Blog Post

Spring Spotlight #5: Duke's Humanities Labs

This panel is the fifth Spotlight in the 2013 Digital History Spring Spotlight Series, and it covers three of the four Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI) Humanities Labs at Duke University. The FHI Humanities Laboratories initiative began in 2010 with the creation of the Haiti Lab. The initiative has since expanded to include three other labs: BorderWorks(s), GreaterThanGames, and the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge. Three of the four labs are represented below. While Dr. Laurent Dubois discusses the work of the Haiti Lab, Dr. Cathy Davidson provides insight on the newest of labs, the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge. Both of these interviews focus on the inner workings of the humanities labs and their purpose on campus. Dr. Sumanthi Ramaswamy provides a different point of view as she discusses the ways that she has engaged in the lab as a researcher and historian.


Spotlight organizer: Christina C. Davidson


Featured Scholar: Laurent Dubois, Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History, Duke University

Haiti Lab Director


Featured Scholar: Cathy Davidson, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Ruth F. Devarney Professor of English, Duke University

Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge Director


Featured Scholar: Sumanthi Ramaswamy, Professor of History, Duke University

BorderWork(s) Lab Core Faculty Member




Dr. Laurent Dubois

Haiti Lab


Question 1: How did you come up with the original idea for the Haiti Lab?What were the initial goals?

We didn't really come up with the idea actually. The FHI and a lot of other people had been thinking about the idea of humanities labs for some time. They had decided over the course of 2009-2010 that they were going to do this and that they would give over some of the renovated space in the warehouse for these new labs. So they approached us in the spring of 2010, which was right after the Haiti earthquake and said to us, "look we've got this concept. We're going to have collaborative community labs. We want it to be focused in humanities but have links to other schools, and we want to find innovative ways to have graduates, undergraduates, and faculty interacting around collaborative projects and we're wondering if you would do that." We were already doing a lot of that kind of stuff around Haiti and after the earthquake in particular people were making the links, so it was a fit.


Question 2: In what ways did your personal experience and research play a role in your choice to sponsor the lab?

I had been working on Haiti for a while. I actually had decided right after the earthquake to write this new book, which I wasn't planning to write—a contemporary history of Haiti. That was partially a result of my vision of the media and the public sphere. So, from the beginning we were interested in producing work that could potentially have an impact on how Haiti was perceived. In some ways we wanted to speak outwardly from a kind of place with some expertise on Haiti in a context in which there was a lot of misinformation about Haiti. The disjuncture between what people were saying about Haiti and the reality was vividly made clear after the earthquake.

At the same time we thought that personally more and more we were doing different types of collaborative research--that some of the forms of humanistic research, which is very individualist--just weren't fitting so much with the kinds of things that we needed to do. So we wanted to think holistically about things like health and law in Haiti and thought that the humanistic approach could add a lot to that but it also meant that we needed people who were in those fields.  Concretely we had been able to hire Jacque Pierre that spring after the earthquake too and so there was also that investment in Kreyòl language training. 


Question 3: How is the lab structured in terms of professor-student relationships? Have different on- and off-campus collaborators contributed to the projects?

On campus we have a bunch of collaborations. The way that it works is that we had identified some core topics early in the fall and one of them was driven by the interests of this law group which was in a sense independent of the Haiti lab. Our involvement in that was to say that "you guys have the law expertise and we'll see if we can cultivate the Haiti expertise with the undergraduates and faculty, so that was one version. The cholera project, which emerged that first semester, was another example. There was not yet cholera in Haiti when the Haiti lab had started. It began in October and so that was an adjustment to something that was going on on-the-ground. Deborah and Victoria and their class responded to that and that was a nice connection between global health. Deborah has been leading a project around mental health issues that she had started after the earthquake and that involved a lot of different people across the university.

