One more opinion on open sourcing history

I’ve just recently gotten on twitter, and I’m mostly using it to track what other history/digital humanities people are saying about the world.  It’s not surprising (though new to me) that there’s a lot of great linking and sharing about history going on through twitter, nor that a lot of people who are inclined to be “twitterstorians” are also interested in the relationship between history and digital humanities, so that’s a lot of what’s been cycling through my reader recently.

Something that’s come up with fair regularity is how historians might go about open sourcing their work.  I first came across this idea via Timothy Burke’s project to collect and make public his reading notes but within the last month there’s been some more discussion about exactly how we might go about open sourcing our notes, as people in the sciences are starting to do.  Caleb McDaniel outlined some of the possibilities, as well as the pitfalls of making our notes available, as I think some scholars are already using blogs to do – to quote Tim Hitchcock, quoted in another recent twitter discovery, his Historyonics blog is there to “upload bits and pieces that he would not otherwise publish in any other form.”  While what those bits and pieces are certainly changes over the life of a project, in the early stages – for me at least – I tend to post random things I find in archives that tickle me, or seem odd, or just interesting.  As the project progresses, I try out ideas, or illustrations, or maps, and by the end, I usually feel up to talking about the process.  Rinse.  Repeat.  So ultimately for me, this space is basically a commonplace book.  Other bloggers’ mileage may vary.

I think that McDaniel is right that open sourcing the kind of work we do on projects is very different from open sourcing scientific work.  For one thing, much of the legwork – perhaps akin to collecting experimental data in terms of place-in-process and time – is finding archives and transcribing information.  While some people work from readily available and widely known archives, others work painstakingly to track a story or character across different manuscript collections, and sharing that work feels a bit like giving away the whole ballgame.  I’m sure that at least some of this anxiety comes of being a junior scholar with limited publications, and from the many horror stories I’ve recently heard about work being “scooped” from Proquest-published dissertations or conference papers, but I also know that it’s an anxiety I share

Because of these reservations, I was excited to read Kris Schaffer’s suggestion that sharing platforms might be used for pedagogy as well as research notes. The world of syllabi  already seems to be a very sharey one – facilitated by H-net lists as well as colleges and universities that post syllabi online – but one where attribution is tricky.  If, for example, colleague A were borrow a semester structure wholesale from colleague B who’s posted theirs online, there’s been no way for A to let B know that their syllabus is being used, to share changes A has made, or feedback on how certain things worked or didn’t work.  Perhaps more importantly, there’s no way for B to know that A has appropriated their intellectual property for their own uses.  There’s no way for them to report back that something didn’t work, or that they made vital changes.  I love the idea of using something like GitHub to share this kind of pedagogical stuff, because it seems to give us a way to do better what some are doing already.

In that spirit, I’m going to try and provide a running commentary here on my experiences teaching the U.S. survey for the first time this fall – what’s worked, what hasn’t, what I’ll be doing differently when I teach it again in the spring.  It’s a terrifying prospect to lay bare my possible future pedagogical failures, but it seems like a good exercise in both practicing what I preach, and in being really mindful of that teaching.

Unlikely confluences

Project Runway is a guilty pleasure of mine – I’m not generally a huge fan of the reality tv genre, but I do love shows that showcase expertise (Julia Child on The French Chef is my tv chicken soup when I’m sick.)  This season, a native woman, Patricia Michaels, made it to the final round of the show, and was quite vocal about the importance of “a native woman showing in her own country.”

Today, I had the pleasure of attending the Rethinking Land and Language symposium at Columbia.  Through two round tables – one on the idea of land, and one on the idea of language in native studies – panelists discussed the current state of indigenous studies.  I’m a latecomer to the field – most of my familiarity with indigenous studies has been born of the article I’m finishing on the Cherokee and Choctaw donations to Irish famine relief – so I spent most of the day scribbling down references for things I must read, and must do, before this article gets sent out.  Even so, one of the most significant moments for me was J. Kēhaulani Kauanui talking about the ways in which the historical profession sometimes treats colonialism, and particularly the colonization of native peoples, as an historical, rather than a present phenomenon.  The audience was challenged to think about why scholars who write about native peoples don’t engage with theories of indigeneity, and why early modern Americanists in particular seem reluctant to present at native studies conferences.  There’s a lot to think about coming out of this symposium, but I was happy to see, when I got home to watch Project Runway, the presence of native voices on popular television, and not just native voices, but a native woman, and not just a native woman, but a native woman critiquing settler colonialism. 

