Clio Final Post

Well, this has been a pretty unusual semester! Instead of spending hours downtown at the library or toting a bag of large bricks (aka books) around campus, it’s been me n’ my computer anywhere with wifi all term (my back would like to express its gratitude, my brain, its confusion).

This semester has also been very different in terms of content, and I’d like to reflect on that briefly. As mentioned in my Gaming post, I found great value in pulling away from the monograph form by looking at some digital alternatives for both presentation and information handling and the intersections between these. Regardless of what we think about the other forms we explored, I think that moving “history” away from the conventions and terms of its (written) textual production/between and amongst other modes allowed us to think more carefully about “history”… not ‘what it is’ essentially, but dialogicaly perhaps?

I have also already mentioned to a couple of you, my paper (mock grant proposal) for this course is probably one of my favorites that I have written. It wasn’t especially polished in the end, but that wasn’t the point. I enjoyed how much it changed as I gained new information. Yes, seminar papers and such do too, but this was more marked, more tangible, being governed by objective rules (where is the data? how does the computer handle this? what’s missing?) than by a more subjective interpretation of information. The projects were so very process rather than product driven, and my “end product” was a tool that was likewise process driven.

These are generally the things I enjoyed most about the course. Additionally, I’m sure we were all exposed to something new in terms of what’s going on out there, new tools to try. I really enjoyed our week on the spatial: there are lots of new tools out there now, for free, for people who like to mess around with GIS and other mapping tools that weren’t there when I had undergraduate courses. It was also great just to get a thorough survey of what’s out there now for humanities folks!

And finally, it was neat to have a mix of so many different kinds of students even though we’re essentially in the same department. It was great to meet new people and to see the projects my own group worked on. I’m looking forward to tomorrows rapid-fire survey of what everyone else came up with!


Gaming: Practicum ‘Reflection’

    Design a game sounds to me like an undertaking bigger even than our class project. I thought I’d reflect on what kind of game I would think of creating instead.

My ideas seem to come out of knowledge of the kinds of games I personally enjoy and have played. Most of the topics I considered involve things like conquest and empire expansion: very popular just as McCall mentioned in our JDH readings. He suggested that the question of why this is a popular subject for games is an area worthy of enquiry, but I think it might be simple. The short answer is probably that conquest itself is inherently gamic and games as we typically know them are inherently about conquest: we talk about tactics and strategy and many of our oldest games are about war (chess, go). The game is inherently competitive, whether playing against a computer or a person. We get game theory from games, especially from chess, go, war, and economics. Winning and losing is considered as a sum; it is computational, quantitative, metred. One of the problems I saw posed in the readings relates to how we can use such games to do history as we do it today. From the readings: we can do some kinds of history this way, yes (select for history as determined broadly by single events), but others are harder to get at (select for individual experience, a la Stefan Tanka, week 10, or unlimited complexity, a la McCall this week on complex agencies), to balance between a computational mode and human content.

Matthew Kishenbaum, an English professor, wrote a post to this point, “War, What is it Good For? Learning From Wargaming” in Play the Past. He discusses wargaming as a specific gamic mechanic set, focusing on the historic sand-table game Kriegsspiel practised still in the Pentagon, major corporations, and Beltway thinktanks. These sessions involve many players, literally or figuratively around the sand table and counters of popular imagination. They are (far beyond chess and go) complex, multimodal, in which not all players have all the available information, determine probabilities by dice or equivalent, and allow a game master to change the whole scenario of play by entering entirely new factors by surprise (I both desperately want to participate in one of these and am having paranoid Ender’s Game fantasies: if I played a war-game at the Pentagon would it really be limited to the gamic space?!?)

Kirshenbaum deals with two mechanic systems broadly for war-games. Games that have a phenomenal array of constraints that both enhance complexity and enforce some degree of historical accuracy (I think it’s one of the Napoleonic games he describes where the player must count their water ration per number of troops as they play). And games of the simplified, generalised format (like the Macedonia conquest game described by McCall in his discussion of oversimplification of the agency of enslaved individuals) where the experience mimics only that of the primary agent and complexity is hidden within the mechanics of bodies of sub-agents (i.e. whatever factors included are calculated towards how the group handles as a single entity, ergo the problem with representing slavery).

These games are not used exclusively to model and play war, but also anything we can conceive of as “war” by like computational terms: pandemic response, resource management, other related disaster management. Kirshenbaum poses the question about modelling water management in Yemen with war-games vs other gamic modes: what might we learn from the war-game that we cannot by other means? In turn this asks: what is a war-game? What is essential to its mechanics that we can differentiate it from other modes and redeploy it to contend with other questions?

