Project Proposal: History (Comps) in the Digital Age

“Hey John, we’re all getting together to study for our comprehensive exams every Saturday evening for the next two months. Can you make it?” This question may be the ultimate blessing to any graduate student. Unfortunately, John’s worries about his exams are not alleviated. “I can’t,” John responds. “I work every Saturday night. Is there any other time we can get together?” The study group has already been formed, and no one is willing to budge on the day or time. “Hey, I’ve got an idea!” Mary says with a smile on her face. “Why don’t we just post our practice papers and notes online so John, and anyone else who can’t make it, can still be a part of the group.”

Comprehensive Exams (hereafter often referred to as “comps”) for history graduate students can be a daunting experience. It’s a pass or fail situation, and failure can alter your life’s plans in significant ways. Professors and universities understand how intimidating comps can be, and often provide packets of study materials to aid their students. They also encourage students to form study groups so they can learn from each other and organize their thoughts. While this can be an important tool in aiding comp study, not all students have the schedules that enable in-person discussion. In the digital age in which we live, there is no reason why these study groups cannot be formed online. In addition, creating a website that allows students from different universities to share their own notes, book reviews, and practice essays may help to create an immediate cross-departmental cohort of future historians. While it could be argued that historiography (the subject of comprehensive exams) is generally taught the same throughout the nation, experience has shown that university history departments across the nation place emphasis on different ideas and schools of thought according to their own teaching models. By opening a cross-departmental dialogue to graduate students at the very beginning of their studies, historycomps.com (or a similarly titled website) will help in educating students beyond their universities’ walls.

Universities, like American University, currently offer classes that help students as they study for comprehensive exams. In the Colloquium classes at AU, students are given a list of historiographically significant books within different subfields. Of these lists, which often include twenty to thirty works per week, students are assigned three to five works to read and write reviews on throughout the semester. This ensures that each week five or six students present their own book reviews to the entire class. While these reviews give students some understanding of the historiography of that particular field, many books are left unread and are never discussed in class. If the class were expanded to include students across the nation, the chances of finding book reviews of these previously “silenced” works increases. Thus, historycomps.com will allow students from colloquium class across the nation to post their own book reviews of works they’ve read, and read those reviews posted by other students.

The idea of online study groups is nothing new. Various websites offer students the ability to create their own groups, including rcampus.com, cramster.com, and grouptable.com. Unfortunately, most of these websites cater to undergraduate studies, often focusing on specific classes. In regard to comprehensive exams, most universities (and sometimes individual professors) provide study guides to their students (i.e. HistoryProfessor.org, WCU’s Guide). Sometimes sample and past questions are even given to help students write practice essays (like these questions from American University). While these tools are useful, especially the ability to write practice essays from previous comp exams, allowing students to share what they’ve written with each has many benefits. One obvious benefit beyond simply learning the historiography is the ability to read how others conceptualize the historiography.

In order to make this website valuable to history graduate students, a number of features need to be implemented. Historycomps.com will provide a listing of important scholarly works divided by a historical subfield whereupon students will be able to click on those works directing them to a page that includes 1) a link to scholarly book reviews on JSTOR and 2) a link to graduate student reviews that have been uploaded. Students will also be able to upload their own book reviews to share with others. One may wonder why student book reviews would have any value if students could go straight to scholarly reviews. Since graduate students typically write their reviews for classes that require explicit discussion of the historiography, these reviews play an important role in studying for comps. Of course, not every student review will have comparable value. Thus, students will be able to grade reviews they have read on a scale of 1 to 10 (from useless to useful) such that uploaded student reviews will be listed in order of usefulness.

