10 Jan 2015
When did you start your blog (career wise: as a grad student,
undergrad, etc)? Why did you decide to start blogging?
I started blogging early in graduate school. The blog started as a
co-authored blog between my friend Brent Rogers and myself as a way
for us to share our thoughts and ideas about digital history. We started
the blog in the context of a course we were in together believing that
it made more sense to write for both a public audience along with our
professors. I don’t want to just write for other academics – I want
what I write to be accessible and available to whoever is interested in
what I have to say.
How do you host your blog? How did you learn to set it up? Can you
expand upon the point you made about “owning your domain” in the
The blog has gone through a couple of platform iterations. When Brent
and I started we were hosting on WordPress’s free platform before I
moved over to WordPress.com. A few years ago I got caught up in the wave
of sites moving over to static blogging and, since I was also a Ruby
coder, I switched over to Jekyll (which the site continues to run on
Many of the things I’ve learned along the way have been self-taught. I
have no formal experience in computer programming or design, but I did
spent time on high school and college as a freelance web
developer/designer which set me up with learning the language of the
web. I took a deeper dive into computers early in graduate school when I
started using Ubuntu Linux as my main operating system, which introduced
me to Unix, setting up my own LAMP stack, and so on. So, installing and
running WordPress (at the time, hosted with Bluehost) had become
familiar to me. Since I had become so comfortable with the command line,
Jekyll was a natural fit for me. Plus, for my needs I didn’t want the
overhead of WordPress–maintaining the database, the constant security
updates, controlling spam. Running a static blog simplified the entire
process for me, and let me focus on my content more than the vagaries of
maintaining a website.
For owning your domain: I believe you shouldn’t let third parties be
your online identity. Facebook, Twitter, department websites,
Academia.edu, and LinkedIn should be treated as gateways to your own
domain. You don’t have as much control over how you are presented on the
web through these services, and they can disappear or change drastically overnight. What I mean by owning a domain is you should have
a URL of your own (your name if possible, and a
.com if possible) and a corner of the web that you call your own. That
corner could be a full-fledge blog, a “brochure” site that describes
who you are and what you do, or a combination of the two.
People will go looking for you online; give them a place to find you.
What were the challenges associated with the blog (i.e. spam, finding
topics, finding time, getting it counted as “work”, etc)?
One of the challenges is topics, and related to that is time. One way to
get around the topic hold-up is to not pigeonhole your writing into one
topic or theme, which I think I’ve managed to do. I write a lot about DH
and about history, but I also veer into coffee, podcasts, music, and so
on. Whenever the writing muse strikes on whatever topic, I want to be
ready to write no matter the theme.
Having time available to write has gotten a little trickier. When I was
still taking classes and writing for those venues, I often made the
things I wrote for class available on my blog – things I wrote for
class would be adapted to blog posts. Nowadays it’s a little tricky to
find time to write for the blog between juggling a full-time job,
finishing a dissertation, and the demands beyond professional life.
What topics did you normally write about? Did you try and keep it
strictly about your work, or do you ever mix in other topics?
that I believe you should write about whatever motivates you to write.
That’s what matters. Most of my writing revolves around digital history
and my research, which is a broad enough organizing theme that it
creates enough topics. Although I’ve tended to write about my work, I do
sometimes venture into other topics and hobbies. I also started doing a
John Gruber-style linkblog, which is still built into my blog but I
don’t use as often as I did a few years ago.
What kinds of interactions (scholarly or otherwise) emerged out of
your blogging practice?
I’d amend this to not just blogging, but Twitter also. I think the
combination of the two is important: long form content appeared on the
blog, but advertising the blog post and the discussions about the post
took place on Twitter. Or sharing thoughts that don’t quite make the cut
for long-form but work well in the short space Twitter gives.
I don’t know that I have any specific collaborations that emerged from the
blog, but having an online presence that included Twitter and blogging
has led to many different interactions. One has simply been networking,
a function that conferences still fulfill, but I also feel Twitter has
played a huge role in introducing me to a lot of people. I suppose that
digital presence has helped me connect to a few projects that I’m
affiliated with (The American Yawp,
The Middle West
as well as a few forthcoming collaborations that I can’t share yet (watch for these
There are other things, too. I’ve been interviewed by a few different
venues about digital humanities. I’ve been a
writer for ProfHacker and GradHacker. I’ve had lots of conversations
with people about scholarly Markdown. As I’ve shared my scholarly work
online, I’ve connected with others doing similar things or reached a
public audience interested in the work I’m doing. Some of the things
I’ve written turn into conference presentations. All of these things
are professionally and personally rewarding.
