Blog Reflection Post 8

Because of my internship, I am confident that public history is the thing I want to do. It’s very easy in the midst of graduate school historiography papers to wonder if the work you’re doing will impact anyone, let alone change the field. However, interning with the National Museum of American History has reminded me that my education has not existed in a vacuum. Everything I’ve learned at George Mason University–from digital public humanities to applied history–has helped me succeed in this internship, not by preemptively outfitting me with every skill I’ll ever need, but by giving me the foundations so I can figure things out on my own. However, a small part of me was wondering if I’d even enjoy public history–a small part, but still worrisome. However, coming from the other side of this internship, I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity and happy that I decided to go back to school to study history. I finally feel at peace with my academic decisions, and though I know the real world of job interviews awaits, I look forward to my own future as well as the future of public history and digital humanities.

Blog Reflection Post 7

What insights do you have about working in digital public humanities as a result of this experience? What new questions or ideas do you have as a result of this experience?

Much of the work of digital public humanities is invisible to the eye of the public. That may seem strange, given that the subject contains the word “public,” but it’s because all the work done is for the benefit of the public. Metadata makes it easier for both those working on the project to comprehend it, but it also allows people outside of the project to understand the data more easily by standardizing things. Even though I do not personally work with the public in this internship, all my work–in some form or another–will come before the public. They most likely won’t see the rows upon rows of data that I’ve entered into Excel, but they will see the conclusion of all that data. In a way, I’ve come to view digital public humanities as the sound engineering of public history. Whenever I’ve worked with audio/visual technology, it’s always apparent that nobody notices when the audio is working smoothly. However, when a mic is too quiet or there is too much feedback, it’s all anybody notices. Digital public humanities–at least the kind that I’m partaking in–is like that: it all goes unnoticed until you accidentally enter information into the wrong row or you forget how to standardize a certain categorization or spelling.

Given all this data I’m compiling, I now understand the appeal in crowdsourcing: work that would take years by a team of a dozen can be accomplished in a few months with hundreds of intrepid Internet users. At the same time, if there are questions about the quality of your work, it’s hard to ask an advisor on a crowdsourcing project–there rarely is one. It’s hard enough for me, a digital intern, to communicate all my ideas and questions in a single email; I almost always forget to mention something. So the limits of digital public humanities are mainly in effective, clear communication. However, sometimes the trade-off is necessary, even welcomed. Some crowdsourced projects don’t need a lot of oversight–in fact, the best ones need none at all. My main question is if digital public humanities can ever substitute completely for in-person communication and research. It’s not really a new question, and it’s a question that many people think that they have the answers to. But I’m still drawing my own conclusions on this one. I think digital public humanities is practical, but I do have to say that I am looking forward to meeting my boss in person in the coming weeks, as I work on an in-person project within the museum itself. I guess, despite my access online to centuries of data and words, it still can’t–at least for me–completely replace the wonder of touching an artifact or seeing someone’s gratitude on his or her face.

Blog Reflection Post 6

What skills or knowledge from your coursework are you using in your internship?  Have you noticed a difference between theory and practice? Why or why not?

Most of the skills from my digital humanities coursework that apply to my internship deal with metadata. How much metadata needs to be included? What is the best way to standardize that metadata? How will this metadata allow us to see patterns in the data?

The metadata of the “famous,” “celebrated,” and “celebrity” databases are very important. If all we cared about was the data itself, we would just copy the sentence in which the words are used. However, the database is meant to make information as clear as possible, so we list the newspaper that the word appears in, the date, and the location of the paper. That information will allow us to observe any regional patterns. (New Orleans newspapers really like sarsaparilla, for instance!) Similarly, we record the object to which the word “famous,” “celebrated,” or “celebrity” applies. (It’s surprisingly unclear in a lot of cases.) We also document the object’s sex (if there is one), foreign or domestic status, and age. And finally, most importantly: what is it/he/she famous for?

