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HASTAC 2013 Repost "Visualizing A Forgotten American Vision: Mapping American Protestant Missionaries in the Middle East"

HASTAC 2013 Repost "Visualizing A Forgotten American Vision: Mapping American Protestant Missionaries in the Middle East"


Hi Fellow HASTACers,

Hard to believe that all the excitement of HASTAC 2013 is over.   This was my first academic conference, and as such, I was sure that all my expectations of intellectual growth and camaraderie would be quickly dispelled. Well, I'm happy to report that the exact opposite occurred and I want to send a THANK YOU to all the conference organizers, speakers, panel presenters, and participants who made HASTAC 2013 such an awesome experience. 

I'm reposting here a link to my prezi, as well as slide-by-slide description of my talk. I was lucky enough to be accepted to present as a presenter on the panel 36, Pushing Productive Limits: Creativity and Anxiety in the Digital Humanities, a.k.a the Vanderbilt Digital Humanities Panel.  My paper was titled, "Visualizing A Forgotten American Vision: Mapping American Protestant Missionaries in the Middle East," but my talk was more of meditation on the struggles of learning digital tools, and in particular my search for a way to visualize a certain question.  

You can find the prezi here:


Good afternoon and thank you for coming to our panel! 

My name is Zoe LeBlanc, and I am a second year student in the doctoral program in the History Department at Vanderbilt University.  Today, I'm going to talk to you about a project, "Visualizing A Forgotten American Vision: Mapping American Protestant Missionaries in the Middle East."  On my first slide you see a crumpled piece of paper and that's a really apt metaphor for how I feel about the project. There has been a lot of hand wringing and rough drafts, but I’m still not ready to quite throw in the towel. So to begin I want to tell you a bit about my project.

Who is Alford Carleton and why is he important?  I’m going to hazard a guess and say no one here knows this name so let me tell you the answer. Alford Carleton was an American who lived in Syria in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. He raised his family there and spent most of his adult life in Aleppo. Carleton was also a protest missionary. He was in Syria to spread the gospel and help educate Syrians.

So why is he important? On level this is just a great story right? Some one going off into the world to make it a better place. Well, my research argues that Carleton represents more than that. Carleton represents a vision – a vision of American involvement in the Middle East that differs from the one we know today.  On the slide you’ll see a quote from a paper Carleton wrote in1947, titled “Palestine: Fundamentals.” Carleton wrote, “There is a great discrepancy between what one feels, going and out of Palestine these days.  The actual situation is one too complicated for easy generalities, too deep for careless words, too full of human hope and human woe to be carelessly ignored.” Carleton, like many American missionaries in the Middle East, was deeply concerned with both the plight of the Palestinians and the existing Jewish communities in the Middle East. Carleton has been completely ignored by historians, and consequently society writ large.  My research argues that looking at Carleton and the vision he represents can help us nuance current debates over Mideast peace and move towards a new vision of American involvement in the Middle East.

So I started with what I thought was a great topic and the question of how do I show Alford Carleton’s vision or world. Protestant missionaries like Carleton have left us a wealth of documents so I have lots of data to visualize.  Thus, I decided to try using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I’m a complete newbie to GIS so part of my failure is certainly my lack of expertise. However, I quickly realized while using GIS that I had a number of problems.  Firstly, what exactly was I visualizing? I have this great framework of vision but how does that work on a map. I started by trying to map Carleton’s correspondence network but that quickly fell flat. I end up with lots of dots, no movement and no change over time.  As an aside, I also hated the aesthetics of the GIS maps I was creating so I decided to try different software.

Next up was gephi, which is a social network analysis software.  If you’re unfamiliar with it there’s lots of great posts on HASTAC about using gephi.  Again, I had the same problem with expertise but I played around for some time making my nodes, edges, and relations. I ended up with a giant mass of social networks, which was what I initially wanted to show Carleton’s influence.  However, I had now lost the space he occupied. These networks where just floating on a blank screen outside of space and time.

I then decided to try Neatline and I was really excited because it seemed to combine everything I wanted.  I was now able to show Carleton in Syria, and his travels and connections over time.  However, I was unhappy with my limited ability to show movement and I started to rethink the entire project.

That’s when I discovered a whole new project that would work really well on Neatline. This project I’m entitling “Searching for Islamic Unity: The History of Pan-Islamic Congresses and Conferences Since 1924.”  This project maps political activity in the form of conferences from 1924 with the abolition of the Caliphate to the present with the most recent Organisation of Islamic Cooperation meetings.  The idea for this project is to visualize where pan-Islamic political activity manifests to help understand the growth and shifts in the Islamic world over the twentieth century.  You can find this project here:

Now coming back to Carleton, I was still not ready to let go of this project. So I decided to really focus in on the main visualization question – that is when a person has a worldview or vision how does that shape the way they see space?  I wanted to keep some element of the geographic location but try and warp the size of the space to show the impact of Carleton’s vision.  On this slide you see a current map of the Middle East. Beside that is a second map, which represents the current American vision of the Middle East, and the third map is Alford Carleton’s vision of the Middle East. Notice the discrepancies between the two, specifically with the size of Israel and Palestine.  Now I know this mock up isn’t great but it’s a start for thinking of how once could visualize this type of question.

Now I want to end with some concluding thoughts. I’m now left with the dilemma of knowing what I want to map and how I want that map to look but having no available software. While I could hack this in photoshop and flash, I think this is an important question that other academics may have so ideally it would be great if this could become some form of software.  However, I’m just one lowly graduate student, who is overcommitted and without access to a digital center of a software engineer.  So how do I move forward with this idea and my visualization? This question brings me to my next which is how can graduate students be apart of this process and digital humanities more broadly.  Coming back to the theme of the panel, I want to leave you all with question of how can graduate students be creative partners in digital humanities, and not just anxious observers?

Thank you for your time and please feel free to comment if you have answers, advice, or would like to concur.





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