A Response to Franco Moretti?

The prompt for this response was: Response to Moretti, and yet my response is not so much to Moretti, but to the “questions that appear to us to be completely unsolved.”[1] I stand with my classmates on the challenge of understanding and contextualizing all of the specialized knowledge Moretti’s essays seem to ask us at least to have encountered. Setting my own dilettantism aside, let’s just say that Herr Keuner, a character to whom (I now know) Bertolt Brecht returned over and over again from the 1920s until his death, and into whose mouth Brecht wrote the line about the list of questions, knew how I felt at points during my first reading of Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History:

 “We can’t go on talking to each other,” said Mr. K. to a man. “Why not?” asked the latter, taken aback. “In your presence I am incapable of saying anything intelligent,” complained Mr. K. “But I really don’t mind,” the other comforted him. “That I can believe,” said Mr. K. angrily, “but I mind.”[2]

 That said, Moretti’s considerable text, in combination with the illustrated figures, delivered punctuated nodes of insight, illusory as some of these turned out to be in the end… and (I would think) equally varied according to our own previous exposure to the literary, critical and theoretical works cited in the text. In a certain sense, the point that we can understand a good deal (more?) about literary history through macroanalysis and subsequent texturing and visual representation of data is the main point that he conveys. What we can expect to find is that our own ability to act on these questions without apparent answer will depend on our commitment to seeing the relationships between things, and to grasping and fully considering how scale and proximity in space will be able to catch up to the longer established relationships between time and human activity we have called history.[3]

While Piazza’s response represents a constructive attempt at engagement between disciplines, it also functions as a defense against some of the erosion of the science resulting from Moretti’s inexpert treatment of the subject. I wonder how well he does with the field of literature? What are the distinctions we historians need to draw between history and literary history and analysis? How do we think about our sources as historians in comparison to scholars of science, literature and other fields?


[1] “Could we not, in the interest of propaganda, draw up a list of the questions that appear to us completely unsolved?” Moretti, Graphs, Maps and Trees, 26; Like Pound, Moretti is talented at condensing ideas and stringing together a chain of esoteric evidence in service to arguments that sometimes seem to be internally contradictory, or at least generously dualistic. His graphs, maps and trees are approximate and not representative. His exploitation of science is uneven, less than rigorous, and of limited value as direct analog, as acknowledged by Moretti himself, and made apparent by Piazza especially with regard to the centrality of cultural selection and natural selection in the study of literature and evolutionary biology, respectively. Moretti also has a predilection for breaking with conventions in his writing.

[2] Brecht, Bertolt. “Conversations.” In Stories of Mr. Keuner. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2001, p. 25; Nord, Christiane. Text Analysis in Translation: Theory, Methodology, and Didactic Application of a Model for Translation-Oriented Text Analysis. Rodopi, 2005, 139-141; One of the things I discovere while trying to make sense of this book is that Brecht died on my mother’s fifth birthday and was born a hundred and fifteen years ago yesterday.

[3] I hope my classmates will recognize (and forgive) my attempt at imitating Moretti’s style in this post. I also look forward to sharing my observations on a talk I attended at IUB, given by Matthew Jockers of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and formerly of Stanford, as a collaborator of Moretti’s. Jockers’ most recent work is an attempt to correlate theme, geography and sentiment in a large corpus of nineteenth-century literary novels using computational text analysis and advanced topic modeling algorithms.

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What in the name of science is going on here!?

The folks at zooniverse.org have been keeping busy. Actually, they’ve been busy keeping a lot of other people busy, as well: Since the 2009 launch of Galaxy Zoo, nearly 800,000 citizen scientists have participated in a wide range of projects classifying life forms on the ocean floor or the Serengeti, identifying features on the surface of Mars or the moon, transcribing historic weather conditions at sea or interpreting activity in the far reaches of space. The Citizen Science Alliance (CSA) is an Oxford University-based partnership of museums and universities woking with other civic, scientific and academic institutions on a series of science (and humanities) projects using the labor of the virtual crowd to process massive amounts of data in a variety of fields.[1]

I had the chance to speak with Oxford astronomer and Zooniverse team leader Chris Lintott during a session on crowdsourcing last year at the AHA2012 THATCamp in Chicago. According to Lintott, the scientists, archivists, developers and humanists involved with these projects have had success for a few reasons:[2]

The tasks and the training are not overly simple. In order to get started with transcription, annotation or classification, participants have to familiarize themselves with the format of the data and the interface for data entry. It may be slow going at first, but once users get the hang of it, they have made a modest investment of time and attention in completing the tutorials and submitting their first entries. Potential volunteers unwilling to spend the time it takes to figure out how the system works wash out in that first phase, according to Lintott.

