Print project proposal: Shifting subjects in popular mystery fiction

Reading Jockers’ Macroanalysis and seeing how the author analyzed a large corpus of Irish literature in order to draw conclusions about Irish authors, the production of Irish literature, its themes, and other related topics inspired me to consider a similar project with my own particular literary interest area.  I refer to mystery fiction.  In 2017, I read 50 mystery novels—spanning in publication dates from 1868 to 2017, but centered during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in the 1920s and 30s—and engaged in some light analysis of the text that Jockers would characterize as “close reading.”  While it was an interesting way to draw conclusions about mystery fiction, it was neither an efficient one (as it did take me all year) nor a truly representative one (as I chose to read books I felt I’d like and ignored those I felt I wouldn’t like).

Macroanalysis inspired me to consider other tools for analyzing the world of mystery fiction.  My previous analysis blended the quantitative (how many characters died?) with the qualitative (how good was the book, rated on a five-star scale?) to come up with subjective qualitative conclusions.  (Seven out of 11 books to which I gave five-star reviews had 0 or 1 deaths; therefore, most great mystery novels are not bloodbaths.) 

But with digital macroanalytic tools, wider questions with deeper implications become available for our consideration and study.  For instance: What crimes have interested readers throughout time?  Within the past few years, we’ve seen two major patterns appear in popular mystery writing: true crime (such as Serial and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark) and psychological thrillers (such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train).  What patterns have emerged at other periods in history?

This is a huge question that would require a lot of work to answer, even with macroanalytic tools. The two main obstacles to this study are pretty major: first, the literary mystery corpus is unmanageably vast, and second, as Jockers discusses toward the end of his book, copyright laws block us from accessing that corpus easily. 

In order to combat the problem of an impracticably large corpus, I propose a more manageable project focusing solely on Agatha Christie’s novels.  A remarkably prolific author, Christie published 66 novels under her own name between 1920 and 1976 and achieved an exceptionally wide readership—as the back of all recently published Christie novels will remind you, her novels have been more widely published than any works other than Shakespeare and the Bible.  Although Christie cannot hope to represent the entire mystery fiction genre, if one author must be chosen as a representative, she seems the best suited to the task.

The copyright issue is a considerable stumbling block here: with some exceptions, the full text of Christie’s novels has not been digitized.  Her first three books are available through Project Gutenberg, and a few others can be read in plain text through the Internet Archive’s Open Library, but owing to the state of copyright laws, the books that are available in these digitized formats are generally Christie’s earliest, which is unhelpful to a project that seeks to track change over time.  To bypass this issue, I propose to focus my study on summaries.  Although a mystery novel’s summary will naturally not include everything that happens in the book, it will generally identify the crime that drives the story, which is the subject of my inquiry.  Synopses are included in ONIX metadata and, especially for constantly reprinted books like Christie’s works, multiple summaries for each book proliferate online on any number of sites, from WorldCat to publisher pages, Goodreads, and more.

After compiling these summaries, I propose to use MALLET’s topic modeling capabilities to examine the trends and patterns that show up in the summaries of Christie’s novels throughout time.  Wordle could also be a useful tool, at least for determining which individual words appear most often in summaries. Given the enduring popularity and wide readership enjoyed by Christie’s works, such an analysis will offer a window into the types of mystery and crime stories that have captured the public’s attention over a period of five decades.

As with all other types of media, the books that people read reflect information about their culture and the society they live in.  Mystery fiction in particular offers a fascinating look into people’s fears, their concerns about their society, and the threats they perceive in the world around them. My hope is that studying the literary mystery corpus will suggest some insights into the culture of Christie’s readership.

WordPress

As we are using it for this very blog, we all have the slightest knowledge on WordPress by now.  However, if you are at all like me you are still clueless to most of WordPress’s assets and tools.

Hopefully, we all recognize the two tabs in the left corner of our screens entitled “My Site” and “Reader”. These tabs will always be visible on your screen when you are logged into your account (making the site easily navigable!). As Kaylee will be covering the “My Site” tab, I will be going over the “Reader” tab.

As it is states on WordPress’s support page you can “read posts from all the sites you follow (even the ones that aren’t on WordPress.com), find great new reads, and keep track of your comments and replies in one convenient place: the WordPress.com Reader”. To put it simply, you can find and follow blogs here. And yes, if you take the time to read the directions on the support page WordPress will become a thousand-times easier to use…shocking, right?

