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Final rendering of 3D model of Bethel Seminary.
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Creating Dynamic Undergraduate Learning Laboratories through Collaboration Between Archives, Libraries, and Digital Humanities

Abstract

In an environment of rapid change in higher education in which institutions strive to lure prospective students with unique curricula, there is a growing need to provide innovative pedagogical experiences for students through collaborations among archives, libraries, and digital humanities. Three colleagues at a small Liberal Arts university—a digital librarian, a historian-archivist, and a historian-digital humanist—planned an integrated set of assignments and projects in an “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course that introduced students to archival management and digitization of archival material. This article demonstrates how we developed this signature course and curriculum on a limited budget in the context of a liberal arts university, and illuminate how it capitalized on relationships forged among the archives, the library, the history department and the digital humanities program. We first describe our collaborative workflow, and how we involve undergraduate student-workers in these efforts. Next, we provide a detailed lesson plan for an Introduction to Digital Humanities course that integrates traditional archival materials, in this case photographs and blueprints of campus structures, into a digital archive. Finally, we share how our students converted these photographs and blueprints into digital 3D models via Sketchup, a powerful architectural modeling software.

Introduction

In an environment of rapid change in higher education in which institutions strive to lure prospective students with unique curricula, there is an increasing need to provide innovative pedagogical experiences for students through collaborations among libraries, archives, and digital humanities. There is also a growing body of literature—on research support for scholarship, curriculum development, collaborative publishing, and on shared values across these organizations and disciplines—about how historians, librarians, archivists, and digital humanists can forge mutually supportive relationships (Locke 2017; Middleton and York 2014; Rutner and Schonfeld 2012; Svensson 2010, para. 39; Vandgrift and Varner 2013). Kent Gerber (Digital Library Manager) Diana Magnuson, (archivist at the History Center and historian), and Charlie Goldberg (Digital Humanities coordinator and historian), are colleagues who set out to do just that at Bethel University, a small Christian Liberal Arts university in St. Paul, Minnesota. Applying insights from these literatures to the ever-evolving landscape of humanities teaching in higher education, the three planned an integrated set of assignments and projects that spanned a new “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course. “Introduction to Digital Humanities” was the first course in the new Digital Humanities major, and was designed to: engage and motivate students early in the curriculum with “hands-on, experiential, and project-based learning … where students think critically with digital methods” (Burdick et al. 2012, 134); “develop a broader set of skills … essential to students’ success in their future careers” (Karukstis and Elgren 2007, 3); and give students meaningful experiences and agency as a form of “professional scholarship” rather than placing them in a position of fulfilling “menial labor in a large-scale project” (Murphy and Smith 2017, para. 8). Our thinking about the design of this course was influenced by the pedagogical theory of Brett D. Hirsch, Paolo Freire, and Claire Bishop (Murphy and Smith 2017). Collaborative teaching always poses special challenges, but we anticipated that our diverse backgrounds and training would result in a rewarding and distinctive experience for our students.

This article will explain how we developed this signature course and curriculum in the context of a liberal arts university, and illuminate how it capitalized on relationships forged among the archives, the library, the history department and the digital humanities program. Built on the foundation of the material holdings of the History Center (Magnuson), the Digital Library (Gerber) was able to grow connections and extend the reach of these materials through an infrastructure of digital skills and collections. This combination provided a robust environment for the campus community to seek and eventually establish a Digital Humanities program, including a new major and a new faculty member (Goldberg) to develop and coordinate the program. The curriculum developed along the lines of Cordell’s four principles of how to incorporate digital humanities into the classroom, including starting small, integrating when possible, scaffolding everything, and thinking locally (2016). These relationships and principles enabled the development of a course, “Introduction to Digital Humanities,” which engages the archives, the digital library, and digital humanities domains in a mutually supportive and emergent cycle of learning and research.

Opportunities for undergraduate digital humanities scholarship and pedagogy are burgeoning, particularly at more prestigious liberal arts institutions. Occidental College in California, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, and Hamilton College in New York all maintain well-funded centers for either Digital Liberal Arts or Digital Humanities focused on undergraduate students. There are also several noteworthy inter-institutional collaborations among liberal arts schools—COPLACDigital (comprised of more than twelve schools), the Five Colleges of Ohio (Oberlin College, Denison University, Kenyon College, Ohio Wesleyan University, and the College of Wooster), the Five Colleges Consortium in New England (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst) and St. Olaf, Macalester, and Carleton Colleges in Minnesota have all received collaborative grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

At schools (like our own) that lack these resources, it can sometimes feel like the unique pedagogical opportunities afforded by this support are beyond the reach of faculty and staff. Our aim here is to describe our collaborative experiences and provide other scholars with a model of how the archive can intersect with digitization efforts and undergraduate pedagogy at smaller institutions of higher education. Together, these assignments and projects produced learning outcomes related to concepts in the humanities, archival research methods, digital competencies, information literacy, and digital humanities tools and software (Association of College and Research Libraries 2016; Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

History Center

The History Center, the archives at Bethel University, contains the institutional records of the university and its founding church denomination, known as Converge (formerly the Baptist General Conference). The History Center provides stewardship of manuscript and digital materials, collects historically relevant materials, curates three-dimensional objects, offers access to special collections, assists researchers, documents the story of its institutions and supports the mission of Bethel University and Converge. The types of collections housed at the History Center include but are not limited to: institutional records of Bethel University (college and seminary); Baptist General Conference (and all its iterations) minutes and annual reports; conference and university publications; church and district records (from both active and closed churches); home and foreign mission records; Swedish Bibles and hymnals; bibliographic records on conference pastors and lay persons; photographs and other media.

The director of archives at Bethel University (Magnuson) is a part-time position created in 1998 and held by a full time faculty member in the history department. This dual appointment provides unique positioning for the faculty member to provide a bridge for students between academic and public history. Students in her classes work with a variety of primary source materials, regardless of the level of the history course. Through the faculty member’s engagement with students in the classroom, Magnuson identifies students with proclivity for detail, curiosity about archival work, and willingness to explore a variety of primary source material. Sometimes, just by working with primary sources, or hearing a description of archival work or records management, a student reacts enthusiastically to the physical and intellectual encounter: “This is so cool, where can I have more of this kind of experience?” Over and over again, the experience of encountering a primary source in its original form is at once awe inspiring and profoundly transformative for the student. It is one thing to read about one of the first professing Baptist believers in nineteenth century Sweden and the impact this life had on Swedish Baptists in America, but it is quite another kind of experience to encounter in person the artifact of his diary (Olson 1952).

Two or three students each year are invited to work with the director of archives as student archive assistants. Students with a major or minor in history are given preference in the application process. Once hired, over the course of an academic year, students are exposed to and trained in: initial stages of archival control; digital inventory projects; arrangement and description; digital metadata entry; and patron assistance. For example, our students have contributed to developing collections focusing on photographs, film, artifacts, institutional records such as catalogs, yearbooks, and student publications.

In 2009 Bethel University hired someone for the newly created position of Digital Library Manager (Gerber). Since then, both the History Center and the Digital Library have transformed into dynamic learning laboratories for our undergraduate students to experience first-hand the tools of the professions of history and digital librarianship. The now nearly decade-long partnership between the History Center and the Digital Library is characterized by lively and productive collaboration on a number of fronts. For example, students hired by the history department are trained and work with both the Director of Archives and the Digital Library Manager. Major equipment that benefits both the History Center and the Digital Library has been purchased through mutual consultation and contribution of funding, such as an overhead book scanner and 3D scanner. Monthly meetings identify and move forward projects, workflow, grant applications, institutional initiatives, web presence, and troubleshooting as the need arises. At the behest of the Director of Archives and the Digital Library Manager, two foundational committees were formed to anchor our institutional conversations about our cultural heritage: the Cultural Heritage Committee and the Digital Library Advisory Committee, respectively. These committees support the History Center and the Digital Library through institution-wide input, drawing committee members from faculty, staff, and administration. In tandem we are significantly growing the breadth, depth, and reach of our collections, not only to our Bethel community, but to the world.

The Digital Library as Infrastructure and Bridge between the Archive and the Classroom

Of the Bethel Digital Library’s twenty-six collections spanning five major themes—Bethel History, Art and Creative Works, Faculty and Student Scholarship, Natural History, and the Student Experience—the majority of the content comes from the cultural heritage materials held in the History Center. Digitization of these unique materials broadens their availability to the community for teaching and research while simultaneously preserving the originals from wear because they do not need to be handled as frequently. Regular conversation between the Digital Library Manager and the Director of the Archives developed the library and archive as an infrastructure of values, practices, and workflows enabling a deeper understanding of Bethel’s cultural holdings and a broader reach of those materials to the Bethel community and beyond (Gerber 2017; Mattern 2014). In one of his series of four seminal articles on digital humanities, Director of the HUMLab in Umea University, Patrick Svensson discusses how the research-oriented infrastructure of technology, relationships, and practices, called “cyberinfrastructure” can be built specifically for humanities teaching and research (2011). Magnuson and Gerber’s collaboration developed a cyberinfrastructure at Bethel with the scanners, software, networked computing, meetings, digital collections, and committees mentioned above. The shape and scale of these resources influences a broad range of digital humanities literacies and competencies, as Murphy and Smith point out in their introduction to the special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly focused on undergraduate education (2017, para. 7).

Bringing student workers into this cyberinfrastructure of the Digital Library and History Center also continued this cooperation and cross-pollination of knowledge and skills, and introduced them to information literacy skills and digital competencies. The first set of concepts these students learn are aspects of the Association of College and Research Libraries Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. Information literacy is “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” Knowledge of these skills has particular potency due to the influence of Mackey and Jacobson’s (2014) concept of “metaliteracy,” which expanded on information-literacy abilities with respect to the networked digital environment, rapidly changing media, increased consumption and production of media, and critical reflection upon one’s self and the information environment (ACRL 2015, para. 5). The Framework consists of six frames, or core concepts, of information literacy, which are marked by certain knowledge practices and dispositions when a learner moves through a threshold of awareness from novice to expert. The six frames are, in alphabetical order: 1) Authority is Constructed and Contextual; 2) Information Creation as a Process; 3) Information Has Value; 4) Research as Inquiry; 5) Scholarship as Conversation; 6) Searching as Strategic Exploration.

Digital competencies, as developed at Bryn Mawr College, are a useful complement to information literacy, spanning media and disciplines, specifically focused on the digital environment, and developed within the context of a small, liberal arts college. This model of skills is organized into five focus areas and can be used as learning objectives or as descriptions of skills one already has. The five focus areas are: 1) Digital Survival Skills; 2) Digital Communication; 3) Data Management and Preservation; 4) Data Analysis and Presentation; and 5) Critical Making, Design, and Development (Bryn Mawr, n.d.).

Informed by their work in the archives with historical materials, student workers in the archive and the Digital Library are exposed to and develop skills and competencies related to the above ACRL information literacy frames and the Bryn Mawr digital competencies. They accomplish this through learning the processes of digitization, learning how to use scanning equipment and image manipulation software, writing descriptive metadata, and encoding finding aids in a version of XML called Encoded Archival Description (EAD) for public display. Going through these processes introduced students to information literacy frames of “Information Creation as a Process” and “Information has Value” as well as digital competencies like “Digital Survival Skills,” “Data Management and Preservation,” and “Data Analysis and Presentation” (Association of College and Research Libraries 2016; Bryn Mawr, n.d.). As students begin work with the Digital Library, they begin to realize the limit of their own skills and abilities with technology and recognize how they can grow their awareness and competencies with “Digital Survival Skills,” particularly in the subcategory of “metacognition and lifelong learning.” The competency of “Data Management and Preservation” included learning more sophisticated hardware like flatbed scanners and the software environment of spreadsheets. The flatbed scanner process involved scanning at a high enough resolution for the resulting image to represent the original in print or digital formats as well as enable the ability to zoom in for very close examination afforded by a digital format. Some students had not used spreadsheets before and learned how to navigate a spreadsheet and use them to organize different categories of data and store multiple records of items. Students were introduced to the domain of “Digital Analysis and Presentation” through classification methodologies and learned how to navigate a digital archive to research a topic of interest. The skills students learned from these experiences motivated them to learn more and prepared them for further study in graduate school or employment in the cultural heritage sector. This built a culture of trust, common understanding, and shared competencies between both units and set a foundation for further integration of Bethel’s cultural heritage in the classroom and the establishment of the Digital Humanities major (Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

While these competencies and literacies were building in student workers, it was necessary to integrate the learning of these concepts more broadly into the general curriculum so that more students could benefit. Some classroom opportunities emerged as a result of the digitization activities in various classes and disciplines. Students researched historical events and trends through their increased access to documents within a collection like the historical student newspaper collection for their journalism projects, engaging the frames of “Research as Inquiry” and “Searching as Strategic Exploration.” Students in a computer science course on data mining were also able to use the corpus of metadata from collections like the student newspaper, college catalogs, and faculty research as an object of study in their projects to identify trends in course offerings, changes in campus space, changes in school mascots through the years, and profiles of particular individuals in Bethel’s history. These assignments and experiences also built some familiarity with ways to engage archival material in classes other than a history class. Some of these students were excited to make these discoveries and had a heightened interest in the history of the institution, but their ability to pursue it in any depth was limited by the length of one single assignment.

In 2017, two developments in Bethel’s cyberinfrastructure improved the scope and scale for student learning anchored in these concepts: the launch of Bethel’s Makerspace in the Library and the creation of a Digital Humanities major. Bethel’s Makerspace is the result of a purposeful design discussion consisting of a cross-disciplinary group of faculty, staff, and administrators. This discussion resulted in a technology-infused space in the Library to explore innovative, creative technologies and encourage collaboration and experiential classroom experiences through the use of 3D scanners, 3D modeling and media production software, photo studio equipment, movable furniture, 3D printers, and meeting space for groups and classes. With the Digital Humanities program in place beginning in 2017, a new opportunity emerged for students to use the Makerspace as a lab to learn information-literacy concepts and digital competencies as demonstrated by other programs (Locke 2017, para. 8–49; White 2017, 399–402), and to engage more fully in the physical archive and the digital collections.

