This semester I am taking a course focusing on digital humanities, some of the methodological issues that arise in digital and analog humanities, and how we, as budding historians of science, can best navigate humanities in a digital world, while working within an academic system which does not often reward for creative, boundary breaking work. For those of you who may not know, digital humanities is essentially concerned with taking computational tools, skills, and methods, and applying them to the traditional humanities disciplines, like literature, history, and philosophy. There are a lot of debates surrounding where it should go in the future, the pros and cons of digital approaches to the humanities, where these approaches fit in academic institutions which evaluate tenure based on traditional means of publication, how this works in places that are not as digitally equipped as major urban centers, the list goes on. Digital humanities, at one time, seems to be both the future and enemy of the humanities as we know them, depending on who you talk to. So pretty much like every other discipline on the planet.
One of the major projects which we are working on works in the way that most graduate projects work: we get to decide almost all of the parameters. For those of you who think that that much freedom is fun, and great for the creative process, and allows us to explore as many options as we would like, you’re wrong, and have obviously never had the rug of structure pulled out from under you. The only thing that I have had to go on has been it has to be a project focused on immigration/migration in the United States in the post-Civil-War era until the turn of the twentieth century (1865-1900). And it has to be a project that we do something that could fall under the broad umbrella that is digital humanities.
So what I’m doing is I’m focusing on the migration of African American workers from the deep South, to what were often northern, urban centers, during the 1870s. I say often, because what I have found during this decade is that there was a lot of movement from the South to Kansas, because of promises of land, particularly in 1878-1879. What I am doing is I am compiling a bibliography of newspaper articles discussing this. Particularly, I am looking for the phrase “Negro Exodus” because from what I had found in my preliminary research, this was a pretty common phrase at the time for people to be using to discuss the event. I have had to work to make sure that I am excluding any articles that are talking about an exodus of African Americans to Liberia, which was also occurring at the same time. I have completed my bibliography, with 725 items, though it is by no means a complete list of all newspaper articles discussing this during that decade, but for the purposes of this project, it should be enough.
Now that this bibliography is complete, my next step is to actually do the more hardcore digital aspect of my project. My ultimate goal is to create an interactive map and timeline of the newspapers, which will show what newspapers and areas of the country were talking about these events. I hope to create some sort of animation which will play to show how frequency and location of discussions changed over time. I have no quite figured out how I am going to do that, as of yet. But I plan to post my completed project on here once I am finished, and keep this blog updated with my progress in the project.
The one thing I want to close with is just a word about historical research. Doing historical research, especially about race, class, and gender, can be really difficult, for a number of reasons. These groups have been, and in many cases still are, marginalized. This makes finding primary sources where they talk about themselves, really difficult. I wrote a paper about this last semester, which I have been thinking about posting on here at some point, maybe I will do that later this week. What you end up with, is the people in power talking about the people without power, which completely changes the narrative. One of the reasons it is so hard to retroactively insert people of color, women, and people in lower classes into what has become a white, male narrative, is because the narrative was written by white men and thus finding sources to change that narrative becomes key. Also, because the people in power are writing the story, and leaving behind all of the records, you end up with representations of marginalized groups which are very often offensive to a modern reader. I really struggled with the terminology “negro exodus” even though I am well aware that that is not even the worst terminology which could be used. It can be really difficult to not completely judge characters in the past by today’s standards, and it feels easy to call out racism, sexism, and class-ism by people who lived before us. That is problematic, though, because judging people of the past by today’s standards is a sticky situation, because where do we draw the line in our reading of history? George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were all slave holders. Arguably, their view of women would be considered condescending and chivalrous, at best. So if we choose to judge them on that, should we not also choose to judge them on the fact that they knew way less about modern physics, that the term science did not exist as we know it today so it would be a meaningless word to them, that natural selection as a mechanism for evolution was well into the future as an idea for them, that they did not have much of the medicine we have today, and thus ultimately millions of people died from curable diseases? Where do we draw the line on our judgement of history? It is a slippery slope. You can address race, gender, and class in history, without utterly condemning people that lived in a different time and a different society. I write this not as an accusation, but as a reminder to myself as I move forward.
April 10, 2017 at 1:05 pm
I really agree that judging people that lived in the past by today’s standard is revisionist, but also acknowledge that many of the attitudes and norms of the past are racist and misogynistic. Take Thomas Jefferson for instance, a slave owner who crafted documents that led us down the path of renouncing owning people as property. “All men are created equal” is a great statement, but it has taken a while to define the word “men” to include all humans. Societies evolve, and hopefully for the better. We are not by any means all the way there, but hopefully this evolution continues.