Podcasting the future of public/history: A project and reflection

This project—a history podcast dedicated to providing an adaptable platform for scholars and scholars-in-training to connect with each other and wider audiences—has gone through several conceptual and practical revisions in the last two months. From a audio-visual concept for remastering academic journal articles to an audiobook-style repository of downloadable journal articles to an article-heavy podcast, this process has proved to be both enriching and exhausting. And still I want to continue working on the project. I’ve grown deeply attached to the idea and had great fun working on selecting the articles I know to contain good stories to share with audiences and that graduate students may gain equal use of.

The most strenuous part of the entire process was the most tedious… making files of my reading sections of journal articles. Though I stayed hydrated and tried to enunciate like my actor friends, I grew tired quickly and got a slightly sore throat. In addition, text written in different languages proved to be a significant hurdle. Lasting, I spent a considerable amount of time speaking into the microphone, only to find out, on a number of occasions, that the memory card was full or that I had forgotten to press the “record” button. Oops! But it comes with the territory. Given those challenges as well as time constraints, varied the length of time I spent recording. I found it easiest to produce the recording according to the sections marked in the articles themselves. I produced recordings from three articles, listed below. The sections tended to last between 10 or 15 minutes, making the full recording around one hour in length.

Such a file can be listened to in the time it takes most people to commute to work, to campus, or even while doing chores or relaxing. I know, I know. Listening to an academic journal article while relaxing? It’s possible. And doable. It is all just a matter of convincing potential listeners that the article is worth a listen. Here are the other two articles that I selected and worked on recordings for:

  1. Katherine Smoak, “The Weight of Necessity: Counterfeit Coins and the British Atlantic World, circa 1760-1800,” The William and Mary Quarterly 74, no. 3 (July 2017): 467-502.
  2. Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis,” The American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (December 1986): 1053-1075.
  3. Hugh Rockoff, “The “Wizard of Oz” as a Monetary Allegory,” The Journal of Political Economy 98, no. 4 (August 1990): 739-760.

The latter two articles are accessible as PDFs without institutional access to JSTOR or ProQuest, and so can be accessed by anyone who listens to podcasts featuring these articles and who wants to download the full text version. Smoak’s article is not, but it contains a fascinating story and raises questions that may resonate with anyone who has ever had a coin-collecting relative or who has ever found an interesting coin in their change. (Articles with such restrictions as Smoak’s means that a future version of this project will have to involve a partnership with ITHAKA.)

So why should anyone be interested in listening to a podcast episode on one of these articles? Because everyone has an implicit vested interest in, or at least a connection to the content and themes; all three articles address subjects of particular relevance to just about everyone… the trustworthiness of money and of governments to generate it, gender and the ways it is used for methods of interpreting information, and The Wizard of Oz, a familiar story to many and a milestone in American popular culture.

I have also uploaded my working NEH Level 1 Grant Proposal, which is the part that I would like to continue work on. This involves reaching out to potential project participants, gathering data to continue work on the budget, and even trying out developing and producing a single podcast episode on my own. I received significant feedback during the poster session—I’ve also re-posted my poster here—that I have not had time to incorporate. However, this project is looking to be more and more of a reality.

This is the most fun I have had working on a digital project. I look forward to continuing work on it once I am ABD.

Project draft: A Grant Proposal for a podcast

Hi all,

I’ve attached the first few sections of my NEH Level I grant proposal for you to read at your leisure. I’m busy at work writing and editing the “Narrative” and “Budget” sections, but will post these as soon as I have decent drafts. Thanks in advance for any feedback! The more and more I work on this grant proposal, the more and more I see the project becoming a reality. Very exciting!