We've also of course had lots of different people. We had a tight link with scholars in Haiti with Jean Casimir who was a visiting professor the prior semester, Spring of 2010, before the Haiti lab started. So, largely though him but also through others we have connections to Haitian academics and Haitian institutions. Then we also have a connection with Edouard Duval Carrié, who had been here before as well and we was the basis for this Haiti Amber project that we did. And that has led to a bunch of connections between students here and who work in Haiti and the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance in Miami that we've been connected with.  And then lots of academics from other institutions have become involved.


Question 4: How have you and your team used digital tools to pursue the projects in the Lab?

On many levels. In many ways that Haiti in Amber project is kind of a digital project because a lot of it involved looking at images online and manipulating them on computers and then rendering them material with various objects, so it mixed the materiality and the digital and that's interesting. But from the first we've been encouraging students to think about the outputs of their work being in digital form, whether through blogs--having a kind of public facing space for the lab, and having students do projects for the lab, but to do it in a way that would be open and available, which was part of the agenda from the beginning. So that meant exploring pedagogy….And then there's this project called the Slave Nations Project, which a lot of people have worked on, but which is looking at this huge digital database and how do we get a lot of people working on that collectively. So there was also that other side--how to use the digital resources that are available. The cholera project was a top example of this because newspapers had been digitized, so a lot of that was just about doing research in the digital world. More recently, the Vodou Archive Project that we've been working on is a lot about creating a digital interface. We've also created the Haiti Digital Library along the way, which was meant to increase access to digital materials on Haiti. I would say that that has been pretty pivotal.


Question 5: Has this allowed you to open up to different communities? And, what have you found most surprising about the experience?

Sometimes you do not know what people are reading. I know that at point one the most searched words on FHI website was "Haiti Lab", so it had clearly become some sort of interests that people were aware of. We actually then recently upgraded our website, because in some ways our web presence was not very sophisticated, but the new one is much better and we collaborated with FHI on doing it. So, people have searched and found stuff. The things that have brought people to the Haiti lab in more concrete ways were things like op-eds or my book in a few cases or Deborah's op-ed. So on several occasions we published things in more public spaces, which then prompted people to get in touch. The difference between what might have happened without the lab and then having the lab is that when people got in touch, instead of saying, "oh thank you very much. I'm glad you enjoyed the book," which is what I might normally say, I could say, "oh! Well, we've got this whole thing going on, would you like to get involved?"


Question 6:Has the work in the lab had any impact in your field?  How do you envision the lab’s long-term contribution to the discipline of History and the Humanities more broadly? (publications, conferences, new collaborations, development of similar projects?)

It's certainly impacted my personal work as a historian. For many of the chapters in the book that I wrote, there is also a block in the Haiti in Amber project. I think that there's a way in which doing these different things probably influenced the writing as well. I hope that the longer term effect will come if some of the graduate students who worked in the lab or some of the undergraduates who worked on the lab and have gone on to go to graduate school in history, if that would effect their work as a historian and their historical imagination. And, I think that it has to some extent. We have a few students that are now out and then there are others who have been here long enough that the lab has presumably influenced something about what they are doing. Claire Payton is a good example--someone who came to Duke, basically because the lab was here and because the lab also seemed like a space where she could work on rather contemporary issues that otherwise might seem too contemporary, but in the context of the Haiti Lab our very sense of how recent history can be incorporated into historical work. After working in the Haiti Lab it's very hard to say to someone, "No, we can't talk about the last ten years." Also, articulating some arguments as to why history is critical for doing some of these contemporary things. 


Question 7:In what ways has your work in the lab influenced your work as a historian? Do you intend to use digital tools in your next project? If you would like to share, what plans do you have for future research (or future engagement with the lab)?

