Print Project Proposal: Virtual Tours

The majority of historic sites and museums make meaning through physical space and objects. The rise of digital tools have enabled institutions that are traditionally so grounded in their built environment to expand their reach beyond their physical boundaries. While digital archives have been a relatively easy and common way to increase a historic sites’ reach and accessibility, digital archives to not address the importance of place for institutions like Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon, which makes meaning through George Washington’s house and grounds, is using digital tools to increase accessibility to audiences who cannot travel to Mount Vernon itself. Mount Vernon has built a virtual tour for students and other audiences who cannot visit Mount Vernon to learn about George Washington and his home. The website calls the virtual tour “the second best way to visit Mount Vernon.”

This project will analyze how Mount Vernon—an institution that primarily makes meaning through physical space—uses the virtual tour to make meaning digitally. I will explore what narratives Mount Vernon chose to include and highlight in the virtual tour and how those narratives and interpretations differ—or do not differ—from those on the physical tour. It is possible (and likely) more people will interact with the virtual tour of Mount Vernon than with the actual grounds and interpreters at Mount Vernon. Therefore, it is necessary to understand and think critically about how a space is interpreted virtually versus physically, and how audiences respond and engage with each—as a substitute for the other? In addition to?

As a point of comparison, I will analyze Mount Vernon’s virtual tour against Monticello’s virtual tour. Both Mount Vernon and Monticello are historic homes and grounds (on which enslaved people lived and worked) of founding fathers (George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, respectfully) where meaning is made using the built environment. Since both sites have similar audiences, underlying narratives, and financial resources, a comparison of their virtual tours will allow for a more in depth analysis of how these two institutions use virtual technology from an interpretive standpoint, rather than from a pure image and fact standpoint. I also intend to analyze who their intended audiences are, and if different, how do different intended audiences affect the tour itself and how the tour is marketed.

Virtual tours are a great way to increase a historical sites’ accessibility, but it is not enough to increase accessibility for the sake of accessibility. It is important to understand what impact a digital tool, like a virtual tour, has on an institution’s narrative and interpretation, as well as audience engagement.

Print Project Proposal: How do people rate history?

When I first began working at historic sites, nobody talked about Yelp.

The rise of the online review aggregator has been felt across virtually every sphere of commercial activity. Sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp provided a platform for people to write and publish reviews of everything from dentists (true story: I receive regular emails from my dentists’ office asking me to help “get the word out” by posting a good review online) to fancy restaurants, often semi-anonymously. Some sites offered the ability to provide a mere rating, zero to five stars, without requiring any additional explanation. Paul Ford described the Internet as a customer service medium, not a publishing medium, and nowhere is this more evident than the places on the Internet explicitly designed to solicit the input and feedback of customers.

Review sites have become powerful, I suspect, because of their perceived power and influence over the decisions of potential consumers. An online review is publicly accessible from anywhere with an available internet connection, and the websites often have mobile-compatible websites or dedicated apps to allow the perusing and posting of reviews from smartphones. Additionally, most review sites loudly proclaim that they do not allow paid reviewers to post – the implicit assumption being that the reviews found on TripAdvisor might be more honest and accurate because they are voluntary acts performed by “regular” people, instead of curated reviews written by paid professionals who might be bought or influenced by the place under review. For someone in an unfamiliar place, checking TripAdvisor might be the only way to have the feeling that you’re getting a real sense of the area.

Many historic sites rely on the income generated by admission fees and store revenue to fund their operations. A drop in overall visitation can have a serious impact on a site’s ability to hire staff, plan and present programming, and perform necessary preservation and maintenance. Both sites were also in relatively isolated areas, not near major cities. They couldn’t rely on the kinds of visitors who might see a sign on the road and decide to check out the site on impulse; they needed people to make deliberate plans to visit (and spend money) at the site in order to maintain continued financial health. Word-of-mouth was seen as paramount in motivating those visits. If people who visited had positive experiences, they would tell other people, and then those people would visit and have a positive experience, and so on. At both of my most recent places of employment, high-level staff obsessively checked sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, along with the reviews written through Google Maps, to find out if we were successfully generating that positive word-of-mouth.

