New Content for “Unrestricted: The Campaign to Sink the Japanese Merchant Fleet During World War II”

As side project for this semester’s CILO II course I completed an interactive map exhibit for “Unrestricted: The Campaign to Sink the Japanese Merchant Fleet During World War II” The map is currently hosted on this site. View it here.

The map breaks the campaign up into ten distinct periods based upon major offensives and increases attrition rates suffered by the Japanese merchant fleet. It was built mostly from materials generated for the original project…and done so with newly acquired R coding skills.

I’m quickly becoming an accidental naval historian.


19 Nov Class and Readings Reflection

Like with most weeks, I am of a mixed mind on this week’s readings. I would like to pay particular attention to Katrina Anderson, et al. “Student Labour and Training in Digital Humanities.” I am sympathy to the unlaying concerns present in the piece, particularly when it comes to student labor. I do find that the idea that student labor is often “unseen” to be unjust on a moral and utilitarian level. However, I find their proscriptions largely beyond the pale and an instance of the cure being worse than the disease.

For starters I think that rethinking “traditional pyramid hierarchy” would be a foolheartedly endeavor. Efficient groups function within clear chains of command. Diffuse responsibility sounds great on paper, but humans evolved to operate cooperate within hierarchies and therefore compete with other hierarchies. I would caveat that by asserting that the hierarchy functions best (and just) when those at the top understand their responsibilities to their subordinates and afford them enough leeway to operate and innovate. In that vein I would agree with some of their proscriptions, such as “[g]iving group members the opportunity to volunteer for tasks that interest them.” That being said sometimes people need to preform tasks that they find boring or mundane, such as the kinds of tasks that the authors describe as “tedious.”

With regard to this grunt work I would also argue that they would be best addressed by instituting changes aimed at improving the quality of DH leadership rather than a radical overhaul of academic structures. When it comes to recognizing student would perhaps, we as a field should require professors acknowledge the contributions of their graduate assistants. Such stipulations could be written into grants as a prerequisite for publication. Further compliance could come through organizational requirements.   

Additionally, when it comes to building student confidence in their work perhaps the injection of the little competition would help.  Departmental awards for student work could serve as a means of recognizing the value of a student’s contribution, serve as a means of healthy competition and as an initiator to seek publication. Personally, I became motivated to publish my thesis after it won an award and I was given a gentle nudge by a professor to submit it to journals. Without group and individual validation, I probably would not have done so.

Lastly, I agree with some of their proposals, particularly encouraging student led digital humanities projects. Providing avenues of student leadership offers them “buy in” to a healthy hierarchy and provides more junior researchers an inspirational model for their career path. People often only see hierarchies as corrupt if then feel that they cannot advance within them. Providing leadership opportunities to students provides avenue of alienating this discontent while improving a student’s skill base.

Nov 12 Readings and Class Reflection

I thoroughly enjoyed Kalani Craig, Charlie Mahoney, Joshua Danish’s “Correcting for Presentism in Student Reading of Historical Accounts Through Digital-History Methodologies.” I thought that the methodology in the historic bacteriology simulation was innovation and instructive. The walking campus is an excellent analog for the urban lifestyle of yesteryear. Also, I thought that the exercise serves as an effective reminder how most of us in the developed world do not have to live in fear of casual contact because devastating disease has been all but eradicated.  I am however having difficultly grasping why the video portion of the exercise was necessary. Could the instructors not have measured their teaching success with pre and post questionnaire or written materials? I bring it up because people tailor their behavior when they know it is being recorded. Similarly, could group pressures not force individuals to conform their responses in an effort to remain within the group’s good graces? Measuring effectiveness in this manner does not seem to me (since I am not an educator take that with a grain of salt) as an effective means of doing so.

Similarly, I enjoyed reading about the traveling exercise in Diane Jakacki and Katherine Faull, “Doing DH in the classroom: transforming the humanities curriculum through digital engagement.” The speed and improvement of transportation and communication has been (and will continue to be) and significant engine of historical change, getting students to understand that evolution is an excellent pedagogical goal.

Perhaps it is merely my bias talking, but with both of these exercises we can see the approachability of using spatial data and reasoning as an educational tool. I wouldn’t agree that GIS analysis is easy but I would argue that understanding space would come easy for for most people, and certainly easier than some of the other, more esoteric forms of DH. People have evolved to understand space and how to navigate it. Despite technological change people still travel and think of the world in terms of distance traveled. This commonality is an excellent conduit with which to convey the change of time. The barrier for entry may be low but such exercises could be easily scaled up in scope and difficulty. While understanding space comes naturally, understanding the subjectivity of location and its relationship to the people who live on it is considerably more difficult.