It's interesting because most of the tools we've used have been the basic tools. There's nothing fancy.  Things everyone kind of knows how to use. Well, not everyone. It's true that students have learned how to use tools. One of the things that I did was teach students how to use Wordpress. But, more than that, I think that the bigger question is what are we going to do with those tools? How do you curate things that are actually meaningful? I think that the question of how you do that in a way that's going to be legible on the other end, meaningful, and maybe have some sort of durability is interesting. And that's an ongoing question. I think about in projects that I'm doing now, I often think about the interface of the written word and then more digital things and how those are going to encode the work in different ways. We've tried to intervene in different levels, from the article on the book to the digital format and each of them requires something different and they all connect in some ways, but figuring out what's the best medium for certain kinds of communication is an ongoing question.


Question 8: How do you see digital history evolving at Duke, and how might faculty, staff and students prepare for and participate in these transformations? 

I think it's an area that people are really going to delve into. On some level what's interesting about it is that it's just the same questions being asked, which in the end means that the digital changes certain things and it doesn't others. The basic question finally is what are the stories we are going to tell? How are we going to tell those stories? What is the relationship between research, empirical work, and then narrative of a certain kind? And maybe "narrative" for the digital isn't quite right, but it is presentation in a different form, and there's a formal aspect. So those are old questions that I think are the same. Then there's a question about how research is done. In history it's an interesting problem because there's also a way in which the digitation of the materials sometimes recapitulates the forms of exclusion or silencing that happens in archives in general. So if you take the Trouillot approach to archives, you can take that to the digital too. In other words, certain things are digitized and certain things are not. So we should have certain cautiousness about whether doing just digital research is enough. I always remember when my dad at one point asked, "Aren't they going to digitize those records you're using?"  I said, "Well, actually, the records I'm using no one cares about enough to do that. It would make no sense for anyone to digitize this stuff because it's just too obscure, which doesn't mean that it's not useful, you know?" So, I think that from the research angle that's a useful question to theorize for historians as well. The more we have those types of questions about how to do this type of research the more examples we have.  The fact is that the digital is here. Accepting it or refusing it is a dead point. The question is how to do it well--how to use it.


Do you have any last thoughts?  Last words of wisdom? 

I think it's an exciting time. I think the institution has done a really good thing in setting up these relatively open spaces where people can work, so in that sense the Lab has been a success. The idea was that they would exponentially expand the things that we could do, and in some ways I think they really have. It's hard to know exactly all the effects of that but I think that it has been very helpful for myself and others.



Dr. Cathy Davidson

Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge


Question 1: Origin:How did you come up with the original idea for the Ph.D. Lab? What were the initial goals?

It started a little backwards. Duke asked me and David Bell to create a Master's degree, which was kind of a HASTAC version of a Master's degree and we called it the Masters of Arts in Knowledge Networks.  It would be an interdisciplinary Masters degree that would use computational tools and develop some web and computational skills.  It would include a range of 21st century literacies, including online representation, self-presentation and intellectual and theoretical work as well as practical and applied work, with a strong digital humanities component. And then it turned out to be more expensive than anticipated, largely because we understood the hidden costs of a technology-driven program.  We did not believe most faculty would be able to do their own technology and built in significant support systems. When we costed out the final product, it simply seemed too expensive and some feared that it wouldn't pay back it's initial investment.   We were planning to revise the proposal with a less technology-intensive model when FHI Director Ian Baucom came forward and said, "if not a Master's degree, why not just design a non-credit program specifically for retraining and supporting doctoral students?"

David Bell and I decided to run with that idea, even though it was quite late to be piloting a new program.  It was late in the year for recruitment, we didn’t have designated space, and we already had programming planned that wasn’t aligned perfectly with the goals of what has become the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge.  So we decided to try an experimental year. We ended up accepting everyone and doing an open year just to see what kinds of things we might pursue in the future, testing what might work, what might not.  The positive and the negative is that, because we already had a whole semester of intensive programming that HASTAC had set up for the fall, the first semester was less of a “lab” and more of a seminar series. The first semester included a visit by Petra Dierkes-Thrun who lectured on Oscar Wilde and then talked in generous, serious terms about all the ways her course changed and that she changed as a traditional humanities teacher the first time she taught a course with a public, online website and blogging component.  We also held a full-day event honoring Duke Professor Sharon Holland, "Everyday Racism, Everyday Homophobia."  We had a team of assessment experts come and talk about alternative modes of grading, giving feedback, and evaluating student work.  And PhD Lab faculty member Professor Richard Powell had his students come to talk about curating a digital, online art exhibit, now showing online at the Nasher Museum of Art.  It was a very full schedule.

