Final Reflection on Virtual Internship

The idea of being a virtual intern at the Smithsonian was something I found fascinating and looked forward to with much excitement. I love contributing to crowdsource projects such as Wikipedia because it makes me feel that I am part of something bigger than me. Whatever I can do to help advance knowledge, sign me up! It was in the same spirit I approached my internship at the Smithsonian. I knew it was a learning experience for me but what motivated me more than anything else was the fact that I was contributing to something bigger than I am, something that could have a great impact.

As a graduate student, I lived in Washington, DC for four years.  I loved both the political and cultural dynamics but never saw myself living permanently there. I often looked forward to the summers when I could step away from this fast-paced city to the beautiful mountains of West Virginia or the rainforest villages of Africa. I never had a chance to experience some of the summer celebrations at the Smithsonian. In the summer of 2014, I attended my first Smithsonian Folklife Festival. That year, they were celebrating Kenya and China. It was so beautiful, and I realized how much I had missed all these years. I knew that a lot of work came together to create such a wonderful celebration each year. I was delighted to find out that my internship will be with the same institution that organizes this celebration.

My internship is a perfect fit for what my digital interests are. As part of my internship, we are working on an ESRI Story Map that tells the story of about 418 National Endowment for the Art’s National Heritage Fellows. These fellows are celebrated in this year’s Folklife Festival, and the story map will be unveiled as part of that celebration in June. Part of my assignment has been to research and write short bios of about 130 words or less and also find an important quotable quote from them. To do this, I needed to research articles on them, listen to some podcasts, watch YouTube videos, etc. I found out that writing short bios is more difficult than writing longer ones because you have to identify just the most important and relevant information and you write them in a way that the reader is drawn to find out more about the artist. As a historian, I enjoyed this kind of work because I felt like an investigator trying to find out relevant information that will help me construct my case/story. In the process of doing this, I learned about so many types of musical instruments I never knew existed, and I became familiar with different music genres and artistic forms.

The skills I have learned through this internship are relevant to my digital project, developmentschemes.com. Through this internship, I discovered that I have been using the wrong tools to execute this project. I am using Omeka and Curatescape for my project, and I have done a lot of customizations to try to get these digital tools to achieve my goals. I have done this without much success. I should have been using ESRI Story Map to do this project. My project tells the story of development schemes in Africa. There are so many development projects littered across the continent. Some have been successful, and many have been unsuccessful. I want to bring them together on a map so that people can easily locate these. I am also trying to crowdsource the information. I want people to be able to tell their stories of these schemes through audio and text.

The coursework leading to the internship was helpful in understanding the important of these digital tools not only in visualizing data but also as interactive educational resources. In writing these bios, I always had in the back of my mind the fact that people’s online attention span is limited. Anything can easily distract them and take away their attention. To keep the readers focused on the story map, my writing has to be engaging; it should be able to pull them in to continue interacting with the map. The coursework prepared me for this kind of work. Even in my project, instead of writing lengthy posts that people may abandon halfway, I am learning to write for the digital audience. This kind of writing can be hard for historians as we tend to write a lot. I feel like I am learning how to write all over again, this time for the digital audience. The coursework taught me to think differently also, to think of my digital audience. While we did not use ESRI Story Map in the coursework, the different tools we learned and the background information we studied prepared me properly for this internship.

Doing this internship has led me to a greater appreciation of the work of digital public humanities. My supervisor saw this work as important work. This was not her first time working on a project like this. In 2013, they worked on One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage. She shared this project with me and showed plenty of support for my project which she believes is of great value. She even took steps to arrange a meeting with the ESRI team so that I could share my own project with them to see how they would support my project. It was a privilege to work with someone who is excited about digital public projects and saw great value in them. She saw them as important work through which many people would learn. I finish this internship even more excited to continue my project.

From someone who knew next to nothing about digital public humanities only a few years ago, I am proud to call myself now a digital scholar as digital scholarship has become an integral part of my research and teaching. I owe a great debt to George Mason University for introducing me to digital history and directing me to the relevant resources that have made me a better scholar and teacher.

Discovering Artistic Forms

My internship has opened up for me a whole new world. I have never paid much attention to the heritage fellowships given each year by the National Endowment for the Arts. As part of my internship, I have to write short profiles of the recipients of this award. I feel enriched by this experience as I have come to know the work of so many talented people. As I research and write about these artists, I have become aware of artistic forms such as bata drumming in the Afro-Cuban tradition, Puerto Rican Bomba, and Plena, West African drumming, etc. This internship has also introduced me to the works of artists such as Belle Deacon who was an Alaskan basket maker and Dale Calhoun who for many years built Stumpjumper boats. Recipients of these fellowships highlight the richness, diversity, and talents of our communities.