November 5th Readings and Class Reflection

I’ll admit it…I like Wikipedia. It is an excellent resource or knocking out the basic facts of any given topic. It has proved an excellent resource throughout the production of our current group project. Wiki, like most mediums which deal in “popular” historical topics is replete with information on military history. Naval history being no exception, Wiki is flush with information on the United States Navy during World War II, particularly with U.S. submarines. Every sub and many sub captains I’ve researched have had robust wiki pages, all of which have been indispensable. They’ve all appeared to be well researched and well footnoted. On these pages I’ve noticed banners which declare: “This file is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.” Such things give me confidence that Wikipedia, open to all can be a tool for the “crowd” as well as knowledgeable experts.

I also think that wiki can and often is used to great effect when tackling more arcane and contentious topics. The wiki page on the Historiography of the Cold War is a through and well-balanced overview of an a topic which is often fraught with politicized interpretations.

Then again most controversial topics are not always handled well. The Armenian Geocide (to name only one) serve as a reminder that Wiki, despite its noble attempts can be biased. I was not at all surprised that the snark and downright vitriol present within the “talk” pages association with the main Armenian Genocide wiki page. Historical events such as this one are very much still debated, and have real world political implications. It’s no surprise that a crowd supported platform such as Wikipedia would be riven with debate.

When it comes to crowdsourcing and transcription,  I am of two minds. I am glad that sites such Zooniverse and programs such as RRCHNM’s Papers of the War Department exist. They exist for a reason. Among them being the unreliability optical character recognition (OCR) and the expense of professional transcription. Granted, the model has flaws, but one can argue that without them much of this transcription work would not be done. In this case, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

As for the ethics of it I see no problem so long as the contributions are made voluntarily. That being said I am uneasy with the idea of students being assigned this kind of work, even if it does hold educational value for them. Mainly because, a) their cooperation would be forced and b) unattributed. Particularly good course assignments can turn into published essays, well trafficked blog posts and other attributable work. Building up a C.V. and/or resume is incredibly important for a student or new scholar. The ideal contributor to the aforementioned (in my mind) would be someone who is mid-career or later who has something of an established body of work. Such a person could afford to dedicate his or her time to a crowdsourced project and would likely personally benefit from it if the material was analogous to their own research or personal interests.


Oct 29th Class and Reading Reflection

Reading Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross’ Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom I sensed a tension between the authors’ assertion that accessibility should be a teaching goal and implicit assumption that the value digital humanities lies in its complexity. I cannot help but wonder if the desire to make digital material universal will undermine the cutting edge which makes it unique. The authors admit that the ethos behind Universal Design has been assailed by some as “utopian” but I found the phrase to be more misnomer than misguided.

The authors claimed that it is comprised of the desire to ensure accessibility (especially to those with visual impairments), privacy and safety and flexibility. I found the first and third initiatives easy enough to embrace. Individuals with visual and audial impairments should not be left behind and reasonable accommodations should be made to include them in the learning process.
However, with regard to the issues of privacy and safety I am less receptive. To play devil’s advocate I think that their warnings against stressful content are far too broad. Putting aside direct harassment the authors warn that students may become exposed to hateful content by “simply reading public websites.” What defines hateful content? Even at its most extreme should such content be ignored because it makes one uncomfortable? Furthermore, on the topic of the more distasteful phenomena of online harassment the authors suggest that prospective teachers add statements “about equal opportunity, safe spaces, inclusion” and “Title IX compliance” to the course syllabus. How does adding said statements to a syllabus harden students to the burden of online harassment? I would argue that it doesn’t, and such a bureaucratic solution does not assuage the issue. Perhaps it would be better to inform students the online world does not necessarily reflect reality and that they have the power to ignore, block…or even engage with the initiators of online harassment. I would argue that it is an immensely more productive strategy to inure individual students against such content and behavior rather than to avoid it or seek out a third-party solution. The world can be an unsafe place, it is more productive to prepare young people for that reality than attempt to ignore it.

On the issues of grading and the determination of “success” raised by Battershill and Ross I am as of yet undecided. I understand the ethos of “process over product” particularly given the unstable nature of many free DH tools and the steep learning curve associated with them. Reading chapter eight I was left wondering if computer technical training and related courses would have something to offer DH in the realm of grading and evaluation

Lastly, I wonder is the issue of student competence really unfounded. I should caveat that by stating that I am not now nor have I ever been a teacher. But even so is it not true that generations born after the digital revolution in early to mid-90s are steeped in a technological tradition unlike earlier cohorts? Granted there are many who due to socio-economic reasons have been spared such and upbringing but they are the exceptions which prove the rule.

Oct 23rd Class and Readings Reflection

While I found this week’s readings and class discussion valuable and thought provoking, this week’s blog response is dedicated to “Problems with White Feminism” by Jacqueline Wernimont and Elizabeth Losh. I found within their article themes and ideas which are thoroughly illiberal and therefore in my opinion dangerously regressive.