In addition to book reviews, historycomps.com will also provide a list of sample comprehensive questions that students can answer in practice essays which they can later upload to the site. Students will be able to click on the individual questions which will direct them to individual pages designed for those questions. Each question’s page will include 1) a list of books (in alphabetical order) to consider when answering the question and 2) links to student-uploaded answers to those questions. The list of books will be obtained from the question’s subfield listed above. Students will be able to add books from their own university-suggested lists so that no important work will be left out. By sharing practice essays between history departments throughout the country, students will be able to view a wide variety of responses. Since different departments create their own questions to comp exams, students will also be able to post their own department sample questions. This will ensure that no single department’s focus is prioritized. It will also provide a wider variety of possible comp exam questions for students to consider in their studies.

Since this website depends on student participation, it will need to be marketed directly to university history departments. Once the website has been created (most likely using something like wordpress), department chairs will be notified by email so that they can forward the site’s address to their students. In addition, Google AdWords allows for specific marketing using key words (like “comprehensive exams”) so that students searching for help online can easily find historycomps.com. Given the scope of this project, it will be started with a focus on American history comprehensive exams and, if successful, it can be expanded to include European history, Asian history, etc. The success of this project can easily be evaluated in time based on the number of uploads, including both student reviews and practice essays.

Project Proposal: Supreme Court Podcast

For everyone who does not know me, I am a massive Supreme Court nerd. I love learning about the American legal system and how it changes over time. However, I find one of the biggest problems with learning about the high court is that the decisions are dense. Let’s face it, it is not light reading by any definition. So what I propose to do for my digital project is to do a series of podcasts about major Supreme Court decisions. The idea is to deliver old information in a new format (an audio format rather than a written one), using a new delivery system (a blog on the internet), and to do it in a more approachable manner. The idea of the podcast is that each one would be around five minutes in length, and cover the background information of the case, the decision and its impact on American history.  The goal of the site would to be to provide introductory level education on any specific cases that I would be doing. For the sake of limiting my work load, I would be aiming for one podcast per week each week following Spring Break for a total of seven. For this reason, I will be picking some the most important cases and subject in Supreme Court history, but also try to include some of the less well known or less discussed cases that also had a big impact in United States history, for the sake of accomplishing my goal of education.

There are a couple of web site out there currently that are meant to present a  brief form of Supreme Court history (Oyez.org in particular), but I plan on doing things differently in a couple of ways. First of all, I am planning going to present my information in a audio format to try an accommodate people who prefer learning by hearing rather than reading. Second, I am planning to provide more background and history to each case. Oyez.org is very good at providing people with the most necessary of information, but the site’s brevity can be annoying occasionally, especially because they are much more focused on the legal portion of the decision. My focus would be more on the history of the court as well as what impact individual decisions had. If I had to form a mission statement of what I am trying to teach, it would probably be that I want show people that the court does not exist in a bubble and that its decisions come from somewhere and have some effect. I want to show this in a brief, approachable manner. To provide a morsel of information to get people interested about Supreme Court history and show them other places where they can find more information.

If I had to pick an audience for my project, it would probably just be people who are interested in the court and American history, but do not really know where to go to find out more information.

My personal measure for this to be a success, beyond just keeping to a regular update schedule, would be getting at least 5 people to download my podcasts and hopefully to get them to discuss with me whether or not I helped them.

There are a couple of web site out there currently that are meant to present a  brief form of Supreme Court history (Oyez.org in particular), but I plan on doing things differently in a couple of ways. First of all, I am planning going to present my information in a audio format to try an accommodate people who prefer learning by hearing rather than reading. Second, I am planning to provide more background and history to each case. Oyez.org is very good at providing people with the most necessary of information, but the site’s brevity can be annoying occasionally, especially because they are much more focused on the legal portion of the decision. My focus would be more on the history of the court as well as what impact individual decisions had. If I had to form a mission statement of what I am trying to teach, it would probably be that I want show people that the court does not exist in a bubble and that its decisions come from somewhere and have some effect. I want to show this in a brief, approachable manner. To provide a morsel of information to get people interested about Supreme Court history and show them other places where they can find more information.