The Archive in Digital Humanities Pedagogy

Powerful technology has never been more accessible to educators, even, as we describe above, to educators at smaller schools like our own. Yet there remains the assumption that the digital humanities are best left to R1 institutions with deep pockets and deep rosters of instructors and support staff (Alexander and Frost Davis 2012; Battershill and Ross 2017, 13–24). However, there is a growing conversation and community of practice for undergraduate and liberal-arts–oriented digital humanities education, like the Liberal Arts Colleges section of the Digital Library Federation, that seeks ways for smaller institutions to thrive (Buurma and Levine 2016; Christian-Lamb and Shrout 2017; Locke 2017, para. 7). Bethel has been able to do this through incremental financial investments in technology and intentional partnerships like the efforts of the History Center and Digital Library mentioned above. In 2016–2017, Bethel designed and launched a new undergraduate Digital Humanities major informed by concepts from digital humanities pedagogy that capitalized on the existing technical and relational investments that can be available to faculty at most institutions with limited means (Brier 2012; Cordell 2016; Wosh, Moran, and Katz 2012).

We have benefited greatly by our archival holdings in the History Center. A particular challenge to incorporating digital humanities in the classroom is avoiding the technological black hole, whereby the technology used to make something becomes the focus of the thing itself, demanding the attention of both instructor and student at the expense of the humanistic subject. The archive, as an essential repository of humanistic data, can help anchor the traditional humanities at the center of digital humanities pedagogy. Here, we share an example of a lesson plan that aims to do just this—to craft an undergraduate archival project that is at once technologically sophisticated yet true to traditional humanistic values—all without the use of expensive equipment.

This project was inspired by a research trip Goldberg made to Rome as a graduate student at Syracuse University. On a day off from research, he visited Cinecittà, a large film studio just outside the city that housed the set for the 2005 HBO series Rome. The studio still maintains the set, featuring a scale replica of the ancient Roman forum, and allows visitors to traipse the grounds as part of a tour. As a Roman historian, standing in a replica of the forum was a powerful experience for Goldberg, and delivered a new sense of historical place and space that examining traditional scholarly materials—maps, plans, and written descriptions—couldn’t match.

When Goldberg arrived at Bethel in the Fall of 2016 and began designing the Digital Humanities curriculum, he looked for ways to emulate his experience abroad. Digital 3D modeling, including virtual reality applications, can provide such an immersive experience for the viewer, and holds a special value for bringing archival materials to life (Goode 2017). Working in tandem with Magnuson and Gerber, it became apparent that the History Center archive contained a treasure trove of materials pertaining to the university’s spatial past: photographs of historical groundbreaking ceremonies, architectural blueprints, and design sketches. Particularly alluring were plans and renderings for campus expansions that never panned out; such materials suggested alternative campus realities that would have fundamentally altered the contexts of how students, faculty, and staff interact with one another on a daily basis.

During a summer meeting in the History Center, we began to design a six-week lesson plan for Goldberg’s semester-long Introduction to Digital Humanities course. Our primary pedagogical goals were twofold: 1) to introduce students to archival digitization practices, culminating with the creation of digital records for traditional archival materials; and 2) to create immersive, experiential worlds based on the History Center’s architectural records. We determined that Trimble’s Sketchup, a 3D modeling program used by architects, interior designers, and engineers, was the best software tool for goal #2. Even more, Trimble provides 30-day trial versions of its Pro software for educators and students, long enough to cover the three weeks dedicated to 3D modeling in this assignment. They also now offer Sketchup for Web, an entirely online, cloud-based version of the software, which eliminates the need to install the software on campus or student computers, though it does lack certain key features of the Pro version.

For this assignment, students chose a building, actually built or only existing in design plans, from the campus’s present or past. They chose two photographs or other visual records of it from the History Center (such as blueprints or design illustrations), and were tasked with incorporating these as entries into the Digital Library. This aspect of the assignment was structured over three weeks, and gave students an introduction to many of the professional archival practices and digitization fundamentals described above, providing a hands-on “experiential” learning opportunity that immersed them in the fabric of our institutional history. Finally, students were to create 3D digital models of their structure using Sketchup. This final step also took three weeks.

As Digital Library manager, Gerber took the lead in the first half of the assignment. Because most students were freshmen, we assumed no previous exposure to the archival setting. We therefore took a field trip to the History Center, where Magnuson gave an overview of her work there and introduced students to basic archival practices. We then reassembled as a class to learn some basic digital competencies like how medium impacts the experience and the meaning of an archival item by comparing and contrasting physical and digital versions of the same object. Once introduced to this framework, the class focused on how any object, be it a photograph, document, or physical object, possesses a range of features unique to it and how to attach a description of it to a digital file in order to be intelligible and findable by both humans and computers. To use a nonarchival example, an action figure is made of a certain material (e.g., “plastic”), is a certain size (e.g. “8 inches tall”), made by a certain company (e.g., “Mattel”), in a certain year. This basic principle is a crucial aspect of proper digital asset management, and allowed us to introduce the concept of “metadata,” or information about an object that describes its characteristics. We stressed the importance of metadata in the archival setting and introduced our students to the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, an international organization dedicated to maintaining a standard and best practices for describing and managing any kind of information artifact including archival material. At its heart, Dublin Core consists of fifteen common elements necessary to describe the metadata of any archival object (e.g., “Title,” “Creator,” “Subject,” “Description,” etc.). We then looked at how items catalogued in the Digital Library store this metadata and apply local standards, like the Bethel Digital Library Metadata Entry Guidelines, adapted from the Minnesota Digital Library Metadata Entry Guidelines, to determine what kind of information is needed in each element. We focused particularly on the purpose of the Title and Description elements in the Historical Photographs Collection and analyzed the quality of the entries based on how well they provided context and facilitated discovery of the item by a potential researcher. For example, the Title element for the image of Esther Sabel, a prominent woman in Bethel’s history, was used to demonstrate levels of quality seen in Table 1: Poor – “Woman,” Good – “Portrait of Esther Sabel,” Better – “Portrait of Esther Sabel, Head of Bible and Missionary Training School.” Finally, based on this scaffolding, students were given the assignment of analyzing two images in the Historical Photographs Collection with insufficient or erroneous metadata, and improving the records in this Metadata Improvement Worksheet using a shared Google Spreadsheet.

Poor Descriptive Titles Good Descriptive Titles Better Descriptive Titles
These titles lack specificity and do NOT assist users in finding materials. These are examples of basic descriptive titles. These titles provide users with more specific information and relay exactly what is in the image.
Woman Portrait of Esther Sabel Portrait of Esther Sabel, Head of Bible and Missionary Training School
Crowd of People Group of students sitting on grass Group of seven students outside signing yearbooks
Table 1. Excerpt from Bethel Digital Library Metadata Entry Guidelines.

In the second week, we gathered several folders of photographs, blueprints, and architectural renderings awaiting catalogue entry in the History Center, and had our students spend some time perusing their contents. Since the assignment was quite long at six weeks and culminated in a large finished digital work that some students found intimidating, we found that students greatly appreciated this unstructured exploration, or “tinkering” (Sayers 2011) time. These photographs provided intimate glimpses into the university’s past and unrealized future(s), and motivated our students to find out more about the students who came before them. Students then selected two images for entry into the Digital Library, and received their second assignment: tracking down the necessary metadata. Their submissions would become a publicly-available part of the Historical Photograph Collection, adding a “real-world” application incentive to this assignment. Some images were easier to provide metadata for than in others, with dates or a list of subjects written on the back. Photographs of ground-breaking ceremonies could be dated by looking up construction dates for buildings on campus. Others required reasoned speculation. Dates for difficult photographs could be estimated by the style of clothing of the people photographed, for example.

In the third week, students wrote a two- to three-page blog post synthesizing Digital Library records into a narrative of a past campus event. Some students chose to write on their dorms or the campus building they had previously studied, while others wrote on a key historical event, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s scheduled visit to campus in the 1960s. This aspect, since it required close reading of a text or texts, was the component of the assignment most aligned with the traditional humanities, and helped alleviate some anxiety in the instructors that this digital-centered project might stray from core humanities values.

In the second half of the assignment, students created three-dimensional digital models of their campus building using Trimble’s Sketchup. Sketchup is a popular software tool with an active and enthusiastic online support community. Having access to a wide range of tutorial walkthroughs and videos greatly reduced the learning curve for acclimating both instructor and student to the software. There are also several guides and tutorials written specifically for those in the digital humanities community, which provide helpful tips for applying it to the humanities classroom. In particular, Goldberg benefited from the step-by-step guide for creating 3D models from historical photographs written by Hannah Jacobs at Duke University’s Wired! Lab, as well as Kaelin Jewell’s use of Sketchup to bring medieval building plans to life (Jewell 2017). We have made Goldberg’s intro and advanced tutorials available online. The fourth week was devoted to installing Sketchup on student computers and learning the basics. Students with experience playing video games tended to get up to speed faster than others, as the software’s simulated three-dimensional environment can be disorienting at first. Students, and instructors, should be encouraged to simply search Google if there is a particular process they are struggling with, since there are many helpful tutorials on YouTube.

After we learned the basic functionality, we began to translate our photographs into architectural models in Sketchup. The program allows the user to upload an image and transform the two-dimensions represented within it into three dimensions of digital space. It does this by insinuating axis lines on the image, and “pushing” the façade of the building back into a third dimension, as demonstrated in these two photos:

Figure 1. Screenshot of a building in Sketchup showing how 2D images are projected into 3D space.
 
Figure 2. Screenshot of a building in Sketchup showing early stages of 3D modeling from a 2D photo of a building.
 

Because this process involves transforming a two-dimensional image into three-dimensional space, it is imperative to start with the right kind of image. The one used above demonstrates the proper perspective; essentially, the image must contain a vanishing point. Head-on images do not allow the user to determine how deep the actual physical building is and are therefore not usable in this process.

Next, the user can begin to add features to their model, referring back to the two-dimensional image as necessary. In our class, we allowed students two additional weeks to complete this process. We found this to be necessary since none of our students were previously familiar with Sketchup. This time therefore allowed them to troubleshoot errors as they came up. Class time was dedicated to working on our models together. Students and instructors collaborated with one another and shared strategies and tips. Finally, the completed models were rendered with V-Ray, a plugin for Sketchup which places the models in simulated environments, adding convincing lighting and other scenery effects.

Many projects succeeded. Graham McGrew, for example, started with an unbuilt plan from the 1960s for an A-frame building to house the university’s seminary chapel, as shown in this final rendered image:

Figure 3. Final rendering of un-built “A”-frame chapel made by Graham McGrew.
 

Another student, Bobbie Jo Chapkin, chose to model the existing Seminary building, as shown in this final rendered image:

Figure 4. Final rendering of 3D model of Bethel Seminary.
 

There are clear challenges to incorporating archival practices into digital humanities pedagogy. Regarding our lesson here, students lacking familiarity with video games or other three-dimensional computing tools may find orienting themselves to Sketchup challenging. And, as with any large project, the quality of the final products will depend entirely on the effort and energy students put in. Still, this project successfully combined a focus on the humanistic value of the archive with a modern software application to create a sophisticated experience that recreated an episode from our past campus.

Expanding from this specific project to consider the collaborative efforts described here generally, the intersection between three diverse academic disciplines might be thought to be a difficult place for three busy researchers and teachers to land upon. However, we feel that the best strategy for effecting meaningful interdisciplinary pedagogy in the archive and the humanities is to encourage organic opportunities to develop at their own pace, and to scaffold larger projects such as this one upon the foundations already laid. Our efforts were long in the making—Bethel’s archivist position was created in 1998, its digital librarian position in 2009, and its Digital Humanities position in 2016. Rome, even as a modern HBO set, wasn’t built in a day. Though incorporating the traditional archive into digital undergraduate pedagogy is a relatively recent effort, it still rests primarily on tried-and-true humanities principles like thoughtful reading, analysis, and attention to detail.

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Svensson, Patrik. 2010. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 4 (1). http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/4/1/000080/000080.html

Svensson, Patrik. 2011. “From Optical Fiber to Conceptual Cyberinfrastructure.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5 (1). http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/5/1/000090/000090.html.

Vandegrift, Micah and Stewart Varner. 2013. “Evolving in Common: Creating Mutually Supportive Relationships between Libraries and the Digital Humanities.” Journal of Library Administration 53 (1): 67–78.

White, Krista. 2017. “Visualizing Oral Histories: A Lab Model using Multimedia DH to Incorporate ACRL Framework Standards into Liberal Arts Education.” College & Undergraduate Libraries 24 (2-4): 393–417.
https://doi.org/10.1080/10691316.2017.1325722.

Wosh, Peter J., Cathy Moran Hajo, and Esther Katz. 2012. “Teaching Digital Skills in an Archives and Public History Curriculum.” In Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics, edited by Brett D. Hirsch. 79–96. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. http://books.openedition.org/obp/1620.

Appendix – Technology Tools

Spreadsheets (Google Sheets, Excel)
CONTENTdm
Epson Expression XL 10000 Flatbed Scanner
Sketchup
V-Ray plugin for Sketchup

About the Authors

Kent Gerber, the Digital Library Manager at Bethel University, is responsible for the library’s digital collections, the Makerspace, and collaborative digital scholarship projects. He holds an MLIS and Certificate of Advanced Studies in Digital Libraries from Syracuse University and focuses on how libraries engage with technology, teaching, research, cultural heritage, and digital humanities through facilitating conversation. He serves on the Operations Committee for the Minnesota Digital Library and co-designed new Bethel programs including the Digital Humanities major and the Makerspace.

Charlie Goldberg is Assistant Professor of History and Digital Humanities Coordinator at Bethel University. He helped design and currently oversees Bethel’s undergraduate Digital Humanities major. He has a Ph.D. from Syracuse University, and his primary research pertains to gender and politics in ancient Greece and Rome.

Diana L. Magnuson is Professor of History at Bethel University and Director of Archives, History Center of Bethel University and Converge. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and teaches courses on American history, introduction to history, and geography. As Director of Archives, Magnuson stewards and provides access to manuscripts, media, three-dimensional objects, and digital materials that document the institutional history of Bethel University and Converge. Magnuson also curates the institutional history of the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus.

A scan and transcription of a letter from Christopher Town.
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Digital Paxton: Collaborative Construction with Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Collections

Abstract

Digital Paxton is a digital collection, scholarly edition, and, most crucially for this issue, a burgeoning teaching platform devoted to the archives of Pennsylvania’s first major pamphlet war. In this co-authored piece, Will Fenton will introduce the massacre that sparked that debate, the limitations of the existing approach, and the affordances of his digital humanities project. Following Fenton’s comments on collaboration and acknowledgement, Kate Johnson and Kelly Schmidt will provide a case study in digital humanities pedagogy, demonstrating how they used a class transcription assignment as an opportunity to improve and expand the educational offerings of Digital Paxton. Through their analyses, Fenton, Johnson, and Schmidt will show how their collaboration demonstrates the value of digital projects and transcription assignments for students’ critical thinking and media literacy.