What this seems to return to is Chapman’s comment in JDH readings this week: again, ‘history is inherently referential and representational’ (see my last post); games do not eliminate the choices we have to make for the book length narrative. What may be causing a bit of anxiety in the community over this matter is the simulation aspect of the game, the completeness of the picture of a historic or “historic+” (to borrow from Antley) that goes far beyond what we know for certain, produces an illusion of wholeness: we expect the game to do much more perhaps than what it is able to by its conventions and mechanics? Antley’s suggestion (again, last post) that we explore the unique epistemological possibilities of the game as complement to, not replica or replacement of, written text.

I made a list of alternative structures to war/conquest game mechanics that answered questions, responding to Kirshenbaum, in ways war-games could not that was far too long for this reflection post. But, in short, it included linear type RPGs that I enjoy (like the famous FFVII and franchise) that are dreadfully good at imparting ethos even as you are forced through the storyline (in fact it draws you through). We’ll call this a given narrative, very top down. At the other extreme, the open world RPG, in my opinion, dreadfully good at imparting an existential crisis… and I’m being snarky but serious (and they really are my least favorite kind of game): the problem with teaching history with a game of too many liberties is that far from asking the player to replicate a complete narrative interpretation, they allow the player to subvert, or avoid entirely those narratives, which also teaches nothing (I’m just not in the corner with those in favour of counter historical reasoning as a key problem solving skill).

I have no real conclusion to these musing, but I am curious about an in-between mode and its potential. There was a phase of games before Skyrim and the latest Fallout, I think including an Elder Scrolls or so ago (Oblivion?), that offered less of an open world and more a multiple set of crossing linear paths, complex enough to mask itself as such. Could such a game allow, through repeat play, the reproduction of facets of past events that upon repeated play would produce the sort of complexity we might desire in a simulation?

Gaming (Week 14 RR)

Articles for the week on history gaming focus on using games (especially computer games) to “do history” (writ broadly). The doing of history must be conceived of here especially as an interaction between the game’s producers (authours) and the player-as-agent who both consumes and produces (oft termed prosumation) by playing the game. Some of the concerns expressed over the value of history games surround the gamer’s agency to replicate or deviate from “historical truth” by playing, but as is also oft expressed by (all) the authours of this week’s readings (at some point or another), games are closed (delimited) systems: some of the open world type games that are popular these days emulate an open system by having more liberties that we can perceive at once and by masking some of their constraints, but do not actually approach unlimited.

Still the questions of agents having liberties to alter history in the game, and of the selection of content by the producer/authours, factor into a discussion of the validity of games as “history” through assessments that focus on their form or framework vs “historical” content. Adam Chapman in his article for JDH special section on games privileges reading form over content. An example: a clever (about the desires of his or her audience) commercial game maker might give us mythic or legendary history instead of “actual” but we may in fact get from its mechanics an ethos that is quite historical (I am thinking here of my post from last week on alternative histories, reading the Roman historian Livy or legends of Alexander as historical although it is not our objective modern mode of history. I am also thinking of a comment I once heard in response to a query about the ‘historical accuracy’ of the film 300: “I don’t know about that, but it’s the film the Greeks would have made about themselves”). A twist on this is offered by Antley in his post on Playing the Past, “Better Folklore through Alchemy” that explores the modernisation of an older knowledge system, bringing a medieval epistemology to a modern episteme through a sequence of subtle transformations, analogous in fact to processes we might use to understand an ancient knowledge system as time-bound historians (what he calls ‘Medieval+’).

Another response to concerns about historical content comes from Chapman who suggests that history is always “referential and representational” aka selective. One nice thing the content of the whole Clio course has provided, by pulling us away from the monograph, is a good understanding of the text artefact with its forms, conventions, structures and how it might be detached from “history,” and of how very much we think of history as a practise of texts. I’m actually glad we came to gaming in the final week and have the accumulated knowledge from the term to depend on for understanding its concerns (cf the James Paul Gee article and “leveling up” our knowledge and problem solving abilities as he might say). Antley’s article in JDH, “Going Beyond the Textual in History,” deals with text and game as complementary, arguing against efforts of other scholars to enforce a textual mode in the making and judging/evaluation of history/”historical” games, also reflecting earlier course discussions on other digital history modes and their relationship to the conventions of text (hereafter though, I start to question his argument based on weak relationships and contrasts (ones that he admits to) between the ways written texts reveal and conceal their structures and scaffolding and the ways the algorithm does this with the game-text; a text is a text and they can vary without calling that into question: (channelling Shira) there is an entire discussion out there of the relationships between visual and mixed media texts (especially art and film, with which games already are considered) and written text, from which he could draw from (ok, maybe not for a blog post, but in general).