Post-defense euphoria

It’s been a week plus since I defended, and while I’m very excited to have passed this particular milestone, I also sometimes feel like there’s a dissertation shaped hole in my life that needs filling.  One of the major themes of the defense was how to take a series of narratives about discrete geographic spaces, and make them into a cohesive scholarly monograph, so much like when I began this project five years ago, I’m going back to the secondary literature to begin thinking about relating the research I’ve done to broader themes of stitial and imperial governance, and the moral authority that giving lent to donors who might not otherwise have the means – social or economic – to voice their opinions on how their governments were taking care of them.

I’m also using the next few months to learn more about the opportunities afforded by GIS.  I was at a talk yesterday at NYU’s humanities initiative on deep mapping (like deep narrative) that raised a whole host of possibilities for creating a digital component of my dissertation research.  In many ways (and despite William Cronon’s dispiriting story of undergraduates who were unable to tell the difference between books and websites in the most recent AHR) textual narratives are the best ways to tell stories about the political possibilities afforded by famine philanthropy, but some kind of visual aspect is needed, I think, to really give a sense of the extent of donations.  I’m sure that static images would do this just fine, but I hope to really get into dynamic visualizations as another way to tell stories about nineteenth-century donors.

In my dream world, and with infinite resources, there are two projects here.  The first would map participation in Irish famine relief projects, showing both from where, and in what amounts donations came, and the ways in which news of the famine spread over time.  The second is somewhat more ambitious.  Having spoken with other people who work on nineteenth-century philanthropy, I think that it would be really productive to have a collaborative, searchable online database of participants in nineteenth-century philanthropic projects.  In a perfect world, anyone could upload both images of donor lists and enter donors’ names in a shared database, which would link multiple contributions to different organizations made by the same donor.  This would require a platform like Zooniverse, or the NYPL’s digital menu project, but might – if enough people working on enough different philanthropic projects – produce a really robust source for studying historical philanthropy.

Forming Nations, Reforming Empires

It was a long time (more than 3 years from the first conference meetings to now) in the making, but the special issue of Early American Studies that I co-edited and co-wrote the introduction to is “live” on Project Muse, and paper copies are wending their way from Penn Press.  Historians don’t tend to write with other people, and learning to do so was a challenge, but I think that the issue and our introduction to it are much better for both Jerusha and my contributions.  It was a great learning experience, and I’m both delighted with the final product, and to have completed this particular project.

“Are you a math person? You look like a math person.”

Having submitted my dissertation for review, I find myself with some time on my hands.  While many people have suggested that this would be an opportune moment to relax my father, who is also an academic, suggested that it merely freed up time to begin new projects! Write articles! Learn new skills!  Having taken one morning off this week to drink cocoa and read a novel, I think I’m all done relaxing and ready to get started.

A few years ago, after a thrilling session on network analysis at the AHA, I decided that I was going to teach myself network analysis.  That, much like undergraduate attempts in stat classes on linear regression analysis populated by econ majors, didn’t go quite as planned, and I mostly gave up and began to rely in IBM’s online ManyEyes software, which produces nice, if slightly clunky visual representations of data.  But just yesterday, I received notice of Indiana University’s free MOOC on information visualization (referred to as IVMOOC, which is really quite fun to say), which is offered just when I need something to occupy my time/keep me from compulsively re-editing a document I’ve already turned in.  The preliminary survey for the course suggests that it’s mostly geared towards people who already have data-driven backgrounds, so for the next eight weeks, I expect to feel much like I did when confronted with Chi-squared problems in my senior year of college – completely over my head, but having loads of fun.

At the same time, I also hope to get acquainted with the open source Quantum GIS software, which seems like it would be a pretty nifty way to deal with the map-making problems I’ve been confronting recently.

Also revising one article.  Also writing another article about the movement of information in the mid-nineteenth century, which hopefully utilizes some of what I’ve picked up from IVMOOC and Quantum GIS.

At any rate, the enthusiasm made possible by my new-found time must have been obvious to the woman sitting next to me during my novel-reading/cocoa-drinking morning off.  As she got up from her seat next to me at the cafe, she turned and said “Are you a math person?  You look like a math person.”  We’ll see.