The Paxton Massacre

In December 1763, following years of backcountry warfare, a mob of settlers in the Paxton Township—just outside what is today Harrisburg—murdered twenty unarmed Conestoga Indians along the Pennsylvania frontier. Soon after, hundreds of these “Paxton Boys” marched on Philadelphia to menace a group of Moravian Indians who had, in response to the violence, been placed under government protection. Although the confrontation was diffused through the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin, the incident ventilated long-festering religious and ethnic grievances, pitting the colony’s German and Scots-Irish Presbyterian frontiersmen against Philadelphia’s English Quakers and their Susquehannock trading partners.

Supporters and critics of the Paxton Boys spent the next year battling in print: the resulting public debate constituted one-fifth of the Pennsylvania’s printed material in 1764 (Olson 1999, 31). Pamphlets, which were inexpensive and quick to produce, were the medium of choice—hence the debate is often called the Paxton pamphlet war. But many other printed and unprinted materials circulated simultaneously, including broadsides, political cartoons, letters, diaries, and treaty minutes. Although this debate was ostensibly about the conduct of the Paxton vigilantes, it quickly migrated to other issues facing colonial Pennsylvania, including suspicions of native others, anxieties about porous borders, a yawning divide between urban and rural populations, and the proliferation of what we might today call “fake news.”

While most researchers explore the pamphlet war through John Raine Dunbar’s scholarly edition, The Paxton Papers (1957), much of the debate cannot be found in Dunbar’s edition.[1] There are dozens of alternate editions, answers, and responses to the pamphlets identified by Dunbar, and, if one examines the originals, one uncovers engravings, artworks, and other forms of materiality that could not be examined through textual transcriptions alone. Perhaps most importantly, the current approach to the Paxton debate, which prioritizes printed materials—namely pamphlets, broadsides, and political cartoons— inadvertently reinforces colonial and cosmopolitan biases. That is, much of the Paxton debate happened outside Philadelphia printers. If researchers are to reckon with the massacre’s geographic, ethnic, and class complexities, they ought to consider manuscript collections that give voice to backcountry settlers and the indigenous peoples at the center of this tragic episode.

Digital Paxton

Digital Paxton seeks to expand awareness of and access to such heterogeneous records. The project began as a digital collection of pamphlets available through the Library Company of Philadelphia and Historical Society of Pennsylvania. As partners in the project, those institutions are responsible for digitizing at their own expense more than half of the records available in Digital Paxton. Subsequent partnerships have brought scans of contemporaneous Pennsylvania Gazette issues at the American Antiquarian Society; Friendly Association correspondence from the Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections; letters from the John Elder and Timothy Horsfield Papers at the American Philosophical Society; and congregational diaries from the Moravian Archives of Bethlehem. Each expansion has underscored that the 1764 pamphlet war included much more than pamphlets.[2]

As important as the diversity of materials is the structure of the collection. The design of online publishing platform Scalar encourages researchers to draw connections between and across collections. Specifically, Scalar’s flat ontology enables all objects (images, transcriptions, sequences of images) to occupy the same hierarchy: no object is more of a subject than another object. In practical terms, this means that researchers encounter Governor Penn’s letters in the same pathway as they do letters between Quaker leaders and native partners, accounts of diplomatic conferences, and the writings of Wyalusing leaders. At a technical level, then, the platform supports the philosophical goals articulated by the editors of the Yale Indian Papers Project: the digital collection as a common pot, a “shared history, a kind of communal liminal space, neither solely Euro-American nor completely Native” (Grant-Costa, Glaza, and Sletcher 2012, 2). This is the allure of the digital edition: when thoughtfully structured, digital editions better accommodate a constellation of material forms, voices, and perspectives than traditional print editions.

Although Digital Paxton is foremost a digital collection, the project includes a scholarly apparatus similar to Dunbar’s Paxton Papers. However, whereas Dunbar’s introduction is singular and possesses the patina of definitiveness, this project is multi-authored, interdisciplinary, and less didactic. Practically speaking, each of the project’s twelve historical overviews, lesson plans, and conceptual keyword essays serve as freestanding entry points to the digital collection. That is, if a history student were interested in Conestoga Indiantown, she might choose to read Darvin Martin’s essay, “A History of Conestoga Indiantown,” use its links to explore the digital collection, and perform additional research using the various linked resources listed below further reading. Or, if a literature student wanted to think more carefully about what “elites” meant in the eighteenth-century, she might begin with Scott Paul Gordon’s essay, “Elites.”

Students may use the project’s introduction or interpretative pathways to traverse the project; however, rather than promoting a singular, definitive approach to the massacre and pamphlet war, Digital Paxton embraces what Adele Perry (2005) and others have called polyvocality. By layering materials and contexts, each is made less definitive, more partial, contingent, and subject to scrutiny. This approach guards against rote thinking: the Paxton massacre is a story of genocidal violence and indigenous dispossession, but it is also a story of identity politics, self-governance, resistance, and active peace-making.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argued in a famous TED talk, narrative multiplicity acknowledges the complexity and dignity of human experience. “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity,” explained Adichie. “[W]hen we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise” (Adichie 2009). While regaining paradise is well beyond the scope of this project, grappling with the complexities, erasures, and ambiguities of historical memory falls within its purview, thanks to the generous contributions of scholarly and archival collaborators.

Collaboration and Acknowledgement

Given that Digital Paxton is very much a bootstrap operation—cobbled together without any significant external funding—recognition of labor is the least that can be offered collaborators. To this point, the first two points of the “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights” have informed the project’s approach to collaboration and acknowledgement:

1) All kinds of work on a project are equally deserving of credit (though the amount of work and expression of credit may differ). And all collaborators should be empowered to take credit for their work.

2a) Descriptive Papers & Project reports: Anyone who collaborated on the project should be listed as author in a fair ordering based on emerging community conventions.

2b) Websites: There should be a prominent ‘credits’ link on the main page with primary investigators (PIs) or project leads listed first. This should include current staff as well as past staff with their dates of employment (Clement, Croxall, et al. 2011).

Digital Paxton is the fruition—however nascent—of contributions from dozens of archivists, curators, scholars, and technologists, whose labor is subsidized by archives, cultural institutions, research libraries, and universities. Although this project was sparked by personal research interests, little would be available today without the resources, labor, and expertise of those individuals and institutions. Acknowledgement, on the project’s Credits page and in the publications and talks, is one form of (admittedly paltry) recompense.

Collaborators take many forms, and there is perhaps no cohort more vital to this project’s future—and that of the humanities more broadly—than that of student-collaborators. This project embraces Mark Sample’s notion of “collaborative construction,” through which students produce new knowledge in concert with one another, their professor, and the project, broadly conceived. “A key point of collaborative construction is that the students are not merely making something for themselves or their professor,” explains Sample. “They are making it for each other, and in the best scenarios, for the outside world” (Sample 2011).

The second half of this article seeks to put this philosophy into practice using a case study. In the spring 2017, two faculty members, Benjamin Bankhurst (Shepherd University) and Kyle Roberts (Loyola University Chicago), who were co-teaching an undergraduate history course, “Digitizing the American Revolution,” sought to introduce students to digital humanities tools and methods. They opted to create an assignment through which students would learn to transcribe eighteenth-century letters using scanned manuscript materials from Digital Paxton. Each student was responsible for transcribing a page of manuscript. After Bankhurst or Roberts vetted students’ work, transcriptions were loaded into Digital Paxton, with a credit to each student-transcriber.[3]

The project was successful on several accounts. First, it expanded the number of transcribed (and searchable) resources in Digital Paxton. Second, it required teaching materials that can be repurposed in future transcription assignments. And third, it attracted a new community of researchers to the site. This interest is certainly measurable in the students who participated in the assignment, many of whom now regularly share Digital Paxton updates on social media platforms. Perhaps most importantly, Roberts’s graduate students—Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt—took ownership of the project in ways that made it both more effective and more scalable. Using their experience within the classroom and reviews of transcription pedagogy best practices, they offered recommendations on how to modify the Digital Paxton site to facilitate easier transcription, created documents guiding students through some of the hurdles in the transcription process, and offered feedback on improving the exercise as a classroom assignment. Johnson and Schmidt will now describe their experience with the transcription project, and the challenges and opportunities it provided.

A Case Study in Digital Pedagogy

As members of Roberts’s class, we were asked to transcribe a page from Digital Paxton’s digital collection. We enjoyed the process of learning how to identify and transcribe unfamiliar eighteenth-century characters consistently, as well as the sense that we were contributing to a larger project of significant historical value to scholars and the general public. However, along with our undergraduate classmates, we encountered challenges as we struggled to interpret the manuscripts. We felt that we could help expand the project by creating a guide for people planning to transcribe individually or in a crowdsourced or classroom setting.

The assignment began with an introduction to Digital Paxton from its creator, Will Fenton (via Skype). As a class we explored the site together and received a contextual overview of the Paxton pamphlet war. The contextual information helped us better understand the significance of our assignment in relation both to our course and to the work of historians more broadly. Moreover, the personal touch of talking to the website’s creator cultivated greater interest in the project.

The directions for the assignment were simple: transcribe one page assigned from the Friendly Association manuscripts (Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections) and write a three-paragraph essay about what the page contained, whose voice it was written in, and who it excluded, and how it felt to participate in this transcription process as a historian. Students did not use any transcription aids. We each viewed the manuscript page in a web browser (or printed it out), then typed transcriptions using a word processor. However, these seemingly simple directions proved more complicated to students who were uncertain how to format their transcription consistently or account for peculiar eighteenth-century abbreviations. Some students opted to peer-review one another’s assignments before turning them in, which helped improve consistency and their understanding of the materials with which they were working.

For some students, the public nature of the transcription increased their commitment to the assignment. In her essay on “Teaching the Digital Caribbean,” Kelly Baker Josephs discusses how adding the public as an audience for coursework creates a “performance” aspect that changes the course experience (Josephs 2018). We saw this with our class, as several students put more time and effort into the assignment, such as peer reviewing each others transcriptions, expressly because it would be shared publicly on a website.

Student Responses

Each student turned in a short essay detailing the content of their transcription, its biases, and their experience transcribing it. In addition, we had a class discussion on the greatest challenges in transcribing and practices that might improve the transcription process and make the final product more useful. One student, who described working with the source as both “tedious and exciting,” encapsulated the gist of most anonymous student responses to the assignment.[4] The most frequent obstacles identified were difficulty reading the handwriting, deciphering inconsistent capitalization and spelling, differentiating between vowels as well as lowercase “L’s” and “F’s,” and unfamiliarity with the long “S.” While the scans were clear, some students had trouble reading their assigned text because authors often used both sides of the page, the ink bleeding through from one side to the other. One student suggested that reading the text and then rereading it before transcribing made it easier to understand the content. Others said that they needed more knowledge not only of paleography and period syntax, but also context about the history of the time period, region, and specific event in which these papers were situated. Without such broader knowledge, students sometimes struggled to transcribe local place names, like “Minisinks,” and the names of subjects in the documents, especially Native Americans, such as “Scarroyada.”

Nevertheless, many of the same students who struggled to decipher the eighteenth-century English and handwriting still expressed an appreciation for, and a better understanding of, the work of historians. One student wrote, “I’m quite honored and impressed that I had the opportunity to participate in the understanding and detailing of history, especially in the turn of the Revolution.” Several others professed a “newfound respect for historians” and claimed that they felt like they were “doing the work of a real historian.”

Most of the students were not history majors, and for many, this was the first time they had engaged with primary sources. Most of their previous coursework in history had focused on secondary source readings about big ideas and events, which students assessed through essay-writing assignments. One respondent noted that, “working with primary sources feels much more immersive and enlightening, in terms of being able to see a glimpse of what their life was like and the issues they dealt with in their time.”

While the process of transcribing manuscripts was monotonous, students said that work with handwritten letters changed the way they engaged with materials. One student said, “It felt good to work with a primary source such as this letter, and be able to see the firsthand view of the writer and a glimpse of their world.” Several students also welcomed access to Native American voices, who are often silenced in settlement narratives. This recognition encouraged them to grapple with the possibility that some of these documents may not have been telling the whole truth about the event. One student even mused that soon historians might have to decipher audio sources rather than interpret handwriting.

These student responses align with pedagogical scholarship. Notably, William Kashatus posits that close analysis of primary sources gives students a more personal understanding of history. Because primary sources can “evoke emotional responses,” students are better able to “identify with the human factor in history, including the risks, frailties, courage, and contradictions of those who shaped the past” (2002, 7). According to Kashatus, students are better able to recognize the biases in historical records and assess their own contemporary biases, and those of modern-day media, when they have engaged with close-readings of historical sources in the classroom (2002, 7–8). Student feedback from our classroom assignment reflects that students felt they gained a sense of intimacy with historical writers. Avishag Reisman and Sam Wineburg, writing about the new common core standards, have argued that working with primary source materials challenges students to think carefully about what does and does not count as evidence. Reisman and Wineburg argue that primary source materials compel students to “interrogate the reliability and truth claims” rather than to simply “cull” evidence (2012, 25-26). Through transcription work, students must read the text word-for-word, compelling them to think more critically about what is being expressed and not to take a document’s message at face value.

Gathering Survey Data

Although the students’ comments were helpful, we realized we needed more feedback before we pursued any future crowdsourced transcription projects. To that end, we administered an anonymous one-page survey to the participants of a transcribe-a-thon event at Loyola organized by the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities in conjunction with a nationwide event. Approximately 70 students, staff, and faculty attended, 43 of whom elected to complete the survey. Additionally, we administered the survey to 21 students enrolled in a 100-level “Interpreting Literature” class. For the transcribe-a-thon, participants used a subscription-based transcription program called FromThePage.

The survey consisted of nine total questions, with six multiple choice and three open-ended questions. Questions solicited feedback on the ease of participants’ use of the transcription program and the experience of transcribing itself. Two questions asked about the participants’ perceived value of the experience of transcribing. At the end, participants were asked to provide an email if interested in future transcription projects. The anonymous survey results highlighted what elements of transcription work most engaged participants and what challenges or barriers thwarted their participation. Thus, the survey offered concrete data to support ideas that emerged from student feedback in the Loyola/Shepherd assignment. From these conclusions we gained insights into what would make a successful transcription project for interacting with digitized early American documents, and those insights informed the guides we created for Digital Paxton.

One key difference was experiential: students preferred the communal work of a transcribe-a-thon to the solitary work of a for-credit assignment. While the majority of both sets of students said that they found the experience valuable, more transcribe-a-thon participants recorded satisfaction. Additionally, a much higher percentage of transcribe-a-thon participants expressed interest in future transcription projects (82% of event participants compared to 38% of classroom participants).

