Digital Project Proposal: Reformatting Academic Journal Articles for Non-Academic Audiences

The Problem

In a recent Washington Post Opinion piece, Max Boot argues that historians should accept rightful blame for the sorry state of America’s general ignorance of its own history. Historiographic shifts to studying social and cultural history and history through the lens of gender have “[led] to the neglect of political, diplomatic and military history — subjects that students need to study and, as enrollment figures indicate, students want to study but that universities perversely neglect… Historians need to speak to a larger public that will never pick up their academic journals.” Boot’s unoriginal argument took heavy criticism from historians via Twitter. In other words, Boot lobbed a familiar rock at the academy, and historians lobbed a familiar rock back at him.

I argue that Boot and other critics of the academy have mis-identified the root of the problem. Boot posits that historians’ changing interests have rendered students, and therefore the American populace en masse, ignorant of their past and thus incapable of learning from mistakes like electing a demagogue to be president.

Not exactly.

Some people simply have a genuine disinterest in reading or watching or hearing interpretations of history, but many more will take an interest in subjects is they are discussed using creative, intellectually, and financial viable formats. Historians must give them a way of doing so. I’m not so dense as to think that universities and private colleges have the resources to reproduce a Hamilton-type cultural wave. But institutional subscriptions to JSTOR or ProQuest simply aren’t enough to make waves in public intellectual culture.

Unlike Boot and some of his critics, my project doesn’t pick fights. Instead, it tackles the immediate problem: an uninspired public and an academy that can inspire others to learn and ask questions.

The Project

I propose to develop a model for an open-source audio-visual journal that replicates existing journal articles through visual representation and full-length audio recordings. In an ideal world, my project would consist of dozens of videos and recordings dedicated to distilling single articles down to stimulating yet captivating segments. Seeing as how the semester is limited in time and resources, I propose to produce one such video and audio recording of a single article to demonstrate the utility of this resource.

Existing Project Models

There are a few existing projects that serve as models for my proposed project. The first is the Journal of Visual Experiments (JoVE). JoVE is an online, peer reviewed scientific journal that shares videos of thousands of different scientific experiments with institutional and individual subscribers. The video articles run the gambit of subjects, from Breath Collection from Children for Disease Biomarker Discovery to Assessing the Particulate Matter Removal Abilities of Tree Leaves. The videos follow students, researchers, and top scientists as they conduct the experiments so that they may be reproduced. Yet unlike JoVE, my proposed platform will not exist behind a paywall; it will be open-access.

A second similar project is historian and host Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World podcast. Published weekly for free download, Dr. Covart conducts interviews with leading historians on subjects related to their recent publications. During a recent interview with Professor Ryan Quintana, they discussed what historians refer to as the “state” within the context of colonial South Carolina. A subject as complex as the “state” is not well understood beyond academic and policy circles. An audio-visual journal modeled after Dr. Covart’s hour-long podcast episodes aim would introduce nearly any audience to the complexities of any number of fascinating historical subjects while reproducing the same stimulating yet welcoming atmosphere of Ben Franklin’s World. My proposed audio-visual journal will not address monographs or edited volumes, but rather will focus on journal articles, which receive far less attention from podcasts generally.

Outreach and Benefits

First, students with visual impairments often have to rely on readers or text-reading software to consume text-based readings including articles. My proposed audio-visual journal provides students the option to listen to articles, read by historians and voice-over professionals on their own time as they would an audiobook or podcast. Those with hearing impairments may also find use in videos with subtitles generated not imbedded software but rather by video editors who include accurate transcriptions of what otherwise may be heard.

Second, my proposed audio-visual journal adopts models of video content production to reproduce articles in visual form. For example, an article that relies on and even quotes from archival material may be reproduced visually. The video would proceed through an abridged version of the article with photos of the same primary sources used as evidence in the original text. Editing software will allow the narrator to guide the user to specific lines in text and places in photographs and objects that are noted in the article. Visitors to historic sites and cultural institutions want to see the places and objects and documents that comprise the historical record. Seeing what is otherwise only spoken of demystifies the process of producing history and inspires pride and a commitment to learning and sharing knowledge with others of the public.

As for publicity, I propose to share (with necessary permissions) the videos and audio files with professors and history teachers in high schools who currently use academic articles in their classrooms. Until sufficient resources are acquired for wider distribution, my proposed audio-visual journal will spread through word-of-mouth.