The article encourages uplifting marginalized peoples but it also calls for a form of punitive diversity. I agree that the “uneven distribution of innovation” has left many non-white and other marginalized communities behind the technological power curve and therefore unable to benefit from advances in DH. This is a well-founded and reasoned argument; inequality hurts the potential of individuals and is therefore a detriment to society.

However, the authors cling to a number of illiberal critiques. Chief among them is the example that the editorial staff of Provoke! Digital Sound Studies is entirely white.  The authors do not address whether there was any evidence of discriminatory hiring practices on the project or whether the racial characteristics of the editorial staff contribute to substandard scholarship. They do not address how they know for certain that all staff members are exclusively white. In order to make such assertions the authors reinforce the very racial assumptions that progress has striven to minimize.  Equating immutable characteristics with “a problem” was the ideological backbone of some of history’s greatest horrors; it should not be resurrected now in the name of “progress.” Implicit in these statements is a form of zero-sum thinking: benefits to group X must come at the expense of group Y. Such thinking is destructive because it incentives punitive actions rather than cooperative ones and collectivism rather than individualism.

I reject the notion that all knowledge is born in subjectivity. The authors quote scholar Padmini Ray Murray as saying “my DH is not your DH” and added that the knowledge created by DH is “not universal.” This idea is, in my opinion, little more than a mirror image of the racist notions of yesteryear. Eliminating belief in universality can erase the incentive to rectify one’s lived experiences and biases. There may be a multitude of interpretations of the world, but not every interpretation is a valid one. Abandoning the universality of knowledge is to abandon one of the central tenants of liberalism. The authors attempt to moderate this idea by stating that DH practitioners ought to “build bridges across differences.” Why should one build bridges when all knowledge is contingent and situated within one’s own experience and internal characteristics? I think that humans should strive for a world in which one’s immutable characteristics are at worst incidental to their accomplishments.

Furthermore, the authors’ racialized thinking blinds them to the universal issues at play, particularly when it comes to privacy and concentrated corporate power. Wernimont and Losh assert that “feminists of color” view corporate use of personal data differently due to their lived experiences and historical instances of oppression, particularly when it comes to housing and incarceration. This view racializes the issue and excludes individuals outside of the authors’ intersectional matrix. Commentators from the left and the right are concerned about this issue and are indeed coming together. Whistleblowers have come in many shades…some white and others not. Why am I harping on this? Because taking an intersectional view of this issue has the potential to blind us to facets of the problem. This issue ought to be viewed as one about liberty v. coercion. To view it otherwise is divisive and therefore undermines the impetus to address it.

Oct 15th Class and Readings Reflection

I must admit at first blush I was not too excited about this week’s reading. I am not one who is usually concerned with aesthetics. That being said, my opinions changed quickly after our class discussion. I suppose that my first reaction to the subject existed because we largely live in a world where design is taken for granted. Legions of professionals are employed in many industries to ensure that design is seamless and therefore unassuming. After Monday’s discussion I will payer closer attention to designing my products to a broader aesthetic standard. It can become easier to assume that one’s tastes are “the norm.”  

There was a disconnect between the readings which I have yet to reconcile. In the Kolko piece “Design Thinking Comes of Age” he asserts that design, for those that understand its value “discuss the emotional resonance of a value proposition as much as they discuss utility and product requirements.” As evidence for this claim he cites the appeal to emotion present in advertising, particularly when it comes to luxury automobiles. Kolko goes on to assert that business leaders need to “create a culture that allows people to take chances and move forward without a complete, logical understanding of a problem.” Hoyt’s antirational position is a curious one in this hyperrational age in which everything can be measured, quantified and analyzed…including elements of design. I am having a difficult time reconciling Kolko with the content of our class discussion. The latter seemed to me at least to approach the topic of design from the opposite perspective. While phenomena of pre-attentive processing may be a subconscious one, recognizing its existence and incorporating into design is decidedly rationalist perspective.     

Similarly, in my view the Hoyt article “Visualizing and Analyzing the Hollywood Screenplay with ScripThreads” describes how Hollywood scripts can be rationally analyzed. I saw Hoyt as using design to suppress our emotion urges to accept the primary narrative that we see in film. In this same vein I saw a connection between Hoyt’s piece and “Protestant Letter Networks in the Reign of Mary I: A Quantitative Approach” we read for the network and ontologies portion of the course. Both methodologies can and are used to determine the unseen value in individuals who escape the fore.  

On the topic of color blindness, I had a colleague, a GIS professional who was color blind. Unfortunately, his condition often meant that his products were confusing to coworkers and customers because he perceived colors differently. Geospatial products are heavily dependent on color to depict information. When either the producer or consumer has a degree of colorblindness, conveying the information can be difficult, if not impossible. When it comes to perceptions of design I can attest to the frictions which arise when there is not a set of design standards within an organization. Front sizes and types, color schemes and iconography can all become hills to die on when an organization either lacks or fails to enforce a design standard. These frictions can hurt office morale, erode inefficiency and distract from the core mission.   