Thus, I will identify and define the list of links that appear after clicking on the “reader” tab below:

Followed Sites (Manage): the first link you will see once you click on “reader” is this one. This is WordPress’s equivalent to Facebook or Instagram’s public page. Here you will see the newest posts from the sites you follow in the order they were published.

Conversations: here is where you can keep up-to-date on the posts you have liked or commented on. Content will appear on this page when they have new comments or edits. This allows you to read and reply to all conversations that you have already expressed interest in in one place.

Discover: here, you will be propelled into the world of distinguished content and fascinating reads. You can view the editors’ picks, recommended sites, and resources. (AKA come here if you are ever bored and want to roam the wild world of internet bloggers)

Search: this one is self-explanatory. You can search for posts and sites on any topic that you so desire.

My Likes: once again, self-explanatory. This page will display a list of all the posts and sites you have ever “liked” (this page can tell a lot about a person, if you ask me)

Tags: Here you can “add” a tag to find relevant posts for you

Like Dr. Owens’s states in our syllabus, digital tools are affecting nearly every aspect of historical work. The “reader” tab on WordPress collects, organizes, and presents publications in an easy and accessible manner. This not only allows for more content to be published, but it allows for more people to find and read more material from a broader range of sources. Just like any other form of social media, you can like, comment, share, or visit blogs through this tab. Therefore, I like to think of WordPress’s “reader” tab as a more “intellectual” version of Twitter or Instagram…so next time you mindlessly click on your Twitter App, click on WordPress instead and find a new and stimulating topic to delve into.

Print Project: Exploring User Interfaces Using the Wayback Machine

As someone who has done a lot of work in communications and marketing at historical organizations, I am very interested in how institutions present themselves to the world at large. One of the most accessible ways organizations can create a public presence is through the internet and their website.

A friend in my capstone class is using the Wayback Machine to do some really interesting research on how conspiracy theories spread via the internet. This has introduced me to how useful this tool could be to people in the humanities, and I assume that as we move further into the future and more things on the internet become “historical” (whatever that means), the Wayback Machine will become just as synonymous in the historian’s toolkit as searching in a physical database. That all being said, I want to use this fascinating tool to learn more about my own personal interests–historic organizations’ digital presence.

I want to know how these institutions’ webpages and digital content has changed over time, and compare their effectiveness against readings we’ve done about successful user interfaces, while also engaging with the historiography about various institutions and changes in museum technology (some of which I am already familiar with because of what I am researching for my own capstone project).

As the Smithsonian has an extensive institutional archive, as well as a lot written about it from a historiographical perspective, I will certainly include that in my organizations that I research. I also want to look at the White House Historical Association, as I currently intern there and part of my duties are putting up digital content, so I very familiar with its current website–and am interested in how it has changed over the years. Both of these institutions have internet presences starting in the late 90s, according to the Wayback Machine. I also want to look at one more, smaller institution, as I want to see the role funding plays in how an organization is represented digitally. I’m not sure yet which I will use, I am open to suggestions! Do smaller organizations with presumably less funding have a more stagnant, less user friendly website? I also want to look at how much content each site is offering. The internet is a way to expand an organizations reach, and make their content more accessible. I want to see how these various institutions have taken advantage of this since they first created their websites in the 90s.

This project will serve to shed light on how effectively historical organizations, big and small, are using the internet to promote themselves and their content. It is important to study how these various institutions present themselves to the public, and I would be interested to add their digital personas to that understanding.   

Print Project Proposal: The Rise of Podcasts

            In the past decade, if not in just the past five years, the popularity of podcasts has skyrocketed. According to the Nielsen Company, in the fall of 2016, 13 million homes identified as “avid fans” of podcasts. By the fall of 2017, this number grew to 16 million (https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2018/what-s-in-podcast-fans-shopping-carts.html). Although this may be due to the growth of streaming and downfall of traditional radio, much of podcasting’s rise in popularity may be tracked back to Serial, an investigative journalism series.

            Season one of Serial follows the disappearance and death of Baltimore high school senior Hae Min Lee, as well as the trial that followed. Serial became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and streams, and defined podcasting to the general public. A year after Serial premiered in 2014, the Interactive Advertising Bureau hosted their first presentation on podcasts, encouraging companies to start advertising on podcasts. This was also when podcasters could begin earning revenue for their work (https://www.wired.com/story/podcast-three-watershed-moments/).