It wasn’t until the second semester that we were able to focus more specifically on the actual PhD and MFA students in the seminar.   We focused largely on self-presentation--what it would be like to build your own website to showcase your professional work and to think about what your own website would look like.  Next year, we actually have a group of faculty who are interested in a range of topics pertaining to digital knowledge and who will sponsor research modules on "Online Teaching and Learning," "Data and Text Mining"  “Multimodal Publishing,” and “Online Self-Representation.”   


Question 2: Did your personal experience and research play a role in your choice to sponsor the lab?

Definitely. About three years ago things changed and we started getting feedback from HASTAC Scholars that, while their departmental colleagues were not getting jobs, they were not only getting jobs, but when they went to job interviews, interviewers wanted to hear as much about HASTAC, their work as HASTAC Scholars and their blog posts, as they did about their dissertation. That took us by surprise. We never thought their online work would be taken that seriously.  But busy professors do what everyone else does:  they Google you and see what they can find.  Suddenly, HASTAC Scholars had a vibrant, public scholarly presence.  At the same time, the sudden attention to MOOCs has made scholars, even at elite institutions, think more about online scholarship and teaching.   HASTAC Scholars already had a presence in this world.   As faculty members began wondering about the role of online learning, HASTAC Scholars seemed to have knowledge in this new area.  We’ve been a community that has been focused on informal innovations and online learning communities for a decade, so people started looking towards HASTAC for some sort of guidance, especially in the humanities.  I thought that if it was happening online at HASTAC, it would be great to do something at Duke specifically that brought some of those same ideas to campus.


Question 3: Structure:How is the lab structured in terms of professor-student relationships? Have different on- and off-campus collaborators contributed to the projects? Could you talk about this year, but also project for next year?

This year, because we did not have a formal area where people could come and go, with a designated space for their projects and for congregating, we had to come up with an alternative “seminar-like” method.   Next year we're planning to move into what has been the Haiti Lab, so we'll have a well-equipped physical space with some shared infrastructure. We also have a number of faculty who are interested in using the lab structure through a research project on which they are already working. Next year, there will be small cohorts of PhD Lab Scholars and faculty working on each project. We want graduate students to be a part of those projects and to find ways that those projects can be appropriated into their own work.


Do you imagine that that would incorporate just people here on Duke's campus?

We have opened it to doctoral students in the Triangle. It's a little tricky because of the funding sources; I don’t see how we could use Duke funds for non-Duke students to travel to conferences and so forth, but we can certainly offer four or five students an opportunity to be part of the Lab research experiences.


Question 4: How have you and your team used digital tools in the lab?

The primary one has been Wordpress. The first semester when we talked about online learning, what happens when you take the class and put it online. One of the great events was when Petra Dierkes-Thrun came because she could talk about, "I'm in the traditional humanities. I've never done anything online before"--what does it mean for content and quality of teaching when you put it online? And, it was interesting because it was clearly a very simple digital tool.  Having blogs instead of term papers, having online discussions before students came into class, it may have been a simple digital tool, but conceptually, it changes the definitions and the boundaries of what a classroom is.  Next year, we hope to use more text mining tools, more complex collaborative tools, visualization tools, and multimodal publishing tools such as Scalar.


Question 5: Broad Impact: How do you envision the lab’s long-term contribution to the campus?