The Will to Adorn, the will to tell: Ethnography and an app meet at the Smithsonian

“The Will to Adorn” is both the name of an app and of an ongoing ethnographic study run by the Smithsonian Institution (SI). Though planning began before 2013, the app debuted at the SI annual Folklife Festival in the summer of 2013. This post will provide a summary of the project’s objectives and purpose, highlights of its user-friendly interface, and some connections to this week’s readings on the spatial turn and AR platforms for cultural institutions

About the project

“The Will to Adorn: African American Diversity, Style, and Identity” is a project that “explores the diversity of African American identities as expressed through the cultural aesthetics and traditional arts of the body, dress, and adornment.” Aside from background research of various cultural traditions and styles and crafts that pertain to clothing, jewelry, and even tattoo art, much of the information collected are oral testimonies from individuals describing what they are wearing at that time, why they chose to wear it, what certain articles of clothing mean to them, and how it fits in with their communities, immediate or diasporic. The project also seeks to fill significant gaps in the SI collections where stylistic examples, collected from “African American ‘artisans of style,'” should be. The term ‘artisans of style’ refer to shoemakers, hatters, and other craftspeople who make clothing representative of African heritage.

While the project intends to fill gaps in our understanding of how diverse African American communities express identity and a sense of community through dress, it also carries with it deeper meaning. Its namesake is an observation made by Zora Neale Hurston, who was herself an anthropologist. According to the project website, Hurston once observed that ‘the will to adorn’ ranks among the most important manners in which African American communities express identity, ideas, and cultural knowledge. Such information transmitted through dress has been filtered through centuries-worth of experience, influenced in part by the legacy of slavery and of social, political, and cultural movements to claim agency and control in every aspect of daily life. In the spirit of Hurston’s observation, this project’s creators and supporters view every day dress as one such act in claiming identity. The project is therefore more than a tool; it is a platform on which individuals and communities can preserve the profundity that is woven, beaded, sewn, and threaded in one’s choice of dress.

The anthropological lens of “The Will to Adorn” bifurcates people’s dress into a reflection of contemporary culture and a link to the history of crafts and the craft of history, a craft that every person engages with whenever they reach into their wardrobe.

How to use “The Will to Adorn”

While the website contains significant detail about the project and purpose of the app, the app is relatively simple and, for lack of a better phrase, gets the job done. It is also free to download, which makes it accessible to anyone with access to a smartphone.

The welcome page provides two options. The first is to make and upload an up-to three minute recording about what you the user is wearing. Selecting this option will bring you to a set of four required questions: 1) What is your age range?; 2) What gender are you? (The options listed are male, female, trans, and other.); 3) What part of the U.S. are you from?. The fourth question asks you to select a prompt regarding your outfit that you would like to answer. This is a simple yet creative way for the SI staff to organize the data collected for research and user purposes (to be discussed in the section below on the “listen” option). The prompt options are as follows:

  • What is your inspiration for how you are dressed?
  • What do you consider to be the most important part of looking good?
  • Describe what you are wearing today.
  • What does what you are wearing say about who you are?
  • What would you never want to wear? Why?

Once finished, the app will provide an opportunity for you to make your recording, to listen to your recording, to re-record yourself speaking if you would like to change your recording, and to upload your recording.

Selecting the “Listen” option brings you to a page on which recordings collected since 2013 begin to play. Pressing “more” brings you to a series of criteria that allow you to limit the types of recordings that you would like to hear. For example, you can listen to recordings by individuals of ages between 20 and 29, by males and trans individuals, individuals from the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, and by individuals who chose to respond to the “What does what you are wearing say about who you are?” prompt. Selecting “apply” will make a playlist of recordings by individuals to whom those criteria apply. Note: no recordings fit all of the above criteria in my example, so if you fit those criteria, make a recording! The SI wants to hear what you have to say about the choices you make about what to wear and why you wear it.

Together, these features make it more likely that users and contributors will return more than once, perhaps even regularly if they are so inclined.

But therein lies a problem. Unless the user is particularly fond of the project or interested in its content, there is little chance that he, she, or they will continue to use the app or add further descriptions of their chosen outfit to those which have been collected since 2013. Nevertheless, the app does the job it was created to do.