While there are some symbolic rewards for participation, including user profile pages with ratings or rankings, the organization emphasizes the importance of volunteer work as a contribution to science. In the case of Old Weather, transcribed ship log-book data from the First World War is being used by climate scientists interested in improving our understanding of current and future climate conditions by reconstructing models of weather in the past. Another positive feature of the Zooniverse…universe is its excellent online forum and blog spaces. Citizen scientists do this work because they find it interesting, and the site’s designers built in plenty of opportunities for users to talk.[3]

Not only does the CSA site explain how the data will be used, but they also make most of the data available to the public.Simon Tokumine, an environmental and computer scientist not directly connected to the CSA, developed this CartoDB map using the data from the first phase of the Old Weather project for publication in the Guardian. Gordon Smith, a team member at Old Weather is a retired engineer and author whose site Naval-History.net, a home for naval history enthusiasts on the web since the 1990s, continues to grow in partnership with the Old Weather site.[4]

One of the big concerns scholars voice with regard to crowdsourced transcription is that the results may be incorrect or unreliable. The Zooniverse model relies on multiple transcriptions to improve accuracy and to more efficiently identify errors that may require the attention of experts in the field. In order to construct useful models or prepare scholarship for publication, scientists need their data to be accurate, to be sure. At the same time, they need to format and organize the data according to the structure of their databases. Digital humanists also require accurate, organized and clearly formatted data in order to translate their scholarship for the web.

With the Ancient Lives project, the CSA has expanded its portfolio to include more typically humanities-focused projects, but I think the real transformative potential of the Zooniverse projects for public historians working in the digital domain has to do with: a) the precise and planned nature of the data collection activity, b) the establishment and maintenance of a healthy user community with opportunities for interaction between volunteer and professional participants throughout the process, and c) a consciously hybrid approach to rewards based on some form of recognition of users’ contributions on the one hand, and celebration of civic and scholarly outcomes of the project on the other.[5]


[1] “Zooniverse – Real Science Online.” Accessed February 4, 2013. https://www.zooniverse.org/;  “Galaxy Zoo.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.galaxyzoo.org/; “Zooniverse – Science Projects.” Accessed February 4, 2013. https://www.zooniverse.org/projects;  “Ancient Lives | Help Us to Transcribe Papyri.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://ancientlives.org/.

[2] French, Amanda. “About.” THATCamp American Historical Association 2012, October 19, 2011. http://aha2012.thatcamp.org/about/.

[3] “Old Weather – About.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.oldweather.org/about; “Zooniverse Blog” Zooniverse. Accessed February 4, 2013. http://blog.zooniverse.org/.

[4] The Old Weather site provides a particularly good example of videos addressing the question: “Why Scientists Need You.” “Old Weather – Why Scientists Need You.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.oldweather.org/why_scientists_need_you; “Britain’s Royal Navy in the First World War – Animated | News | Guardian.co.uk.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/interactive/2012/oct/01/first-world-war-royal-navy-ships-mapped; “Royal Navy and Naval History.Net.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://naval-history.net/index.htm; “Old Weather Team.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://www.oldweather.org/team.

[5] “Ancient Lives | Help Us to Transcribe Papyri.” Accessed February 4, 2013. http://ancientlives.org/.

Nearby Whose History?

So I’m reading Why Nearby History by David E. Kyvig and Myron A. Marty for a class, and I arrive at this statement in the middle of a wandering section on “The Importance of the Nearby Past”:

“Indeed, your own past and that of people closest to you, family and community, have had a great impact on you.”

So far so good.

“Learning about it enhances your memory and helps you comprehend influences on your life.”

I’m still right there…and then this:

“Your grandparents’ decision to leave Europe for America, for example, or their cautious spending habits learned in the Great Depression.”

1982. That’s the year this book was written, apparently for white people, in case you were wondering.

I did try to find evidence that the authors had considered Native Americans or African Americans, or other people of color from around the globe, their families and their communities in Chapter 2, which is mostly a list of questions researchers may want to consider. About 300 questions. 15 pages or so.

Because I work on slavery and freedom in New York, I think about the status of African American individuals as free or enslaved. I think about whites as slaveholders and non-slaveholders, of households as free or unfree, and about the mechanisms of manumission, emancipation and freedom. During the period of gradual emancipation in New York, these legal distinctions became increasingly fluid and enslaved individuals gained their freedom according to individual circumstances.

In all three hundred of their questions, Kyvig and Marty asked only a handful mentioning race as a factor among others in connection to economics, education, leadership and demography, but none that engage with the most fundamental questions African American (family & local & public & digital) historians have to ask.

I’ll have to give the rest of the book a look later. Maybe.

