Category: Posts

Playing With Color

This week’s readings played with a variety of visual effects: Photoshop and images, and color. Much like the readings on fonts, I felt like I knew something about color as I could recognize differences among fonts. But before the past week’s readings I didn’t know how to describe differences in fonts beside the “emotion” they gave to particular text. This week’s readings were similar in that I knew when colors “didn’t look right” but I now have a better vocabulary to describe color relationships than merely what I remember about color wheels from middle school art class. Experimenting with hues and tints provided a much larger field of colors with which I could experiment. Using split complements added an interesting technique for choosing complementary colors that I can use in my image or design work. I intuitively knew that colors opposite of each other on the color wheel “looked right” together, but now I understand why and how to best use them.

Beyond just a new color vocabulary, the readings gave me tools to interact with colors for web design. I was able to use the Hex Color Generator to find compatible colors for my portfolio site. I also love using Chrome dev tools in my workflow and lo and behold, colorzilla can provide a lot of these features in my browser. I still feel like I’m not a natural at color, but using tints and hues along with a variety of new web tools has already improved some of my designs.


My comment on Eric’s blog.

The Weight of Font Pt 2

In this week’s readings, I really enjoyed Ellen Lupton’s Type On Screen chapters about text effects. While I had learned much about font family’s and different typefaces from last week’s readings and tutorials, I figured text effects and usage would be fairly straightforward. There are fewer tools to manipulate text compared to the myriad fonts available, yet these tools can have subtle but just as powerful of an effect on the design’s impact. One of my favorite examples involved a poster for HRDWRKCO on page 67. The space between letters and size of some words waxed and waned to provide a rhythm to the phrase that echoed the rhythm of working hard all day. Simple kerning and font size provided an interesting contrast with great success.


WMATA’s recent campaign to halt sexual harassment in the system uses effective visual design to get noticed among the many other advertisements and cell phone screens in the metro. One particular advertisement caught my eye due to it’s interesting use of text effects. Similar to the HRDWRKCO example, the kerning technique gives the design movement and in this case, a full stop.

The letters are kerned with wide letter spacing leading to a narrow letter spacing to give movement. A lack of focus also adds to this sense of movement. While this was clearly done with design or publisher software, I was able to use some of the techniques mentioned by Lupton and exemplified in this design on my website. Simply adding additional line spacing made a huge difference to my portfolio’s readability. Adding in-line span elements to certain words- letter spacing, bold, or italics, also improved the impact of important words in my content.

The Weight of Font

I’ve always subconsciously known that fonts bring particular weight to their content. It was exciting to learn from Errol Morris just how important font can be to a project’s authority with its readers. How is Baskerville not used in most web publications after Morris’ experiment?? I previously used all sans serif fonts because it was the default for my blogs “theme” and it had a modern, updated look that I appreciated. I also couldn’t explain the difference between different fonts to save my life. Based on Morris, it makes sense for me to change to Libre Baskerville (a free Google fonts version of traditional Baskerville which is optimized for web and mobile viewing). This provides my blog with a more authoritative feel, though I probably need to experiment with the headers to pair with this change in body font.

Of course there are moments when tradition and authority are not the desired style. Williams and Lupton explain the appropriateness of serif vs sans fonts or when script or slab might provide more impact in a header. But I expect my style will bring my writing authority and scholarly heft. And comic sans is seemingly one of the clearest examples of a font that provides your work with no intellectual weight (Stephanie Seal describes some interesting examples of when a comic sans-like font is appropriate for a dyslexic audience- my comment).

Yet comic sans provided one of the more powerful images of 2014.

I Can't Breathe - Comic Sans
Lebron James, Photo Courtesy of Al Bello/Getty Images at


The death of Eric Garner sparked a social campaign for justice in America. As John Brownlee argues, the “everyman” font, comic sans, was perfect for providing a message that was as welcoming to all as it forcefully argued against violent police action. The shirt is simple, in font and design, and the message is similarly simple and direct. It doesn’t need Baskerville to help it argue for justice.

While I don’t anticipate using comic sans in my blog or publications, the I Can’t Breathe shirt shows how each font (even comic sans) can have a particular purpose or tone.