Perhaps all this information could be gleaned from the sentences themselves. However, while in theory that might be true (“The famous battle of Gettysburg took place three years ago today” is fairly obvious), in practice, many things are left implied (“The famous anniversary commenced with fireworks” makes a lot of assumptions about the previous sentences, but also about the reader). While I do wish that some of these newspaper writers had been more transparent in their meaning, it is fascinating to do a deep dive into who a famous “general” or “explorer” was based on the other clues in the article. It’s also made me aware of how much information is assumed to be known by readers in the newspaper articles of today; any future graduate students will have just as hard a time as I have been having!

We have all these rules that help us categorize these sentences and objects, but sometimes, they can’t cover all the bases. Once again, I should have anticipated this (rules can’t cover everything, after all), but I find myself surprised every time it happens. All this means is that we have to adapt our strategy and adopt a new rule. These rules don’t just apply to categorization; they also apply to how the data is written. I have my own style, but I’m also realizing that my boss has his own style (open brackets vs. closed brackets, for instance). Standardization is important, which is easy to remember when setting the rules, but harder when you are on your 300th data entry and cannot decide whether the “Elastic Lock Stitch Sewing Machine” is the same as the “Elastic Locke Stitch Sewing Machine.” Unfortunately, standardization is pretty hard when the English language wasn’t even standardized in the 19th century!

Blog Reflection Post 5

What about your internship has been an eye-opening (new or unexpected) experience? What were your initial expectations? Have these expectations changed now that you are half-way through? How? Why?  

Perhaps the most eye-opening experience of this internship is that nothing I do is done in a vacuum. Maybe that’s a realization I should have had before I even started–it’s kind of the underlying theme of public history–but it truly struck me when, amidst plans to get the data ready for analysis and presentation, the government shut down. All Smithsonian institutions were affected; fortunately, my boss and I were not furloughed, but it meant that there was a stress on completing the project that didn’t exist, since he was now taking on other responsibilities in the absence of his colleagues. The work we have done wasn’t negatively impacted–we both were still able to work–but I forgot that this work is contingent upon the Smithsonian–and, looking at the big picture, the government–running. The shutdown made me more cognizant of outside pressures affecting work that we think is apolitical: maybe the work is apolitical, but it’s done in an inherently political environment.

My initial expectations were that my work’s implications might not even be known to me. I knew that exhibitions take a long time to put together, and I wasn’t expecting to walk into the museum the next day and see one with all my research. So I suppose that I had low expectations to my work ever being seen by someone other than my boss (at least this semester), so I was pleasantly surprised that my boss wanted my particular project done by next month so that he can present the findings. However, with exposure comes potential criticism, and that possibility has made me realize that I need to accept both the joy and discomfort associated with putting your work “out there.” So I’ve had to adapt my expectations to not only do work that my boss–and, most importantly, I–am proud of, but acknowledge that now my work will be scrutinized by more people, and with that comes apprehension. I will still continue to do good work, and I will be receptive to other people’s opinions, but I can’t let what I’m afraid that they might say negatively affect my current work.

Blog Reflection Post 4

What are you doing that seems to be successful in the internship?  Challenging? How can you address these challenges?

My most successful project in this internship is the database that I am compiling of the usage of the words “famous,” “celebrated,” and “celebrity” over time. I’ve been with the material for so long that I can recognize patterns and historical trends in the articles. The data sometimes confirms my suspicions and sometimes takes me completely by surprise. I feel confident about writing up an analysis of this data, and I look forward to doing so, as I can explain my findings to someone other than my fiancé. The real challenge with this project is time: it will be my only project for the next few weeks and even into the early new year, since we need to present our findings.

The more challenging project has been compiling the database of celebrity politicians. Of course, compiling your own database is always harder than simply adding to someone else’s. However, my database so far was relatively easy to compile, given that I utilized other organization’s lists of famous politicians to help me build a solid foundation. The real challenge, as I head into the new year, will be diving into the Political Graveyard–a very, very thorough database of US politicians–to find the names of lesser-known entertainers and celebrities from the period especially lacking in my current list: the 19th century. This work will be challenging in that I will have to do more fact-checking and general sifting through countless names, but it will also be exciting to figure out the best way to do so as well as learn more about 19th-century politicians.