Evaluation and Final Considerations

A successful project will attract a slowly but gradually enlarging base of non-academic users as more articles are distilled as videos and recorded as audio files. That being said, the videos produced using this platform are not intended as permanent substitutes for textual articles. They are meant as teach tools and take on a medium that is often more engaging than readings.

Print Project Proposal: ‘Overlooked’ by the New York Times meets Wikipedia

Intervening in the historiography. Its what historians do daily. Historians who study any subject produce scholarship using new approaches with familiar subjects and familiar approaches with new subjects and using any combination of the two. Historians have plenty of commentary on the work of their peers. But what happens when a major media outlet sets out to right wrongs and revise its historical narrative? For my print project, I propose to conduct a comparative analysis of comments left on obituaries written as part of The New York Times‘s ‘Overlooked’ series and conversations on the “Talk” pages of corresponding Wikipedia entries.

About ‘Overlooked’

The New York Times inaugurated ‘Overlooked’ in March 2018 with the aim of giving obituaries to noteworthy individuals who never received such a distinction when they passed away. It has since written obituaries for the likes of Isabelle Kelly, Gladys Bentley, Major Taylor, Ida B. Wells, and Marsha P. Johnson. Fittingly, the project began on International Women’s Day; what better way to bring attention to mistakes wrought by the NYT in the past than to rectify those errors on a day intended to celebrate women and on which to advocate for women’s rights. As such, the first obituaries written were of women whose accomplishments and contributions to the lives of millions, present and future, were once deemed unworthy of note by the NYT on the event of their passing. Yet ‘Overlooked’ is ongoing and inclusive; there are many people of all walks of life that have yet to receive the recognition that was too long denied to them because of the color of their skin, their gender or gender identity or intersectionality, their career, their activism, their “radicalism,” and their bravery.

About the Project

Rather than reflect on press reaction to and commentary on ‘Overlooked,’ my print project will compare and contrast how one ‘crowd’ engages with ‘Overlooked’ obituaries and how a second ‘crowd’ engages with corresponding Wikipedia pages. This paper will also advance reasons that explain these similarities and differences, taking into account medium, format, and the inferred purpose of that medium, as well as variables such as accessibility (i.e. the NYT paywall), intended audience, and actual audience. The main source of research will consist of comments left by members of the general public on each of the obituary pages and Wikipedia entries as of a particular date. Although ‘Overlooked’ is ongoing, it has been a part of the digital public record for nearly one year. Thus, comments will be plentiful. Wikipedia may provide even more material than the NYT comment section with which to work.

Why is this project worthwhile?

This comparative analysis has several benefits. First, defining both the comments section on biographical obituaries and the “Talk” pages of corresponding Wikipedia pages as spaces intended for the ‘crowd’ to air their thoughts is one way to begin defining commentary in such spaces as itself a genre. Second, comparative analyses add to our understanding of how the several ‘crowds’ come to circumscribe their role as consumers of historical information shared via certain mediums. Third, it provides an opportunity to measure how effective corrections to the historical record can be depending on the medium in which they are made.

Google Ngram Viewer: A marriage of textual analysis and a Google search

Before sharing my thoughts on the Google Ngram Viewer, let’s get started with some basic information on how to get started using Google Ngram. If you’d like to follow along as you read through this first part of the post, then visit Let’s get started!

The Basics

What is it? Google Ngram Viewer—hereafter referred to as Google Ngram—is a text analysis and data visualization tool that allows users to see how often a certain word, phrase, or variation of a word or phrase is found in books and other digitized texts. Given a set of simple parameters, it combs through all text sources available on Google Books.

Given your input and designated parameters, this tool maps how often (y-axis) your word(s) or phrase(s) appear among all of the words in texts published year-to-year (x-axis). It is important to note that it does not show how many times such words or phrases were used in a corpus of books. (“How many times” will be addressed at the end of this post.) Rather, it displays a percentage.

These parameters include: A) a word or words, which are referred to as grams. For example, “car” is a unigram or 1-gram. “Shirley Chisholm” is a bigram or 2-gram. “Garden of Eden” is a trigram or 3-gram. “X marks the spot” is a quadgram or 4-gram. Quintgrams or higher are not searchable. “N” in “ngram” signifies the number of combinations that your word of interest can have. For example, “Garden of Eden” has the following combinations: “Garden—of,” “Garden—Eden,” and “of—Eden.” Still yet, you can enter several words or phrases at a time, separated only by a comma (no spaces).