My personal measure for this to be a success, beyond just keeping to a regular update schedule, would be getting at least 5 people to download my podcasts and hopefully to get them to discuss with me whether or not I helped them.

Balance and History: A Proposal

Writers of revisionist history look at the events of the past that have been taken for granted, investigate, and bring to life stories that were forgotten, ignored, or misrepresented. While they can be reviled by those who hold that interpretations of history are not wrong by virtue of being traditional (and not all revisionist claims are true) their work can serve an undeniably vital purpose of bringing to the forefront stories from history that have been ignored, giving us fuller view of history (http://history.howstuffworks.com/historians/revisionist-history.htm).
The internet presents us with an opportunity for utilizing the possibility of revisionist history as a learning tool. To do this, I propose creating a web site that compares traditional and revisionist views of history. On the home page of this website, visitors would find a timeline of historical events. When they clicked on name of an event, they would be taken to a separate page for that event. On that page there would be a description of the event from the traditional point of view, another from the revisionist point of you, a counter-argument from the traditional side, and a counter-argument from the revisionist side. This page would also include pictures of the event, which would be selected to try and create a balanced view of it (ie both sides are represented), trying to realize the practical potential of using pictures as a tool of communicating history that a previous post on DigHist.org spoke of.
Obviously, many website have interactive timelines of events. And there are a number of websites, such as publicagenda.org and FactCheck.org that compares different views on political issues. The goal of my project is to create a website that is like one of these sides, but where the comparisons being made are about history rather than politics. As far as the literal use of this idea, I did not find websites that seemed to correspond to what I am imagining this would be.
By the end of the month, I could a webpage bought from wordpress.com or Dreamhost. I would then spend the month of March doing research on one or two historical events. Then, in one or two weekends, I could play with the graphics of the site and get the text on, which I imagine would not be terribly difficult and easy to access information on. What is great about this is that it is a continuous process. After the end of the semester, I could keep researching and putting the views of different historians (all cited of course) for different events. It would be a continuous process.
To promote the website, I could submit it to Open Directory Project (www.dmoz.com), an online directory recommended by Web Marketing Today (http://www.wilsonweb.com/articles/checklist.htm). I could also utilize my facebook and twitter accounts. And finally, using the recommendations of Communicating Design, I have devised the following personas for this website:
John Ambrose: John is a student of history of American University, majoring in Political Science and minoring in history. He has a major paper to write involving interpreting an event, and his paper will probably combine elements of politics and history. He wants his work to cover as both sides as best as he can, and the classes he has taken have already opened his eyes to issues of bias in the way history and the news are told. The website would be a great place for him to begin his quest, especially since the bibliography it would include would enable him to find more in depth sources to read.
Sam Everest: Mr. Everest is an average citizen, sick of all the spin and interpretations. She too, would like to get a view on events that is more impartial. While he lacks the time or interest to go and read mountains of books on certain events, having a list of different arguments at his fingertips would make him feel very well rounded.

Digital Project Proposal: Barbary Wars Website!

For my class project, I will create a website about the United States’ conflicts with the Barbary States (Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli, and Tunis) from 1785-1815:  www.barbarywarfare.com.  Geared toward the general public, it will feature commentary about the main events (initial problems with Morocco in 1784, the Algerine captive crisis of 1785-1795, the Tripolitan War, Tunisian Ambassador Sidi Soliman Mellimelli’s 1806 visit to America, and the final wars of 1815), textual and visual primary sources, and discussions about secondary sources, including films and books.

Reading Communicating Design has helped me visualize and organize my goals.  Having perused the first ten websites that turn up with a Google search for “Barbary Wars” (discussed below), I understand how my website will be unique.  Communicating Design suggests that prospective website builders create “personas” to anticipate what type of users the website will attract.  As the U.S.’s current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq coupled with the political unrest in Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen draw widespread news coverage and public interest, I envision people such as “Right-wing Ralph,” “Curious Katie,” and “Sam the Student” as visitors to my website.