For my project, I propose to study the content of the reviews posted about two sites: Colonial Michilimackinac and Fort Mackinac, both part of Mackinaw State Historic Parks in northern Michigan. The two sites have some key differences that will make comparing their reviews interesting: Colonial Michilimackinac is a reconstructed 18th century fortified trading post on the mainland just off a major interstate highway, while Fort Mackinac is a partially-preserved 19th century fort on Mackinac Island, accessible only by ferry. I would like to see what things are common to both positive and negative reviews of the two sites, and where the feedback from visitors differs. The project promises to provide some very useful knowledge pertaining to visitor experience: knowing what sort of experiences stick in the minds of visitors long enough to make it into a TripAdvisor review can help a historic site present visitors with programming and interpretation that does the job of teaching them about the history of the site in memorable ways.

Print Project Proposal: The Evolution of Jazz Terminology

“He is a ‘moldy fig’ and he’ll never dig the new sounds”

Today, if someone described their taste in music by identifying themselves as a “moldy fig” you would probably be extremely confused and reply with a burst of laughter, right? Well, during the Bop era, fans and players of the earlier New Orleans jazz were commonly described using this term.

So much of Jazz is entwined in language, and so much of that language also has to do with coded language around race and culture. Beginning in the 1920s and 30s, the Jazz Age effected every aspect of life it touched. Its cultural repercussions could be felt through the prohibition era, fashion, art, women’s rights, African American’s fight for equality etc. The Jazz Age brought African American culture to the white middle class and that introduction, blending, and apprehension can be analyzed through the era’s terminology usage.  

Using Time Magazine Corpus, I plan to look at how jazz terminology has changed over time. I will explore the trends and their use by using collocates as a way to explore relationships between terms over time in publications.

The Jazz Age’s evolution can be seen through time by looking at its progression through the Bop era, ragtime, blues, and jazz-rock fusion in the late twentieth century. The vast array of African-American music in the 1900s incorporated the new technology of the century, new instruments, and perfected lyrics. Likewise, artists began to publicly take political and humanitarian stances through their music.  From Ragtime to Jazz Rock Fusion, the politics and fight for rights remained apparent through the twentieth century as well as into the twenty-first century. As R&B and Urban Music encased the 1990s, the beginning of the twenty-first century led to the hip-hop generation. Hip hop music, commonly referred to as rap music, is a genre developed in the “United States by inner-city African Americans which consists of a stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rapping, a rhythmic and rhyming speech that is chanted.” This new form of music was a more aggressive and explicit form of expression than the music of the twentieth century. However, like the early 1900s, musicians took to music to express their emotions about race, politics, and religion. (shout-out to my undergraduate-self for finding this topic interesting and beginning this research in my paper entitled “Evolvement of African Slave Spirituals into Modern Day Songs,” 2017)

Thus, I will look at the use of words common in jazz culture such as zoot-suits, cats, jam, jive, and licks. I will also look at phrases such as boogie man, popsicle stick, and Tea man. I hope to analyze and find the trends within this terminology to shed light on the evolution of culture, language, music, and people through time.

A Macroanalysis of FRUS: Topic Modeling Middle Eastern Policy

As I mentioned in my post on Jockers’ Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History, the methods described in his book have interesting implications for the study of U.S. foreign policy. For example, if one were to study the Eisenhower Administrations’ Middle Eastern policy from his inauguration to his farewell address, the sheer number of diplomatic correspondences alone would be mind-blowing. If one were to just examine the State Departments’ publication of Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) relating to the Middle East (excluding Northern Africa with the exception of Egypt and Southeast Asia), you would have to explore thirteen different volumes. Even if a historian could closely read all the documents contained in those volumes, it’s hard to see the forest through the trees.