B) years between which you want to view the frequency of your grams. You can gather data from available materials dating as far back as 1500 and that are from as recently as 2008. Unfortunately, this presents its own limitations if materials you wish to search date to before or after this time period. This will change as Google digitizes more books and other texts.

C) a corpus in which you would like to search for your grams. These include (but are not limited to) English, Spanish, and Chinese (simplified). Here are your options, which are vast yet limited based on what Google Books has made available for searches:

D) smoothing. Essentially, this takes an average for each data point on your graph. For example, if you select a smoothing score of 6, then the data for, say, 1680, will be the average of the data from six years prior to and after 1680.

Before smoothing the data by 6 for “industry”
After smoothing the data by 6 for “industry”

E) case-insensitive. Google Ngram will by default search for your ngrams in the case that you’ve input unless you select this box:

There are many more parameters for searches that either, limit, expand, or diversify the variants of the grams for which you want to search. Google Ngram has provided a useful tutorial on its info page. There are many additional parameters to chose from, which are referred to as wildcard searches, inflection searches, part-of-speech tags, and ngram compositions. I will demonstrate the wildcard search as one example.

To conduct a wildcard search, place an asterisk before or after a word or phrase. The resulting graph will display the frequency of the ten most common preceding or appending words along with your word or phrase. For example: “Sea of *” in the English corpus from 1500 to 2008 with no smoothing and case-sensitive input:

What can Google Ngram tell us, or not?

Simple searches using Google Ngram can tell us a lot, and open opportunities for further inquiry. You can enter any term or phrase that is relevant to your research. Let’s use an example from my own research: the quadgram phrase “dollar of our daddies”.

I’d like to answer the following question. Was the phrase “dollar of our daddies” used in American English books published before 1873?

You’re probably asking, “What in the world does ‘dollar of our daddies’ mean? And why does Jonah care about its use in American English published text around 1873?”

Well, I’ll tell you.

The “dollar” refers to the silver one-dollar coin, which ceased to be minted and lost its legal-tender status after passage of the Coinage Act of 1873. (The US Mint began minting the silver dollar again starting in 1878.) The “daddies” are members of the American Revolutionary generation who saw the Constitution’s ratification and the first silver dollar minted in 1794. The Act is often referred to as the “Crime of 1873” because white American men (overwhelmingly) viewed demonetization of the silver dollar as deprivation of a part of their ancestral American heritage and manhood. There remains much research and writing to be done on the history of money in American life. And at its core, the above question asks when American specie came to represent a kind of memorial to America’s founding generation. Google Ngram gives me a fairly conclusive answer to my initial question and thus to part of the broader project.

I am immediately struck by a second question. What is the first book in that uses this phrase? A quick Google Books search for books and documents published between 1873 and 1900 reveals that volume 11 of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers’s Monthly Journal, published in January, 1877, uses the phrase on page 486. This information—the date and type of publication and publishing organization— is useful. Using Google Ngram helped me to narrow the scope of my research inquiry, encouraged me to search for books and documents, published beginning in 1873, that are available through Google Books. It provided strong evidence to support my hypothesis, that “dollar of our daddies” is a product of a very specific moment in American history.

And still I am left wanting more. Why is this phrase coined post-1873 and not earlier, or later for that matter? When? What? But, why? As a textual analysis tool Google Ngram goes a long way toward answering “when” and “what” text analysis questions and then leaves me wanting answers to “why.” I am left wanting more, left with the urge to dig deeper, to read the books and magazines that comprise my Google Books search, to visit the library and borrow books on memory, money, and identity in nineteenth-century America. I’ve done a minimal sum of quantitative analysis on this phrase, and now I want to pursue qualitative analysis. As I read through sources, I will undoubtably come across other terminology to enter into Google Ngram’s search box. And the cycle continues.

Google Ngram is a powerful tool for anyone. It lets scholars conduct the sort of quantitative analysis that otherwise would be prohibitively time consuming and expensive. Text analysis on this scale would have been impossible before the arrival of machine computers at universities in the 1960s. Furthermore, people don’t often think of Google Books as a database unto itself. It is, however, a conglomeration of textual material from a range of libraries and parties that partner with Google that makes published texts available to anyone with unrestricted internet access. It grants access to a truly vast sum of text with a few parameters and the click of a mouse. (I haven’t tried, but see if you can calculate the number of parameter combinations that can be entered. It will take a long, long while.)