Drucker’s Difficult Graphesis


I especially enjoyed the design-centered readings and the internet preservation readings this week. Jill Lepore persuasively argued why preserving the internet matters and WSINYE and Norman gave a good introduction to some of the nuts and bolts behind why good design matters.

I had problems with Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis. We read Drucker’s 2011 article of the same name in Clio 1 which laid out her argument concerning the uses of “hard” data in the humanities. Classmates agreed and disagreed with parts of her argument, but it seems to be a useful corrective to digital humanists. Yes, we can take all the newly available data and manipulate it, but we also need to think deeply about what is underlying this.

I was expecting the book version to explain this thesis more fully and provide new examples of “graphesis” or humanistic data. But this portion was tacked onto the end and hardly any more extended than the article’s examples. The heavy post-modernist theoretical language doesn’t make it any easier to wade through and it probably deserves another read to absorb everything she is trying to unpack.


Page from Jones’ Grammar of Ornament, referenced in Drucker’s Graphesis.


While Drucker doesn’t give new answers to what data should look like for the humanities, she does give a fantastic history of how humans have evolved in their ability to represent knowledge graphically. The very early and especially mid 19th century representations of knowledge were powerful in their similarity and difference to modern examples. One of her examples, Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament can be found at the Internet Archive and has some fascinating designs (being published in 1856 means it’s in the public domain). I don’t know how digital history should be reinvented, but there is nothing essential or static about how we’ve represented knowledge. That alone makes a powerful argument for Graphesis.

Voices of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Following a series of cascading mistakes and accidents, the Union Oil Company’s Platform A exploded on January 28, 1969. The blowout spilled about 100,000 barrels of oil along the shores of Santa Barbara, California according to Coast Guard experts, the largest in California’s history.

Beaches of Santa Barbara Harbor, 1969 By Antandrus at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.
The spill caused massive damage to the coastal areas of Santa Barbara County, but also contributed to increased environmental activism. The passage of the National Environmental Protection Act and the first Earth Day all occurred in the wake of the oil spill.  Commentators have specifically noted the increase in grassroots activism on environmental issues as a result of the spill. The Santa Barbara News-Press was particularly vociferous in its opposition to offshore oil development and penned many editorials demanding changes in how the Union Oil Company and the Department of the Interior conducted operations.

Readers responded similarly, penning numerous Letters to the Editor issuing demands about oil drilling, corporate welfare, and protection of the environment. One artifact of the Letters to the Editor is the existence (in most cases) of addresses of the writer. In a sense, the letters exist in a space and time in which the author penned them.

By using letters to the Editor of the News-Press transcribed by Darren Hardy, and letters to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times that I transcribed, I intend to map the geography of protest about the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill. After topic modeling the letters with Mallet, one frequently used topic was symbolized with the following words:

 oil drilling federal beaches offshore ocean fish government birds historical point children wildlife channel pollution secretary damages coastline leases

I take this topic to have a local concern with pollution that was inherent to Santa Barbarans anger over polluting their local channel and coastline. This topic also describes nature more specifically than another general “nature” topic which included “rivers”, “lakes”, and “planet”. Using CartoDB (which is essentially Google Maps on steroids), I mapped both the letters and how strong the local protest topic existed in each letter.

Expand the map to fullscreen for best viewing and be sure to zoom into the Santa Barbara area.


The offshore oil platforms existing in 1969 are shown in red (data from Bureau of Ocean Energy Management). I expected most of the opposition to come from those living near the sites of environmental harm such as coastal beaches, but some of the strongest voices came from wealthy neighborhoods like Westside Santa Barbara. Letters from Ithaca, New York and southern Connecticut had strong probabilities of the “local protest” topic, which I didn’t expect. With further geographic analysis, additional insights could be gleaned from the letters as they’re situated in space and time.

One of the prime limiting factors with this project was the relatively few letters reviewed for topic modeling. I analyzed 26 letters, fourteen from the Santa Barbara News-Press, six from the Los Angeles Times, and six from the New York Times to get a regional and national papers’ perspectives. Twenty-five letters was a decent number to create an interesting map, but not enough to generate quality topics. In the future, using Natural Language Processing, more letters to the editor, and additional geographic information analysis, historical topics could be reviewed for what an authors location might contribute to their political writings. As this was a sampling of letters, gaps in perspective do remain and ideally a conservative paper would help flesh out the different perspectives that existed on offshore drilling nationally.