Do you find these interactions informative, useful, enlightening,
tedious, frustrating, obligatory, etc?
By and large I find it useful and informative. The interactions have led
me to new ideas, introduced me to new people, and built up a
professional reputation that I think has been important not only for
carving out my niche in the field of history but also allowed me to, in
a way, advertise myself to potential employers. Networking is an
important skill in the academy, and I think having an online presence
can go a long way in helping you cultivate a network of people across
Such interactions are also exciting because they’re giving me a chance
to engage in new collaborations (like the one’s I can’t mention yet…)
that I likely wouldn’t have a chance to engage with otherwise. Blogging
gave me an avenue not only to work through ideas, but also allowed
the discovery by others to the sort of things I do and the interests
that I have.
How do you think digital humanities blogging is different from more
traditional forms of academic writing and reading?
In my own experience I feel that much of digital humanities blogging
tends to focus more heavily on methodology rather than the narrative and
analytical pieces you’d find in most academic journals and books. For
example, Cameron Blevins’ post on topic modeling Martha
is quite popular because of its methodological underpinnings. The entire
post is mostly a methodological piece about topic modeling, and as
Cameron noted at his AHA conference
in January 2015, the piece didn’t uncover anything necessarily new or
surprising: it conformed conclusions already made by Laural Thatcher
Ulrich. But we have a lot of methodological pieces – Blevins,
Underwood, Schmidt, Mullen, McDaniel, myself – that probably wouldn’t
find a home in most of our traditional writing venues.
I find that form of writing incredibly useful. We are, by and large, a
pretty open community willing to share methods and ideas that we’ve
experimented with. Given the rapid pace of change and new methodological
approaches, such writing also helps me keep up with what’s going on
generally in digital humanities.
How would you characterize the relationship between blogging and the
digital humanities (however broadly conceived)?
Similar to the above, I feel that much of the writing in digital
humanities blogging tends to focus on methodology. Such writing tends to
prompt me to think about methodologies I can start to apply to my own
work, or methods that I could share with others in regard to their work.
DH blogging also tends to riff off one another more than
traditional writing, which shows the different ways that similar methodologies
are applied to different research questions (see, for example, Ben
Schmidt’s latest posts on story
and their similar application by David
What DH blogs/bloggers do you read and why do you read them? What do
you like about them?
There are many! That’s the thing with this community–many maintain a
blog. I’d have to say the bloggers I’ve been reading the longest are
Dan Cohen and Caleb
McDaniel. I learned about Dan years ago when
I started graduate school as I was introduced to the great work going on
at RRCHNM. Reading Dan’s posts gave me a great window into what DH could
be. I started reading Caleb’s blog for a different reason. He was still
writing on his previous blog Mode for Caleb and, if I recall
correctly, wasn’t doing much with DH at the time. The blog was his space
away from his dissertation to write about whatever struck him. The
pieces I recall the most are those about jazz music, an interest him and
I share. In addition to Dan and Caleb, Lincoln
Nowviskie, several of my grad school friends
(Robert Jordan, Andy
Underwood, and Matt
Jockers, are all regulars in my RSS
reader. The list goes on and on. I value their ideas and the energy they
bring to their work. I learn something new every time one of them posts
And thanks to Twitter I’m exposed to many, many more posts written by
people doing DH.
I also enjoy the posts at BlogWest, where a
group of my friends and colleagues write about my field of western
What was your most popular blog post? Why do you think it was so
I’d say the most popular had to be the Rubyist Historian
series that I wrote for
introducing humanities scholars to the Ruby programming language. It’s
the only post, for example, that found it’s way onto DHNow.
I haven’t thought much about what made the series so popular. I was
inspired by both the class it was based on (Prof. Steve
Ramsay’s Electronic Texts at UNL) and the
Programming Historian. There’s an
interest among some humanities scholars to learn how to program, and any
time a new language is taught and examples are provided for how that
language can be used for humanities research I think there’s a hunger
for that information. The Programming Historian for Python, the Rubyist
Historian for Ruby, Lincoln Mullen’s in-progress book on R methods in
digital history, Matt Jockers’ work on
and Elijah Meeks’ book on D3.js all
speak, I think, to the desire for people to make programming part of
their normal work.