What is Digital History? The Future of the Past.

map snipIn order to get at what I think Digital History is, I find myself framing the Digital Humanities as a sort of meta-disciplinary methodological turn whose adherents selectively embrace components of each of the disciplines we have traditionally walled off into the Liberal/Fine/Visual/Performing Arts and the Computer/Information/Social/Natural Sciences and, yes, even Mathematics. The humanities offer endless possibilities for exploration, but the Digital Humanities expand the parameters of that exploration exponentially by incorporating additional sensory input (and output), by amplifying the power of our analytical tools, and by enabling the establishment of collaborative human networks in local communities and across the globe.

Digital History, in this context, can be considered a sub-discipline of the Digital Humanities, incorporating the methodological approach of digital humanists in attempting to address historical problems. The fundamentally collaborative nature of the Digital Humanities approach is shaping the future of history as a discipline in two key ways: First, by challenging the model of the historical profession as a solitary pursuit, and second, through the incorporation of methodological, theoretical and analytical frameworks from other scholarly fields into nominally historical projects.

In his essay on the cultural turn in history “The Kids Are All Right,” James Cook describes the:

“multidirectional process by which cultural history itself—in the very act of turning—became more pluralistic in its methods; more omnivorous in its sources; more precise about causality; more attentive to competing theories of power; more open to numbers and networks; more sensitive to limits on agency, resistance, and self-fashioning; more focused on the interplay between meanings and markets, representational practices and policymaking; more ambitious in tracking global systems of capital. (AHR Forum, June 2012, p. 770)

History has always borrowed from, and contributed to other fields of inquiry, but what Cook describes is more a revolution than a simple turn. His description of the “multidirectional process” of turning might also be usefully applied to the impact of the Digital Humanities on what I am calling the sub-discipline of Digital History.

Digital History, however, is more than an academic turn, or turning: Digital History is an embrace of methodologies, tools and networks that are made possible by the infrastructure of the Web. This infrastructure also has the potential to become a democratizing force, creating opportunities for citizen-scholars to collaborate with professionals in academia and other institutional settings.

Digital History represents an opportunity to re-envision the superstructure of scholarly authority in the academy and establish a new organizational model for the production, distribution and consumption of knowledge about the past.

Digital History is an approach that recognizes the value of that community of practitioners who will shape and transform the landscape of historical inquiry in the near and distant future. Tomorrow’s digital practitioners will use the tools differently than today’s digital evangelists.

Digital History is also a commitment to the communities – virtual and physical – that have been instrumental in establishing the digital humanities as a field. At the same time, public and academic historians who adopt a digital approach continue to be responsible to their traditional constituencies; as we re-define our professional training programs, and re-evaluate the role of digital work in decisions about academic tenure, it is worth thinking about the risk that digital public historians may inadvertently retreat behind digital walls, or that digital academic historians may allow digital projects, along with publishing demands and institutional service requirements, to crowd out even further the traditional teaching role. Digital History should push us further out into the public, and challenge us to become more creative in our classrooms, virtual or otherwise.

Not too wordy, not too nerdy.

Akiba and me on a research trip this summer

Akiba and me on a research trip this summer

I figured I would start out simple, using the Up-Goer Five Text Editor, which asks you to explain a hard idea using only the ten hundred most used words.  

I am trying to tell the story of people who were not free when my home land was young. These people were not free because their skin was darker than the people who controlled my home land when it first began. Because it was a long time ago, and because so many of the people who were not free could not write, little of their story is known.

In order to understand the story better myself, I am reading books and letters and other writing that can help me to figure out where these people lived, and then I am marking the places they lived on pieces of paper that also show towns and streets and houses and bodies of water and land forms and other things. I am doing this so that I can know who lived near who (and when they lived there), and so that I can make guesses about who might have talked to who, or who might have worked for who, or who might have moved to some place to be near some person. This is how I hope to learn enough about these people to tell more of their stories.

I know that it would be very hard for me to mark down and keep track of the movements of every person on these pieces of paper by myself, so I am also using a computer and asking other people who use computers to help me. I am looking for people who are also interested in telling these kinds of stories, and who like the idea of using computers to make the work go faster, and make it possible to share these stories with as many people as possible.

In order to make sure that people know that what I am saying is true, and so that I can know if other people are getting the story right, I would like to get people to take pictures of the writing they have found and type the hand written words so that others can read the writing more easily. I would also like to work with people who have to take care of old things and paper as part of their jobs on making sure that we have pictures of the old paper just in case something happens to it.

Another group of people who I think would be really interested in working on this with me are students. Working with their teachers on telling these kinds of stories would help them to better understand the past, and would also help them as they work to find answers to other questions in and out of school. Because I am a teacher, I have some ideas about how to make this kind of work fun for students, and how to make sure they get something more than a letter in return for their hard work.