I envision the long-term contribution to the campus being helpful to students who are creating an online identity, a public and professional identity for themselves. Also, as official forms of peer-reviewed publishing become more competitive, online self-publishing becomes a venue where one can showcase one’s own work.  How to do so credibly and professionally is a challenge and an opportunity.  

It is fascinating, too, to think about self-publishing in this way.  It requires developing a new “persona,” almost like the complex persona you present to your class.  The representation is you, but you within a very clearly circumscribed context (a classroom, a Wordpress website). You have to do something to communicate who you are; it’s not just an online resume. But, you also have to have professional decorum, professional standards. You are going to be judged from a distance. Building yourself and your identity into a website teaches you what that professional distance is and how to negotiate that distance. It's an interesting enterprise. It's a first-person representation of yourself in the third-person. That's very much what a certain form of teaching is.


Just following up on that would you recommend writing your website in third person?

No. I actually think it's important to write it in the first person, but people will still read it as if it were in the third-person and there's been a lot of research on that too. You want to say "I". You want to be personable….It's a representation of the "I" to a generalized, non-specific, non-intimate audience. It's a really different "I".  So for example. I've written a memoir. I happen to have done everything I said I did in that memoir, but the way that I have written it is literary. I had a metaphor of 36-six views of Mount Fuji. The whole memoir is arranged as a journey. Each chapter has an image of Hokusai that has been arranged as a journey. So I'm telling things that actually happened, but I'm telling it in a sort-of prescriptive narrative form. It's about art and artistry and omission as much as commission. You're telling about yourself, but you're telling about yourself for a purpose.  Creating a professional online blog or website is analogous.


Question 6: How do you see the lab intersecting with your work? Would you like to share any future plans in that regard (or future engagement with the lab)?

It's very close to my work because I'm keenly interested in what new ways we can teach and learn from one another and how we can change our institutions for new modes of learning. The workplace has changed, technology has changed, even the way we socialize has changed. Why is education still in a form that we know is an apparatus created for the industrial age? I'm very interested in training students and working with students, not to replicate my path as a scholar, but to help prepare them for a future that is to come. We are now teaching students, undergraduates, that don't know a before. They were born mostly in 1996, 1997, 1998. The Internet was in full commercial swing by the time they were born. They just have different modes of learning, so we should be teaching and doing research based on those new modes of learning and thinking about the most effective ways to teach. Basically, the Ph.D. Lab's goal is to teach the next generation of teachers of the next generation of students.


Question 7: Advice:How do you see lab evolving at Duke? How might faculty, staff and students prepare for the transformations going forward? Any last words of advice?

Last year, we had one of the labs at FHI with the Greater Than Games Lab. They have done a great job working with undergraduates, but are really interested in working with graduate students. They're going to join with the Ph.D. Lab next year and that's part of the reason why we have several different research projects.  Hyper-tech games, hyper-tech non-linear narrative, including historical narrative, multi-voice/multi-media narrative.  I think there are more and more faculty who are interested in these new modes of teaching and learning and they are coming to join the lab. Next year we have six or seven professors that will have projects affiliated with the lab. It's exciting.



Dr. Sumathi Ramaswamy

BorderWork(s) Lab 


Question 1: Would you please describe your work as a historian?

I'm a historian of cartography, and I have been for a while. I've been very interested in the globe as an object to represent Earth—as a model of and for Earth. So I'm using both visual history and what is called “new object history” or “new material culture history” to look at the way that the globe was introduced into India and argue about the Earth, the shape of the Earth, and people's place on the Earth.


Question 2:How did you come up with the original idea for the Franklin Humanities Institute Lab you lead?