Anything else you think is important you’d want to mention about your
Is this where I apologize for not writing so much recently?
02 Jan 2015
I am excited to finally release the digital component of my
dissertation, Machines in the Valley.
My dissertation, Machines in the Valley, examines the environmental,
economic, and cultural conflicts over suburbanization and
industrialization in California’s Santa Clara Valley–today known as
Silicon Valley–between 1945 and 1990. The high technology sector
emerged as a key component of economic and urban development in the
postwar era, particularly in western states seeking to diversify their
economic activities. Industrialization produced thousands of new jobs,
but development proved problematic when faced with competing views about
land use. The natural allure that accompanied the thousands coming West
gave rise to a modern environmental movement calling for strict
limitations on urban growth, the preservation of open spaces, and the
reduction of pollution. Silicon Valley stood at the center of these
conflicts as residents and activists criticized the environmental impact
of suburbs and industry in the valley. Debates over the Santa Clara
Valley’s landscape tells the story not only of Silicon Valley’s
development, but Americans’ changing understanding of nature and the
environmental costs of urban and industrial development.
The digital edition of my dissertation is yet a work-in-progress–there
are probably things that don’t quite work right and plenty of more
exposition and narrative I’ll be adding over the next few months.
The project will go through iterations as I finish my written dissertation. The
project will house several features, including interactive
visualizations, dynamic narratives and analysis that extend upon themes
covered in my chapters, and access to certain primary sources. I do this
in the spirit of making my research open and extending upon themes in my
research. Not every piece of digital scholarship can make the transition
to print form–the act of trying to fully describe a dynamic
visualization can be come lost. Better that readers have a chance to
interact directly with the same tools, views, and material that I used
to draw my conclusions.
I also aver that putting your work online gives you access to your
publics–researchers, educators, interested readers, students, and so
on. To me, such access has been invaluable. I have correspondence with
people on a monthly basis who have discovered some facet of my digital
scholarship who are interested in my work, have questions they want to
ask, ideas they want to challenge, and collaborations they want to
engage with. That has become one of the most valuable contributions
digital history made to my professional life. The writing of history for
other academics serves an important function, but that cannot be our
only function. Out engagement with new narrative ideas in electronic
form gives us a chance to reach audiences that can be difficult to find
with books and articles. Digital scholarship not only makes my work
better, but hopefully contributes to accessing knowledge.
The digital dissertation joins other digital scholarship that I’ve made
available over the last few years, including Framing Red
“Self-sustaining and a good citizen”: William F. Cody and the
Progressive Wild West. If
anyone is interested in the code used for the site, you can find the
details on Github.
So, check out the project and
let me know what you think!
31 Dec 2014
This weekend I’ll be in New York for the American Historical
Association’s annual meeting, where I’ll be on two panels regarding
digital history. The first on January 3 is an experimental panel with several
scholars on using digital history in teaching and learning:
Digital Pedagogy for History: Lightning Round
Using the “lightning round” method of spreading ideas in the digital
humanities, this experimental panel features one-minute expositions on
innovative projects and cool ideas in digital history for teaching and
learning. Five or more panelists will be invited to register via
Twitter at the meeting. Audience members will also be invited to join
the lightning round.
The other on January 4 is a career-oriented roundtable with Jana Remy, Mills Kelly,
Andrew Torget, and Katina Rogers about tenure, alternative academic careers, and
Digital Scholarship, Academic Careers, and Tenure
The digital revolution is disrupting long-established systems within
the academy for tenure, promotion, and careers, offering both new
opportunities and remarkable challenges for the next generation of
historians. The AHA, in response, recently charged a committee to
draft guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship in T&P. This
roundtable will provide a ground-level discussion of the role of
digital scholarship in early-career scholars, as session panelists
share how digital scholarship fit into their work on the tenure clock,
offered them alternative academic careers based on their digital
projects, and the nature of peer review after the digital turn. They
will also discuss how the MLA’s publication of guidelines for
evaluating digital scholarship could be applied to historians.
There are several digital panels at the AHA this year, many of
which I’ll try to get to, as well as a THATCamp being held on January
6th. Should be a great weekend!
30 Oct 2014
[Read this along with Cameron Blevins’s companion post.]
