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Hacking the Academy: A Book Crowd Sourced in One Week is a compilation of short essays on digital humanites edited by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt. This project organized by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, is an initiative that, like the book I discussed in my blog last week entitled Debates in the Digital Humanities, elaborates on how the academy can improve with the use of technology and at the same time that technology itself can form new approaches to the ways in which the subject can be addressed. This project was not only crowd sourced in one week, but it also has a webpage in which the public can find more information about it.

As obvious as it must be, and perhaps this is something that happens way too often, what caught my attention about this book is its use of the word hacking. What does it actually mean to “hack the academy”? Are institutions of higher education ready to be hacked? Are the humanities ready to be hacked?

Tadd Suiter presents in his essay, Why Hacking?, the various nuances of this word and how it is usually over-generalized to be associated with young computer geeks, who, in their basements, write computer code to crack the vulnerabilities of the internet in order to gain access to private or protected information. Adding to this conventional concept of hacking, Suiter introduces what he calls the “hacking ethos”, which explains additional definitions of hacking to be: the eloquent process of coding, in general (whether for good or for bad) and also those that playfully or jokingly modify or mess around within a system.

It is possible to say that the ideas behind this “hacking ethos” are what contributed to the creation of Hacking the Academy initiative. The contributors see a need to rethink the academy, to revaluate the way scholarship is produced, the way it is taught, and the way in which the establishment is managed. Weather the institutions are ready of not for the radical changes that technology and new media are ready to do, there is already a collective of “hackers” that are ready to incrementally introduce new vocabularies, interdisciplinary thinking, and a new openness in order to shift the academy toward realizing and utilizing the full potential that technology has to offer.

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The book Debates in the Digital Humanities is a compilation of articles about the definition, anxieties, pros and cons of digital humanities, and the overall shifting this methodology, pedagogy and field is producing within academia. 

Edited by Matthew K. Gold, the book itself presents a different way of approaching work in humanities. Not only is the content of the book available online through an open access, interactive website  (http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates), but the book was also evaluated through an open, peer-review process by the contributors of each of the articles using a blog-like platform in which only they had access to. Although the book was subjected to blind peer-review, as well, the two former characteristics are examples of some changes digital humanities are producing in academia. 

The article I find most interesting is Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building Humanities by Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell. These two authors challenge the concept of scholarship, they take it to a new level by reevaluating the process of traditional written scholarship and proposing a new form of scholarship that is built upon technology.

The authors argue that one of the central anxieties of scholars working on digital humanities is that they don’t fully recognize scholarship as technological tools in order to build humanities. If one understands scholarship as the whole process of writing a book –  the formulation of a problem, the annotated bibliography, the gathering primary sources, the hermeneutics applied to those sources, the heuristics applied to solve the problem, and the writing of the actual book – why not consider the tools built by a digital humanist as scholarship, as well?

This challenge shifts the regular definition of scholarship. The understanding of digital humanities as a built process is central to the future of this field. Its legitimization will encourage scholars to pursue new endeavors that might require coding and hacking to build humanities, doing so without fear of not being recognized by the academy and sure of they contributions and credentials to pursue tenure positions in universities.  

In his article, How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?, Robert B. Townsend analyzes the data gathered from a 2010 American Historical Association (AHA) survey conducted on history scholars at universities and colleges regarding their use of new technologies and media in the discipline.   

From this survey, the results I found most interesting is the uneasiness that scholars in tenured track positions still felt in the year 2010 concerning the dissemination of articles and books in online journals. As the survey shows, even scholars using new technologies for their research, mostly still don’t consider the idea of online publishing. However, beyond this apprehension, the survey shows how there is a percentage of scholars willing to peruse online publishing. 

Townsend also highlights the issue that publishing houses and journals are the entities that are least ready to embrace policies working toward the online dissemination of scholarship, preventing a growth in adopting a more prestigious view of online publishing, as compared to print publishing.        

One great example mentioned in the article is the Gutermberg-e initiative. This project is a collaboration between the Columbia University Press and AHA. It consists of an open access site that gives opportunities and space for online publication to emerging scholars, while still upholding a stringent academic review policy. 

This is the kind of endeavor publishing houses should more actively pursue. Greater dissemination is vital to the continued revision of knowledge. Serious and rigorous open access online publishing promises wider dissemination, more active and rapid revisions, and live debate.           