I actually don't direct the lab. Phil Stern is one of the co-directors alongside Erica Weinthal and now Robin Kirk, but we first thought of the project together. Phil is a historian of the early-modern period, and he had a prior interest in the place of geography and geographic societies in the early British Empire. He had also become interested in cartographic issues of the early modern. So we thought it would be wonderful for both of us to collaborate around the British Empire more broadly and questions of cartography…And then we realized that a group of colleagues—Claudia Koonz, who is now retired, and a group of her peers—were trying to work with similar issues but from the perspective of people who question the legitimacy of these lines, or for whom the lines have proved to be a problem.  So we decided to join forces and form this lab. We came up with the name BorderWork(s), and that's how it started. So, the lab is concerned with borders, with people who draw the borders, those who question them either through embodied movement or through artwork, with human rights violations around borders, etc.


Question 3: In what ways did your personal experience and research play a role in your choice to engage with the lab?

As I mentioned, I am a historian of cartography, I had been working for a while with questions of maps and borders. When the lab began, I had just gotten very involved in a long paper that I finished writing, which is not yet out, on the partition of India and the cartographic aspect of that process. So, for me it was interesting first from the point of view of the history of cartography. But, because I'm also a visual historian I had become very interested in art and really thinking about cartographic activity, and cartographic practices as not just science but also art, and looking at the art/science dialogue, dialectic, tension. You can characterize that relationship in so many different ways. So I was very interested in the artistic response as well to the drawing of lines and the dividing of spaces and places. So my interest really came out of that.


Question 4: How is the lab structured in terms of professor-student relationships? Have different on- and off-campus collaborators contributed to the projects? Could you evaluate the role of "lab" environments in the pursuit of history-based projects?

Since the lab has so many disparate parts, I can only speak on the parts I have been involved with. For me the big outcome for the lab will be next fall. Just before the lab got started, I did a big conference in collaboration with a colleague at NCSU on the partition of India. It was an interdisciplinary conference in which we brought together historians, political scientists, and artists who work on the partition of India. Two of the people that we invited for the conference had just finished curating a very interesting exhibit called Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space. Wherever the exhibit goes, the co-curators try to work with faculty interested in the project to see if they can accommodate the interests of the faculty, so I began to work with the Nasher Museum to see if we could bring the exhibit here. They agreed and the exhibit will be at the Nasher in the fall. The students in the Borderworks lab will create a side exhibit that will also be displayed alongside Lines of Control. So, they are curating their own exhibit based on historical maps in our special collections under the direction of Phil Stern. Theirs will actually be the more historical part of the contemporary art show. I believe the students’ exhibit is called “Defining Lines.” So, Lines of Control is one very important outcome of the BorderWorks lab.


Question 5: Personal Impact: In what ways has your work in the lab influenced your work as a historian? Do you intend to use digital tools in your next project? If you would like to share, what plans do you have for future research (or future engagement with the lab)?

Last year, the FHI announced a fellowship for faculty who are doing digital work to produce “digital singles,” as they call it. It is not an entire digital book and it is not as short as an essay, but it is somewhere between an essay and a book. So they announced a grant opportunity for faculty who were interested. I applied and got one of those, and I am going to be producing a digital muraqqa. What is a muraqqa? As I said, the book that I'm writing next year looks at the introduction of the globe into school rooms and the teaching of the globe to young Indians, but the globe was actually introduced first into India sometime in the late 16th century, possibly early 17th. It was introduced by European traders who were coming to the area to set up trading networks in parts of India, as well as Jesuit missionaries. They showed up with these objects at the Mughal court, the major imperial power in India at that time, which developed an enormous visual investment in the object. Between 35-40 exquisite miniature paintings at the Mughal court were produced in response to the introduction to the globe. In the Mughal period, the paintings were not hung on walls, but they were put together in a muraqqa, an album. So my project really involves bringing these paintings together in a digital album.


Question 6: How have you and your team used digital tools to pursue the project?