One additional trouble I had was with Antley’s suggestion that we utilise the epistemological potential of the game text rather than trying to import those of the written/text/monograph: this sounds good, but he and the other authors represented in the JDH selection (I had this difficulty with the who section) offered very little in the way of concrete examples of how this might work. Maybe the difficulty is that of using the text to describe another medium (we should go, as our practicum assignment commands, and play a game!), but a difficulty with explaining the gamic mode of doing history was also apparent in our Laura Zucconi et. al. reading on “the Pox and the City” and in Antley’s piece mentioned above on Medieval+ (he saw how it ‘modernised’ a historical knowledge system but elaborated no further on the ramifications that has). The more satisfactory descriptions of games with historical modes, settings/content were like those of Rebecca Mir writing on “the Babylon of Babylon Twins” in Play the Past where gaming is intended to reconstruct a cultural heritage and encourage public interest in preserving that heritage in a fraught political situation. But this is always the case that it is easier to discuss the uses of history when they are so concrete and direct.

Gee also provided a concrete and legible example in his discussion of exploiting the gamic epistemology to “do” history as he explained how the gaming metaphor to teaching. How might games impart the values from last week of training historical thinking more than trying to teach us “history?”

Historical Thinking Matters (Practicum Reflection)

Historical Thinking Matters was great fun for me, not least because I’ve never had a course on American History (OK, one survey level in college that we can’t actually count: horrible story about a lazy professor… involving pirates… )! I tried the module on the Spanish-American War. I didn’t have a textbook handy, so I took my cue from Mills Kelly and read Wikipedia to prepare.

The document investigations were more guided than I expected, leading the student to the inevitable conclusion that the Spanish-American War did not break out as a direct result of the destruction of the Maine. The module was also simpler than I expected, pleasantly so, providing enough guidance for the student to discover that the story of the Maine was tangled in a series of causes and motivations, but not offering or forcing judgement on what those might be. In this, the module answers Sam Wineburg’s injunction to provide history training as part of education broadly, helping students to look through heavily mediated texts like those provided by journalism and past simple causes. It also follows an an assumption in the readings that I found intriguing: young western students seemed to the VKP researcher-instructors to be infused with simple causal and teleological thinking (is it in the water?). The west is of course famous for this mode, but I want to know more about how it works.

The assignment/set of assignments that I came up with is unsurprisingly modeled directly on the HTM site because that’s what I was thinking about when coming up with something. My assignment focuses on Roman texts and the skills a student needs to assess them as historic documents. I would run a module set around Livy’s account of the 2nd Punic War because it offers some interesting opportunities to learn historical thinking (and because I’m a little in love with it).

Three phases would offer the student some valuable lessons. A piece dealing with sourcing and contextualising would drive home for the student the secondary-ness of Livy’s account (written, you know, like, 200 years after the battles it describes). Juxtaposing other source material and adding guided questions would draw out the primary-ness of Livy as contemporary literature (how does Livy’s text fit the Augustan/early imperial era? show contemporary Roman values, etc.?). Using HTM’s tactics, we could expose to students contemporary historical thinking by comparison with Roman historical thinking. This might involve juxtaposing other accounts of the war with Livy’s trying to line up parallel events where possible. We have a contemporary Greek source and at least one fragmented annal that was a source for Livy that would help students to see what kind of history Livy is “doing.” I like the third part the best. It has the least in terms of “agenda” and offers students the ability to find out what contemporary historical thinking is by contrast to that of other places and times. It will also invite them to question our own modes of thinking as forms of bias, which is never a bad thing.

Teaching and Learning (Week 13 RR)

I very much enjoyed this week’s readings on a number of levels. So far, I haven’t had an opportunity to teach history, but occasionally I am handed an undergraduate Latin lecture, and I have been tutoring a set of Greek and Latin students privately for the last several years. Teaching ancient languages has some notorious challenges. One major example is understanding its high attrition rate: students tend to learn very well or not at all (and the why is not always simple). Although I prefer tutoring to teaching for all the usual reasons, the problem seems (so far) to remain even in a close one-on-one situation in the same ratio. My working hypothesis is that this has a great deal to do with how we transmit/receive, come equipped with/scaffold (cf David Jaffee’s essay in our Academic Commons collection of VKP essays) mechanisms for learning and integrating the pieces of a method into a framework.