 

In this blog post, I would like to highlight some aspects of a online discussion held by scholars working on digital history, facilitated and published by The Journal of American History (JAH): “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” For the purpose of the conversation, JAH generated several questions about the practice, teaching and challenges of digital history, while each of the selected scholars argued and presented their point of view around these questions. For this blog, I will not focus on the questions; rather I will highlight here some the arguments and issues presented in the answers given by the scholars, which I consider particularly interesting in regards to digital history.

In my opinion, I would first like to present the specific aspects of digital history that makes it so attractive, challenging and contradictory to our traditional notions of doing history.  Its instantaneity and multiplicity, allow for the constant revision of knowledge and breaks with the linearity of conventional history, creating new ways of thinking about historical processes.

William G Thomas III explains that “digital history possesses a crucial set of common components—the capacity for play, manipulation, participation, and investigation by the reader. Dissemination in digital form makes the work of the scholar available for verification and examination; it also offers the reader the opportunity to experiment….  The goal of digital history might be to build environments that pull readers in less by the force of a linear argument than by the experience of total immersion and the curiosity to build connections.”

Second, I would like to highlight one of the factors that makes digital history so different from traditional history. This factor is perhaps one of my personal favorites because it breaks with the convention of the historian working alone. Digital history is a collaborative effort; it is the result of joint forces with different disciplines. Kristen Sword argues that “the best digital projects are collaborative, involving multiple scholars and a technical team, and ideally an institution committed to keeping the project alive after its creators move on to other things.”

Third, I would like to present the issue of teaching digital history. Here, I need to say that the Clio Wired class has opened my eyes to new ways of approaching art history. It has showed me new and different possibilities of using technology – from the analysis and presentation of data to the different ways in which it is possible to disseminate history. In the end, it has revealed to me a great need to pursue the democratization of knowledge through the creation of open tools for researching and participation.

Despite all this, in order to teach digital history, professors are faced with the challenge of teaching a whole new subject. Amy Murrel Taylor explains that “the difficulties students have also stem in part from the fact that we are asking them to make a huge conceptual shift in how they think about history. The traditional chronological or thematic narratives of history are so deeply entrenched in their minds—and, frankly, in most of our minds—that it is very difficult to start thinking of creating history that is not so linear and is “participatory” or “interactive” (or akin to “gaming”—an analogy I like). A student who is friendly to digital technology can be quite uncomfortable with thinking about history in new ways.”

Fourth, I would like to highlight the idea of the virtual museum. Taylor argues that “digital technology can never emulate the experience of being physically present with an object from the past,” which it is true as there is no way to simulate the feeling of being in the museum. However, what it is important about the digital museum is its availability. Steven Mintiz explains, “unlike physical exhibitions—which are generally transitory—virtual exhibitions can remain available. Indeed, it is now possible to reconstruct past exhibitions virtually, as in Lisa M. Snyder’s extraordinary three-dimensional reconstruction of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.[22] What a brave new world we live in, where the virtual can be more alive than the real.”

Fifth, the last issue I would like to present here is the idea of open access and the credibility of digital history as part of the work of scholars who use such methods to pursue obtaining tenured positions at universities.  Daniel Choen, has a very strong position about this, actually using the discussion to ask JAH to work towards greater open access, taking a new path regarding the dissemination of academic knowledge. He states: “I would encourage the Journal to take the most expansive view possible. In addition to enhanced, open-access articles such as those in the Katrina issue, the JAH could republish the best blog posts from the past quarter (perhaps following a process similar to the current article review system and asking for further edits from the authors); ask creators of new digital resources and tools to explain the intellectual (rather than technical) work behind them, to ratify such work as worthy of credit; add “trackbacks” to regular articles so that online references to, or reviews of, JAH materials can be aggregated on the JAH site (thus providing another layer of peer review and community around the Journal); have live and open Interchanges like this one (essentially group blogging) on a variety of topics. Ideally this more expansive view would blur the distinction between print and digital. It would begin to demythologize print.”

Scholars invited to this discussion touched upon other issues and ideas about digital history. I just presented here, some topics that I felt most relevant and interesting with the greater JAH’s interchange on emerging issues and opportunities through employing the digital landscape to practice history.

 

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1 “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History. Vol. 95No. 2 (Sept. 2008). http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/issues/952/interchange/

2 “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.”

3 “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.”

4 “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.”