Additional analysis of the letters in Voyant:


Teaching the Digital Native

Let’s face it, using technology is difficult and not everyone can navigate the digital equally well.

The readings for week 13 complicate the trope of “digital natives” that Marc Prensky described in 2001. According to Prensky, the “digital natives” of the millenial generation learn better with online tools because they have always used such tools and learn best and most fluently in this environment. Danah Boyd points out that this depends on the context they bring to learning.

Students are bringing a variety of experience levels to undergraduate and graduate history courses and professors should not presume a level field. Allison Marsh had problems with her graduate public history students engaging in digital material as she had hoped they would. Even when they completed assignments, they were rarely very successful public history exhibits. And these are skills that they will certainly use in almost all public history careers.

Our Clio 1 class also represents this diversity of experience levels and success in using some of the digital tools in our class has varied (this doesn’t necessarily track with the generation of student). However, I’m truly looking forward to the final projects of my classmates because I know they’ll produce something creative and interesting.

As Dan Cohen has written, digital history is precisely what sets GMU apart from other History PhD programs in Virginia. “Pragmatic and prescient”- using the digital in teaching is seen as an inevitable solution. Sometimes it’s to the problem of relevancy in the digital age. We need to teach the students “where they are”- online. And online is also where those teaching the discipline are, even if they don’t always admit it. 

In looking at some of Mills Kelley’s “hoax” courses, students learned most successfully when they brought their enthusiasm for the digital, but are taught rigorously to think historically. Some may (and did) have problems with Kelley’s teaching methodology, but no one disputes that the students genuinely worked hard on their hoaxes, learning history in the process. Students also brought this excitment with them to Nicolas Trepanier’s Historical Gaming courses. The key in both cases was leveraging the excitement for the digital- creating or playing, to teach skills that are not inherently digital at all- evaluating sources, approaching historiographical interpretations, and analyzing arguments.

The common threads that I take away from these readings is that the experience of students should not be taken for granted. Assuming enough support for students at all levels, use their excitement for digital and social tools to encourage thinking historically. If you make history fun while teaching its core ethics, students will learn how to think historically and how to produce history in the digital age. Though the intrinsic “digital native” does not exist in the wild, I’m all for using the tools that students or members of the public (in the case of public history projects) find most engaging. I was excited to see that the National Park Service is interpreting history with mobile phones on the Mall and elsewhere. If the public can think critically about their history- online or off, it’s a win for our work.

Debate over Digital Scholarship

Ben Brands and I led the class discussion about digital scholarship. We aimed to provoke sharp discussion early in the class with our most controversial question: 1. What does Tim Hitchcock mean when he says “the book is dead?” Is he right or overstating the case?

While we did provoke discussion, the class did not divide into the pro-book and anti-book factions that I expected. The discussion was measured in tone and concerned Hitchcock’s themes about authoritarian structures inherent in the book’s form. While I had hoped the first question would inspire some fireworks to get discussion going, we did effectively address some of the structures of authority that Hitchcock described. Our discussion also ranged to the physical constraints of books and how that might be overcome by digital scholarship.

Though the first question did not engage the class in the way I expected, it was still an effective question. One of my questions which fell flat was: 5. William Thomas discusses the “fundamental components of scholarship” as evidence, engagement with prior scholarship, and a scholarly argument while his collaborator Edward Ayers identifies a broader concept of scholarship as that which “contributes, in a meaningful and enduring way, to an identifiable collective and cumulative enterprise.” How are these two views of scholarship related, and which is more valid and applicable to digital scholarship? What issues do each raise for digital scholarship?

I asked what I thought was an interesting question, and indeed a question that is fundamental to our discipline- what counts as history? The classes response: *crickets*. I think the question failed to elicit much discussion because it was too long and probably too amorphous and wordy. When discussing the much more concrete criteria for an AHR Digital Article Award, the class engaged in how argument and evidence interacted in traditional vs digital scholarship. They needed a little more structure in which to discuss the meanings of evidence and scholarship. I’m not sure that everyone in the class was convinced that non-linear arguments could exist let alone be effective. I similarly echo that skepticism until there’s more and more convincing examples of non-linear digital arguments.