We evaluated these discrepancies using responses to the open-ended questions, which included a question about what was the most valuable part of the experience. The classroom included some but not all of the additional contextualizing elements that were included in the event, such as the talks and recitations of historical speeches and songs. These elements, combined with the celebratory atmosphere of the event (held as a birthday celebration for Frederick Douglass), helped to affirm the sense that participants were both learning and contributing to a living project. The survey results and our experience with the transcribe-a-thon show us that transcription projects not only get students working with primary materials, contributing to scholarly work, and learning to use digital tools, but they also inspire students to participate in future projects.

Translating Feedback into Practice

Student feedback and survey responses provided some clear takeaways for Digital Paxton. Although incorporating a transcription project into a class’s curriculum and awarding class credit and public access incentivized students’ contributions, assignments needed to be structured to foreground both historical and logistical context for transcriptions. Additionally, assignments needed to emphasize the importance of student transcriptions to the long-term goals of the project. When we began contributing transcriptions to Digital Paxton, the project did not have guidelines for transcriptions or a built-in transcription platform.

We developed a “Transcription Best Practices” guide for Digital Paxton, now available in both the Transcription and Pedagogy sections of the site for educators who want to introduce similar assignments in their classrooms. In it, we attempted to anticipate contextual questions that might arise during an assignment. We used the feedback from the Loyola/Shepherd assignment to pinpoint the most important contextual clues needed. We included images of eighteenth century writing conventions, such as the elongated “s” and the shortening of common words like “which” to “w/ch.”By equipping potential transcribers with the materials they need to understand the papers in their historical and cultural context—the guidelines, site introduction, and historical overviews—we met a need expressed in our survey results.

Digital Paxton’s overview of the conflict provides contexts for an event with which students are only vaguely familiar, but it does not necessarily supply students with definitive answers. Students build intimacy with the text by describing it, having to assess as they go along the choice of language and style used. Writing out the text seemed to improve students’ reading comprehension. By adding transcription guidelines, we further sought to help students avoid getting bogged down by the complication of language or handwriting. In their response essays, students use the text they transcribed as “evidence” about where the author stood ideologically within the conflict and how the conflict unfolded. As one student described, the source was a piece to their understanding of the larger puzzle.

Selecting a platform and developing a process through which future cohorts could contribute to the project were more complicated. After all, our approach—toggling between a web browser and word processor—would not work well for larger classes or transcription projects. We had three key stipulations for a prospective transcription platform: it had to be easily accessible to and usable for transcribers, well-supported, and interoperable with Scalar. We identified two platforms that met most of our requirements: Scripto and FromThePage. Both enabled users to record transcriptions alongside scanned pages, a priority, for students in the “Digitizing the Revolution” course. Scripto offered a free, open-source transcription tool, but it was not being fully supported by the developers, and we did not know if it would continue to be supported in the future. Moreover, Scripto required scanned pages to be migrated from Scalar to Omeka. We selected FromThePage because it was well-supported, did not require an Omeka installation, and Fenton could use his university library’s subscription (Fordham University).

On a logistical side, the survey responses also helped us understand the barriers to using online transcription tools. The most prevalent issue was readability of the scanned text, followed by challenges navigating the transcription platform. While there are limitations to how much can be done to address manuscript readability, especially when it comes to eighteenth-century manuscript material, we took the latter concern into account when we created “Using FromThePage.” In that documentation we sought to create clear, concise instructions on how to use FromThePage in conjunction with Digital Paxton. This effort included screenshots illustrating how to register as a user and how to locate pages available for transcribing, a key issue for participants at the transcribe-a-thon. By anticipating user experience issues, we hope to enable students to lose themselves in the rich texts and contexts on Digital Paxton, rather than spend valuable time and energy troubleshooting the mechanics of the process.

Future Collaborations

While our experiment in student manuscript transcription was not without its limitations, the process of pursuing student involvement and recording student feedback have made Digital Paxton a more effective teaching tool. Thanks to the labors of Kate Johnson, Kelly Schmidt, and Marie Pellissier, the project now includes best practices for transcribing eighteenth-century manuscripts (Transcription Best Practices), an assignment for integrating a similar exercise into a university classroom (Transcription Assignment), and a platform through which any educator may bring Friendly Association manuscripts into her classroom (Transcriptions).

From our research and practical experience, we have found that transcription of primary sources encourages students to read texts more closely, to view writers as human beings (rather than detached historical figures), to confront archival gaps, silences, and erasures, and to view their work as contributory to a collaborative project. In her recent post at the National Archives, Meredith Doviak wrote that with increased digital access to collections, students now have more opportunity to become “active critics and curators of those literary productions rather than mere explicators of them” (2017). Transcription projects can serve as vehicles through which students act as participants in knowledge creation, honing valuable critical thinking skills and a historically-informed sense of media literacy that will serve them well inside and outside the classroom.

Notes

[1] Nearly every study of the Paxton crisis cites Dunbar’s 60-year-old edition, and for good reason: it collects 28 noteworthy pamphlets and provides a useful introduction to the debate. Time has, however, revealed the edition’s limitations, foremost, its narrow selection of materials. Alison Gilbert Olson (1999) has since identified at least 63 pamphlets and 10 cartoons, and the distinction between pamphlets and political cartoons is itself ambiguous, given that many cartoons were nested inside of pamphlets, many of which circulated in multiple editions.
[2] Students can surface new perspectives from indigenous peoples and backcountry settlers by attending to a diverse set of records, all of which are available as open-access, print-quality images. Today, the project features more than 2,500 images, including 16 artworks, three books, 17 broadsides, 128 manuscripts, 26 newspaper and periodical issues, 69 pamphlets, and nine political cartoons, many of which have never before been digitized.
[3] For example, visitors will find a credit to Emina Hadzic at the bottom of her transcription of “Various Memoranda” (http://digitalpaxton.org/works/digital-paxton/various-memoranda-1760—1-1). She was also acknowledged (and tagged) in social media posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
[4] Quotations in this section come from anonymous student answers to a course survey and are reproduced with names withheld by mutual agreement. “Explore Common Sense Survey,” administered by Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt. February 1, 2018.

Bibliography

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. 2009. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Filmed July 2009 at TED Global. TED video, 18:43.
https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript.

Clement, Tanya, Brian Croxall, et al. 2011. “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights.” Off the Tracks: Laying New Lines for Digital Humanities Scholars. Media Commons Press.
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Doviak, Meredith. 2017. “Teaching from the Archives.” Education Updates(blog). National Archives. February 9, 2017.
https://education.blogs.archives.gov/2017/02/09/teaching-from-archives/.

Grant-Costa, Paul and Tobias Glaza, and Michael Sletcher. 2012. “The Common Pot: Editing Native American Materials.” Scholarly Editing: The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing 33: 1–17.
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Josephs, Kelly Baker. 2018. “Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment.” The Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy 13.
https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/teaching-the-digital-caribbean-the-ethics-of-a-public-pedagogical-experiment/.

Kashatus, William C. 2002. Past, Present & Personal: Teaching Writing in U.S. History. Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books.

Olson, Alison Gilbert. 1999. “The Pamphlet War over the Paxton Boys.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 123, no. 1/2: 31–55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093260.

Perry, Adele. 2005. “The Colonial Archive on Trial: Possession, Dispossession, and History in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia.” Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History: 325–50. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822387046-015.

Reisman, Avishag, and Sam Wineburg. 2012. “Text complexity in the history classroom: Teaching to and beyond the common core.” Social Studies Review 51, no. 1: 24–29.

Sample, Mark. 2011. “Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to Be Teaching).” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 1 (Winter).
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About the Authors

Will Fenton is the Director of Scholarly Innovation at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Creative Director of Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America, funded by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and the founder and editor of Digital Paxton. Will earned his Ph.D. at Fordham University, where he specialized in early American literature and the digital humanities. He is the recipient of prestigious fellowships from the American Philosophical Society; Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections; the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory; the Library Company of Philadelphia; the Modern Language Association; and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture. His writings have appeared in American QuarterlyCommon-Place, and ESQ and in numerous public platforms, including Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and PC Magazine.

Kelly Schmidt, co-creator of ExploreCommonSense.comis Research Coordinator for the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project, co-sponsored by Saint Louis University and the Jesuits of the Central and Southern United States. She is a PhD candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where her research focuses on slavery, race, and abolition. Kelly has pursued her interests in museum work, public history, and digital humanities at several institutions, including the Heritage Village Museum, Cincinnati Museum Center, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Kate Johnson is an archival assistant at the University of Northern Colorado’s Archives and Special Collections. She earned her M.A. in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and her B.A. in History and German from the University of Northern Colorado. Her research interests are in women’s history, cultural history, and early America. She has worked in museums and public history institutions for over ten years, including holding positions at the Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, The Women and Leadership Archives, and the Frances Willard House Museum. She is a co-creator of the site, ExploreCommonSense.com and also currently serves as an appointed member of the National Council on Public History’s Digital Media Group.

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How a Digital Collaboration at Oberlin College Between Archivists, Faculty, Students, and Librarians Found Its Muse in Mary Church Terrell, Nineteenth-Century Feminist and Civil Rights Icon

Abstract

This collaboratively authored article explains how a pedagogical partnership at Oberlin College between archivists, faculty, librarians, and students led to Digitizing American Feminisms (americanfeminisms.org), a project begun with pedagogically designed class assignments. The cooperative work between archivists, faculty and students models the synergy that can be developed in thoughtfully developed projects. The resulting website includes over thirty documentary student-created projects featuring introductory essays with transcriptions and annotations of primary materials highlighting feminist histories from the Oberlin College Archives. Demonstrations of student learning, these documentary editions also democratize access to previously unpublished and obscure materials that enhance knowledge of the diverse dimensions of First and Second Wave American feminisms. Key in this multi-year project was the rediscovery of 1884 College graduate, feminist and civil rights advocate Mary Church Terrell, whose reclamation coincided with a major gift of papers by her heirs to the Oberlin College Archives. Recovering the history of Terrell inspired students to connect past and present, stimulated a conference on activism for alums and students, and helped move the College to rename its main library in her honor as it looks ahead to a digital future that will connect and empower diverse learners, faculty, archivists, librarians, and all those interested in social change.

Sixty years after her death, social justice activist and 1884 Oberlin College graduate Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) stood at the center of a team of archivists, faculty, librarians, and students at her alma mater. Inspired by Terrell, we engaged in a series of collaborative projects that demonstrated the potential of digital history to rewrite dominant narratives and inspire activist interventions on our campus and beyond. Born to freed slaves in Memphis, Tennessee, Terrell fashioned an illustrious career as founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and relentless leader in campaigns for women’s suffrage and racial equality. Although Terrell herself never encountered “digital humanities,” she became central to our cooperative work on the student-created web-published document projects that comprise Digitizing American Feminisms: Projects from Oberlin College, and she inspired further interventions for social justice on our campus and beyond. This “View from the Field” describes the collaborative digital archival assignment crafted for an Oberlin College history class and its afterlife, including the naming of Oberlin’s Main Library for Mary Church Terrell.

Our project originated in Fall 2012, when archivist Ken Grossi and Professor Carol Lasser attended a workshop on “Teaching the Archives,” sponsored by the Alliance to Advance Liberal Arts Colleges. Together, Ken and Carol designed an assignment for Carol’s history course on American feminisms in which students would transcribe items in the Oberlin College Archives and create “mini-editions”—small documentary projects presenting both digitized images and their transcriptions to make these materials widely available in digital form to public audiences. This assignment built on Carol’s earlier experiences helping students understand the relationship of past and present by creating “How Did Oberlin Women Students Draw on Their College Experience to Participate in Antebellum Social Movements, 1831-1861?” for the website Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000. In this assignment, Ken saw the opportunity to publicize and make widely available materials from lesser-known and underutilized but significant collections.

Archival research is the heart of Carol’s history pedagogy. She places the exploration of primary materials at the center of a “history compass,” which she asks students to use to develop their historical thinking. Specifically, the compass has three intersecting axes:

Axis “A” runs between seeming opposite reasons for why we study history: to recover the pastness of the past and to recognize the presentness of the past. Axis “B” connects the contrasting poles of historical causation: contingency, with its emphasis on free will and individual agency, and determinism, with its emphasis on the role played by forces beyond individuals’ control. Finally, axis “C” stretches between divergent methodological positions: the need for research in primary sources to locate evidence and establish historical facts and the need to construct historical interpretations in dialogue with other scholars. (Kornblith and Lasser 2009, 2–3).

Figure 1. Image of a “History Compass” with “Axes of Historical Analysis” at center and six spokes with arrows extending outward: “Contingency,” “Constructed Interpretations,” “Presentness of Past,” “Determinism,” “Factual Evidence,” and “Pastness of Past.”

As an archivist, Ken carefully preselected collections with diverse, accessible, and engaging materials, and flagged points of interest. For example, in the Frances Walker-Slocum Papers, he showed students the program for her pathbreaking 1976 piano recital of African American music at Oberlin. Ken also shared the courtship letter Ruth Alexander wrote to her future first husband describing her efforts to capture a porcupine on film, which enticed students to pursue a project on this multi-dimensional woman of extraordinary drive. Another team took great interest in an 1860 letter from Jamaica written by single missionary Lucy Woodcock to her brother. This focused engagement with specific documents was crucial given the time limits of the busy semester, during which students were also exploring the many interwoven narratives of American feminisms.

The archival assignment was broken into several parts to scaffold the learning goals that develop students’ historical thinking. Each student was assigned to a research team to produce their “mini-edition” based on a particular collection in the Oberlin College Archives. Composed of three students, each team skimmed collections in a special archival session at the beginning of the term and identified their preferred collection. Each individual was responsible for transcribing 500–2,000 words from a particular document or series of documents, which entailed slow, careful reading. In addition, each student produced a heading for their document(s) with identifying information (creator, date, place, type of document), and a 150–300 word introductory note underscoring the importance of context. Every document required appropriate annotations to identify elements that might be new to readers. Each team also cooperatively produced an introduction to their mini-edition, about 500–1,500 words in length, explaining the project’s overall significance and demonstrating their ability to interpret the past. Finally, each group had to produce a bibliography, which highlighted how present interpretations are built on past constructions. Grappling with unfamiliar people, phrases, and ideas, students learned to analyze the distance between past and present.

After Ken conducted an introductory session on archival research methods, students returned regularly to the archives to receive further one-on-one assistance in navigating their collection and related resources. They learned to use finding guides, identify sources and citations for footnotes, and manage digital versions of scanned archival documents. Many students made particular use of the special Monday evening hours at the archives, scheduled to accommodate their hectic days.

