including:

For the second round, I headed for the Grading Digital Projects table led by John Rosinbum.  We talked about timeline assignments, rubrics, and citations and – good news for the next round of #hwc111 students – I’m more thoroughly convinced of the necessity of rubrics. So, rubrics coming for Spring 2017 blogging project! Also probably and more thorough and interactive conversation about why and how to cite sources on the web. Spread the news, dear students…

#aha17 #s22: Historical Sources as Data: Opportunities and Challenges

Link to AHA Program

Wowsa. When you attend a #dighist session, everybody live tweets! Which was a great thing because the presentations given by Kalani Craig, Lauren Tilton, and Brandon Locke were brilliant and useful and challenging.

All three presentations challenged listeners to consider how best to reach wider audiences in clearer ways by:

  • Bringing information out from behind paywalled collections (i.e., only available to institutions with money, like Proquest or JSTOR) in legal, but accessible ways through the use of good old copy-and-paste, data compilation, and natural language processing
  • Shedding light on lesser-known, but exceptionally important figures and places in history through network analysis and comprehensive metadata for images and sources
  • Making transparent our methodologies and sources so other scholars can assess and help us grow our process and data can remain reusable.

This session was, I swear, more compelling than I’m making it sound. I highly recommend checking out the projects driven by the presenters for a better sense of how innovative and important their work is:

#aha17 #s31: A Retrospective on Tuning: Where Have We Been and Where Should We Go?

Link to AHA Program

Yup, all the live tweets for this one are mine. Because when you don’t go to a #dighist session, sometimes you’re the only one tweeting. Ah well.

I’m still processing this one. I like the ambitions of the Tuning Project. The idea is to host, coordinate, and focus conversations about what faculty want history majors to be able to do when they finish the degree.

The aim of the three-year project has been to help establish guidelines useful to history departments across the United States and to foster a more natural language surrounding historical skills so students have a fuller stake in course assessments and outcomes. The project is faculty (not admin) driven, it has increased the AHA’s emphasis on teaching, and the panelists today seemed committed to bringing a wider variety of educators into the conversation in the future.

The focus of the project is also shifting from majors to introductory courses, which I (selfishly) think is a great move given that this is what I teach.

I’m not totally sold though. The project itself still requires a lot of explanation – at least for those of us who aren’t really part of history departments. I don’t know that there are a ton of resources or training on site for new college and university teachers to implement the suggested Tuning outcomes in effective ways (though Anne Hyde did note the increasing presence and usefulness of centers for teaching and learning on campuses). I’m also still not certain how much students value the language of transferable skills in general education courses… But then I haven’t really asked how they feel about it. (Maybe I will in the near future.)

It was a thought-provoking session one way or another and I’m grateful for the conversations led by Elaine Carey, Anne Hyde, Elizabeth Lehfeldt and Daniel McInerney in the field of history education.


I finished out the day at the grad student reception (met a Masters student from University at Buffalo and chatted about pre-modern China) and the Twitterstorians/bloggers reception. It turns out that if you hang out long enough, you meet people who recommend awesome medieval Tumblrs, Baltimore tours, and scholars of history teaching and learning. Also they had Denver-brewed beer. Win.

Blog Post

Small Steps Shattering Ceilings

Celebrate the small steps?

I teach ancient and medieval history. Gender equality is not a thing in the civilizations my students and I study. Ever. Women are always at a disadvantage – biologically tied to childbirth, socially valuable primarily as wives who bring property or wealth or labor to a family, and economically dependent due to inequitable inheritance laws and educational/occupational limitations.

But that is an exhausting story to tell over and over again. So I spend the semester trying to convince my students to look for ways that women claim agency and societies as a whole take small steps toward greater fairness. In ancient Egypt, women could initiate marriage and divorce. In Han China, Ban Zhao wrote history and pushed for equal education (at least in the aristocracy). In the Roman Empire, gravestones and graffiti women owned property and had a wider variety of careers than many contemporaries. Women hosted church meetings for Roman Christians and missionaries too.Rome Spring 2016.001.jpeg

According to the traditional narrative of early Islam, Khadijah convinced Muhammad of his prophetic calling. Women gained new rights to inherit and control their own property (one wonders if Khadijah the merchant had a say in this). In medieval Europe, the abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote soaring melodies, medical texts, and mystical devotions while she led a community of women dedicated to holiness and simplicity.

In the absence of greater transformation, I say, we must celebrate the small steps.

No. Shatter the ceilings.