             This project would examine how Serial tells a compelling story through podcasting, and how it has influenced historians to use podcasting as a medium of storytelling and exploration. Furthermore, it would examine how podcasting makes history more digestible in order to reach a wider audience.

            For example, the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class reached over two million people in its two-part segment on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. Now, it consistently sees over three million downloads per episode and is one of the most downloaded podcasts every month.

            But Stuff You Missed in History Class is not alone in the history podcasting world. It is estimated that there are over 200 history podcasts available on the iTunes store alone. Surprisingly, only a few of these are produced by academics, meaning that podcasts not only drawing in an audience of non-historians, but that the platform is also gives space to those without a history degree to give history lessons (https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2016/history-on-the-download-podcasting-the-past).

            The article “History on the Download: Podcasting the Past” (previously linked) also mentions that academics who have started podcasting have said that podcasting has allowed them to become better teachers. Unlike inside classroom walls, podcasting forces professors to rethink how they explain concepts in more straightforward terms. Considerations of new audiences further expands the idea of who can consume a product or lesson and what they may get out of it. Additionally, in doing so, podcasting also expands the notion of what a history lesson should look like.

            This also relates to our class on crowdsourcing. The ability for anyone to tell stories via podcasts brings up questions on how facts are checked, how inaccurate information is regulated and whether this platform draws audiences away from academics who may present their research in other, more traditional, ways. It may be interesting to explore whether there have been instances where podcasts have spread myths or inaccurate information to listeners, and how academics can or cannot combat this issue.

Print Project Proposal: Learning from USHMM’s Latest Citizen History Initiative

Since the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) launched “History Unfolded” in 2016, over 3,000 citizen historians have contributed nearly 23,000 newspaper articles to help USHMM answer the question, “What did American newspapers report about Nazi persecution during the 1930s and 1940s?” This question may seem simple on its face, but answering it thoroughly requires extensive, wide-ranging archival research into news coverage in publications across the U.S. The scale of this task makes it a prime candidate for crowdsourced research. To facilitate this research effort, USHMM has created a custom digital platform that outlines key events in Holocaust history, connects users to archival resources for conducting research in local publications, invites users to contribute their research findings, and sheds light on the American information environment in the 1930s and 1940s.

Given the success of USHMM’s earlier citizen history initiative, “The Children of the Lodz Ghetto,” it should be no surprise that the Museum is leveraging digital technology to engage the public in historical inquiry. Public History practitioners have written positively about “The Children of the Lodz Ghetto,” emphasizing the project’s mutual benefits for citizen historians and USHMM. Participants made meaningful connections with Holocaust history by engaging in research about children’s experiences in the Lodz Ghetto. Creating participatory research opportunities for a broad community of citizen historians, especially students and educators, allowed USHMM to share historical authority while gaining new insights into both the historical research process and Holocaust history. Ultimately, the Lodz Ghetto project served as a positive and compelling example for USHMM and other institutions interested in the potential that crowdsourcing holds for large-scale research and transcription projects.

So, what can (public) historians learn from “History Unfolded?”

In what ways might “History Unfolded” serve as a model for institutions to advance new citizen history initiatives? Are there certain types of questions and/or data that are better suited for crowdsourced historical research? Is a digital crowdsourcing platform a viable educational tool for training emerging scholars in historical inquiry? My print project would seek to answer these questions, using “History Unfolded” as a case study. It would focus on how, specifically, USHMM is using its custom digital research platform to engage the public.

My print project would also analyze the messages that “History Unfolded” is conveying, and to which audiences. For example, “History Unfolded” makes a clear methodological argument by promoting the value of archival research and privileging primary sources; what influence might participating in “History Unfolded” have on emerging scholars, for whom the initiative could be their first exposure to robust historical inquiry? In a different vein, “History Unfolded” is making a historical argument about the significance of certain events in Holocaust history, as participants are limited to submitting articles about only 37 events from 1933 to 1945.

Whether you’re intrigued by the practical implications of “History Unfolded” or the methodological and historical arguments it makes, my project’s inquiry could be a useful companion to our course readings on collaboration on the web and digital history and argument.