I think this class is at a useful place in the syllabus because we’ve had a chance to explore all the tools that make up digital scholarship. The weeks’ articles can provide context for where all of these tools might fit into the historical discipline. One counterargument is that  by learning more about digital scholarship earlier in the semester, we’ll write for our blogs in a more effective manner by harnessing the hypertextuality of the web. Ultimately, the placement is useful because it links many of the themes of the surrounding weeks- particularly the traditional disciplinary forces pushing against digital history.

Publishing My MA Thesis Online

In January 2014, I uploaded an article-length draft of my Masters’ Thesis on School Desegregation in Roanoke, Virginia to Academia.Edu. It was a tough decision for me to make- will college or high school students plagiarize me? By putting this online, will scholarly journals or essay collections pass on it? Will it receive any readership or merely eliminate me from consideration for more august publications?

I had read the AHA’s statement on embargoing of Dissertations (it had come out in July 2014) and I feared rejection from journals because my work was publicly available. Obviously publication of a MA thesis is not as critical as turning a dissertation into a monograph, an act on which careers can sometimes be created (or ended). Yet, the same issues felt like they were at play. Ultimately, I took a deep breath and hit the “publish” key.

It would be nice if this story fit into the narrative described by Rebecca Anne Goertz (and published on the blog of Johns Hopkins University Press). But no bigshots at preeminent journals have found my thesis and demanded its publication. Still, the paper has received over 300 views. I can tell from search keywords that many of the viewers are members of the public or even students of Roanoke schools (former and current) I wrote about. I’ve been contacted by a French novelist who sets her historical fiction during the Civil Rights Era and by a Virginia Tech Education professor who used my piece with public school teachers in Roanoke.

It’s too early to call my decision a success (JAH, call me!). I currently believe it’s been a qualified success exactly in ways I did not expect. has a reputation as the “Facebook” of scholars (one of many), so I expected historians in my field (“my audience”) to find the paper and perhaps comment. In reality, members of the public who have an interest in the history of schooling in Roanoke read my paper. The primary academic interest I did receive was from outside of my field in the education department.

I think this speaks to the importance of open access and creative commons licensing, as work online will inevitably be used in ways that the creator did not expect. allows me to keep the rights to my publication, while still pushing it to the public.

I do respect the positions taken by AHA President William Cronon, that the suggested embargo is meant to protect “our most vulnerable colleagues.” Cronon is sincerely attempting to help junior faculty, but, I find more compelling Trevor Owens’ argument for a bizarro AHA in which the goals of the Scholarly Society align with public good rather than a traditional model of publishing books.

I still worry that my decision to go open access was too naive, but in the meantime, someone is searching for my work on Google.

Peer Review in a Digital Age

This week’s readings touched on many aspects of publishing digital scholarship from the formal (Ayers’ and Thomas’ work) to the more informal- blogs and twitter. One of the underlying tensions between works produced for a digital environment and traditional scholarship is perceived difference in authority. In one of the earliest class readings, Gertrude Himmelfarb argued that “[e]very source appearing on the screen has the same weight and credibility.” With digital scholarship providing a contrast to the rigorous system of peer review used by academic journals and publishing houses.

As described in Cohen and Rosenzweig, Hitchcock, and the authors of Writing History in a Digital Age, the cost of publication and distribution on the web approaches zero. Thus the professional machinery that limited traditional scholarship to the best and brightest that would fit in a physical journal or UP monograph is no longer a concern over resources or cost of production. The premier journals are still limited to what would traditionally fit in the “dead tree” version- 3-5 articles, book reviews, front and back matter.

Digital publications are not constrained in such ways, but often do lack what is at the bedrock of many professional journals, a system of peer review. But this lack of peer review is recognized by online practitioners and systems are beginning to be put in place to address the problem of “authority.” As such, online peer review exists on a continuum of approaches.

Joan Troyano described the peer review process used by the Journal of Digital Humanities. The reviewers were usually graduate students or the journal’s editors, not necessarily scholars in the fields being discussed. This is a “peer” review, but not of one’s peers in a particular academic discipline. Without the stamp of approval of the gatekeepers of a discipline, the perception of “authority” is diminished, even as access to the public is far increased over gated articles open to academics at Universities. Yet, the JDH did offer “an astounding” level of interest in a virtually new journal. And I think Joan’s description of the material as a “middle state” serves a very useful purpose. They “collect the good” which generates interest and hopefully can press those publications to a final level of peer review before publication in a disciplines most prestigious journals. It’s a very effective way to “filter” the flood of  online publications.