Sam Wineburg’s description of teaching as the making visible of the practitioners’ processes resonated for me. This is the challenge of language pedagogy as well as that of history (at least where we’re training thinkers and not temporary repositories for facts), to make the steps and pieces of a whole system visible in coherent, digestible packets. Another parallel challenge for the instructor is that achieving sufficient preparation to teach is tantamount to having internalised specialised knowledge to a degree from which it becomes difficult to teach (i.e. to recall the smaller structural components of ones own learning) although the knowledge and methods review we can get from teaching something is one of its primary rewards.

Michael Coventry, et. al., in the JAH article featuring the Visible Knowledge Project ask broadly about what the student brings as far as assumptions, past training, literacy, and education (writ broadly) that make a difference to a) how well the modes of teaching selected by the participant instructors work, b) how they must be modified in order to work. Sharona Levy’s piece in the Academic Commons set describes her exploration of this problem as she attempts to devise and operate a metric for how students read. Far from revealing a formula, her process is iterative, the metric serving to expose the gaps in her methods and pedagogical problems generally; she observes the shifts of her adjustments.

A corresponding piece by David Jaffee tracks student progress with a set of activities designed to teach visual literacy, or, more accurately, historical thinking with images. He likewise was less interested in the “success” of his formula, which he evolved several times to promote different results, than in in some way meeting his objective of teaching ‘historical thinking’, especially the finding of problems. In this he responds to Wineburg’s call to arms to teach historical thinking as a set of critical skills any educated person should have in daily life. Jaffee found great success in his student project that dealt with the image of an assimilated Native American leader paired with an archive of primary texts students could select for working with, not because the students came up with a satisfactory answer, but because they found problems. But he also took pleasure in the fact that he had taught them to ponder “the relationship between choice and constraint” as they problematised the whys of voluntary assimilation to an invading culture. As much as I myself agree with him on the lesson, this leaves me a little unsettled. In his conclusion, Jaffee does complicate what it means to think historically and reminds us that this is also not a neutral question. The categories used on the HTM are much cleaner (how to source, how to read closely) as tactics rather than highly contextualised questions, but as always, our tactics have a context too of which we must be aware.

This is all very obvious stuff, but I found it quite stimulating both for thinking about the ‘value’ of history and about my own experiences, problems, and aspirations for teaching.

Open Access/Open Sourec (Week 12 RR)

I am noticing that just about every week, I blog about my computer-friends and family, and I’m sorry for this, but I have to do it again… Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, was a very interesting read for me because I was already acutely aware of his work, and his work as it had filtered out to the conversations online and in casual settings. In other words, I have already internalised its conclusions to some degree, but not its logic, so I made a pretty careful read of it.

Mostly, I’m still in. Lessig makes a sensible argument about the resistance shown again and again to architectural innovators by the old guard which had marketised previous architectural forms, the regular-old circle of life. But this time, he finds something new and menacing in the resistance. The main thrust of his book (found on 255) is that the guardians are going a little above and beyond this time, that they are trying to take hold of culture itself. If you agree with him, that’s terrifying. I’m not entirely certain that I do. He may be confusing players with the game, but I might be wrong to think that there could ever be a difference between those two categories. Food for thought…

Lessig set the stage for us to understand the nitty-gritty how-to guidelines for Open Source projects as presented by Karl Fogel’s book, Producing Open Source, especially Fogel’s last section (154 on) “Licenses, Copyrights, and Patents” informed by his introduction to GNU Linux ideology in the introductory section (3). The pressure exerted by the GNU license isn’t a direct counter to that deep proprietary system which might scare us after reading anything by Lessig in that it exerts yet another kind of control over use. In fact, most of the license agreements and compliance standards Fogel surveys represent attempts to bridge the divide between the rise of Proprietary and Free Software, so that real people might work and do business both (Lessig would probably approve).

Control over making information/culture/code public features in part of Elena Giglia’s article in D-Lib on the proceedings of a conference on Open Access in a discussion on sharing data. Publication of raw data alongside publication or as a product in itself is an interesting idea and has benefits (more than harms) for the sciences as a whole, although potential costs to the academics and other researchers performing experiments (I would also ask methodological and theoretical questions about the degree to which data gathering and interpretation are not so separated even in our beloved empirical sciences, but never mind, and the idea of standardising presentation for streamlining and search ability is also interesting with pros and cons). But how or if this can be relevant to humanities scholars, I am not certain.