How do you use photography as a source of history? How do you understand photographs from a historical point of view? 

Errol Morris addresses this topic within his Which Came First? series of articles. The series demonstrates the delicate line between the meaning that is giving to a photograph by a third party versus the meaning a photograph’s inherent content and context.  Morris elaborates on this when he says that “photographs preserve information. They record data. They present evidence. Not because of our intentions but often in spite of them.”[1]

Morris conclusion stems from his analysis of the puzzle surrounding The Valley of the Shadow of the Dead photographs by Roger Fenton. The conundrum lies in the debate over which photo came first: the one with cannonballs on the road or the one with the cannonballs off the road. Errol begins a quest, questioning the different interpretations there could be about this subject, bringing new light to the issue.

Historically, I don’t think it is important to know which photo came first since they were both taken by the same photographer at the same place one after the other. Each has its own meaning and its own intentions. What really matters here, and what Errol unveils, is the charge that it is given to the photographs by third party interpretations. Allowing the photographs to “speak for themselves” and interpret only what is blatantly available is important because what it is deemed obvious by the viewer may in fact not be accurate.

The example of The Valley of the Shadow of the Dead photos were taken in the nineteenth-century, however, how do we best approach contemporary photography? Today, photoshop provides a grand challenge. The Achilles’ heel of journalist, historians and others, this tool – and tools like it – are hated by some and loved by others. On this subject, Morris wrote the article Photography as a Weapon, analyzing that he calls the “fraud of digital photography.” Not only does this technology alter photography but also the meaning it is giving to it.

Traditional and contemporary forms of photography are both information recorders. They are forms of historical evidence and thus need to be seen as a whole in their proper context. In a digital, altered photograph today, the fact that it was altered is part of the data it holds. That becomes part of evidence it possesses. Who alerted it? For what reason? These are the historical questions that we should be asking when looking photography since its significance is in the information it bears and the approach with which it is viewed.

 

          

 

 


[1] Errol Morries. “Which Came First? (Part Three): Can George, Lionel and Marmaduke Help Us Order the Fenton Photographs?. The New York Times. October: 2007. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/23/which-came-first-part-three-can-george-lionel-and-marmaduke-help-us-order-the-fenton-photographs/?_r=0  

The website that I chose for this analysis is: Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art: A Digital Archive and Publications Project At the Museum of Fine Arts, Huston http://icaadocs.mfah.org/icaadocs/en-us/home.aspx. As its title suggests, the organization behind this website is the Museum of Fine Arts Huston, under its International Center for Arts of the Americas, whose director is Mari Carmen Ramirez Ph.D, also curator of Latin American Art at the MFSH. The museum’s Documents Project is run by Ramirez, María C, Gazrambide, and an editorial board of sixteen members.

The main purpose of this project is to “provide access to primary sources and critical documents tracing the development of twentieth-century art in Latin American and among Latino populations in the United States.” [1] This website aims for a “multilayer” and comprehensive digital archive of key documents recovered from physical archives around the American Hemisphere. The first face of the project had teams of researches identifying documents in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Latino USA. The second face of the project, which is currently taking place, has a team in Washington DC working at the Art Museum of the Americas, Organization of the American States, archives.

The project is funded by both private and federal money. Its main funding source is The Bruce T. Halle Family Foundation, as well as some additional donors such as: The Wallace Foundation, The Getty Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The National Endowment for the Arts, the Fullbright & Jaworsky L.L.P., and the Colección Patricia Phelps Cisneros in between others.

This website was created mainly for the use of curators and scholars, but it also serves the general public. One of the main features of this initiative is that it is free of charge, so anyone can have access to the digital archives.

The website’s designers, São Paulo-based Base7, managed to create a comprehensive site in which visitors can easily search for documents, through the use of the site’s search tools, both keyword and advanced. The user can also browse listings based on the document’s metadata: Editorial Categories, Titles, Authors, Topic Descriptors, Name Descriptors, and Geographic Descriptors. However, these listings require having previous knowledge about the subject of study; otherwise, the user will not be able to take advantage of them. The keyword search would probably be the most appropriate for non-scholar users as it allows for a general search that does not require such specific knowledge on the matter.

Users can also perform quick searches without an account and have access to a small image of the document, its metadata, synopsis and annotations. However, having an account allows users to access all the features of the digital archive and to “curate and save their own collection of documents, e-mail saved documents citations, view, share and export collections of documents, save search results in to a collection of documents.”[2] These features are very similar to the ones that ARTstore offers and are, perhaps, the most important attributes of the site.