Ken and Carol noted appreciatively that students improved their efforts when their assignments could be read by a general audience far beyond their classroom. Yet, while excellent, the completed student projects did not always meet the standards for digital publications on a scholarly website. To improve the quality of these mini-editions, Ken and Carol used local Mellon grants targeted at digital projects plus important supplements from Oberlin College to hire trios of student assistants, primarily recruited from the class, in the summers of 2015 and 2016. As the student assistants improved the quality of these digital mini-editions by incorporating new documents, additional visuals, and even sound recordings, they refined their historical thinking skills and developed editorial expertise. One student focused on the digital layout of our project, eventually guiding us toward the use of WordPress, preferred for its appearance and functionality, especially the ease with which Word documents could be migrated to its platform.

Figure 2. Homepage for Digitizing American Feminisms.

Through their work on Digitizing American Feminisms, the student assistants refined their historical analysis skills. For example, one team of student assistants curated and analyzed the correspondence between antebellum Oberlin African American alumna Lucy Stanton Day and the American Missionary Association. In the correspondence, Day and the association members debated her suitability to serve them at the end of the Civil War. The team of students teased meaning out of cryptic exchanges and came to appreciate the vocabulary of the past on its own terms (Hoak et al. 2015). Another group of students analyzed the courtship letters between early Oberlin students James H Fairchild and Mary Kellogg. The students were horrified by sentences revealing abolitionists’ unreflective participation in racialized culture. Through their analysis of these letters, the students grappled with language and context, eventually coming to terms with the distance between—and proximity of— past and present (Kummer-Landau et al. 2015). The students focusing on Frances Walker Slocum, Oberlin’s first tenured female faculty member of color, pointed out the heartbreaking contradiction that she was shunned by other women teaching in the conservatory, even as the Women’s Movement came into its own (Kummer-Landau et al. 2016).

In February 2015, Oberlin students Sarah Minion, Natalia Shevin, and Michaela Fouad connected past and present through their work on Mary Church Terrell, applying her quest for social justice to current struggles. As Natalia and Sarah later reflected,

Four months before we began our research, in November 2014, prosecutors in Ferguson, Missouri, had chosen not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown, which reignited national Black Lives Matter protests. On our campus, Black students made myriad demands on the College (Stocker 2014). As we joined protests in Oberlin and Cleveland, we were also making our way through Terrell’s then-modest materials in the Oberlin College Archives. Almost immediately, we saw how experiences of racism like those we now witnessed at school and in national headlines had, in earlier times, motivated Terrell’s life-long pursuit of a more just world, especially for African American women. Discovering, selecting, transcribing, and digitizing Terrell’s papers at the Oberlin College Archives brought her with us into the present at a critical moment. Terrell became for us at once a testament to the ambitious spirit of Oberlin and a guide for who we must strive to be as students, administrators, faculty, staff, and alumni.

When we pored over Terrell’s files, we noticed, stuck between her letters and manuscripts, the business card of Russell Thomas Edwards, a lobbyist in Washington D. C. While Edwards and his relationship to Terrell remain unclear, the phrase he composed in jaunty, deliberate script across the front of his card became our inspiration for understanding Terrell’s tenacity: “You can’t keep her out.” It served both as a warning to all who attempted to silence Terrell in her relentless challenges to institutional barriers that obstructed the advancement of African Americans and women, and as an acknowledgement of her accomplishments in doing exactly that. It spoke to the many ways in which Terrell seized access to the very institutions that tried to keep her—and her commitment to racial and gender justice—out.

 

Figure 3. Introduction to March Church Terrell project on Digitizing American Feminisms website.

In an effort to replicate for our readers our own experiences in the physical archive we used Edwards’ words to title our mini-edition (Fouad et al. 2015). We drew documents from different boxes and different collections to tell our story of Terrell’s confrontation with Oberlin College administrations, as well as with local and federal policy-making agencies. We explored the flexibility of the digital space to construct a coherent narrative from disparate documents, allowing us to highlight Terrell’s simultaneously compassionate and critical relationship to her alma mater. Terrell honored the place that Oberlin College occupied in her own life story and in abolitionist history, but, at the same time, held administrators accountable for its subsequent “back-sliding” on racial justice (Terrell 1914). To allow readers to see this for themselves, we transcribed each document in our project in full. Yet we acknowledge our influence on the narrative through our selection, interpretation, and authoring of introductions to the documents.

We hope her life and words, presented in our digital exhibit, will continue to inform bold progress at Oberlin College and to inspire us as we strive to be active alumni and citizens.

Sarah and Natalia continue to honor Terrell’s legacy—to be unyielding and courageous in the necessary work for social justice.

Their digital work had yet further repercussions on our campus. In a remarkable twist of fate, just after the completion of this class project, Alison Parker, professor of history at the College at Brockport, SUNY, at work on her scholarly biography of Mary Church Terrell, reached out to connect Oberlin students and faculty with Terrell’s heirs Raymond and Jean Langston. In her conversations with the Langstons, Parker emphasized the importance of Terrell’s archives to students, faculty, and staff at Oberlin, and the Langstons chose to donate a number of Terrell’s papers, which remained in their possession. This gift then inspired collaboration between Oberlin’s Africana Studies Program, chaired by Professor Pam Brooks, and the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies Program, which Carol then chaired, resulting in a Spring 2016 conference entitled “Complicated Relationships: Mary Church Terrell’s Legacy for 21st Century Activists.”[1] Joined by the Departments of History and Comparative American Studies, the Library, the Alumni Association, the Oberlin Alumni Association Of African Ancestry, and others, this celebration of the “homecoming” of Terrell’s papers brought together scholars, students, and alumni to explore our histories and our futures. Thinking with Mary Church Terrell, the conference pondered how she could help us understand engagement, respectability, and activism in the digital age. We asked what Terrell’s synthesis of pragmatic and strategic approaches to advancing civil rights and suffrage could teach us about approaching social justice work today.

Mary Church Terrell lingers on the Oberlin campus. In July 2016, newly appointed Director of Libraries Alexia Hudson-Ward could not understand why, as she arranged her books in her spacious office, one volume, Mary Church Terrell’s autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, kept tumbling off her shelves. As Oberlin’s first African American and second woman library director, Alexia was deeply impacted by Terrell’s 1896 admonition to pursue “the acquisition of knowledge and…the cultivation of those virtues which make for good” (Terrell 1898, 8). Soon Alexia learned of a movement on campus to honor Terrell’s legacy by renaming the Main Library after her. To her great joy—and with support of the president, key administrators, students, and faculty—the board of trustees voted to approve the Mary Church Terrell Main Library.

In preparation, Oberlin’s librarians rolled out a further digital initiative, Mary Church Terrell: An Original Oberlin Activist. Raymond and Jean Langston gifted additional Terrell papers to the archives during the naming ceremony. Considered together, these collaborative efforts to recover the voices and visions of former Oberlin activists underscore how digital technologies can help shape historical memory.

Bibliography

Fouad, Mickaela, Sarah Minion and Natalia Shevin, eds. 2015. “You Can’t Keep Her Out”: Mary Church Terrell’s Fight for Equality in America. Accessed December 12, 2018. http://americanfeminisms.org/uncategorized/you-cant-keep-her-out-mary-church-terrells-fight-for-equality-in-america-1911-1949/

Hoak, Lisa, Dan Quigley, and Essie Weiss-Tisman, eds. 2015. “I Shall Have Your Sympathy, If Your Judgment Refuses Me Your Support”: Lucy Stanton Day, the American Missionary Association, and the Politics of Respectability (1864). Accessed December 12, 2018. http://americanfeminisms.org/uncategorized/i-shall-have-your-sympathy-if-your-judgment-refuses-me-your-support-lucy-stanton-day-the-american-missionary-association-and-the-politics-of-respectability/

Kornblith, Gary J. and Carol Lasser. 2009. “Introduction: Reflections on Textbooks and Teaching.” In Teaching American History: Essays Adapted from the Journal of American History, 20012007, edited by Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins.

Kummer-Landau, Eve, Kasey Ulery, and Joanna Wiley, eds. 2015. “You Will See With What Freedom I have written”: The Courtship Correspondence of James H. Fairchild and Mary F. Kellogg. Accessed December 12, 2018. http://americanfeminisms.org/you-will-see-with-what-freedom-i-have-written-the-courtship-correspondence-of-james-h-fairchild-and-mary-f-kellogg/

Kummer-Landau, Eve, Jenny Sledge, and Kasey Ulery, eds. 2016. “Frances Walker-Slocum’s Brilliance and Advocacy: Bringing Black Classical Composers to the Forefront of Oberlin Conservatory.” Accessed December 12, 2018. http://americanfeminisms.org/frances-walker-slocums-brilliance-and-advocacy-bringing-black-classical-composers-to-the-forefront-of-oberlin-conservatory/

Terrell, Mary Church to Henry Churchill King, January 26, 1914, Papers of Henry Churchill King, Oberlin College Archives, Recor Group  2/6, Box 72. Accessed December 12, 2018. http://americanfeminisms.org/ayou-cant-keep-her-out-mary-church-terrells-fight-for-equality-in-america/document-2-segregation-in-oberlin-college-dormitories/

Stocker, Madeline. 2014. “Students Fight for Academic Leniency.” The Oberlin Review, December 12, 2014.

Stocker, Madeline. 2014. “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Students Protest Systemic Racism, Police Violence.” The Oberlin Review, December 5, 2014.

Terrell, Mary Church. 1898. The Progress of Colored Women: An Address Delivered before the National American Women’s Suffrage Association at the Columbia Theater, Washington, D. C., February 18, 1898, on the Occasion of its Fiftieth Anniversary. Washington, DC: Smith Brothers.

About the Authors

Ken Grossi is Oberlin College Archivist and a member of the Advisory Board of Project STAND: Student Activism Now Documented.  He provides instructional sessions, presentations, and research assistance in support of the use of primary source materials for teaching, research, and scholarship.

Alexia Hudson-Ward is the Azariah Smith Root Director of Libraries for Oberlin College and Conservatory. Ms. Hudson-Ward holds an M.L.I.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and a B.A. degree in English Literature and African American Studies from Temple University, and she is currently a Ph.D. student in the Managerial Leadership in the Information Professions program at Simmons College.

Carol Lasser, Emerita Professor of History at Oberlin College taught and published on nineteenth-century American history and women’s history before retiring in 2017.  She is, most recently, joint author, with Gary Kornblith of Elusive Utopia: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Oberlin, Ohio (Louisiana State University Press, 2018).

Sarah Minion graduated from Oberlin College in 2017 with majors in Politics and Comparative American Studies. Interested in the nexus between grassroots community organizing and meaningful policy change, she currently works at the Vera Institute of Justice.

Natalia Shevin is an early childhood educator in New York City. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2017 and recently published a document collection about Mary Church Terrell in the online journal, Women and Social Movements in the United States.

The cover of Amongst Digital Humanists, featuring a photo of a man in a suit with his face blurred by pixelation.
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Doing DH as/or Digital Scholarship: An Ethnography of Scholarship, Properly Done

Review of Amongst Digital Humanists: An Ethnographic Study of Digital Knowledge Production by Antonijević, Smiljana, Published by Springer, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/9781137484185

 

Amongst Digital Humanists: An Ethnographic Study of Digital Knowledge Production (2015) by Smiljana Antonijević is among the first long-form ethnographic studies of theory and practice in Digital Humanities (DH) scholarship. This study seems in direct response to Christine Borgman’s 2009 call for a “social studies of digital humanities.” Borgman writes:

Why is no one following digital humanities scholars around to understand their practices, in the way that scientists have been studied for the last several decades? This body of research has informed the design of scholarly infrastructure for the sciences, and is a central component of cyberinfrastructure and eScience initiatives . . . The humanities community should invite more social scientists as research partners and should make themselves available as objects of study. In doing so, the community can learn more about itself and apply the lessons to the design of tools, services, policies, and infrastructure (Borgman 2009, para 76).

Borgman’s comments and Antonijević’s book provoke a central question, however: Why must DH invite social scientists to study DH practices? What’s the downside? Why can’t we study and learn more about ourselves, ourselves?

DH has been considering the state of the field, its infrastructures, its mode of training and sustainability for decades (see Bowles 1965; Hockey 1986; and Selfe 1988). In considering and explaining the field, DH scholarship has long included methods that Borgman might describe as “following digital humanities scholars around” such as interviews, observations, and surveys (Svensson 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012; Hayles 2012; Nyhan 2012; Keener 2015 to name several). Unlike the social science studies about cyberinfrastructure that Borgman cites as examples, however, the DH scholarship to which I am pointing is not presented as social science even when it employs similar methods of data collection and analysis. In part, this difference is due to the particularities of how analyzing and writing about field research and data collection as qualitative empirical study is done in the social sciences (Becker 1996). When Borgman refers to particular scholarly practices such as “social studies” in the academy, she is pointing to long-standing and rigorous theory-driven practices that require theoretical development, expertise, long years of study, and a deep immersion in the community under examination.

As a social scientific study, Amongst Digital Humanists provides a rich collection of ethnographic data about the daily practices of scholars who produce knowledge by employing digital technologies in the humanities. In the first chapter, Antonijević describes the history of DH and the many debates that inspired her study as well as her methods and her particular epistemological perspective. The three central chapters focus on her findings, which include a snapshot of how scholars from different fields inside and out of the humanities engage with digital technologies as a form of “capacity building” that is constantly impacted by organizational factors that underlie digital scholarship such as training, professionalization, and sustainability. In its call for “universal humanism” and “pluralistic futures” (156), Antonijević’s final chapter uses these findings to argue for a delineation between DH and digital scholarship (DS) that she maintains would ensure a more diverse and inclusive discourse community around DH/DS in higher education rather than the “exclusionary, accusatory, or dismissing discourses and actions” that DH is currently perpetuating (156). Her pointed critiques of DH include (a) that participants are undertrained; (b) that their scholarship lacks clear evaluation criteria and venues; and (c) that their once well-funded projects are unsustainable, all of which makes for a prevailing DH culture against which, she asserts, we must “fight” (155).

Unfortunately, Antonijević’s conclusions about DH seem to reflect how she framed her study and the behaviors and interactions of the homogenous communities she chose to follow rather than reflect a more comparative engagement with epistemes and disciplines across DH as she claims to pursue at the book’s onset. Ethnographers typically believe that if “properly done,” ethnographic methods are the best methods for better understanding “real-world social processes” (Forsythe 1999, 129), but to do ethnography “properly,” the ethnographer must use data-gathering methods that are framed by a particular philosophical stance and conceptual structure. Influenced by the writings of Strathern (2005) and Bourdieu (1988), who stress comparative approaches and understand the world as constructed and situated, Antonijević asserts that her methods promote a constructed and situated appraisal of DH (34), but Antonijević’s laudable call for pluralism and her desire to “challenge assumptions of epistemic cultural essentialism” (31) in DH are undercut by the study’s scope, which overlooks and underplays alternative DH communities, histories, and methods. Instead of a comparative approach, Antonijević props up a particularly narrow version of DH by willfully ignoring this wider range of DH work, meanwhile creating a convenient, straw-man version of DH to attack.