Oct 9th Readings and Class Reflection

My thoughts on this week’s content are mixed. I’ll admit that I found Eric Eve’s article “All Hope Abandon: Biblical Text and Interactive Fiction” a difficult slog.

I am left with one lingering question with regard to digital story telling and digital games, is the juice worth the squeeze? I am curious if the effort educational payoff is worth more than the effort that they cost to produce. The other methodologies we’ve examined thus far have produced findings and content not available through other means. For instance, I found the “Pox and the City” a charming game but I was left wondering if the value of such a game isn’t already met by historic fiction, period dramas and the like?

I understand that this is an abstract question and one which cannot really be answered but nevertheless its one which remains in my head.

I also wonder that with digital storytelling are historians and other humanists getting too far from their core mission? Effective storytelling requires a degree of embellishment, the compression of time, creation of composite characters and so forth. Would these techniques not undermine core academic tenants like adherence to facts? Furthermore, nonlinear story telling affords the player a degree of free will which historical subjects don’t have…they cannot remake their choices.To play devil advocate I can see value in such games with social and cultural histories which are not by necessity tethered to individual actors, their decisions and their environments.

On the other hand, I am an avid podcast listener (some of which stray in the realm of history like the Jocko Podcast). I have found them an indispensable way to make use of “found time.” They are a modern rendition of the storytelling culture which predated the ubiquity of the printed word but come with a portability which is unmatched. Podcasts make mindless house chores, working out, and commuting not only bearable but productive. Admittedly, I don’t listen to any which are explicitly about history but I am intrigued by the possibilities that they hold for popular history.

Tragically, reading is not a pastime with everyone, but podcasts are immensely approachable. For those who (like me, have a stupidly long commute) history podcasts serve as a means of make these daily drudges productive. I worked briefly for a defense contractor on a GIS project. It was mindless labor, the intellectual equivalent of turning big rocks into little rocks. So, for eight hours day while I worked I crushed podcasts. As result learned a tremendous amount of philosophy, political science, current events and the like. Such an economical use of time was unthinkable only ten years ago.

Oct 1st Class and Readings Reflection

I found Monday’s class discussion on copyrights and academic publishing thorough and thought-provoking. Having published I can attest to the frustration of working with an academic publisher and can vouch for the feeling the helplessness which comes with surrendering one’s right to his or her own brainchild. Then again if you are a fledging academic and you need to beef up an admission’s packet or CV, what choice do you really have? I suppose one could self-publish but that carries with it the very real possibility of not being taken seriously by an admissions committee. In my own case I needed to get some peer reviewed work on the books to beef up my PhD admissions packet. As Dr. Otis said during the discussion, I needed them more than they needed me. Surrendering the rights to my own work was a simple calculation of short term gaining outweighing other considerations.

On the issue of academic publishing more broadly I am not sure where I stand. I am sympathetic to the argument that academic publishers are making an obscene amount for money. Their profits may not be seen as excessive if they produced a greater degree of value than the money that they rake in. As we discussed however, that isn’t the case since academic publishers farm out all the real labor to academics who are motivated by the desire to improve their CVs. I’d argue that such successes are an artifact of the closed, corporatist system in which they inhabit. What competition pressures do companies like Elsevier face to lower prices? I would think none. And, since their customers (colleges and universities) have little choice but to maintain their subscriptions the academic publisher don’t face much customer pressure either.

I must admit, I am not yet sold on the open access model. How would such a system maintain itself? I suppose that the most logical answer would be indirectly through teacher and staff salaries provided via taxation. But, what is to stop the similar forces of cartelization from driving up costs and creating another profit bubble? One can make a solid argument that the “free” model of the information age has been a net negative. 

If you all will allow me, I would like to engage in a moment of DH heresy. Perhaps a solution lies with more monetization, not less. Could “alternative” academic publishers widen their customer base by appealing to the nonacademic reader and therefore increase revenue and create competition? It seems silly to me that I can buy a book from a prominent historian for ten bucks on Amazon but if I wanted to buy an article by that same person (without having academic credentials) it’ll cost me over 50 bucks, at least. How did the publishing of books and articles wind up in such diametrically opposed economic conditions? I would argue that the former exists within a (largely) open economic system and the latter clearly does not. Why can’t academic articles be marketed to the general public? A market monetization of academic journals would mean that the various laborers in the process (authors, editors, peer reviewers) would be compensated, which in turn would motivate academics to contribute. Competition could in turn motivate publishers to sacrifice some of their prices to drive down costs.