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.

Conclusion

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.


Footnotes

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 frustration.to 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

Ugh.

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.


Notes:

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.”