For next semester, I’ll address these challenges by devoting more time to my digital internship–from 10 to 15 hours. Since my boss wants to present some of these findings, I’ll also be meeting with him and others at NMAH once a week to get a better sense of the team dynamic and work environment. (So really, this will be a part-digital, part-IRL internship.) The best way to deal with deadlines and learning new material, after all, is not any new-fangled techniques and strategies but just time. It will be strange next semester when this internship is my only “class” at George Mason University, but I will put in the effort as I would any other academic course–now without other academic courses to take time out of my schedule. Looking forward to the new year!

Blog Reflection Post 3

What new skills are you developing? Have you identified other skills to develop in the future?

When it came to research, I didn’t think that I needed to develop any new skills. However, much as with other misconceptions I had about graduate school, I was very, very wrong. No matter how much you think you know about research, there’s always more to learn.

Specifically, this internship is really helping me develop my improvisation skills. Although we live in a glorious age of digitized newspapers with searchable text, sometimes even an algorithm or a supercomputer messes up. If a term that I searched for isn’t highlighted in the text, I have to make some decisions: do I just skip this example and use another one that is easier to locate? If not, how do I go about finding the word “famous” in the page of a newspaper without reading through every line of text? In most cases, rather than worry about whether I’m cherry-picking data, I mostly go through the newspaper.

However, when it comes to compiling my own database of celebrity politicians, I understand that it’s dangerous to go down rabbit holes. Sometimes it’s more important to get down a name and make a note that it needs fact-checking rather than spending a half-hour trying to access dead links to old newspaper articles. Where is my time best spent? I’ve had to make hard decisions, and since I’m working digitally, I can’t always ask my boss questions about every single problem I come across. In a way, the digital internship has taught me to be self-sufficient–to solve my own problems.

In the near future, I might have to write a summary of all my research. While I’m using to writing research papers, I’m not accustomed to writing for audiences outside the academic world. However, I do look forward to flexing this skill, since I’m eager to share what I’ve learned over these past few months with others.

Blog Reflection Post 2

What are you enjoying the most during this experience?  What could you do during the internship to help create more positive experiences like these? Have you learned anything about your work style preferences as a result?

There are many aspects of this experience that I enjoy–not ever being late for work, nobody caring if I wear sweatpants, etc. In a seriousness, I most enjoy–and I know this will sound corny, but I’ll say it anyway–learning new things. Given the nature of my digital internship, the learning experience usually takes two paths.

When I’m working on the “famous,” “celebrated,” and “celebrity,” word-frequency databases, I’m very intrigued by how these terms are used. For instance, the word “celebrated” mostly appears in advertisements–and those advertisements are almost always for medicine. One of my more humorous takeaways is that the readers and advertisers of the Times-Picayune really liked sarsaparilla–which I only recently found out is, in fact, root beer. I guess before we discovered its potential as a soda fountain favorite, we were using it to cure seemingly any ailment.

With the celebrity politician database, I’m struck by how many celebrities–so far my list consists of mostly actors and athletes–run for office. More interestingly, any conception that this “celebrity runs for office” thing is a trend means that it’s a very long trend, since many of the oldest entries come from the 1910s and 1920s. As my list expands, I know it will go back even further, but it’s always interesting when history proves a “modern” phenomenon has deeper roots than originally thought. I’m disappointed by the lack of women on the list, although I think a general list would be lacking in women as well.

Fortunately, since my favorite thing about this internship is simply doing my job–gathering data, doing research–I don’t really know how I could make it more of a positive experience beyond doing more research. Written analyses may be down the line, and I’ll be very happy to share these findings with others in and outside of the history community.

I find that when delving into this research, I work best over long stretches of hours. Unfortunately, due to my school and work schedule, this isn’t always possible, which is why I’m often logging hours on Fridays and Saturdays: I prefer knocking out ten hours across two days rather than logging two hours every weekday. However, preference only goes so far with other obligations, but I think I’m doing the best I can to balance them.

Blog Reflection Post 1

What is the mission of your internship organization/department?  What is your role in the organization/department and how does it support the mission? What are you most excited to be doing?