After more than a year of work, Geography of the Post is live. I wanted to take a moment at the project’s launch to reflect back on the design decisions we made with the project and to document these changes.
The design of the project went through several iterations as we sought to solve two problems: The first, the most efficient way of presenting the material. Since we are dealing with such a large amount of information (our total dataset approaches 100,000 post offices), we ran into problems very early on with the performance of the map. Dragging, panning, and zooming the map became frustratingly slow – a user experience you always hope to avoid. We built in manual zooming features to work around that problem.
Second, our bigger question revolved around how to present the information. We wanted to determine what sort of views we could present to users in order to ask interesting research questions. Our early design iterations focused on Oregon. We started by loading our data onto a Google map:
We experimented with alternative views, such as hex binning visually understand geographic concentrations of post offices through histograms:
These were useful views, but we had considerations that we wanted to take into account with the offices that simply plotting points doesn’t let us get at. It’s interesting, in one sense, to see the concentrations of post offices. But these points don’t represent much else. If we are using the post to understand something about the movement of people into the American West, we needed more interaction with the points in order for us to query the information with more granularity.
With the assistance of some amazing undergraduate research assistants –
Jocelyn Hickock and Tara Balakrishnan – we created methods for determining the status of a post office at any point in time. Users are presented with two views. The first is what we called “Duration View,” which uses transparency of the points in order to convey the “age” of a post office. These “ages” update according to the span of time that you draw on the timeline, or you can view the map as a whole and see areas of the West that have had the oldest (or youngest) post offices.
A second view of the post offices we built into the project is what we’ve called “Status View.” This view shows us one of four statuses that a post office can be in during a given span of time: closed, opened, open throughout, or open and closed. The view gives us a chance to look for large areas of closings or openings in the context of surrounding post offices and raise questions about why those changes are occurring.
Why document our design decisions? Part of my own goal in digital humanities
generally is the reusability of approaches, methods, tools, code, and design
in projects that may be far afield from my own work. But I also believe that
we can make our work more methodologically transparent by presenting the
artifacts and iterations of our design process. Not only because designs have
implied and explicit arguments, but because sharing the process helps others
in their design process. Furthermore, exposing our design and thought process has helped us to think more deeply about our own design decisions.
In other words, I am trying to answer Trevor Owens’ call that we take “a few moments at the end of a project to reflect on what you wanted to accomplish, what actually happened, and what you learned from the process.” Our goal at the outset was to determine what we could about the relationship between the U.S. Post and population growth in the American West. By and large, I think the project goes a long way in giving us an overall picture of population growth at specific areas in the West, a more granular view of populations than we can see in choropleth maps because of the West’s county problem. Since counties are so large in the West, a choropleth fails to really give us a sense of where people are at in space.
Population in the West, 1870. Map by Cameron Blevins.
But the choice of using post office points to surmise about the growth of population centers gives us a greater sense of where people are going in the West. To make that process more clear than a static map could convey, we designed a timeline feature that allows users to drag a span of time – from a single year to the entire span of time contained in the dataset – and visualize how these changes occur over the course of the century. You have a specific interest in the West during the Civil War? You can draw the timespan and see those offices between 1860 and 1865. More interested in the late nineteenth century? Select those years. Want to watch year-by-year how post offices grow in the West? Select a year, and drag across the timeline to watch places in the West expand.
There are elements of the map that I wish we had designed in from the beginning. I’d like to see this same information on a terrain map rather than a flat map – to see how the landscape might have determined where post offices located. I would love to add layers to the map – railroads, major roads, postal routes. Other quanifiable information might also be overlaid on the map – population figures, salaries of postmasters, perhaps even voting patterns. We may have even built in more conceptual and experimental visualizations that could have allowed us to distort time and space (think cartograms) to speculate on the ways that the post shaped how people thought about space. In these ways, we could add more layers of information that may cause us to ask new kinds of questions.
Visualizations are provocations for interpretation. For those who approach the project – researchers, teachers, students, the public – my hope is that the visualization provokes questions and ideas. The sheer scale of the office network is arresting, but interacting with that network provides a chance to view it from different perspectives. The interactions with the research, I hope, give users a chance to ask different kinds of questions that a static map simply couldn’t prompt because it lacks the ability to reshape the information easily. As an interactive scholarly work, Geography of the Post lets users explore the space of the Post and the growth of the American West.