In particular, who and what she chooses to study helps prop up this limited view of DH. While rich in breadth of experience, her examples are narrowly situated both geographically – primarily Western European universities (with one US site) – and in terms of resources as each of these sites include robust and well-funded research programs.  In her attempt to give “an empirical basis for inquiry into the changing landscape of the humanities” (34), Antonijević describes with explicit detail her visits between 2010 and 2013 to 23 educational, research, and funding institutions in the US and Europe. She describes surveys, interviews, and observations with 258 participants including researchers, faculty, students, university administrators, librarians, software developers, policy makers, and funders. These projects include Alfalab: eHumanities Tools and Resources (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences or KNAW); Digitizing Words of Power (KNAW and the University of Amsterdam); Humanities Information Practices (KNAW, Oxford Internet Institute, and University College London); and Digital Scholarly Workflow (Penn State University). In the conditions she describes, DH does look like a cog in a vacuous political engine run by a terrible oligarchy of newly clothed emperors (Kirschenbaum 2014).

In Antonijević’s version of DH, alternate kinds of DH work are largely ignored. Examples of DH that could thwart some of her conclusions about DH include (but are not limited to) programs where greater importance is placed on teaching rather than research initiatives, such as Bard College’s Experimental Humanities Concentration and Initiative, which is situated within a small liberal arts college focused primarily on the arts, and the digital humanities community at Salem State University, which seeks “to create DH opportunities for underserved student populations and a model for building DH at regional comprehensive universities” (Risam, Snow, and Edwards 2017). Other examples include many of the international groups such as the Centre of Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town, where researchers think critically about educational technologies, or transnational groups such as RedHd (Red de Humanidades Digitales) in Mexico, which seeks to think about DH from a global perspective that requires DH to consider how access to computing power and technology on a small scale must be accommodated in our understanding of DH work across a large number of less wealthy global communities (Galina 2013).

In contrast to the narrow range of sites that Antonijević has chosen to study, the definition of DH work she uses to frame her study covers too broad a swath. In Antonijević’s study, the digital scholarship she describes has, at its core, a fundamental separation between digital tools and the research workflow. In her attempt to capture how digital technologies are being used in humanities research, for example, Antonijević begins her interviews asking respondents what digital tools they use in each of eleven research “phases” that she shows them on a visual prompt. These phases include research activities: collect, find, analyze, write, communicate, organize, annotate, cite, reflect, archive, and share. She writes about this initial tactic:

The use of the visual prompt enabled me thus to develop a more detailed overview of the variety of digital tools scholars use in their research practices, and to understand the influence these tools have on segments of scholarly practice that become routinized and thus invisible to analytical activity. (39)

Antonijević is including and describing scholars who use digital tools while they conduct research but she is interviewing scholars who do not consider the digital tools analytically as part of their research, reflecting a definition of the DH scholar that is in direct opposition to a prevailing notion in DH about what counts as good DH scholarship.

In contrast, many have shown that digital humanities is a field in which a critical awareness of how digital information technologies influence perspectives in and on research in the humanities is essential to rigorous DH scholarship. DH scholarship typically makes visible how codes and platforms (Chun 2013; Manovich 2013), media archaeology (Kirschenbaum 2007; Parikka 2012), digital scholarly communications (Fitzpatrick 2007), publishing (McPherson 2014), gaming (Flanagan 2009; Jagoda 2013), geospatial analysis (Elliott & Gillies 2009), interactive, multimedia design (Balsamo 2011), and machine learning (Heuser and Le-Khac 2012; Piper 2017), statistical analysis (Burrows 2004; Ramsay 2011), and visualization (Drucker 2011; D’Ignazio and Klein 2016) influence scholarship in the humanities. It is quite true that the scholars Antonijević interviewed and observed use digital tools, but it is not accurate or productive to say that the broad swath of participants in her study accurately portrays the “digital humanists” that the title Amongst Digital Humanists promises to better understand.

To be fair, Amongst Digital Humanists demonstrates well that research practices employing digital technologies in the humanities can be particularly difficult to study with ethnographic methods. Scholarly practices in the humanities can often occur privately, independently, idiosyncratically, and outside of the more public and regimented lab spaces that are traditionally studied in Science and Technology Studies (STS) (see, for example, Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay 1983; Knorr-Cetina 1999; Latour 1988; Latour and Woolgar 1986). In particular, Antonijević, Beaulieu (2004; 2010), and Borgman (2009) mention the difficulty of “rendering ‘public’ philosophical, historical, or literary knowledge” (Beaulieu 2004, 456) that is produced through research practices in the humanities. Doing social science studies—like doing DH—requires an epistemological framework and a community of practice and the kinds of ethnographic methods that Antonijević employs in her study are part of a century-old tradition that is changing and becoming increasingly more difficult as the methods of work that ethnographers study changes in the digital age (Forsythe 1999). Scholars in STS have shown that digital technologies can make certain kinds of work and infrastructures unobservable even when (as in Star 1999) there are well-meaning subjects who seek to describe their work for the ethnographer. Yet, given these difficulties, it is the study’s narrowness (in terms of projects) and breadth (in terms of defining DH) that ultimately weakens the foundation of her concluding arguments about DH.

Finally, with her limited sample of DH projects and communities and a narrow viewpoint of DH history, Antonijević misses the main point of and the opportunities present in the vast range of DH scholarship that seeks to expose and critique the bindings between knowledge production and intellectual communities or epistemes, technologies, and cultures. Whether one speaks of DH or DS, the politics of institutions that support digital technologies can never be untethered from how knowledge production happens in higher education. In response to a recent piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books (Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia 2016) that positions DH as the site for a neoliberalist take-over of the humanities in higher education, for example, Alan Liu (amid a more general outcry by many scholars both in DH and without) revisits his own misunderstood critiques of DH in order to consider what he calls the “critical potential of DH” (Liu 2016b). Liu shakes an admonitory finger at the LARB authors for not seeing “that digital humanists have real critical goals too” (2016c). He then points to his newest book project where he lays out these goals:

I call for digital humanities research and development informed by, and able to influence, the way scholarship, teaching, administration, support services, labor practices, and even development and investment strategies in higher education intersect with society, where a significant channel of the intersection between the academy and other social sectors, at once symbolic and instrumental, consists in shared but contested information-technology infrastructures. (Liu 2016a).

Like the LARB authors, Antonijević sets up the contours of her study to portray DH as the site of what ails the humanities in higher education in general. Unlike Liu, Antonijević observes but does not see DH; as such, she chooses not to see its potential.

A social studies of the Digital Humanities could help us acknowledge truly rigorous DH scholarship as well as steer us away from scholarship poorly done, but straw man theories about the enemies among us distract us from focusing on the fundamental concerns around issues of academic rigor, professionalization, funding, and public engagement at the heart of the humanities in higher education today. Antonijević’s claim to understand the world as constructed and situated is in direct contrast to her assertion on the book’s last page that diversity and inclusivity in higher education means understanding that “regardless the size of any current disciplinary ‘tent,’ digital knowledge production is intellectually, technically, and culturally unbounded” (156). Indeed, the interviews and observations collected in Amongst Digital Humanists show that digital knowledge production in digital humanities is necessarily culturally bounded. Antonijević’s DH is a convenient, tactical, and situated version of DH that serves the book’s ultimate ends: to tell us about uncritical scholarship (scholarship done improperly). As a result, Amongst Digital Humanists provides a detailed snapshot of how different kinds of scholars in the humanities use digital technologies in well-resourced research communities in Europe and the United States on individual, disciplinary, and organizational levels, but Antonijević’s shortsighted version of DH shortchanges the impact such a rich and complex view of digital scholarly work in the context of humanities knowledge production could have made on better understanding the real-world, social processes of critical digital humanities.

 

Bibliography

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———. 2010. “From Co-Location to Co-Presence: Shifts in the Use of Ethnography for the Study of Knowledge.” Social Studies of Science 40 (3): 453–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312709359219.

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Borgman, Christine L. 2009. “The Digital Future Is Now: A Call to Action for the Humanities.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 003 (4).

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1988. Homo Academicus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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About the Author

Tanya E. Clement is an Associate Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. She has a PhD in English Literature and Language and an MFA in fiction. Her primary area of research centers on scholarly information infrastructure as it impacts academic research, research libraries, and the creation of research tools and resources in the digital humanities. She has published widely in DH. Some of her digital projects include High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS), In Transition: Selected Poems by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and BaronessElsa: An Autobiographical Manifesto.

1

Of Software and Sepulchers: Modeling Ancient Tombs from Oaxaca, Mexico

Abstract

More and more frequently, digital art history is a course on offer, or even required, in graduate and undergraduate art history programs. There are a burgeoning number of ways of “doing digital art history,” from narrative mapping with Omeka-Neatline[1] and other tools, to creating Wikis on art history topics,[2] to using or even creating virtual tours of museums or historic sites.[3] Yet one of the most valuable, although often daunting tools available to the art historian interested in working digitally, is that of 3D digital modeling. This article will discuss a long-term foray into 3D digital modeling conducted over the course of two summers by the authors—former Assistant Professor of Art History at Cornell College Ellen Hoobler and three undergraduate students who worked with her, Ve’Amber Miller and Catherine Quinn (summer 2014) and Arturo Hernández, Jr. (summer 2015).

This paper offers suggestions and information for professors who seek to use 3D modeling for their own work, particularly in conjunction with undergraduate students. Overall, the paper argues that the greatest benefits of many 3D modeling projects that involve students and faculty are achieved as the pedagogical “byproducts” gleaned through the process of working through a digital humanities product rather than the actual digital artifacts or “products” of the investigation. These pedagogical “byproducts” of 3D modeling are potentially the greatest benefits particularly for those projects undertaken with modest budgets or with less technical expertise (i.e. not in institutions with highly developed digital support programs, or undertaken by professors in computer science). This is not to negate such products; this work generated several dozen 3D models of ancient objects as .stl files; a visualization of an entire section of a tomb including some of those models; an interactive visualization of a tomb with several models inside it; a video illustrating the position of objects within a different tomb; and a website to highlight some of the findings of the two summers’ work. All of those would be usable by specialists in the field of Mesoamerican art history or potentially even professors teaching a survey course on the topic. However, the skills that the participants took away from this were myriad, and very likely more important than these products themselves. Even in an imperfectly realized project in 3D modeling, digital art history (or possibly digital humanities more broadly), students learned art-historical skills, such as close looking, archival research, and in this case, particularly how recreation of context will draw upon multiple fields of investigation and methodologies, which they may choose for themselves. The project also fostered important life skills including the basics of project management, forming and fostering relationships for collaboration, and learning how to begin and drive a project when there is no clear way forward.

This idea is influenced by a seminal article by Lisa Snyder of University of California, Los Angeles’s Visualization and Modeling team “Virtual Reality [VR] for Humanities Scholarship.” She discusses the important issue, one that the team kept returning to over and over again, of understanding whether one is working on a more process-based or product-based mode. “Process-based questions are addressed through the analytical act of creating the virtual artifact or environment with little or no expectations for the longevity of the data beyond the life of the project. Product-based questions may include process-based elements during the construction of the VR environment, but are more focused on interaction with the finished product and long-term public dissemination of the research” (Snyder 2012, 396). Hoobler began the project and outlined it to her collaborators with confidence that it would yield an important product, and did not fully understand the value of working through the process of making the 3D models when, in fact, process and the opportunities for thinking through ancient spaces ultimately was equally or more important than the models themselves. It is true that all projects are to some degree a balance between these two modes, as much as there is greater emphasis on process rather than product when students (and professors) are new to the software necessary to carry out such projects. Obviously, neither of these collaborations yielded enormous products on the scale of Snyder’s own interactive VR reconstruction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (http://www.ust.ucla.edu/ustweb/Projects/columbian_expo.htm) or other well-funded large universities’ projects. However, work from the two summers’ projects did ultimately yield permanent products that will be helpful in future research.

The project that the collaborators undertook grew out of Hoobler’s dissertation research focused on tombs of the site of Monte Albán in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, built by the Zapotec peoples of the area from ca. 500 BCE–850 CE (see Figure 1, and Hoobler 2011 for more information). The tombs had never been fully published by their excavator, the archaeologist Alfonso Caso. During extensive archival research, Hoobler discovered and then digitized a trove of some 8,000 catalogue cards made by Caso and his collaborators in the 1930s and ‘40s. The cards detailed the position of all the objects Caso and his collaborators had excavated from a given tomb in centimeters from the back and side walls of the tomb (see Figure 2). (At the time Caso was working, all objects were removed from the tombs and ultimately sent to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.) Using these cards, Hoobler created two-dimensional diagrams of the tombs for her dissertation (see Figure 3). At the time when she finished graduate school at Columbia University in the Department of Art History and Archaeology in 2011, the free 3D modeling program Google Sketchup (now Trimble Sketchup) did exist, but there was no training and certainly no mandate for working on software for graduate students in art history at that time.

Fig. 1 – Large open plaza of archaeological site of Monte Albán, pyramid mounds close by and mountains visible in the distance.

Figure 1: Large open plaza of archaeological site of Monte Albán.

 

Fig. 2 – Large index card with typed information about an object – photograph of a bowl at top right and a watercolor of the same object below it.

Figure 2: Large index card with typed information about an object.

 

Fig. 3 – Simplified diagram of floor plan of a tomb with side niches. Numbered dots on plan show location of objects.

Figure 3: Simplified diagram of floor plan of a tomb with side niches. Numbered dots on plan show location of objects.

 

In summer 2013, after becoming an Assistant Professor at Cornell College in Iowa, Hoobler attended an NEH Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on Humanities Heritage 3D Visualization: Theory and Practice,[4] where she experimented with some of the many tools by then readily available, free or at low-cost, to those interested in 3D modeling. Based on working with the University of Arkansas’s dedicated, well-funded, and well-developed Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) lab,[5] Hoobler’s original, perhaps overly ambitious goal for the project was fully product-based: to allow users a phenomenological experience of one of these burial chambers by creating a virtual tomb, including all its contents, with which the user would be able to interact. This goal proved unattainable during the two summers of work because it required computers with much greater computing power than were available on a typical small liberal arts college campus. Furthermore, such a project would have required much greater technological skill on the part of Hoobler and probably thousands of hours of work on the part of the team. Still, a great deal of progress was made. Not only did all participants learn a great deal about working with 3D modeling software (including Maxon Cinema4D), the process was enlightening in regard to the important role that 3D scanning and modeling might play in cultural heritage in the future. From a scholarly standpoint, it was very clear to Hoobler that the process of modeling the tomb and its contents, and virtually placing them, allowed—and even forced—the modeler to engage in the art-historical technique known as close looking in dealing with the objects. Experiencing this process also made apparent many characteristics of the burial chambers that the creation of two-dimensional diagrams had not.

