Tag Archives: Digital Humanities

Remembering Joel Jonientz

Joel's art, the February 2013 Punk Archaeology un-conference poster, hangs in our front entryway.

Joel’s art, the February 2013 Punk Archaeology un-conference poster, hangs in the front entryway of our apartment.

Yesterday I learned that Joel Jonientz passed away. His great friend, Bill Caraher, has an excellent write up linked to here. Joel and I didn’t know each other beyond the 5 or 6 times we hung out, usually over some conversation and excellent beer. When we did hang out, Joel always asked the first person who tried departing to stay. I think this is one of the infinite reasons it was so terrible to hear of Joel’s passing.

Earlier this month I chatted a bit with Joel, and someone at our table (perhaps it was me) asked, “How do you go about starting a digital press at a university?” Joel responded with two words: “Will power.” And this is true with just about anything. You have to get up every morning knowing that this is what you want to and are going to do, and you will strategize in every way possible — directly or through chess maneuvers — to make it work. The goal is to keep pushing forward. At the table Joel explained this while smiling.

Thank you friend. You will be missed, but never forgotten.

Digital Ed Ayers at the University of North Dakota

Bill Caraher (r) introduces a digital Ed Ayers, streamed live from the University of Richmond to give a talk at the University of North Dakota.

Bill Caraher (r) introduces a digital Ed Ayers (l), streamed live from the University of Richmond to give a talk to the University of North Dakota.

Yesterday in the late afternoon I found myself finished up with fieldwork in Grand Forks, so I thought I’d drop in and catch the digital Ed Ayers being beamed in from the University of Richmond to the University of North Dakota. To history nerds, Ayers is a big deal. Bill Caraher mostly if not entirely lined up the talk. Bill received his undergraduate training in Latin and Classics at the University of Richmond, and today Ayers is the president of said U of Richmond. They met on that common ground.

It was great to hear Ayers chat about his foundational website in digital history. At some point in 1993, The Valley of the Shadow went on-line. You can link to it here. And there is even a Wikipedia page to it here. Ayers noted that with digital projects, it is not only important that they be started, but also that they come to completion. So this, as he pointed out, is why we see 1993 and 2007 at the bottom of the web site. Ayers also noted that in the 1980s, historians thought they could revolutionize the discipline through qualitative analysis. Ayers said that qualitative idea “lasted three weeks.” History certainly requires data. But it is in large part about stories and narratives, and about figuring out ways to make the raw data accessible.

Through this, says Ayers, we are now witnessing what he calls generative scholarship. By this, it is meant that scholarship does not come to some sort of final conclusion. Instead, generative scholarship encourages anyone and everyone to engage with the historical data, or texts, and speak up and out about what they see. This, in turn, adds to the dialog, thus keeping it alive.

Life is a series of short and long term stories. This is how we make sense of it all, and also how we make sense of lives lived. This is what I thought about on my drive back from Grand Forks to Fargo.

Learning from a Digital Un-Conference

What it looks like when for the first time attempting to gchat an unconference talk from Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean to Fargo, North Dakota.

What it looks like when for the first time attempting to gchat an unconference talk from Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean to Fargo, North Dakota.

This last Friday the board of the North Dakota Humanities Council met for a regular meeting, and after a solid morning’s work (sweat on everyone’s brow, of course), we thought we would experiment at lunch with an attempt to beam Ancient Historian Bill Caraher (his blog here) from the Levant/Cyprus (for context, Cyprus is approximately 140 miles from the coast of Syria) into our meeting room at the Ramada in Fargo, North Dakota (for context, Fargo, North Dakota is 140 miles from Bemidji, Minnesota), this to give a short talk on some modern archaeology of man camps in western North Dakota (stay with me here).

Of course, before any idea becomes a reality, experimentation has to happen (this is where I start to explain what went wrong). Remember: all those polished talks are the result of a lot of experimentation and planning. In our case, the talk was cut short due to lack of band-with. While I’m uncertain what the band-with strength was like in Cyprus, I can say that on the Fargo Ramada conference room end of things it was dodgy — at best.

So what happened was this: while trying to establish a gchat connection with Bill Caraher in Cyprus, I texted and instant messaged back and forth a bit. While gchat struggled to keep up with beaming the powerpoints from Cyprus to the Ramada in Fargo, I messaged Bill to explain how things looked on our end (this in contrast to how things looked on his end: note, this is a metaphor and reality for life). Here is an excerpt from the messaging:

Aaron to Bill:

Your audio cuts in and out. You sound like a droid. And the power points aren’t synching on our end. Other than that, everything is great.

So the next time around, here is what needs to happen, at least beyond abandoning this technology all together (we have to keep trying: technology is supposed to save us from ourselves someday, right?). Establish relationships with the IT people at conference room establishment. Get a secure internet connection with heavy band-with. Use that. Also, what we did right in this case was exactly what we did: we experimented with it in an informal setting (at lunch) to see how it would work. Bill is scheduled to appear real-time at the next board meeting. The council, no doubt, will have more questions and thoughts for him then. As they say in the digital humanities, to be continued…