This semester, I’m working with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The mission of the museum and its employees, and I quote from their website, is, “Through incomparable collections, rigorous research, and dynamic public outreach, we explore the infinite richness and complexity of American history. We help people understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future.” I believe my work supports this mission, as I’m providing background information that might not be available to some people. More importantly, I’m helping put this information in context, so it is dynamic and interesting to viewers. My internship work involves collecting data on the usage and evolution of the words “famous,” “celebrated,” and “celebrity,” in 19th and 20th centuries. My second task also involves understanding the concept of fame in America, but through the lens of celebrities (or “professional entertainers”) who have run for political office. My work will (hopefully) be useful in creating an exhibit that will help educate and challenge museum visitors’ ideas about celebrities and fame in general. A lot of my previous misconceptions of how Americans thought/think of fame have been challenged, like how objects—things, places, events—-were more likely to be described as famous than people. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be interested in seeing how the usage of the word “fame” compares to “celebrated.”

I’m most excited about creating my own database of celebrity-politicians. The process has led me to re-examine what a celebrity is, as well as what types of celebrities the public seems to value (enough to put into office!). I’m amused by certain patterns I pick up. (It seems like the town of Palm Spring really likes voting in former actors as the mayor!) What I thought would be a straightforward spreadsheet—name, location, position—has turned into columns upon columns of details I never would have considered, such as primary vs. general elections or election year vs. years served. Right now my list mostly consists of actors from the 20th century, so I’ll be intrigued to see how the data changes when I add professional entertainers from other fields, as well as from other time periods.

On a personal note, one of the people on my celebrity-turned-politician list with whom I am fascinated is John Davis Lodge. He was a former actor who became governor of Connecticut, and as a fellow Nutmegger, I felt a natural interest in him. Upon further research, I discovered that he was also a World War II veteran who received French decorations while serving as an attaché. His grave is in Arlington (near my current home), so I must investigate further. Such is the problem with research—it always leads you down another rabbit hole!

The next week will involve cataloguing the usage of the “celebrated” in early American newspapers. Just from an initial look, it’s far more than “famous”!

The First Wave at Omaha Beach

The First Wave at Omaha Beach

Introduction

For my final project of the Summer 2018 semester, I designed a “choose your own adventure” activity to teach users about the D-Day invasion.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction activity:

You are a WWII soldier from Bedford, Virginia, who’s an infantryman in the famed 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division.

You and your four best friends from high school all enlisted in the Army National Guard on December 8, 1941. Now, three years later, after training in both the United States and England, you are getting ready to cross the English Channel and invade Normandy, a northwest region of France.

Your choices will determine if you survive the war and make it back home to Virginia, or if you’ll die on the battlefield in France.

Reflection

If you have completed the “choose your own adventure” activity, please submit a reflection.

 

6th Piece of the Puzzle

Write a blog post describing your final project, including an overview of the topic, the focus of your work, intended audience, and purpose. What are your next steps?

My final project is a “choose-your-own-adventure” interactive presentation of the Normandy invasion. The user is a member of the 116th Regiment of the 29th Division of the US Army, a regiment that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. The user will be presented with different scenarios and asked to choose between two options. With each scenario and each selected choice, additional information and primary source readings will be provided, some of which may prove influential for later choices in the “adventure.” Although the user will have many choices, the project will have eight main chapters that all users, no matter their choices, will reach: Omaha Beach, St. Lo, Brest, Siegfried Line, Roer River, Elbe River, and V-E Day.
My intended audience for this project is students and teachers who wish to learn more about the Normandy invasion of World War II. Since students may not be able (or willing) to find this project on their own, I hope to present this “choose your own adventure” as an activity for teachers to use in the classroom.
The main purpose of this project is to educate, of course, but to complicate the user’s understanding of the Normandy landings. So much of what is known about the landings comes from movies and TV, such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. While the attention to detail in these projects rivals many other historical movies and series, there are still problems with viewing the war in the passive manner that film encourages. This project is meant to stimulate historical thinking, to make students wonder whether the war had to turn out the way that it did. If anything, the users should leave the experience thinking that they not only learned something new, but learned something that corrected a previous misconception.
With the final outline more or less completed, my next steps are to use Google Slides to create a linked presentation and actually design the project itself.