Based on the NEH Summer Institute training, Hoobler sought and received grants from Cornell College and the McElroy Fund/Iowa College Foundation for Ve’Amber Miller and Catherine Quinn to work with her in summer 2014.

Ve’Amber Miller (Cornell College ’15) comments:

“As an Archaeology major—and someone who already had an interest in how to engage technology with the past—there was no hesitation in wanting to join this team. At first it was daunting even as I was going into my final year of undergraduate studies because I did not have experience in 3D modeling, but over the course of our work I found the support from everyone and the story these artifacts told was more than enough to push me through. Being able to place the items that had been recreated back into a virtual tomb made the history even more real; 3D printing those same objects–some that had been destroyed decades ago–so that others could hold them in their hands made it more real for them as well. The most important thing is that I learned from this project, and will only do better in the future so that history becomes an interactive and engaging experience for everyone.”

As of this writing, Miller is working as a Park Guide at the Pullman National Monument in fall 2017. Prior to working in this position, she worked at Weir Farm Historic Site, where she put her skills and experience acquired during this project to use in creating a virtual gallery of art[6] and an ESRI StoryMap based on “Julian Alden Weir’s Student Years in Europe,” using digitized documents and artifacts from Weir Farm’s collection.

Her collaborator that summer, Catherine Quinn, Cornell College ’15, was an art history major who had been interested in technology for years, having gained experience through graphic design courses in high school and customizing a gallery website while interning at the Center on Contemporary Art. Quinn said:

“Working on this project with Dr. Hoobler was exciting for a number of reasons. It was one of the first opportunities I had as an art history major to apply what I had learned in the classroom while contributing to a real world, ongoing, body of research. In addition, I was able to combine multiple fields of interest (art history and technology) while being introduced to others (archaeology), and building extensively on my existing knowledge through hands-on learning. Finally, being able to work on this particular site was especially meaningful due to the fact that we were working with the intention of offering our research to the Community Museum in Oaxaca. As one of my first forays into ‘digital humanities,’ this project has left me inspired by all the ways I see technology providing not only new insight but also accessibility to people, and I foresee it having a beneficial influence on how we curate museum collections, design interactive exhibits, and present research.”

Quinn is currently based in Seattle and applying for graduate programs in digital cultural heritage and related disciplines.

That first summer, predictable challenges ensued. The software had been updated between 2013 and 2014 and many functions had changed. In addition, due to the vicissitudes of funding, the two students were starting at different times, with Miller beginning several weeks after Quinn. Thus, Quinn and Hoobler struggled together with the Maxon software, and Quinn largely trained herself on the finer points of working with it, using tutorials and message boards she found on the Internet. Quinn then trained Miller when she joined the team. (One counterintuitive point about working with students on summer research is that it is much easier to have two or perhaps three students working in collaboration: when there is a question on how to do something, they work through it together, usually showing their professor how to do it once they have figured it out.)

Miller, Quinn, and Hoobler then worked through the challenges of free-hand modeling of objects illustrated in profile on the catalogue cards (see Figures 4 and 5). This was exciting work, since some of the objects shown on the cards were made out of unfired clay or stucco and apparently were destroyed in transit to Mexico City. For this reason, many of the objects documented in the tombs cannot be found in the warehouse of the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. Thus, while virtual, these proxies, derived from catalogue cards, are the only place where these objects “exist” in the world.

Fig. 4 – Screengrab showing the Maxon Cinema4D software program with a bowl modeled in the active window.

Figure 4: Screengrab showing the Maxon Cinema4D software program with a bowl modeled in the active window.

 

Fig. 5 – Screengrab showing the Maxon Cinema4D software program with a stone beads modeled in the active window.

Figure 5: Screengrab showing the Maxon Cinema4D software program with a stone beads modeled in the active window.

While a broader discussion of the theorization of replicas is beyond the scope of this article, two points are worth noting. One is regarding copyright issues. Unlike a project involving modern or contemporary art or creations, the objects found in tombs were created over a thousand years ago and have no clear author whose descendants could be traced to seek permission for the replication. Even if one considers the archaeologist Alfonso Caso who led the team that conducted the excavations as the author of these objects, these were “reactivated” some 70–80 years ago. The National Museum of Anthropology and History might also assert its rights to the objects, since it is their physical repository. However, as per the College Art Association’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, the modeling of such works would be well within the furthering of “… the teacher’s substantive pedagogical objectives,” as described in Section Two, Teaching About Art (College Art Association 2015, 10).

The second point has to do with the ontological status of the replica. Many scholars have written eloquently about replication, that moment “when ideality and reality touch each other,” as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard put it (Kierkegaard 1983, 131). Probably the most influential text on this topic is Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin discussed in depth the concept of authenticity in copying works of art, arguing that there is a unique authority to the original that he called its “aura,” which would be dissipated in an age of mechanical reproduction (Benjamin [1935] 1968, 224). However, given the number of visitors to the Louvre yearly, it seems the elusive aura has not withered away, but is never inherent to a copy no matter how perfect its mode of replication. Scholars have generally asserted that the original work of art will not be replaced by digital facsimiles, and in fact these copies may increase the desire to experience the original (Hall 1999, 277; Cuno 2014). The topic of replication will continue to be the subject of debate and discussion in art history. However, the team was working from originals that in many cases were ceramic vessels mass-produced in workshops, minimally decorated and similarly sized and shaped for stacking and transport, and thus fit much more easily within the sphere of “visual culture” than fine art. Therefore, such questions, while fascinating, are less relevant to the argument at hand.

Moving from Process to Product: Manage Your Expectations

During the process of making the models, students and teacher alike were learning many skills. Some of these were art historical. Many art historians have described art history, like many other humanities disciplines, as having a toolkit of methods from which to choose rather than a prescribed set of steps to follow as in the sciences (Long and Schonfeld 2014, 10). In general, art historians’ methods are informed by the kind of research questions they seek to answer, which may vary depending on their project. Three methods used for this project were close looking, library and archival research, and a contextual analysis methodology. Close looking, or viewing and analyzing objects through very close and sustained study is the basis of connoisseurship and authentication as well as formal and iconographic analysis. Even with objects of the type that the team were working with (i.e., bowls and stone objects made by anonymous artisans hundreds of years ago), patterns and insights about them emerge through careful looking. Small wonder then that many art historians also execute their own illustrations, and many seasoned professors encourage their students to draw works in order to commit their contours to memory. The use of 3D modeling demands a similar quality of focused attention to replicating an object or space, although one is now “drawing” with a mouse rather than a pencil. Since the team was working largely from photographs of catalogue cards, it was very important for all concerned that the students were able to see originals of the kinds of objects being modeled, even if not necessarily the exact work, at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, Santo Domingo, in Oaxaca City during the research period.

In terms of archival research, while there was no time to do additional research since so little of this material has been digitized, students had to dig through several large and unwieldy archaeological publications published in Spanish in the 1950s and ‘60s. This acquainted them with basic but less-discussed principles of archival research such as figuring out which sections of the text were essential to translate versus those that could be skimmed.

Finally, the team was certainly undertaking a contextual analysis of the tombs, trying to understand the original placement (and by extension, use) of the objects in these spaces. All the collaborators discussed how these tombs were in a sense similar to ritual caches excavated and documented by Leonardo López Luján at the Aztec Templo Mayor in Mexico City. There, López Luján has been able to show how the intentional deposition of objects in a specific sequence in different parts of the site was the result of ritual actions undertaken in support of concrete purposes related to propitiation of the gods. Yet, the Zapotec case is less clear, given that tombs were filled some seven centuries or more before the invasion of the Spanish, and deities worshipped in one way in the sixteenth century may have been venerated in an altogether different one centuries earlier. However, reconstructing the tombs and their contents does bring us closer to understanding the lives of ancient peoples that we know comparatively little about.

While the processual byproducts related to art history were quickly realized, the products were not. The original plan was for the objects in the tomb to be modeled in Maxon Cinema4D, the tomb itself would be built in the Unity game engine software, and then, the object models would be imported into the tomb.[7] However, the version of Unity we were working with was not compatible with webGL, becoming difficult to view on most browsers shortly after the model was created, a frustrating but very common experience in digital humanities projects.

Quinn did in fact create a very satisfactory model of the tomb in Unity, but at this point, more challenges emerged. While the resulting models of the objects in the tombs were excellent, their high resolution meant that there were no on-campus computers that could handle both the tomb model as well as the virtual versions of all the objects in the tomb. Later, in summer 2015, Arturo Hernández modeled objects in the same data-heavy manner, but then realized that the models could be made workable by removing details not obvious to the naked eye. The team determined that it should have more carefully sought out a best practices statement for getting around the issue of large file sizes (see Figure 6 and online gallery[8]). Ultimately, Quinn was able to determine how many objects could be loaded into the model so that the digital reconstruction could be interacted with without crashing the program. Reaching this more process-based objective provided us with a better understanding of how the interior of tombs were illuminated. Unity allows the user to move the sun across the sky, and although previous scholars had insisted that there was almost no illumination in the tombs, and that the Zapotecs would have had to use torches (Martha Carmona Macías 2007, personal communication), the virtual model made it clear that for much of the day there was sufficient light in the tomb for mourners to conduct simple rituals. In the future, a more complete model that takes into account the height of ancient house walls might disprove this idea, but for now, it seems likely that rituals might have started during the day. The Unity model also had the benefit of offering a product, a kind of “proof-of-concept” for the whole project. Even with the thoroughly modern, overall-clad default Figure Unity offers for interacting with the scene (no stock characters fit for ca. 300 CE Mesoamerica, surprisingly!), there was invariably a great deal of interest and admiration for the video of the tomb as modeled in Unity. This shows how important it is to build in some degree a visual aid, particularly in art history.

Fig. 6 – Screengrab showing the Unity game engine, with several panes open – at the top, the interior of a structure, with several vessels visible.

Figure 6: Screengrab showing the Unity game engine, with several panes open.

Miller also completed a section of one of the tombs as a final iteration of the project during an independent study with Hoobler. When she made the original 2D tomb models, Hoobler noted that objects of particular importance were placed in niches in the side and back walls. It was particularly important to try to visualize these privileged spaces, yet the diagrams Hoobler produced in 2011 were extremely crude (see Figure 7). During the summer, Miller and Quinn modeled perhaps the most curious and unusual object that was dealt with, a hardstone “billy club” found in one of the niches of Tomb 118 that is extremely atypical of the tombs. In a later independent study, Miller continued work on shedding light on the niches. In particular, she 3D modeled an entire niche of a different tomb, Tomb 104, which held quite a few of the most elaborately decorated ceramics from the site. Some of these were plates, but others were odd pitcher-like vessels. Miller accomplished a great deal with this, even giving their surfaces the appearance of the painted glyphs that were present on these vessels. Despite the imprecise information on the catalogue cards related to this space, Miller was able to generate decent models for the bone needles likely used for ritual bloodletting that were found in conjunction with the vessels. The much more naturalistic representation of the niche that Miller was able to generate is the product from these projects that is most easily transferable to traditional scholarship about the Zapotec (see Figure 8).

Fig. 7 -- Simplified diagram of floor plan of a tomb with overlaid diagram of niche, several line drawings crudely showing placement of contents.

Figure 7: Simplified diagram of floor plan of a tomb with overlaid diagram of niche.

 

Fig. 8 – Realistic image of a niche within the tomb, showing several vessels inside of it, some brightly painted.

Figure 8: Realistic image of a niche within the tomb, showing several vessels inside of it, some brightly painted.

 

Both of these examples show how important it is to have realistic ideas and goals of what can be produced in a single summer, particularly by people who are new to working with the software in question. Upon reflection, it is clear that it was unrealistic to expect that the team could model a whole tomb and 30+ objects as well as make such a model interactive and functional. However, even if the original goal to have a highly detailed model containing all the objects from that tomb was not achievable, three significant products were created: models of individual objects; a mimetic model of a portion of a tomb holding iconographically rich materials; and the modeling of an interactive tomb, albeit without many objects in it. Additionally, a tremendous amount was learned with regard to the development of processes that can result in better products in the future (see Figure 9).

Fig. 9 – Screenshot of a video, marked “Before” at lower left, and showing an empty stone chamber.

Figure 9: Screenshot of a video, marked “Before” at lower left, and showing an empty stone chamber.

Projects are Iterative–But Preparation Is Crucial

In Summer 2015, Hoobler teamed up with Arturo Hernández, Jr. (Cornell College ’16), a studio art and computer science double major. Arturo commented that:

“I joined the Digital Humanities Zapotec Tomb Project because I was thrilled about learning how to use new pieces of software and hardware; additionally, I wanted to further explore and learn about my culture and heritage. This project and team allowed me to contribute ideas and learn more about the importance of digitizing artifacts.

I woke up always looking forward to creating objects and exploring different techniques during the process, as well as researching different applications. One of the rewarding feelings was seeing results from 3D printing some of the objects and analyzing their past or their functionality.”

Before starting his research with Hoobler, Arturo had taken a computer graphics class where he programmed some tools for a small 3D modeling program. Consequently, going from dealing with back-end to user-end 3D space helped him to see the bigger picture of 3D applications. Since graduation from Cornell, Hernández has continued to be involved in projects related to technology and Latin America. He worked for a year at Abriendo Mentes, a non-profit organization, teaching basic computer skills to rural and underserved populations in Costa Rica. He is currently based in Los Angeles and is getting further computer training and certification to continue in technology, ideally with a focus on international work.

Hernández learned the software extremely quickly. He was able to model asymmetrical and eccentrically shaped pieces very effectively, and ultimately was able to solve one of the most difficult problems of the previous year: the question of how to add multiple objects into a virtual tomb.