On the other hand, it is like any other conglomeration of textual material, a growing but limited resource. Google is sometimes thought of as the idealized modern reincarnate of the Library at Alexandria, a sort of one-stop shop for all of the information one could desire. Just think about the names “Google” and “Google Ngram.” A googol, or 10^100, is the funny number that is Google’s namesake. Ngram, as in “x” to the “nth” degree. And for the seemly unlimited knowledge to be had, Google Ngram is limited in one major way: Google Ngram mines Google Books for data because they are both Google products. And unlike American University’s library database, Google Ngram does not search across databases such as the Internet Archive, which similarly gives open access to printed texts. Furthermore, Google Books only had approximately 500,000 books dating to before the nineteenth century, so the frequency that appears high in earlier years prior to 2008 for words like “car” may give a distorted impression or confuse some users (as well as require some additional archival research).

Remember: Google Ngram displays the frequency, not number of times that a word or phrase appear in texts dated to a specific year. Unless your question is appended with “in textual sources available through Google Books,” research should never stop with Google Ngram. Ask more questions.

Google Ngram has the power to get people thinking about the endlessly intriguing knowledge to be had simply by clicking “search lots of books” as a start. And that’s just it. It has the power to get people thinking.

An AP World History teacher may use this Google Ngram to point at the suffusion of new ideas about leadership in the lead up to the twentieth century:

A LGBTQ+ Studies professor may use this Google Ngram to show students about the relationship between terms such as “gay” and “homosexual” in American culture after 1840:

Students who are more inclined to learn visually rather than textually, visual representations of textual analysis may go a long way towards driving home a lesson.

Are you a researcher who want access to the raw corpus data? There is an option to download a .zip file containing that data.

And for those who have ever google’d “Google,” this is for you:

Google Ngram Viewer is an immense tool. A fun tool. And one that raises more questions than it answers. Ask away!

History and the Internet

Let me come clean. Despite my being what many would call a “digital native,” I found myself surprisingly hesitant about what producing history in such an unregulated space such as the internet might do to the field. I automatically presumed the dangers associated with leaving historical interpretation to those with little or no professional training or expertise in a given field—my point of reference, of course, is domestic politics. Databases with transcription tools, genealogy sites that connect people to their ancestors, and websites and exhibits built and maintained by professional historians (in concert with design and tech professionals) on the other hand, seemed like safe and responsible ways to let people engage with history online. I often championed what Roy Rosenzweig refers to as “possessive individualism” because it was the most familiar principle to me in the historical profession. It is as though this weeks readings gave me permission to find excitement in what may well be limitless possibility for crowdsourcing history on the internet.

People from all walks of life and with a host of different skillsets and interests have a tremendous capacity to make historical information available to the masses. Causer and Wallace’s piece on Transcribe Bentham was a fascinating example of the enormous potential for volunteer contributors and staff to work together to make a voluminous sum of archival material available to any interested party. (As an aside, in 2017, TIME Magazine named Steven Pruitt, a.k.a. Ser Amantio de Nicolao, a volunteer Wikipedia editor and contributor as one of the 25 most influential people on the internet.) As they themselves indicated, crowdsourcing for projects like Transcribe Bentham are almost entirely volunteer-based out of necessity. The humanities have never (at least to my knowledge) been funded to the point that faculty and students need compete for relatively scarce resources. Crowdsourcing is, in these examples, collaborative, not exploitative.

I have no doubt that volunteers would benefit from fair pay for their contributions to community-based projects, transcription or not. Brabham’s argument is a convincing one. The overwhelming number of members of the crowd are equal in qualification and skill to those who have the good fortune of being tenured or tenure-track. And his argument is principled and one that not only I do not dispute, but rather wholly support. Graduate students such as myself often lunge at opportunities to assist researchers or contribute to projects in part for the much needed and much appreciated additional income. And for students who may be preparing for lives in academia, recognition of such work acts like capital in a marketplace; it raises our profile and further integrates us into a system that excludes those without major publications or service to the academy. But that said, there is something to be said for volunteerism. The humanities has always relied on committed individuals who understand the value of imparting knowledge to present and future generations. Thankless (unpaid) work is just as no less important to the humanities, and especially to the digital humanities, as the seminal article or paradigm-shifting monograph. “Enthusiasm,” write Causer and Wallace, is the steady force behind the “formidable” contributions of volunteer crowds.