“The Will to Adorn” and the Spatial Turn

“The Will to Adorn” sits at an odd but noteworthy intersection of sweeping trends in historical study such as the spatial turn and the digitization of museum collections. The app is unlike others by cultural institutions which are themselves intended to orient the user in spaces in ways they may never would have considered. As John Russick observes, most cultural museums using AR to share collections to wider audiences have relied on overlaying images of objects on maps relevant to those objects. “The Will to Adorn” has no maps. The closest it gets to orienting the user within a set space is by asking where he, she, or they is from, or by allowing listeners to hear recordings provided by contributors from specific regions in the U.S. The app combines the crowdsourcing method of collecting with methods in oral history that allow the user to place themselves within those broad geographies, which are spatial, as well as within space demarcated by a certain diasporic community, which is less concretely spatial yet spatial nonetheless. For researchers, the app’s recording feature may, however, allow for a greater understanding of African American cultural expression, through style, connects to specific localities.

Lastly, some food for thought: Given its simplicity, how might the app and project be further developed to translate people’s responses to prompts provided onto a map or other methods of displaying “space”? Or, is the app as functional as it needs to be?

What to make of what has been made of “digital archives”

How do archivists preserve digital records? How do humanities scholars describe the “digital archives” in which those records are kept and preserved for future use? How do historians responsibly share digital information created in the normal (and sometimes troubling) course of public and private life? What are digital sources and how should historians interpret them? These are just some of the questions that Bergis Jules, Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam, and Trevor (Professor) Owens confront in (their digital publications) “Preserving Social Media Records of Activism,” “On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive,” and “Digital Sources & Digital Archives: The Evidentiary Basis of Digital History,” respectively.

In his post, Jules makes a compelling argument for why social media posts that are reactions to, reflections on, and memories of moments and periods of activism in modern American history is needed now more than ever. For one, gathering social media posts around activism forces historians, archivists, and activist historians and activist archivists to tackle important questions around privacy. Not to mention the fact that many of those who now create what will become the historical data, the primary sources for the future, are still alive and will be for decades to come. It also gives historians a chance to more thoroughly address questions about the responsible use and interpretation of sources. We need not look any further than the case of the Boston tapes to understand the technically true influence of recorded history on present issues that unravel social cohesion and set back efforts for peace. Will we take the approach of some and prevent much of the massive and presently uncontrollable rate of information from entering the historical record? Will we subscribe to the method defined by the historian Rachel Hope Cleves as “a ravenous appetite for the factual”? Second, social media makes it possible to document the many aspects of activism and protest that would otherwise have gone unnoticed in more formal or official records kept by the state. This is a chance to document as many perspectives as possible.

Schmidt and Ardam see great use in making the whole body of information produced and maintained by a person in tact. In part, they ask, is there such thing as excess in the historical record? Can incorporating born-digital information really make the work of the historian more complicated, but potentially more fruitful. “Opening that life to a potentially broad audience, though, raises more questions than it answers, and complicates rather than simplifies our understanding of her as a thinker.” As Sontag herself posited at the end of “Against Interpretation,” Schmidt and Ardam argue that the preservers of born-digital material, implicitly as that material is produced and maintained by a single historical figure, should see the acquisition of the profoundly impactful and deafeningly mundane in born-digital collections as an opportunity to learn more about outer and digital lives of people rather than to be more selective and feel burdened by their big data.

Finally, Professor Owens’s “Digital Sources & Digital Archives” observes, as did his thesis advisor, that sources do not speak for themselves. He provides concrete ways of thinking about how to define and describe digital sources, the reasons behind digitization or not, the true depth of information as metadata contained in born digital sources, and how to conceptualize digital archives, web archives, and digital collections. In essence, the introduction of born-digital and digitized sources into the historical record forces historians to revisit fundamental questions about the nature of sources and assemblages of them, methods of preserving and making sources available, as well as of interpreting those sources. (The very decisions made about the types of digitization of, for example, physical sources such as early modern versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet make potentially profound differences in terms of formulating and answering research questions.) (Owens, 4). “As information ecologies continually shift it is going to be critical for historians to show their work in making sense of the stratigraphy of digital sources.” Digital sources in all their forms, then, form the second great pillar of professional and public history. And it is dependent on historians to decipher its potential for and influence on the field.

To some, so many questions seem too daunting and even uninteresting or unimportant. But Jules, Schmidt and Ardam, and Owens all take the opposite approach; they see incalculable possibility for the growth and diversification of the humanities.