Computational analysis is one method of seeing that forest. Topic modeling, in particular, allows you to analyze a large corpus of texts and identify words that appear together multiple times in various documents. What sets topic modeling apart from programs like Ngram is that it can be done without knowing ahead of time what topics are the most important. As Cameron Blevins writes in “Topic Modeling Martha Ballad’s Diary,” topic modeling has a lot of potential as historic source material. He concluded that MAchine Learning for LanguaE Toolkit or MALLET did a better job of grouping words than a human reader, in some cases creating word groups that he never would have predicted. This methodology allows a historian to extract patterns that would be missed during a microanalysis of the text.

Using topic modeling to analyze FRUS has the potential to reveal a great deal about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. What messages were diplomats most concerned about conveying to foreign dignitaries? What were the most frequent or concerning issues that faced policymakers? Did those patterns shift with each new presidential administration and how did they correlate to events on the ground or shift during election years? These questions would be difficult to answer by a single historian doing a close reading of the documents in FRUS, but are possible with the use of topic modeling software.

There are limits to this, of course. MALLET groups a limited number of topics in an unsupervised model. This can often create what Jockers calls a black box. The goal of a historian is to be able to interpret the results and draw conclusions, but some topics may be incomprehensible. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. There will be topics produced that are unclear or false due to the presence of ‘stop words,’ but the clear topics can still be conceptualized and interpreted. As Jockers states, “we do no disservice to the overall model, and we in not way compromise our analysis” (129).

Therefore, my print project will utilize MALLET to perform a LDA topic modeling of the Eisenhower Administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East. Using the State Department’s publications of FRUS between 1953 and 1960 relating to Mideast policy, I will explore which topics are most prevalent throughout that period. Depending on time and the availability of resources, I will also compare topics from the Eisenhower Administration to the Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations to examine how topics have shifted or remained important at different stages of the Cold War and during different presidential administrations.

Print Project: Black Lives Matter and the Rise of Social Media Activism

On February 26, 2012, a young African American teenager by the name of Trayvon Martin was murdered in Sanford, Florida. This ignited a social movement in America to reconsider how our society discards black bodies and values black lives. A stream of high profile cases of police brutality that resulted in the deaths of unarmed black citizens fueled activists and concerned citizens to use digital media platforms to organize a call to action. Community activists protested in cities across the country in many ways. They physically marched the streets of their neighborhoods, picketed signs in front of their local municipalities, stopped traffic on bustling highways, but arguably the most impactful protest came from a placeless space, social media.

Though the statistical and historical evidence revolving police brutality, shows this is far from a novel issue, what brought the feet to the pavement and international demand for social justice? What is the difference from the era of Emmett Till, George Stinney, or Fred Hampton? What made millions care more than ever to proclaim, “Enough is enough!”. Simple, what is here now that was not around during the murders of Black Americans decades ago? Two words, social media. Twitter and Instagram, two of some of the top social media platforms in the world, played a major role in the new age of social media activism. Their platforms provided space for dialogue and organization surrounding the epidemic of murders and the disposal of black lives across the country. Scholars, activists, and the general public were able to exchange ideas, information, and historical context for real-time problems facing their communities.

It was in this space, that the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter created a network that grew into a force that demanded the attention of lawmakers to acknowledge their collective voice. This hashtag, this movement created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013, made history. It presented a new blueprint for social movements to share their message and content for the masses in real-time. Even the controversy and disapproval of the nonviolent social activist network that is shared on Twitter and Instagram creates further dialogue and attention to the matter.

Twitter and Instagram propelled the organization of the Black Lives Matter network. It will be interesting to dive deeper into the dialogue, organization, and historical context on these social media platforms during the network’s early years. For this semester’s print project, I propose analyzing the significance of the organization and dialogue surrounding the Black Lives Matter network on Twitter and Instagram. In turn, this project will connect the network’s presence on these social media platforms in the development of social media activism and datasets.