My students typically reject my careful narrative in favor of a focus on kickass, exceptional the world over. Their blog posts, this semester and in the past, have focused on:

  • Wu Zetian, the first female emperor of China
  • Tomyris, the Scythian warlord responsible for the death of Persian king, Cyrus the Great
  • St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, often credited with ending the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire
  • Matilda, contender for the English throne and mother to Henry II
  • Artemisia, a satrap (ruler) under the Persian king, Xerxes, who led her navy in battle against the Greek navy in the Greco-Persian Wars
  • Joan of Arc, the medieval mystic and eventual saint
  • Cleopatra, ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt and one of the wealthiest, most educated persons of her time. (Quite possibly more educated and powerful than Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, thank you very much).
  • The Trung Sisters, who led Vietnamese military resistance against China in the first century CE.

I think I know why they choose these women over my midwives, laborers, property owners, and holy women. These women are triumphant, inspiring, and terribly alive. They are #unstoppable, #fierce, #girlpower, #nastywomen in the best possible ways. Heck, I want to cheer when I read the celebration apparent in their posts.

My students, understandably and beautifully, gravitate towards stories that defy oppression and seem to offer hope in the midst of their study of broken social structures and massive inequality. They seek stories of radical, rapid success in the hope that these women’s stories signal progress for everyone.

When it’s not enough.

I had hoped to invite them to cheer with me last week as I announced the election of the first female president of the United States. That wasn’t what happened, of course.

As my colleagues and I watched the results of the presidential election come in, I expressed anger and sadness and frustration at the results. Expressed is the wrong word. I burst out in tears and anger as my hope that we would see our first female president was obliterated. A friend, more gracious than me, offered perspective, “But she ran! On the ticket of a major party. And nearly won. That’s a huge deal. Plus Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Ilhan Omar…” To which I angrily proclaimed (yelled? I might have yelled…), “That’s not enough!”

I didn’t want small change. I wanted big change. Now. Not just the change that brought with it the election of a female president, but (ideally) the sort of change that ushered into power a president who would listen to the diverse group of people who comprised her electoral base.

We can talk about whether or not those hopes were misplaced some other time. (No really, we can – I’m not trying to put you off forever.) For the moment, I need you just to hear: This was my hope. And it hurt like hell when that hope was crushed.

How do I teach this?

I’m wondering now how best to teach the sort of gender-inclusive history that is so near and dear to my heart in this world that is clearly so desperate for big change, not small celebrations.

How do I present triumphant, resilient, energizing female warriors and rulers – but still communicate to my students the limitations of those exceptional people? Because the historical reality is that these women were awesome, but didn’t always creating lasting change for other female-bodied people. Their reigns or battles didn’t usually create conditions in which other women could achieve the same success. [See Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh; only two women (maybe) officially ruled after her in the next millennium before Ptolemaic rule and all the Cleopatras]. They often perpetuated the worst abuses of their class (which included slavery, conscripted labor, taxation to fund lavish spectacles…pretty standard stuff for the ancient world).

How do I tell them about the inequality that pervades history without leaving them feeling helpless and lifeless? Because the historical reality is that many ‘ordinary’ women lived significant, even remarkable lives. Women’s household labor and craft in China made possible the initial silk production that fueled international trade for the powerful Han dynasty in China. Women have steered new humans into the world on a daily basis in every culture since forever. Women navigated ships in the perilous Mediterranean, they created diplomatic ties between nations through marriage alliances, started new religious movements, and staged anti-war demonstrations.

This is what it takes.

Now that my initial anger has (mostly) passed, I want to find ways to leverage the sort of discontent that makes me and my students desire radical change BUT I also want them to understand that, historically, we have proven ourselves a stiff-necked species, slow to truly disrupt the status quo. I don’t love that about us, but I think it’s true. I wish it wasn’t for the sake of my friends and loved ones who are less safe, more tired, rightfully more frightened than me.

I don’t want to assume how silk makers, midwives, ships captains, demonstrators, political wives, rulers and warriors felt about their work or, in many cases, their minority status in work and the world. I want to give them the respect of not projecting my own agenda onto their lives. But I also want to acknowledge that whether or not they felt like they were working for the betterment of women and of humanity, the lesson of their lives – the thing I want my students to know – is this thing that echoes across the writings of all sorts of workers for justice this week:

It takes difficult, constant, persistent, everyday working, living, and being to create greater freedom of movement, economic freedom, occupational opportunities, and inclusion in religious communities for the populations left out of the best things in society. 

It shouldn’t but it does. Also sometimes change happens by accident. And sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. But those are other posts, I think.

I don’t know what this means for my syllabus yet and there are always the limitations of time, institutional expectations, and my own knowledge gaps to deal with. But this is what I’m thinking about. If you’re thinking about that too, leave me a comment or come find me on Twitter. Let’s get to work together.

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