That said, the internet is as much a wild west as it is a sort of terra nullius. (Unlike the land west of the Mississippi River, the space of the internet is actually unclaimed and open for cultivation.) Vigilance is needed to direct and coordinate advancements in the field of digital history. According to Edson, the notion that museums are meant to be physical structures visited by commuters and travelers is as false as the scientific argument that the universe is only what is visible to our naked eye. Museums and their staff have the whole of the internet to play around with and put to work in service of their institutional missions. Through using the example of the Vlogbrothers, Edson seems to suggest, and rightly so, that “memory institutions” like the Louvre need to be open to experimentation. Vulnerability and a welcoming attitude toward the crowd, coupled with institutional safeguards to prevent squirreling away the institution’s resources, is necessary if museums expect to compete with the likes of YouTube’s biggest celebrities.

This week’s readings present a favorable and much deserved narrative of crowds. The exception is Ford’s synthesis of WWIC— “Why wasn’t I consulted?” He gives the example of Wikipedia. “It tapped into the basic human need to be consulted and never looked back.” Yet there is a difference between people who think they understand the subject with which they are engaged and those who actually understand the profound potential implications of their contributions for how people use the past. The internet can be collaborative so long as its collaborators are limited to groups of people more interesting in getting work done than in argument or in being a contrarian. For that matter, historians and digital humanities professionals should continue to develop new methods of historical inquiry, of fostering intellectual curiosity, and inspiring bravery among people who are among the majority of site visitors to Transcribing Bentham who did not begin or complete a single transcription. It may be that collaboration is only possible if the digital humanities can convince larger and larger crowds to commit some of their leisure time in service of the humanities. It may also be that professional historians have yet to fully embrace the same sense of adventure and enthusiasm as Wikipedia contributors and editors and Transcribing Bentham contributors in bringing the humanities to the digital world. But my guess is that it is only a matter of time until this happens.

Introducing Jonah

Hi all,

My name is Jonah. I am a second-year PhD student in the history department, under the advisement of Dr. Gautham Rao. I received by B.A. in History from CUNY Brooklyn College and the CUNY Macaulay Honors College in 2017. My (tentative) fields are early America, the modern United States, and American Jewish History.

From this list, you may surmise that my academic interests are as broad topically as they are chronologically. You’d be right. My interests—the history of money, capitalism, and political economy—combine political, social, economic, and cultural history. Projects of mine to-date stem not just from these fields, but from a much earlier interest in numismatics. I began by collecting Lincoln wheat-back cents at an early age and then set off to assemble a collection of early American coinage (1793-1857, to be precise). Attending college and graduate school made active coin and currency collecting both cost and time-prohibitive. Still yet, I carry the same passion for scholarship and storytelling as I did when at fourteen years old I’d talk my mother’s ears off about the new penny that I’d set my eyes on adding to my collection.

I intend to continue taking advantage of as many of the advantages with attending this program as is possible. These include utilizing collections and one-of-a-kind archives for research seminar and dissertation research, participating in local conferences, working-paper presentations, symposiums, and other scholarly and cultural events that relate to my areas of study. I intend to use these (however-many) years in the program to read all that I can on the subjects that interest me most and that offer promise for greater attention in the future. And last but not least, I want to develop my pedagogical philosophy and style. Yet for as much as I want to get out of this experience, substantive contributions to the field, whether digital tools, a distinctive dissertation, work on a museum exhibit, or a publish-worthy article, all qualify as pillars of time well-spent in PhD program. I do not want my time in this program to simply be, as friends have observed, “more school.”

As for HIST 677, I want to learn more about the ways that the study of history intersects the digital realm in more ways than JSTOR and digitized databases of textual and image records. I want to learn about creative ways in which scholars conceive and reconceive of, or reinterpret, their work for audiences online and their students in the multimedia classrooms.  As an aside, the interconnection between systems, institutions and the daily lives of people never ceases to intrigue me. So, as I consider how best to convey histories in a balanced and meaningful way, I hope to familiarize myself with methods of communicating the (for lack of better phrasing) “macro and micro” by using, and potentially even by developing digital tools to inquire and inspire. And speaking of pragmatism, I hope to acquire some semblance—i.e. more than I currently have—of technical expertise so that I can pursue digital history projects with an understanding of the “nuts and bolts” that make up the tools at historians’ disposal. I am most excited about exploring the range of possibilities for the final digital history project.

All the best for a happy and productive Spring 2019 semester!

Your peer,