The peer review system for Writing History in the Digital Age provided an interesting mix of newer open methods and traditional “experts” (who even had the opportunity to send anonymous comments). As a result, Writing History in the Digital Age might have a level of polish that exceeds the JDH (to be fair, the projects have very different aims). I also think their authors are correct that in the digital environment authority is much more fluid and based on reputation. Gertrude Himmelfarb is wrong that authority is thrown out the window on the web, but historians are correct to be worried about authority. In an online world of billions, a dozens views has little authority.

In the digital world, reputation is just as powerful, but also more fleeting. Within the “publish-then-filter” model described by Cummings and Jarrett, the usefulness of the “filter” determines its value for the reader. We trust the New York Times to “filter” the most important news and conversations for  us, just as I trust William Cronon to “filter” the best environmental history and news on his twitter feed.

The other pole of peer review for digital projects are articles like Ed Ayers and William Thomas’ “The Differences Slavery Made.” This went through a formal peer review process and was published by the AHR. It had all the “authority” and professional recognition of traditional scholarship, but some scholars did not treat the web companion project similarly to the published article by not interacting with it. Though Ayers and Thomas had high aspirations of changing the form of scholarship, the traditional peer review and gate keeping made their work very recognizable to the profession- a good and bad outcome.

Digital Scholarship needs all of these levels of peer review, but I believe that the most successful peer review will mirror the best practices on the web where “expert” users are described as such, but all users are open to comment on work. A system similar to Writing History in the Digital Age could plausibly work for journals in some fields if given a chance.

Why Play the Past?

This week we discussed gaming in history scholarship. This is not the “history of videogames”, but using gaming to teach and explain history. But why we are having this discussion in the first place? If all the readings argue that games can play a role in historical scholarship, why use games instead of traditional forms of narrative?

Trevor Owens argues that games have a large audience. This is certainly true. Video games are a multi-billion dollar industry that continues to aggressively grow. Owen’s most read blog posts (by a large margin) are on Colonization and Fallout 3. Yet, I wonder if the scores of users are the board game and mod focused players that historians could speak to or if they were interested in playing a “fun” game. This necessarily limits the potential topics that a historical game could address (“playing” slavery would not be appropriate).

Owens, Adam Chapman, and the other authors also focus on video games “potential to make explicit and operationalize the models of change over time.” These are the “rules” which guide historical agents and events. Chapman argues that the rule-making nature of videogames allows users to internalize the “rules” of the fictional process, while simultaneously understanding how the imaginary world of Civilization relates to a real historical world as described in Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. The synergy between the virtual world (and its algorithmic rules based on real world civilization interactions) and the historical world as explained by Kennedy’s monograph is successful in this instance. But only if the user privileges the “Form” (algorithms) over the “content” (video games outcomes).

The game’s rules must not be too rigid as to limit natural exploration of “the world”, nor too loose to allow ahistorical interpretations or events to reign. If Hitler wins World War II in Call of Duty, but the gamer learns something about the realities of Modern Mechanized warfare, does the educator consider it a success? On a most basic level- no. The historical game must follow a fine line of not being ahistoric or being too pre-determined, a problem for the Lost Museum, whose users just rotely figured out “the rules” without exploring why these were so based on historic realities.

There is definitely a place for videogames in historical education if only as a way to reach students and adults and provide a unique immersive presence in the historical world. i primarily attribute my early passion for history to a string a fantastic teachers in eighth through twelfth grade. But I would be remiss not to mention the long hours playing Caesar, Civilization, and Colonization on my desktop computer during middle school and high school. The immersive experiences with Dutch colonies, Praetorians, and the impact of gunpowder on society certainly impacted my historical imagination.

The problem is that these games are huge commercially directed enterprises with large staffs of developers, designers, artists, and big bankrolls. To achieve that level of immersion is orders of magnitude more difficult than the levels which The Lost Museum and Pox and the City attempted and achieved. So I think Chapman, Owens, and Joshua Brown, and the Pox creators are correct that great historical scholarship can be created. Historical gaming just needs the proper topic and its “Valley of the Shadows” massive project to prove the concept.