Quick note on breakfast cereal

I love playing around with the idea of realizing different projects in different genres – exemplified for me, by Douglas Adams’ quip about starting a new project:

People wanted me to do a CD-ROM of Hitchhiker’s, and I thought, “no, no.” I didn’t want to just sort of reverse-engineer yet another thing from a book I’d already written. I think that the digital media are interesting enough in their own right to be worth originating something in. Because, really, the moment you have any idea, the second thought that enters your mind after the original idea is, “What is this? Is it a book, is it a movie, is it a this, is it a that, is it a short story, is it a breakfast cereal?” Really, from that moment, your decision about what kind of thing it is then determines how it develops. So something will be very, very different if it’s developed as a CD-ROM than if it’s developed as a book. (From an interview with the Onion AV club, reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt)

Well, the playwright Lucy Prebble just published a piece on the New York Times‘ ArtsBeat blog about gaming and narrative and form and argument.  It’s quite good.

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Quick note: “Snow Fall”

The New York Times has been pushing “Snow Fall,” a multimedia article about the February 2012 avalanche in the Cascade Mountains.  It’s a six part story, much like one of the NYT Magazine‘s feature articles, but supplemented with video interviews, interactive maps, and other material designed to bring the story to life.  It takes some time to get through, but is, I think, worth getting into, because it seems like one direction that newspapers might take in this “digital age” of reduced print circulation.

That being said, I’m not convinced that the story really needed all of the bells and whistles.  The story itself – of 16 professional or semi-professional skiers caught in an avalanche – is compelling enough on its own.  Interviews with survivors are heart-wrenching, but for me the most difficult part of the piece was the narrative reconstruction of the victims’ loved ones’ reactions.  Many people are familiar with print analogues to stories like these – the Magazine’s story last week about Barney’s, for example – which could be augmented with digital material, and I suppose there’s an argument that says that the more information included, in as many different mediums as possible, the better.  And some parts of “Snowfall” worked really well.  As you read each part, the text scrolls over background images – in some cases of snow, in others of trees destroyed by the avalanche, and, perhaps most effectively, over maps which highlight the position of the skier being discussed at the moment.  But in other places, the information feels superfluous, or not fully integrated – digital content for the sake of novelty, rather than for the sake of telling a better story.

I hope to see more of this kind of thing from the Times, because I think that it charts some rich terrain for the future of journalism (and I’d frankly love to play around with something like this for history writing).  I also have to wonder whether some kinds of stories are suited to this treatment more than others.  Because I’m a disaster studies nerd, I did find myself thinking that disasters are particularly well-suited to these kinds of pieces (I was actually reminded a couple of times of the “Murder on Beacon Hill” documentary and app – which, if you live in or near Boston, is really worth checking out).  Disasters (or in the case of the Beacon Hill piece, murders) often feature a discrete cast of characters, a series of events easily fit into narrative form, and take place in a limited enough space to make things like maps useful.  I’d really love to see the “Snowfall” treatment applied to a more data-driven story though, because I think a lot of great work has been done recently with visual and interactive representations of information that could really enhance readers’/viewers’ experience of a story.

Dream course

Despite the stress, one of the perks of being on the market is that I get to spend entire days sitting around and thinking about dream classes – not dream students, or dream institutions – but the classes I’d teach if I had all the leeway and resources in the world.  It’s tremendous fun, and means that I occasionally stumble across brilliant and compelling work I’d not previously had a chance to explore.  Today, that was Jill Lepore’s piece in the JAH on biography and microhistory.  If you have institutional access, read it.  It’s great.

I came to this by way of thinking about how to design a class that centered the historical challenges of reconstructing historical actors’ experiences – and particularly those of people who aren’t likely to have left a strong mark on the historical record. (An aside: at the Against Recovery conference hosted by NYU a few weeks ago, a number of people called for scholars of race, slavery and the enslaved to move beyond the language of “recovery” for accessing the historical experiences of the enslaved, the freed, and free people of color – it was a fascinating conference all around, but I especially loved how we were pushed to think about how the very words we use to describe historical practice privilege some narratives over others)  My ideal version of this class combines Kathleen Conzen’s course at the U(C) on American immigration history, for which the final project asked us to use census records to track an immigrant family living in Chicago at some point in the past;  Martha Hodes’s class at NYU on “Reconstructing Lives” which focuses on the craft of writing a history centered on one particular person – and the craft of historical writing more broadly. (Her “Four Episodes in Re-Creating a Life” beautifully illustrates the challenges inherent in this), and Nicholas Wolfe ‘s, also at NYU, which uses the 1860 census as a common data set and teaches old-school social history statistical analysis.  I’m also captivated by the work that the folks at Zooniverse are doing in citizen science, though the New York Public did something similar in the humanities with its menu transcription project.

In an ideal world, I’d love to construct a class around a data set (say, for example, the Charleston donors I mapped yesterday) and ask each student to write a microhistory of one of them.  Some are easier than others, though the ones that are most prominent might have a larger collection of extent personal papers, which is great for research, but perhaps stressful for already taxed undergraduates.  We’d begin with tracking their donors through various censuses – probably using something like Ancestry.com – before branching out into other kinds of archival material.  Once the students had built up biographical sketches of their donors, we’d move on to the social/cultural work that microhistory can do so well – using these people to tell us more about the world of antebellum South Carolina? Reading cultures in the antebellum South? Relationships between social status and philanthropic giving?  I’d love to end the class – maybe the last third of the term – with a collaborative project, in which students come back together to write a history of their cohort, focusing on whatever has popped out for them as the important historical question that their donors’ lives help illuminate.  I imagine that several iterations of a class like this would produce an archive of its own – a series of biographies, micrhohistories and essays that describe the data more completely than I’d ever hope to do on my own, and which students would be able to cite as examples of their public work as they move on from my class.  In the most perfect of worlds, I’d be able to find a data set that is populated by people local to wherever I’m teaching, which would (hopefully) encourage students to get themselves to local archives, maybe speak to descendents, or even explore the lived environments of the people they’re researching.

As much as this would be a blast to teach (it’s archival!  it’s historical methodology! it’s local history!) I also worry about deploying students in service of what, ultimately, are research goals that could help me out quite a bit.  I like the idea of finding a population of people who share some attribute, beyond their physical location (though if the geographical confines were small enough, it might be interesting to also make this a class about community history) and I have this massive, 6,000+ data set of famine donors that I’m itching to work on, but I’m concerned about exploiting student labor in service of my own project.  On the other hand, some of the papers that have come out of the citizen science work cite everyone who helped out with the project online, and science labs do this kind of thing all the time, and give students first or second authorship on the papers that come out of the research.

Off to write a dream syllabus.

Maps, maps and maps

I’ve been playing around with a data set of 95 donors whose names were published in the Charleston Mercury and Charleston Courier.  I’m a data/census nerd, so there’s a lot of fun to be had with lists like these.  So now I’ve got this database that tracks where donors lived, how much property they held, what jobs they held and how many enslaved people they owned.  I’ve been plotting the donations with google maps, which is fine for showing just how widely appeals circulated, but doesn’t really do much else for visually describing the data.


I’d love to do something more with this – either plotting the data on an older map, or figuring out some way to code the markers to indicate amount of donation, or slaveholding/non-slaveholding, or profession.  A few years ago, after an AHA panel on network analysis, I decided that I was going to learn to code network diagrams over winter break.  I’ve similar aspirations for learning GIS, but I’m not holding out hope for it being an easy, or quickly doable task.