Writing these biographies is hard work because, for some of the artists, there is very scant information about them. For the most part, these are simple people who seek no fame but are in love with what they do, and they desire and work hard to do it in an extraordinary way. I have to piece together snippets of information I gather from different sources to construct a 140-word profile. I consider the process of finding the information to be the most rewarding aspect of this internship. Through this process, I end up learning about things I was not seeking, things that enhance my general knowledge of the arts.

 As a historian, the tendency is to use many words. Being limited to 140 words forces me to write more precisely, a skill that is important for online writing where people tend to suffer attention deficit. In this internship, I am learning how to be factually concise in my writing. On the whole, I find the internship very rewarding.

writing Biographies of NEH Heritage Fellows

I started my internship with the Smithsonian last month. I had been impatiently waiting since last year for this. I was excited to find that the Smithsonian had secured a place for me where I will be doing my internship. Margaret Hunt, the folklorist and curator at the Smithsonian Center for Forklife and Cultural Heritage, contacted me about the internship. She shared with me about the big project they were working on. They are creating a digital story map with short biographies of all the people who have won the National Endowment of the Arts Heritage Fellowship. I told her that the idea of working on this project is fascinating.
For my assignment, my job is to help write some of the biographies. These are very short biographies of 100 to 140 words. Here in lies one of the challenges that I have been facing. I enjoy long-form writing, and I do this regularly as a historian. At first, I thought that writing these biographies would easy. I quickly found out that it is a lot of work to try to identify what is most important in the lives of these Fellows and to write a short account. One of the challenging things doing this project is trying to find direct quotes from the Fellow to use. On some occasions, I must sit down and listen to extended video interviews carried out by the Fellow to find a statement that I can quote.
I have enjoyed writing these biographies. The lives of these artists are fascinating. For most of them, they learned their art at a very young age. Working on this project has got me thinking about my project on development schemes and how I can integrate a digital story map to it.

Reflection on Digital Projects

As I reflect on some of the digital projects that have been done, one question that comes to mind is, what is the goal of doing a digital project? These projects require significant time commitment, money and hard work and people do not develop them for fun. Having fun doing a project is great, but  fun is not always the primary objective of a project. Some of the projects I looked at and the interviews I watched, had the goal of teaching historical thinking and writing. This is a worthy goal as we encounter a phenomenon today where people want to connect with their history and yet have difficulty grasping it because for a long time, history has been taught in many places as the recalling of past events, dates, places and people. Students who went through this kind of historical instruction have the tendency to see history as boring and also as being black or white. Challenging students to think historically enables them to have a better appreciation of history and all its complexities.

As I set out to develop a class that focuses on development issues in Africa, my objective is to help my students develop historical thinking and to be able to apply this thinking as they analyze the impact of development schemes/ projects in Africa. Erin Bush’s interview helped tremendously to guide me on how to structure this class. I find her approach of dividing the class into four modules of three weeks each very helpful. Each of my four modules would represent a major development scheme that has been implemented in Africa. The first week of each module  focusing on primary sources, the second week on the context in which the sources were created and the third week on how other historians have looked at the sources. Given that half of my students are from international studies and some of them would be involved in the practice of development, I am planning to assign an activity weekly in which they can begin to put together the building blocks in designing their own development project that if given the opportunity, would want to implement.

One of the challenges that the projects of other students I reviewed faced and one that I might potentially face is that the conceptualization of the project might be bigger than what I may be able to reasonably do within the time frame. Given that this is the first time I am teaching this class in this format, I am conscious of how many primary and secondary source materials I should introduce to the students. My goal is to have the students spend more time on the analysis of the primary sources. This is where quality of sources is going to be better than quantity. I had originally intended to have them look at more primary sources and write more analytical papers for me. I am changing that approach after watching the interviews. I do not want students to be consumed by the amount of papers they have to write and I do not want to be consumed by the amount of grading I have to do. We want to devote more time thinking through the primary sources, their context and how other historians have looked at them.

I have two challenges. The first is on the platform to use in building out the class. I am conflicted between Omeka and WordPress. My knowledge of WordPress is superior to Omeka but it seems to me that Omeka might be better in the delivery of the class. The second challenge I have is that this Fall Semester,  I am actually going to teach this class In a physical classroom. I am not sure how to integrate an online component to the class, so that the students can work both online and in class.