I'm using a new technology that has been pioneered at the British library, called "Turning the Page" technology. What they've done is taken up old manuscript and printed volumes in the British library, and using this technology they have digitized the whole volume so you can actually turn the pages and as you turn the pages you can zoom-in on the images and really study them. There are also audio clips that go with it. One of the most beautiful things they have digitized in this manner is a Quran. They have included an audio link, which you can use to hear the text being recited. So, my project will gather all of these scattered images and assembling them using this technology. I’ll then write a digital essay to explain these images, to contextualize them and connect them to things happening more generally in Renaissance Europe and elsewhere in Asia. At the end, the whole thing will look like an album.  For designing the muraqqa, I've been researching 17th century Persian albums, what do they look like, including the gold on the edge of the pages, the spine, etc.


Question 7: How do you see Digital History evolving, and how might faculty, staff and students prepare for and participate in these transformations? 

As I see it, the concept is: how does the digital compel me to ask new questions? One of the things that became apparent to me in my project is that I am returning to the materiality of the album. If I did not have this project in mind, I wouldn’t be interested in how the album was assembled, its weight, the weight of each of the pages that I want to simulate with the new technology, what kinds of ways the image is placed vis-à-vis the text—even the thickness of the page is one of the thing we're working on. So, it's leading me from the image to the material and making me ask questions about the objectness of the painting, the environment in which the object was actually seen. So that is one thing that the material turn is doing for me. The digital compels you to ask questions that you would not have asked if you were using the analog mode. I think those are some of the innovative ways in which digital history can push us.

I can also mention some negative outcomes. Because these images have been digitized, you can't get often access to them directly in the holding collection. You can't even see them anymore—you can look at them digitally, but you don't get to look at the original. You have to really work hard and persuade collection holders to show you the actual object. So in a very interesting, paradoxical way this project is making me go back and address the material. All of this has to do with how those objects have been digitized to start with. I have a great example of the image that will be on the cover of the book that I'm writing. It's a beautiful later-19th century photograph I found in the British library. It's a school photograph of a group of young women, all sitting around a large gorgeous terrestrial globe, and I first saw it on the British library's website. This image has been digitized. I got very interested in it and of course I wanted to know in what context it was produced. If you just had access to the the digital version, you would not be able to do very much with it. I went to the British library and made an appointment to view the photograph. For some reason I turned it over and at the very corner on the back was a little slip of a purple label and all it said was, "Vienna 1873". This had not been digitized at all! If I hadn't bothered to go and look at the actual physical object and actually do this action of turning, I would not have found out the history of the photograph--the fact that it was deliberately created to show the world ways in which in the colonial period education had made such progress. Photographs like this were put on display at the Vienna International Exhibition where there was a big emphasis on improvement through educational appliances. This image has been reproduced in a few books--women's history books and women's education--saying "aha, look women in India were getting such a modern education." My argument is that you can't jump to those conclusions precisely because this image, like so many photographs, has been staged--and for a very particular ideological purpose: "the good work that we are doing in our colonies." I was able to arrive at that conclusion  only because I  went back to the material object. So the danger, I think, in the digital history is that you may lose out on such connections to the original object. You can address that by the ways in which you digitize them, but as you know it is time consuming and expensive. I think this is a very important, cautionary tale.


Question 8: Do you have any advice for students who want to engage in digital history?

There are a lot of  new and time-consuming skills you have to learn, but I think it should be the nature of your problematic that drives your questions. I think the questions should still come from our subject-position as historians. I think the subject you study should drive the technology and the way you're using it. Then again, I think it's productive to keep that open as well. If you're interested in the technology for its own sake, you begin to ask yourself, "What kinds of questions could that make me ask of my material?" So, I think that it should be two-way traffic. I think that’s more productive way to think about it. To have each side push pressure on the other is very exciting because you are taking in from the world of the digital, but you're also aware that you've got one foot in historical scholarship, the archive, and so on.









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How exciting! There are so many opportunities in the fields of digital history and digital humanities for students and faculty of all backgrounds to pursue.

I am currently serving in several committees and our "vision" and conversation keep morphing into something larger or narrower. These innovative and inspiring projects reflect creativity and interest in bridging and integrating contemporary or historical issues with digital technology and academia. 