Donor demography

An item titled “donor demography” is always on my to-do list – I have a database with the names of over 5,000 individuals and groups who gave to famine relief, and there always seems to be something more I could be doing with that data.  I’ve been playing around with a sample of 120 American donors.  Telling a story about these people is tricky.

The easiest, and most bloodless approach is a statistical one:

In a sample of 12o donors, the largest single donation came from the Society of Friends in Philadelphia, who in February of 1847 collected $7,200.  The smallest donation was of $1, and came from a “Friend of Ireland” somewhere in the vicinity of Charleston.  The average donation was $443, but the most commonly donated amount was $5.  The median donation was $50, and the geographic distribution of this sample (drawn from Charleston and New York Newspapers) shows donors scattered across the United States.

Another approach is to break them up into smaller groups, say, professional men (doctors, lawyers, clergymen, judges and military officers); men whose names don’t indicate rank or profession; women;  towns and groups of people, and write a speculative narrative about what might have prompted men or women of a certain type to give.

From February to May of 1847, professional men across the United States contributed to famine relief.  Some, like the Reverend Jas. Dupree of Summerville, South Carolina, gave as little as $3, while others like Dr. Benjamin Waldo, gave as much as $200.  In the 1850s, a skilled laborer could make, at most $300 in a year, so the doctor’s donation certainly, and Reverend Dupree’s donation possibly represented a sizable portion of their household income.  A significant majority of these men worked with a church in some capacity, suggesting that frequent exposure to doctrines of virtue through charity might have effectively encouraged some to give.  These men also would have had access to the dominant newspapers of the day – easily affording penny periodicals like the New York Sun or Charleston Courierand would consequently have been exposed to many of the circulating ideas about Americans’ obligations to the suffering Irish.

Finally, one of these donors from one of these groups, say “Dr. Reynolds” of Camden, SC, might be used to extrapolate the possible charitable motivations of men.

This “Dr. Reynolds” could have been any one of three Reynolds men living in Camden in 1840 (or someone else entirely, who emigrated in the intervening seven years).  All three Reynolds residents of Camden owned slaves.

There, the trail goes cold.  I could, with infinite time and resources, track down all of the donors mentioned in the records of famine charities, and that’s actually something I aspire to do some day, but those people who are recoverable from mid-nineteenth-censuses will likely prove to be remarkable in some way – an uncommon name or profession, or living in an uncommon place – rendering them less than ideal examples of the average or exemplary donor.  Ultimately, I’m not convinced that having the stories of five thousands individuals will tell me more than trying to make sense of the groups they belonged to, or how they identified in their communities, but I’m neither sure what the best way to tell their stories is.

Disasterous truth

Radiolab – produced by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich – recently released an episode called “The Fact of the Matter” which explored the ways in which “getting a firm hold on the truth is never as simple as nailing down the facts of a situation.”  Radiolab is usually presented as a series of three riffs on the central theme, and this month’s first and last segments played around with the idea of absolute truth (via Errol Morris’s discussion of Crimean cannonballs) and whether truth matters at all (via Tim Kreider’s story of a friend whose life seemed to contain nothing true).  The middle section, called Yellow Rain, though, seemed to go off the rails a little, hinting – though never explicitly engaging with – the idea that privileging some truths over others can actually be an act of violence.

The question at the heart of Yellow Rain was whether soviet chemical weapons had been used on the Hmong people in Laos after the end of the Vietnam War.  The Hmong had been U.S. allies during the war, and after American troops left the region, were subject to brutal attacks by the Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao.  The Hmong fled into the jungle, where they first encountered showers of yellow droplets falling from the sky.  These showers were followed by livestock deaths, stomach pain, and in some cases, death.  Between the Viet Cong attacks – which often included the aerial assaults – and this Yellow Rain, many Hmong today describe the period after Vietnam as a genocide. Refugees gave leaves with the yellow substance to aid workers, who sent them to a U.S. lab which found pollen and high levels of poison.  They concluded that the Soviet government had created a poison that could be deployed via pollen, President Reagan used the lab’s findings as evidence of Soviet chemical weapons capability, and jump-started U.S. chemical weapons programs.  In the aftermath of that decision, other U.S. scientists re-examined the Yellow Rain, argued that the original lab had made an error, and that the substance was nothing more than bee feces, released all at once when the bees came out of hibernation.