Project Pitch – Class on Development Issues in Africa

Do you know that in the last six decades, over $1 trillion has been transferred to African countries by rich nations of the world? Do you know that the per capita income of Africans today is lower than it was in the 1970s? What did the $1 trillion do if it seems like Africa is worse off today than it was in the 1970s? Is it really? Are you curious to know what has happened? Join me as we digitally explore what has happened in those years. Despite the amount of money invested in Africa, the results have not been impressive. Why are some of these development aid supported projects unsuccessful? We would try to answer this question in the class. Through archival materials, Newspaper articles, videos and project materials, we would try to identify some of the pitfalls that have led to project failures resulting in terrible conditions for some of the people who are living in Africa today.

Presenting the Past through Digital Media Technologies

I love visiting archives. I love to physically touch and smell these documents from the past. Yet, it is always a challenge to always make it to the archives that are most useful to my research. I find myself often relying on digital archives for some parts of my research.

The changes that have happened in the digital media world have connected the world in ways that one couldn’t have imagined just three decades ago. These technologies are moving at a fast pace revolutionizing how we store, retrieve and present information. One change that has come with this is the amount of data that we create on a daily basis. The International Data Corp (IDC) reported that by 2013, about 4.4 Zettabytes (4.4 trillion gigabytes) of data had been created and we are on track to create about 44 Zettabytes of data by 2020.[i] The availability of affordable cloud storage platforms from companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. have enabled us to store more and more data. This data will provide historians a window through which to look at the past.

Data that cannot be easily accessed or retrieved can pose a challenge. Even physical archives are taking steps to make sure that what they have in boxes is easily located through discovery tools on the computers. This means the creation of better metadata for their collections. The development of powerful search engines or tools is making data discovery easier. The continuous improvement and integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies with search engines means that our search is becoming smarter and more contextualized.

The historian or archivist has a privileged role to take all of this data and make sense of it. This data needs to be presented to an audience in ways that it is meaningful. Some of the digital media technologies or tools that have emerged in the last decades would help us with the interpretation and presentation of this data. These include tools such as Google N-Gram Viewer, Palladio, Carto Db, Voyant, Youtube, OCR softwares and in fact, the internet itself. These tools can be used for visualization or different forms of presentation of data. For example, Carto DB can be used to map and visualize historical events and activities in ways that text cannot fully capture. Google N-Gram Viewer and Voyant allow us to distant read and interpret a large corpus and to decipher things like word frequency trends and knowledge graphs.

The advancement in photo and video technologies has made digital scanning, recording and storage possible. Yahoo’s flickr commons is a robust medium for storing unlimited photos for free and people can comment on them. Many archives and libraries have made photos from their own collections available through flickr commons. This has become an important resource for learning and doing history. Many archives and museums are digitizing their documents and one can easily access them through computers connected to the internet. Artifacts from museums are now being brought online through some 3D modeling tools. These kinds of electronic presentation help to bring archives and museums to our classrooms. The internet itself is very revolutionary. It has placed this vast amount of data only a few clicks away.

The question is, how can we as historians use all of these technologies and resources that are available to us to effectively teach about the past? I offer four examples on how we can harness some of these technologies. The first is on the use of Youtube. This online video sharing platform has more than 1 billion users. Each day, millions of users consume millions of hours of content. This can become a place where we teach the past. We do that not by presenting video clips from the past but using the video editing technologies available to us to recreate short, attention grabbing compelling historical accounts. Historians must be aware that their videos would be competing with viral cat videos. If done properly, they would attract millions of eyeballs, numbers we would never see in our classrooms throughout our teaching careers.

Another online video resource that historians can integrate into their teaching is Netflix. This streaming service has over 6000 movies and 1500 TV shows in its catalog. Films can be picked from this catalogue to aid in the teaching of historical events. We can challenge our students to question these films as they would other historical sources and let these films become ways in which they can learn the procedures of doing history. Why not a special “Netflix for Education” subscriptions? The libraries of many colleges do not have a database of films this large and many of our students today have no dvd players (I actually do not remember the last time I used one!) Studying historical movies alongside with textual documents will expose the students to the variety of ways that we can attempt to make sense of the past.

Virtual Reality (VR) is one of the up and coming technologies today. How about being transported to the 16th Century and making the Middle Passage with the African slaves? Thanks to VR, this can be done and it has the potential to open up a new level of understanding to our students or visitors to museums. As with most of these digital technologies, it has to be done well and the goal should be to deepen the knowledge on the historical event and not technological gimmicks. The New York Times is already doing VR videos on some of its reporting. Historians can and should embrace this new technology and use it as a tool to teach about the past. This should be as much a priority to historians as it is to Silicon Valley.