“Right-wing Ralph” listens to pundits such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, supports a vigorous U.S. foreign policy, and would like perspective on modern events by learning about how previous generations of American leaders handled Middle East conflicts.  “Curious Katie” saw an allusion to the Barbary Wars in a New York Times article or heard a bit about them on NPR and would like to expand her knowledge.  “Sam the Student” represents a middle school, high school, or college student who is writing about the Barbary Wars for a homework assignment and needs to find an authoritative source for information.

To best serve all these users, www.thebarbarywars.net needs to be easy to navigate, have a learned but conversational tone, and be fun to use.  Visual sources such as paintings of participants and battle scenes will help make the Barbary Wars come alive, while a blog will allow users to both ask me questions and dialog with each other.  I have not yet decided which hosting provider to use; I will continue to weigh the merits of www.bluehost.com and www.dreamhost.com.

Surprisingly, no website solely devoted to the Barbary Wars exists!  Thus, I have an excellent opportunity to fill a vital need.  Most of the top ten results from the “Barbary Wars” Google search share many flaws:  they are amateurish (factual errors and not well-written), unexciting (lots of text, with few if any visual images), neglected (not updated for years), and passive in nature (only one allows user comments).  Moreover, some of them borrow text from another webpage; there is not much original information about the Barbary conflicts on the Internet.

The first result from the Google search is the Wikipedia article for the “First Barbary War” (i.e. the Tripolitan War of 1801-1805).  A solid effort, it details the war’s military and diplomatic components and includes some charts.  Interestingly, contrary to Wikipedia protocol, it is not objective:  it suggests that Barbary piracy stemmed from the Koran’s injunctions to attack non-Muslims.  Most scholars, however, disagree with this religious interpretation, instead arguing that piracy was just an economic activity that served as a convenient way for rulers to extract payments from foreign powers.

The second hit (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/barbary.htm) is an encyclopedia article about the Barbary conflicts that contains inaccurate information about the origins of the word “Barbary,” the battle of Derne, and the burning of the Philadelphia.  It is frustrating to use (ads pop up all the time) and lists as its one source a website that is no longer running.  www.globalsecurity.org is operated by self-described national defense enthusiasts, who claim their website is “a trusted source of military information” used by news agencies.  Unfortunately, the Barbary Wars article reflects poorly on the website.

Hit number three is also from Wikipedia:  the entry for “Barbary Wars.”  This piece is very short, comprising just two paragraphs.  Interestingly, it has a substantially different suggested reading list from the Wikipedia article on the “First Barbary War”; perhaps a different user wrote it?

The fourth result takes one to a webpage from the Library of Congress’s American Memory project:  “The Thomas Jefferson Papers:  America and the Barbary Pirates” (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jefferson_papers/mtjprece.html).  It features a very well-written article by a specialist that provides a good discussion of Jefferson’s attitudes and approaches to the conflicts.  It invites readers to explore the plethora of primary sources offered by the Library of Congress’s online database.

The fifth webpage is from a website run by a middle-school teacher: The History Guy (http://www.historyguy.com/ Barbary_Wars.html).  It makes a political statement by featuring a large advertisement for a current movie about the dangers of a nuclear-equipped Iran.  The page design screams mid-1990s and the Barbary Wars article is very brief.  Still, it is to be commended for adding a touch of nuance by mentioning that the Tripolitan War contained the first coup attempt in U.S. foreign policy history.  Also, the middle of the page includes a banner that lists Barbary Wars book for sale on www.amazon.com.

The sixth webpage is very disappointing:  “Barbary Wars 1801-1805, 1815” on the Department of the Navy’s education website (http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/stream/ faq45-4.htm).  As the navy played a huge role in the Barbary conflicts, one would surmise that the Department of the Navy would be an excellent and authoritative source for information.  However, all one finds here are two brief paragraphs, last updated on August 13, 2003.