Each document’s metadata has been carefully gathered to give the users complete citations, language of the document, type of document, tags, location of the document, and information about the researcher who wrote the synopsis and annotations. Here is an example: http://icaadocs.mfah.org/icaadocs/THEARCHIVE/FullRecord/tabid/88/doc/732252/language/en-US/Default.aspx

The documents are only available in their original language. They are not transcribed and the user only has access to its digital scan, which can sometimes be a burden because, if the document is too old, the digital version can be difficult to read. Not having the document translated into English, Spanish, and Portuguese can also limit accessibility to the information; not everybody can speak three languages.

Except for the documents, the website is available in English and Spanish, which grants researchers wider accessibility to metadata content, synopsis and annotations. However, as the site also offers a comprehensive collection of Brazilian Art documents, content should also be available in Portuguese.

Beyond the digital archive, the Documents Project also includes a series of publications based on recovered documentation. Its major publication is a series of Critical Documents of 20th-century Latin America and Latino Art, based on the Editorial Categories established by the project’s editorial board. When researchers affiliated with the project are cataloging and recovering the documents, they need to assign one or several of these categories to them. To see the scope of each category visit: http://icaadocs.mfah.org/icaadocs/en-us/about/theproject/editorialframework.aspx.

For the field of Latin American Art, the Documents Project is a unique source of information, an archive that enables the constant revision of vast primary sources of the 20th –century. For researchers, it has become the first place to look for primary sources. A part from being a member of the Washington DC team, I personally use the website constantly.          


[1] Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art: A Digital Archive and Publications Project At the Museum of Fine Arts, Huston.  http://icaadocs.mfah.org/icaadocs/en-us/home.aspx

[2] Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino Art: A Digital Archive and Publications Project At the Museum of Fine Arts, Huston.  http://icaadocs.mfah.org/icaadocs/en-us/home.aspx

While reading the book The Access Principle: the Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship by John Willinsky, I had a conversation with a friend that works at the World Bank about the importance of having open access to academic journals in institutions of higher education, in developing countries, and in institutions such as the World Blank. Organizations like these finance development projects in the developing world, which demands the ability to access up-to-date scholarly research.      

I explained to her a case example from Willisky’s book – the case of the Kenya Medical Research Institute and their lack of information on tropical diseases due to the fact that they weren’t able to afford the leading journals about the subject.1 I continued to tell her about how the book proposes a principle of open access to scholarly research, which is described as a “a commitment to the value and quality of research carried with the responsibility to extend the circulation of such work as far as possible and ideally to all who are interested in it and who might profit by it.”2

With this principle in mind, we both – as Colombians – discussed how the quality of higher education in countries like ours could be vastly improved through a greater democratization of information. Each time that one sees world university rankings, the highest ranked ones are usually (though, not always) in the United States and the United Kingdom. These schools not only produce great professionals but also a vast amount of high quality scholarly research. In the majority of the cases, these wealthy institutions are more able to afford the fees required in order to have access to the best and most current research journals. So, if knowledge is predominately produced and accessed by these select institutions, the worldwide educational disparity will only continue to grow wider. This phenomenon is why I believe open access to knowledge is vital in improving education and research on a global scale. 

What about institutions such as the World Bank? In our discussion, my friend mentioned how expensive it is for the World Bank’s to purchase access to academic journals and publications. This can be quite cumbersome for her, as she must justify the importance of the document for the project in order to gain approval to purchase the information. The justification goes to high authority that decides if the expense is worth it or not. If decision-making institutions such as the World Bank are limited in their ability to conduct thorough research because of costs, it is clearly more urgent a need to promote Willinsky’s principle as a major goal in a worldwide campaign to make knowledge democratized and at the service of people. 

 I know that this perhaps sounds idealistic, but Willinsky provides a variety of initiatives in which efforts are presently being made to promote open access. Coming from Colombia, I know how difficult it is to pursue higher education in the Sates. It is not to say that my college education was necessarily bad, but rather I know that by having open access to contemporary academic resources, my education would have been that much better and current.

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1 To see more on this case and the help that the World Health Organization gave them, see: Jonh Willinky. The Access Principle, the Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 2006 p.21

2 Willinky. The Access Principle… p. 57