Wikipedia is a valuable resource for teaching about the past. Historians need to be actively involved in editing and submitting new entries. If propagating knowledge is the mission we have as academics, we should not be afraid of sharing that knowledge in forums like Wikipedia. My entries have probably been read by many more people than any book or article I have published or would ever publish. Wikipedia ranks highly on google search results and for many people, it is their source for information on all things. In many parts of the world where there is no access to public or private libraries, Wikipedia is like the people’s library. I have my issues about Wikipedia’s restriction on the publication of original research. Perhaps, organizations such as the AHA can partner with Wikipedia to allow the publishing of original research with the articles clearly marked as such and with proper attribution. Wikipedia could still insist on its writing style in such occasions to allow for articles that could be intelligible to non-experts. As academics, we have the tendency to write for each other and not for the public. This could change and make the knowledge we produce more widely accessible to the general public.

The bottomline is that, historians and archivists must embrace these new technologies and resources and work on effectively using them to present the past. We cannot miss these opportunities to make the knowledge of the past relevant at a time when people seek for more knowledge, and yet ask, what is a history degree good for?

[i] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/are-we-running-out-of-data-storage-space/

Teaching the Malleable Past

All of history is a malleable instrument in my hands. Ohhh, I have accumulated all of these pasts and I possess every fact – yet the facts are mine to use as I will and, even using them truthfully, I change them.
– Frank Herbert

How do we understand the past? The past is not fixed and rigid. It exists outside of us and our understanding of it is constantly evolving. Narratives of the past get changed in light of new evidence. We approach the past from different perspectives and these inform what we make of it. Facts from the past have to be contextualized and interpreted. No matter the level of objectivity that we seek, our interpretations are clouded by our worldviews. Sometimes this is done consciously and at other times, it is unconscious. What may have been a canonical interpretation at one time may even become questionable or rejected at another time period.

The challenge is teaching students to understand the malleability of history. Often, textbooks provide a single narrative devoid of the complexities of historical events. Students are not exposed to the different interpretations and how those have changed over time. Wikipedia offers a lens through which we can see the changes and shifts in a historical account. Unlike printed encyclopedias which might take years to update entries, the entries on Wikipedia are constantly changing as people make edits to them. Sometimes the edits are minor and other times, major. Though Wikipedia prides its entries as being neutral, this does not mean that the narratives are devoid of perspectives.

One way in which the malleability of Wikipedia can become an effective teaching strategy is its pages histories. Many people who visit Wikipedia do not bother to look at the changes that have been done to the entry. They read the account and then move on. As scholars and students, we should probe more these pages. We should look at them as we would any piece of historical evidence or account. Wikipedia has a valuable tool that enables us do that and  that is the page history. You can see who created the page, when it was created, the first entry made and all the edits and additions thereafter. Having students look at the history of the page and analyze the changes that have been done to the page will go a long way to helping them understand that historical accounts are not static. There are often changes in the narratives and shifts in the analysis as we continue to question the historical evidence available to us. It is in this historical questioning that we begin to make sense of the malleable past.

Final Project Text

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This is one of the texts that I am going to be using for my final project. It is a dispatch from the American Conuslar General in Nigeria to the State Deparment. I choose this letter because it is part of a series of correspondences between the US diplomatic Service in Nigeria, the State Department and the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) on Development Loan Funds (DLF) for Nigeria. The speech by the Finance Minister of Nigeria is quoted in this letter. It is an indictment on the US for the conditions that Nigeria is being given in order to receive the aid. The Consul General has concerns and that is why he is relating this speech to the State Department. There are series of correspondences after this in connection with the letter.

I will begin by having the students raise questions about this letter. After they have raised their own questions about some of the issues they see in the dispatch, I will provide them with some questions that would help them put the letter in context and have them try to find answers to those question from within the letter or through some other secondary sources that I will give to them. A very simiple question I might ask them is “When did Nigeria get its independence and from whom?” Nigeria gained its independence from Britain October 1 of 1960. This simple information can lead us deeper into the history. This letter is written in January. Why is the US intervening in a British colony? Why is Nigeria relying on the US and not Britain? What role is the US playing in Africa in this period and why? There are several other questions and documents that would build upon this first one. The goal here is to expose them to the complexities of development aid and how the conditions the aid comes with could end up not resulting in the intended good.

 

A Historical Image in the Final Project

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I got this image from Flick Commons. It is posted by a man named Tony Murphy. It has the description:

This is one of the Bedford lorries we worked on one weekend to convert into water tankers. An African driver turned it over 3 times and got out without a scratch. Cost the British taxpayer £650!