This came about partially by chance and completely on Hernández’s own initiative. In summer 2015, the funding for Hoobler and Hernández to work together came through the Cornell Summer Research Institute (CSRI) sponsored by Cornell College, which offered newly formalized ways for students and faculty to collaborate, with students receiving various opportunities to showcase their work to participants from across all departments. In one workshop that included Professor of Physics Derin Sherman, Hernández explained the problem with the models, which could not hold the digital models of vessels and be interacted with, for the file size became unmanageable for any computer on campus. Sherman commented offhand that perhaps Hernández could just use video software to make the concept clear, as Sherman had done to make a particular physics concept more understandable for students. This sparked Hernández’s imagination, and after some research, he found Blender,[9] a free, open-source software that allows for importing models and video and integrating them together in a process known as motion tracking. This can be seen online,[10] or in Figures 10 and 11. However, even though initial use of the Blender software suggested a possible way to work with the tombs, prior planning was still necessary to use this new tool in the most productive way.

Fig. 10 – Screenshot of a video, marked “After” at lower left, showing a stone chamber with small ceramic figures and vessels inside.

Figure 10: Screenshot of a video, marked “After” at lower left, showing a stone chamber with small ceramic figures and vessels inside.

 

Fig. 11 – Young man with a camera kneels by a table with several plastic objects on it, taking a photograph of them.

Figure 11: Young man with a camera kneels by a table with several plastic objects on it, taking a photograph of them.

Technology and Community Engagements: 3D Modeling to Printing

It is important to note that the precise limits of the site of Monte Albán were in fact set in the 1930s by several towns surrounding the core of the site, each of which donated some of their communal landholdings to create an archaeological zone. As a result, there is an inherent conflict, even putting aside all national legislation, as to how the artifacts of Monte Albán might be shared simultaneously with all these communities. This includes villages further out from the site’s core, which in ancient times helped to make some of the vessels and other offerings found in the tombs. It is possible, as has been discussed by other scholars, that digital versions of heritage objects might offer the possibility for their sharing by different stakeholders. (This has been discussed in various articles from a 2012 issue of the Journal of Material Culture, particularly Brown and Nicholas 2012 and Newell 2012 as well as Bell et al., Hennessy et al., and the entire 2013 special issue of Museum Anthropology Review titled “After the Return: Digital Repatriation and the Circulation of Indigenous Knowledge.”)

One of the ultimate goals for work on the tombs has been to return, at least virtually, some of the material culture of Oaxaca taken from the state’s small communities after the archaeological excavations of the 1930s. It was during this period that most of the excavated objects were sent to the warehouses of the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. As a response to this loss of their local culture, since the 1980s some of the towns have sought to keep this kind of material from leaving their towns by creating local community museums (Hoobler 2006). While efforts to create virtual versions of the community museums had been discussed by the team in summer 2014, it was ultimately not undertaken. However, because Hernández is fully fluent in Spanish and fully bicultural with knowledge of Mexican and even specifically Oaxacan culture, a community engagement component could be added during the 2015 portion of the project.

Interested in testing these possibilities, Hoobler decided that she could make a test case for virtual sharing with one community by working with the Community Museum of the town of San Juan Guelavía close to Oaxaca City. Knowing that a large segment of the town’s population was fluent in Zapotec languages and/or English, (the town has had a large number of migrants to the United States, see Cohen and Browning 2007), Hoobler decided to offer some materials that might help facilitate increased understanding of the ancient ancestors of the Zapotecs. Such materials included coloring sheets with line drawings of actual ancient vessels. Hernández created trilingual Zapotec-Spanish-English game boards for a version of the Lotería game that is similar to Bingo, but with images and words. Hernández also created models for and supervised the 3D printing of replicas of artifacts found in the tombs (see Figures 11 and 12), including some plastic vessels, “ear flares,” ornaments like those made of jadeite found in the tombs fitted with clip earring backs, and an incense burner. This last object was particularly satisfying because when Hernández and Hoobler visited the community museum, they found a case holding actual pre-Columbian objects found in the town. It included the handle for such an incense burner, but the bowl of the burner had been broken off. (See Figure 13 for a contrast between the ancient and modern objects.) This 3D model was an object that young people in the town could actually handle without fear of causing it damage, allowing them to understand better the purpose of a formerly innocuous object in their museum.

Figure 12 - Closer view of the table in figure 11, showing different 3D printed objects, including vessels and small figurines.

Figure 12: Closer view of the table in figure 11, showing different 3D printed objects, including vessels and small figurines.

 

Fig. 13 – Photograph of a display case with a glass top, and ceramic fragments inside. Inset with second image, a plastic vessel similar to one of the ones seen inside the case.

Figure 13: Photograph of a display case with a glass top, and ceramic fragments inside. Inset with second image, a plastic vessel similar to one of the ones seen inside the case.

While this was a gratifying episode, the interaction largely ended there because Hoobler had not undertaken long-term planning for a continuous relationship with the museum. There had been discussion between Hernández and Hoobler at the beginning of the summer about training young people in the community to work with digital 3D modeling themselves, but as it was unclear at that point what the capabilities of the computer at the community museum were, this idea was discarded. However, as Pohawpatchoko et al. (2017) discuss, this would likely be the richest option for receiving useful input regarding the value of reproducing ancient objects for the community. As has happened in past collaborations with indigenous groups, there were “good intentions” on the part of the North American university team but not many actual solutions (La Salle 2010). Community engagement is incredibly rewarding, but can be difficult or feel awkward when not executed within a longstanding relationship. Without an already-established personal relationship with the town and community museum committee, this attempt was limited in its success. However, this experiment provided Hernández with valuable experience working with local communities that he would use in his subsequent work in Costa Rica, a project that did prove to be more successful.

This episode brings up a final point about 3D modeling and its use in art-historical scholarship and teaching. It can be an end unto itself, and as the price of 3D printers becomes more affordable, it can be used in conjunction with 3D printing effectively. This is helpful information in many ways. First, it allows us to rethink traditional methods of studying art. Within art history, primacy has been given to the visual qualities of a work of art, yet sculpture and many objects were very much prized for their tactile qualities as well. Theoretically, 3D modeling and 3D printing would allow students to recapture some of the tactile experience of an object. There may be some exceptions—one being that the tomb modeled by Miller in 2014 was particularly hard to model with digital means since it had asymmetrical walls that curved irregularly; yet those walls also referenced the fingers that had shaped it (see Figure 4). Thus, though it was printed in plastic filament on a CubePro printer and the fine-grained texture was in no way accurate, in general terms even the plastic proxy in some way called attention to the hands that had shaped it. Unfortunately, in practice, many smaller schools are not buying the kind of high-end 3D printers that can print texture similar to that of the original and, at larger universities, there is sometimes a siloing of resources, with the result that “less technological” departments such as art history might not be able to use this sophisticated equipment, whose raw materials are similarly quite costly.

Secondly, 3D modeling and printing gives students a sense of the scale of objects when they are printed at full size. Just as viewers of the Mona Lisa are always surprised by how small the painting is, it is also helpful to understand, in a phenomenological sense, the contents of tombs at a human level. For example, in summer 2015, one of the objects given to the community museum was a “mystery vessel” found in several of the tombs. (See gray object at left of Figure 13.) Its side walls are so low that it is hard to imagine what it could have been used for—it is not an incense burner or other easily recognizable artifact. The hope in giving it to the community museum was that an older member of the community might recognize it, as has happened previously (Lind and Urcid 2010, 276–77). However, because low-end 3D printers are usually only capable of printing objects that can fit within a 10” square, it is nearly impossible to recreate the sense of scale one experiences from a huge pre-Columbian olla jugs. Low-end printers also create plastic objects that are aggressively monochromatic and very toy-like. More sophisticated, expensive printers can generate objects in materials such as ceramic, metal, or paper with very delicate tints mimicking the original object, but lower-end printers create models that look very Lego-like (Figure 13) and can even run the risk of seeming disrespectful when working with cultural heritage objects.

The Importance of Reflection in the Process

Since Hoobler originally conceived of the project as more product-based and was focused on the end result, she had not built in as much time and opportunity as she later would have wanted for self reflection on the part of the students (or herself). This is important on the one hand because it is increasingly clear how metacognition, or reflecting on the process of learning itself, is crucial to learning. Self-reflection is helpful for a number of reasons. First, as Paige Morgan notes, it allows participants to broaden the question of whether a project is “done” beyond a yes/no binary (Morgan 2014). A team can recognize and acknowledge progress even if they do not realize all that they plan to do. Second, progress can be measured in real time, perhaps weekly. Since digital work is new for many professors, they may find that they were optimistic about what the team can accomplish in the time allotted. Third, writing and documentation may help explicitly describe and justify the choices made at different points where available data may not be available.

Interestingly, although self-reflection was not structured as part of the project, all the students sought out the opportunity to reflect on the process and showcase their work. Miller created a website for the project (www.digitalzapotectombs.com) that Hernández added to and Hoobler has maintained. Professors who work with undergraduates on academic projects should provide them with this opportunity, which allows them to keep track of how they arrived at certain solutions, maintain a record of challenges they have surmounted, and chart the progress they have made. A website or other public venue also allows them to have a permanent record of their work, accessible by potential employers or graduate school admissions personnel. In general, professors should build this kind of periodic reflection into the project timeline, perhaps by encouraging blogging. This would allow the students (and the professor) to reflect more effectively on how much progress they were actually able to make in a single summer, semester, independent study period, or over the course of a longer-term project.

Despite not keeping an ongoing record of progress in a blog format, the lessons learned by both the students and the professor throughout the process are evident. Working collaboratively with peers from such diverse fields meant each team member was able to bring their own set of skills and background knowledge to the project, and that others were able to learn from them. By extension, cross-disciplinary relationships were formed with other students and staff on campus as well as at other institutions as they were brought in to consult on various issues. Hernández, Miller, and Quinn were able to take ownership of their contributions to the project, each utilizing their “very particular set of skills,” and working more as collaborators with Professor Hoobler. Hoobler would argue that it was a good and productive experience for the students to see their professor not as the “sage on the stage” but as a coworker, not infallible— sometimes not even the authority on the project. All participants saw first hand how important project management and planning skills are, and yet how one discrete portion of a project can be completed in a relatively short time.

Why Use 3D Modeling in Art History?

To conclude, there are many affordances of 3D modeling for art historians. Current modeling technologies allow for what Johanna Drucker has called digitized, rather than digital art history, the latter being defined as “analytic techniques enabled by computational technology” (Drucker 2013: 7). The use of 3D modeling is the digital equivalent of sketching the objects you are studying—it forces sustained close looking and a quality of focused attention to representing a given object or space. However, it does obligate you to be much more concrete than sketches are in representing your understanding of the physical context of objects and buildings as you think through their placement and surroundings, sometimes including terrain, neighboring structures, etc. This type of modeling is particularly helpful for considering ancient spaces where context is unclear: a 3D environment allows the scholar to reunite fragments that are lost, dispersed, or damaged. When printed, 3D models also afford the user a physical object that gives them the experience of scale and basic tactile qualities, opening up questions of use and function for mystery objects. As technology for 3D printing continues to improve, 3D printing will likely also offer a very close proxy for the object in terms of colors and textures.

However, the pedagogical benefits of 3D modeling projects may actually outweigh these digital “products.” The opportunity for students to form close working relationships with each other and faculty in a setting where their professor is not an infallible authority and they may well have to “teach the teacher” at points is important. In this particular case, students also gained valuable international experience, confronting cultural differences and communication barriers at times. In general, students learn about and then grapple with thorny problems to which there are no easy solutions. It is important that they complete at least one aspect of the project, perhaps a prototype that can act as a future “calling card” for them, and ideally it should be part of a broader process of reflection on the project. Such a “proof of concept” has broader pedagogical value too—the professor can then use it in their classes, discussing how it was made by students, and making such processes feel manageable and “relatable” for other students.

Of course, the main takeaway of this article for professors is to choose incredibly smart, positive, conscientious students who are much better than you are with software as your collaborators and then—just get out of the way. Your students will find ways to take ownership and make the project, or at least parts of it, happen in ways you never expected, but which will teach you about technological (and other) solutions you never dreamed existed.

Acknowledgments

Many thanks are due by the authors to: The Cornell College Summer Research Institute, Cornell College Student-Faculty Research Fund, the RJ McElroy Fund / Iowa College Foundation grant. At Cornell College, we would like to thank Brooke Bergantzel, Instructional Technology Librarian at Cornell College, Amy Gullen, Consulting Librarian for the Sciences and Technology, Christina Penn-Goetsch, Professor of Art History, Joe Dieker, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College, Ben Greenstein, Professor of Geology and Associate Dean of the College, and Derin Sherman, Professor of Physics. We would also like to thank the committee of the Museo Comunitario San Juan Guelavía, and particularly Juan Manuel Martínez García.

Ellen Hoobler would also like to thank Mandar Sharad Banavadikar for his patience and understanding during these two summers of work, as well as Angel David Nieves, Ph.D. Associate Professor at Hamilton College for his wise counsel and support during this process.

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About the Authors

Since February 2017, Ellen Hoobler is the William B. Ziff, Jr. Associate Curator of the Art of the Americas at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. Prior to becoming a curator, she was from 2012–2017 an Assistant Professor of Art History at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA. A specialist in art of ancient Oaxaca, she is interested in the possibilities of digital technologies to further understanding of ancient cultures and cultural heritage monuments. She can be reached by email at emh2104@gmail.com.

Catherine Quinn graduated from Cornell College in 2015 with honors in Art History. A native of Seattle, she currently works in corporate America while serving as a docent for the Seattle Art Museum’s SAMbassador program, where she enjoys interacting with visitors, discussing art, and keeping her art history skills sharp. She is planning to attend graduate school in fall 2018 to continue learning about digital humanities, with the goal of pursuing a career in digital humanities and cultural heritage. Catherine can be reached by email for comments or questions at Catherine.j.quinn@gmail.com.

Ve’Amber Miller graduated from Cornell College in 2015 with a degree in both Archaeology and English and Creative Writing. As of early 2018, she works as a Park Guide at Pullman National Monument, and enjoys telling history through tours and educational outreach programs of a historic neighborhood in Chicago, IL. She is hoping to attend graduate school in fall 2018 to learn more about how technology and cultural institutions are part of the future of public history. To know more about Ve’Amber and her qualifications, please visit her LinkedIn profile at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ve-amber- miller-b37b2255/

Arturo Hernández, Jr. is a freelance designer, technologist, and visual artist living in Los Angeles. He graduated from Cornell College in 2016 with majors in Computer Science and Studio Art, and was from 2016–2017 a teacher with the non-profit organization Abriendo Mentes in Costa Rica. There, he taught basic technology skills to rural Costa Ricans. For comments and opportunities, Arturo can be reached via his website: http://www.arturohernandezjr.com/. Samples of his technology work related to this project can be seen at https://github.com/ahernandez16/Monte-Alban-Zapotec-Tombs.

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