1.    Let's start with the Haiti Lab by Dr. Laurent Dubois:  I have definitely read somewhere that Google tried to recreate maps to find people; actually here's the article: there are a lot of public interest in Haiti over the years since the earthquake, and this kind of project bridges major issues going on in a developing nation in Haiti but framing the country in digital and academic perspectives.

Traditionally historians are working area studies focused on archival documents abroad and overseas. Now with these crowdsourcing projects in “labs”, the data mined by students and public certainly add value to historical research in light of contemporary issues. They don’t require “hard skills” like computer programming as Dubois mentioned, just “wordpress” and “blogs” but understanding how to use them creatively for historical research or to reveal existing yet big data sets available for historical research or getting people involved with these projects through collaborative projects can really kick start the research.

It’s important what Dr. Dubois comments at the end, “figuring out what's the best medium for certain kinds of communication is an ongoing question.” – the explosion of information on a particular topic is huge, and curating those information and deciding how to make sense or “contexualize” data or resources, take tremendous time and commitment.

Here’s a good resource that wasn’t easy to make but makes me question whether it could have been more simplified to the point where viewers can interact with the resources from The African-American Migration Experience;jsessionid=f8301095481366550476514?migration=5&bhcp=1

2.    Dr. Cathy Davidson’s Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge: I certainly agree that it’s important for graduate students in all fields, particularly in humanities and social sciences to gain and learn alternative skills while in grad school to be marketable but also to demonstrate creativity: programming, coding, data mining – not suggesting they should drop the theoretical training but to have other technical skills to draw out other research purposes; most importantly, students should also do an e-portfolio as described in the interview to showcase their work to a greater audience.

Future students aka digital natives will be learning through different platforms and e-pads in a different pace and medium compared to the previous generation; it’s important to stay connected to the present but also foresee how different it will be in the future; updating teaching pedagogy may help – incorporating blogs, online discussions, and having students to understand the trends of research or at least the evolution of it may help the instructor understand how teaching can be implemented effectively. Check out the chronicle of higher education for updates and discussions:

MOOC is also something to consider, since it is one of the fastest course systems being picked up by many institutions. Students will be learning through hybrid sessions: digital and non-digital and that requires the instructor to be adaptable because their institutions will be heading in those directions.

3.    Dr. Sumanthi Ramaswamy’s work is very interesting in several levels.  Image driven scholarship is growing in many disciplines; images bring these disciplines together: cultural studies, history, English, art history, religion, philosophy, library science, technology, etc.

Maps are excellent tools in framing visual history; as Dr. Ramaswamy points out, we can learn to understand border changes, political interest groups, environmental and scientific studies, etc, all through maps. In all of my history classes as an undergraduate and graduate, I have never needed to “consult” a map but for my academic research, I have used maps to draw out creatively the big and small data they present: changes of neighborhoods, genealogical information, local history of politics in changing districts, or expansions of an imperial power, etc. What I like about this interview is the collaboration encouraged by Dr. Ramaswamy.. Maps shouldn’t be and aren’t limited to physical copies, they can also be digitized and utilized for all kinds of research; many are being incorporated into interactive or enhanced books which is touched a little in the interview.

Enhanced books or iBOOKS on the e-pads are growing; children’s books incorporating interactive elements such as sound, reading a lot and moving features while staying engaged with the story are all going to be part of the reader’s experience. However, it goes back to the first interview, we must know how to curate and utilize the mediums appropriately. Dr. Ramaswamy’s research on these digital albums is a perfect example of understanding how to capture the historical research in a platform that make sense or that draws a lot of interest in the field because it is a creative project that you simply cannot implement via book.

I have been involved with Dr. John Dower of MIT’s Visualizing Cultures: where we are sharing methods of researching images and visuals and how to frame them into the larger context of history and historical research; and understanding transformation of research from physical to digital.