This could have been a fairly straightforward story about how governments lie, or accept incomplete information, in order to pursue nefarious ends – and that seems to be the story that Robert Krulwich was interested in telling.  But at the end of the piece, Krulwich and a Radiolab producer, Pat Walters, interviewed a man named Eng Yang, who had actually lived through both Viet Cong attacks and Yellow Rain.  They asked Yang, via his niece, author Kao Kalia Yang, who was acting as an interpreter (and who sometimes interjected her own commentary), what he thought about the fact that scientists had found that the Hmong had not actually been the victims of chemical warfare:

Yang: [If this was just bee feces] How do you explain the kids dying? The people and the animals dying?
Jad voiceover: We asked Kalia to tell Eng what the scientists had told us, that the Hmong were definitely dying.
Scientist voiceover: The Hmong were under real attack.  They were being fired at from airplanes and by soldiers.
Jad voiceover: But more importantly, even if they weren’t being killed by those direct attacks, they were on the run through the jungle.  They were malnourished, drinking from contaminated streams, diseases like dysentery and cholera were rampant, and the way a lot of people see it, they might have misattributed some of those mysterious deaths to this cloud of bee poop that looked like it could have been a chemical weapon. But Eng says no, not a chance.
Yang: I speak to what I’ve seen, and there is no inkling in my mind that those deaths were not caused by starvation, dysentery, there was chemicals that were killing my people.
Robert: And, um, did the source of the rain, was there always a plane and then rain? A plan and then rain? Or did sometimes the rain happen without a plane?
Yang: We never saw what it was, it was always being dropped on them, and it was always being dropped where there were heavy concentrations of Hmong people.
Robert: Hm.
Yang: That’s what we knew.
Robert: But we don’t know whether there was a plane causing it, or did you just see the dust?
Yang: Bullets and bombs all the day, every time.
Robert: Hm.
Yang: And so whether, whether it was a bombing plane or a yellow plane, it was incredibly hard to distinguish.  Everybody runs when you hear the planes, so Hmong people didn’t watch bombs coming down.  You came out, you sneak your head out, and you watch what happen in the aftermath.  You saw broken trees, you saw yellow in the aftermath of what had been bombed.  I saw with my own eyes the pollen on the leaves eating through holes.  With my own eyes I saw pollen that could kill grass, could kill leaves, could kill trees.
Robert: But he himself is not clear w-, whether it’s the bee stuff or whether its other stuff, because there was so much stuff coming down from the sky.
Yang: You know that there were chemicals being used against the Hmong in the mountains of Laos.  Whether this is the chemicals from the bombs or yellow rain, chemicals were being used.  It feels to him like this is a semantic debate, and it feels like, um, like there’s a sad lack of justice, that, that, that the word of a man who survived this thing must be pitted against a professor from Harvard who’s read these accounts.
Robert: But, as far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall, your uncle didn’t see a plane, all of this is hearsay.
Yang: [audibly upset] My uncle says, um, for the last twenty years he didn’t know that anything, anybody was interested in the death of the Hmong people.  He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know, what happened to the Hmong happened, and the world has been un-, uninterested for the last twenty years.  He agreed because you were interested.  That the story would be heard and that the Hmong deaths would be re- documented and recognized.  That’s why he agreed to the interview, that the Hmong heart is broken, that our leaders have been silenced, and what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him or to me.  I agreed to the interview for the same reason, that Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story, that they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened.  There was so much that was not told, everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used.  How do you create bombs if not with chemicals?  We can play the semantics game, we can, but I am not interested, my uncle is not interested, we have lost too much heart, and too many people in the process.

Yang ends the interview, and there are about 15 seconds of “radio silence” before cutting to a conversation between Jad, Robert and Pat the producer.  In the course of that conversation, Pat says”

“that moment was when the whole story changed for me … there was something about, like, the way that she was pointing away from the thing that we had been looking so hard at, and saying, stop looking at that, look over here … she didn’t convince me at all that this was a chemical weapon, but she convinced me that we were missing something … until she said the things she said at the end of that interview, I don’t think that I fully appreciated the volume of pain that was involved in that moment for them.”