The seventh result is a link to a 2009 New York Times article:  “Lesson from the Barbary Pirate Wars” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/12/weekinreview/12gettleman.html).   It is simply a newspaper article that briefly discusses how the Barbary Wars can shed light on modern problems with the Somali pirates.

Hit number eight is an article about Thomas Jefferson’s policy toward the Barbary Pirates (http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_2_urbanities-thomas_jefferson.html) on a website that describes itself as the “nation’s premier urban-policy magazine.” The article is more an opinion piece than a repository of factual information, although it suggests various books for further reading (including a couple written by academics).  However, like the Wikipedia entry for the “First Barbary War,” it advocates the non-scholarly position that the Barbary pirates acted primarily from religious motivations.  Stylistically, it is boring:  all text on a white background.

Hit number nine (http://www.answers.com/topic/barbary-wars) offers both a one-paragraph synopsis of the conflicts and an extended description of them.  It also includes a bibliography.

The tenth result is an encyclopedia article on about.com (http://history1800s.about.com/ od/americanwars/tp/barbarywars.htm).  Although the author says that he studied history at NYU, he is imprecise with dates, using “early years of the 19th century” instead of giving the exact years.  Still, it is an approachable article for the general public that is easy-to-read thanks to bullet points.

Thus, current webpages about the Barbary conflicts are lacking.   A need exists for a user-friendly website that combines accurate commentary, primary sources, a thorough bibliography, and a blog.  I hope for www.thebarbarywars.com or www.barbarywars.net to become the preeminent digital resource for information about the Barbary Wars and, ideally, it will also stimulate users to engage in research of their own.

Digital Project Proposal: A New Video Game Blog

For my digital project, I would like to do a video game blog. This video game blog would have a focus of games in the liberal arts, specifically in history and literature where I have the most experience. Each game is a product of the times, so I would like to analyze what part of the culture the game was created in response to and/or what are the literary aspects in the game, depending on the topic at hand, i.e. whether I’m looking at a game like Metal Gear Solid versus a game like Bioshock. While it is possible to cover both for certain games, each post would focus on one or the other to keep it concise.

My project would be aimed toward the young adult audience, 18-25, and at gamers. Gamers would get a better reading experience and a further understanding of how large a piece games are in our culture. They would understand the blog posts better as well. I am open to the idea that there would be older readers, but I do not believe younger readers would appreciate all that the blog posts have to offer, though I would not mind being proven wrong.

While there are many gaming blogs and sites on the internet, I had difficulty finding many that were like mine. Many of the popular gaming sites, like The Escapist Magazine and Kotaku, focus primarily on reviews, which I want to avoid. Play the Past does cover history, but it is mostly history within video games from what I saw. I also could not find many sites which analyze the literary mechanics in games, although the video series Extra Credits covers them occasionally, they approach it from a design standpoint and cannot afford to go into too much detail. My project is similar to the Game Overthinker, another video series, but mine would be much more focused, as the Game Overthinker uses whatever topic he desires and uses tangents.

For a work plan, I would start either the week of March 13 or March 20 and make weekly blog posts. I would post most likely on the weekend. I would prefer to use Blogger, as that is free, has a good aesthetic feel and range of themes, can link from other blogs on the site, and many of the blogs I read, including such as Atop the Fourth Wall (a known comic reviewing show) and Game Overthinker, are on Blogger therefore I am familiar with the layout. Blogger is also integrates well with other types of social media, which I would investigate further i.e. having a Twitter button, has openID commenting options, etc. I would focus on a different game/series of games each week, unless it is a large topic. I would not be opposed to going back and discussing games I’ve already covered at a later date and be open to suggestions from comments. I also plan on using my personal Twitter account to link to new blog posts, as many of my followers share my interest in video games.

Success would be an average of 5 comments per blog. I believe having that many comments would translate into at least twice as many hits per post. I plan on having 6-7 blog posts done by the end of the academic year. Personal success would also be avoiding a schedule slip.