Peter Suber (in the available online chapter of  his book Open Access) introduces us to ways in which academics in humanities might benefit from Open Access publications with rhetoric almost as catchy as Lessig’s (I’m a fan): ‘wouldn’t it be great if people who weren’t paid directly for their writing anyway could post it for free?’ We were introduced to the idea of free online publishing in previous weeks, and here juxtaposed with the rest of the week’s discussion it takes on another cast (or at least it shows up better) in that we must think about protecting our content from becoming proprietary (and commercial). It seems a little ironic, and feels a little like looking over our shoulders for Lessig’s Orwellian smoke giant on the horizon. Aren’t the concerns of academics, as Suber says, not about money? And, did anyone think that the Creative Commons licenses some of us added might be improved for use by academics? A new Open Copyright with more targeted (yet still sufficiently broad) goals?

Archival/”Archival” (Week 11 RR)

The first reading (the CLIR report on Digital Forensics) was especially interesting to me because I have a very close programmer friend who worked for many years in e-litigation support doing very interesting jobs like crushing white collar crime under the black high-heeled boot of awesome computer savvy (think Enron). The one thing I recall best from years of hearing stories is that e-litigation is incredibly lucrative. Software, service, and support are incredibly expensive (they usually worked, up to at least 2010, as contractors billing high power law firms at rates proportional to what the firms themselves bill, and there was actually some fuss in the industry around that time as richer corporations ate up the smaller companies and overtook the industry). The field is also commercially driven and technologically competitive (read proprietary). My immediate thought, which was certainly addressed in the report, was to wonder how small and poorly funded (relatively anyway) institutions could acquire the tools for this necessary work. The Council supplied costs charts that were more or less illegible to me, but also summarised that the work is indeed quite cost-prohibitive to most institutions (including service and expert personnel). Amongst the objectives they listed at the end, the Council called for speciality tools (i.e. not for the legal industry) and promoted sharing that was orientated more towards technological and methodological kinships.

In addition to costs, when working with archives of a digital format, the other primary concern I noted was ethics with specific respect to personal privacy. The issue is an older one, but expanding in the digital age in terms of both preservation and presentation of information. Kenneth Price centres his discussion of terminology for what we do, and in turn our procedures and practises, around his own Walt Whitman “archive” (or collection if you like per his concern over terms and the subsequent discussions in the reading). He raises a key question belonging to archival science about the ethics of collecting and sharing artists’ … well, junk, junk and private objects.

It is a funny sort of a question that surrounds our old privileging and near-deification of the authour, the making of sacred relics from their miscellany. In archiving as collecting and structured allowing of access, it is a concern, but the ante is up in the Digital Age. Would Walt Whitman want his private notes available online? Well, according to a quick glance at an unassigned section of the NINCH Guidelines, the dead have no protection.

Back to the CLIR discussion, there is a rising concern that matters of privacy have to be decided clearly and permanently between an institution and a donor of a digital archive before an agreement can be struck because of the additional capacity of digital media to store every trace and track of a person’s life and the ability of digital forensics to get it out. In the Digital Age, standard concerns about privacy, especially financial and medical, but also limits on social scope, have become increasingly anxiety producing (fyi. I have access to a hard drive shredder this week if anyone needs it after reading that article!). I think it will be interesting to see how this actually plays out legally.

An additional layer of the public and private question comes up in our readings by Shelia Brennan and T. Mills Kelly, and that by Dan Cohen. Both articles deal with the “crowdsourcing” and presentation of disaster “archives” (Katrina and 911 respectively). I think it was Cohen who brought up the matter of collecting and storing memories privately. Apparently, donors of the memory artefacts could in some cases choose to have them made public or simply included. I would actually like more detail on how this works before commenting. Are they private for a set period of time? Forever, and able to be used generally, but not directly published?

Even with permissions to share, memorialising disaster and trauma comes with a fair amount of ethical baggage. The literature on this subject is endless and rather daunting (and makes me appreciate the fact that I study very, very long gone people) and deals with the ethics of collating, curating, presenting the traces of trauma even with participant permissions. This week’s readings had many interesting topics, but I really focused in on this question of ethics in historical and archival/”archival” practise and its relationship to our ability to store more, examine at once more deeply and more broadly, and share so very rapidly.