Jad chimes in, saying that he understood her to be saying:

“quit focusing on this yellow rain stuff, because when you do that, you’re shoving aside a much larger story, namely that my people were being killed.”

Robert, though, seems to remain unconvinced that the Yangs’ truth was significant.  He says, in response to Jad:

“Right, that’s exactly what she’s saying.  And that is wrong.  That is absolutely, to my mind, that is not fair to us.  It’s not fair to ask us to not consider the other stories and the other frames of the story.  The fact that the most powerful man in the world, Ronald Reagan, used this story to order the manufacture of chemical weapons for the first time in twenty years, I mean, that is not unimportant, that’s hugely important, but it’s not important to her, so should that not be important to us?”

He goes on to say that while he personally found her reaction to be “very balancing,” that “her desire was not for balance, her desire was to monopolize the story, and that we can’t allow.” (emphasis mine)

There’s a whole lot to unpack there, but I was forcibly struck by two things:  The first was the degree to which western narratives were privileged over non-western ones.  This isn’t just a problem for Radiolab. In a 2008 book on terrorism, Matt Meselson, one of the scientists whose work discredited the yellow-rain-as-chemical-weapon conclusions, opens a section on the “composition of the alleged agent” by noting that “none of the alleged attacks was witnessed by a Western observer. The most tangible evidence bearing on the allegations consisted of the samples of the alleged agent turned in by refugees, and the laboratory analyses of these and other environmental samples, of blood and urine from alleged victims.” Meselson certainly has a horse in this race, so it’s not that surprising that his current work continues to defend his findings from the 1980s.  However, his opening sentence implies that if there had been Western observers, scientists would not have had to rely on the word of non-westerners – these refugees and alleged victims.  While Radiolab never came out with so explicit a demarcation between trustworthy narrators (Western observers) and untrustworthy ones (alleged victims), the arc of Krulwich’s interview with the Yangs reinforced that paradigm.  In light of the final piece in the episode – which argues that the lies told by an individual (American) man about his life, to his friends, shouldn’t matter, because experientially, they knew who he “really” was – it’s hard not to see a disparity between whose truths Radiolab trusts, and whose truths they don’t.

My second thought had to do with the ways in which we (scholars, historians, journalists) use peoples’ experiences of disaster.  Krulwich’s comment at the end of the interview that it was wrong for the Yangs to assert their own truth, and that in doing so they were trying to monopolize the story (language, along with the assertion that Yang’s experience was “hearsay” that Krulwich later apologized for) suggests that, in the moment, he thought that the story about how Reagan used these accounts – the lie that Reagan told to jump-start U.S. chemical weapons production – was a more important story than the Yang’s accounts of the Hmong genocide.  Understandably, I think, Yang disagreed, and that moment could have lead to a really productive discussion of what it means to use one population’s sufferings in service of social or political arguments that are almost entirely divorced from them.  I think that Krulwich implied that while the Hmong genocide only affected the Hmong people, Reagan’s decisions as “the most powerful man in the world” impacted everyone, including the Hmong, rendering the “truth” of Reagan’s claims more important than the “truth” of the Hmong’s experiences.  I also think that there could have been a really productive conversation about the ways in which denying particular truths can be, in itself, an act of violence.  Jad and Pat tiptoed up to the edge of that conversation in the piece following the interview, but neither they, nor Robert either in the episode or in his follow-up commentary, fully acknowledged the trauma they might have inflicted – both to the Yang’s and to other people whose experiences of violence and genocide are still and often silenced.

I see this kind of appropriation all the time in my own work, when donor groups in the 1840s used narratives coming out of Ireland to make political arguments about their own circumstances, bolstered by the moral value of their donations to distant sufferers, but before listening to this piece, I don’t think that I had considered the impact that those appropriations might have had on Irish people.  Most of those starving in Ireland probably wouldn’t have known that New Yorkers or Charlestonians were using their suffering as a proxy for either immoral landholding practices in upstate New York, or the “injustices” foisted upon Southern slaveholders by abolition campaigns, but Irish emigrants might have.

I think it’s also worth thinking about whether the actual composition of the yellow stuff actually matters at all.  In the Errol Morris piece, one contributor notes that it might not matter whether a war photographer staged a famous picture of the Crimea, because the sense evoked by the picture was a more accurate representation of the experience of war than any un-staged image ever could.

[Edited to fix embarrassing misspelling]