Tony Murphy has several images like this posted on Flickr Commons and I have used some of these images for illustration purposes in my classes. I am going to be using this image not simply for illustration but also to uncover the history. Most of his images are titled “Kongwa” and some of them have interesting and revealing comments from people who were in Kongwa in the 1940s and 1950s. Let me digress for a moment to share a comment posted by someone in one of the images picturing Tony Murphy’s African houseboy. She commented:

I do wish I had photos of my ex- houseboys and girls. We did not own a camera until the 70’s but still, it shames me that I never thought of taking their pictures. A couple of them were such good men, and even the odd rogue who had to be sacked is still remembered fondly with one exception: he threatened me,saying “he wanted to leave and leave now and be paid now.” He was new, and an absolute treasure of competence. I couldn’t believe it! We had not had words, so far as I knew I had not been rude to him… My reaction was to grab the broom that was handy nearby, beat it over his head until he retreated from the kitchen and out into the back garden, then locked all the doors, counted out what he was owed to date plus a month’s notice, put it into his hand and said, “Kwaheri”, feeling very tearful but no longer afraid. His head was down, he did not look up at me and turned and walked away. My hubby came home several hours later to find me still very shocked. We could not understand the man’s behaviour until two days later when Astorre went to his cupboard where he had hidden his salary which he had not yet paid into the bank. He was paid cash at that time. Later, we found out from another houseboy of a neighbour that ours was in a hurry to return to Kenya, from where he had had bad news. I wish he had told us. We would have helped him willingly.

When one reads in between the lines in these descriptions and comments, you can discern the way Africans were treated by these colonial officials. Simply looking at the image above and the short description does not tell us much about the history. However, based on his description and the image itself, we can ask certain questions: About what time period was that Bedford Lorry made? Where was it manufactured? Where was this photograph taken? Who took this photograph? Why did he take it? He mentions that they had to convert the Lorry to a water tanker, why? Why was he specific that it was an African driver that had an accident with it? He provides what it costs the British Tax Payer, why is this little fact important? Without digging deep into the history, by telling us that it was driven by an African driver and looking at the scenery, we can make an educated guess that the photo was taken in Africa during colonial rule.

By just looking at the photograph by itself, it would be difficult for the students to even discern where it was taken. They could even say it was taken several decades ago in an unpaved road in North America or Europe. With the students, we would explore the history behind this photo. Tony Murphy does not say much by way of description, but I know enough of the history  to guide my students along paths where like good investigators, they would find revealing answers about this photo and the history of development in colonial Africa.

Teaching with Historical Images and Film

Images and film are very powerful visual aids for teaching and learning. I must confess that I have not always used them effectively in my teaching. I use PowerPoints for all my classes and I spend a considerable amount of time selecting images that go with my slides. Yet, the images are only used for illustration purposes. They could do more with them! I sparingly use movies. Usually, one movie for the whole semester. Why? I have been very skeptical of movies because most times they dramatize and tell stories in ways that simply appeal to the audience, even when not historically accurate. Paul Weinstein has rightly observed that in movies, “Facts can be twisted, timeliness conflated, endings revised for perceived audience satisfaction. The bottom line in the film business is not accuracy but profit.” He goes on to argue that these perceived weaknesses of film can actually be turned into advantages. This can be done by utilizing “film as a gateway to history.”

Understanding the historical inaccuracies that are in film or images is important to making better use of these important historical sources. It was often said that ‘Photos don’t lie!” Is that actually the case? Today, we have abundant softwares and apps that can manipulate photos. A photo can be edited to show President Obama and I shaking each other’s hands. Ever used any of the Instagram filters? You can even transpose one face to another body or marsh two faces to create one. ‘Okay, that is today,’ you may say, ‘they couldn’t do that a century ago.” Perhaps they did not have the sophisticated technologies we have today but they still manipulated photos. Some of the photos we find in historical archives today were staged by photographers. The person taking the photo wanted to tell a story. It is still the case today. Do you see some of those photographs taken by charities working in Africa? They always have children or women looking poor, barely with any clothes on their bodies. As a kid, the Europeans were never interested in having photos of me or any of my neighbors. They went to the remote villages to take photos of the most vulnerable. Those photos were used to tell a story, that every black person living in Nigeria was poor. So, understanding the context of the photo is important. This is not to say that photos and films are not important sources for doing history, we have to be aware that these are not uncontroverted evidences and we can ask these sources questions “that are parallel to those we ask of historical books.”

Knowing this, how can I use images and films more effectively in class? I have to change the approach of using images simply for illustration purposes. Together with the class, we can question these images. Who took the photograph? why was it taken? what kind of camera was used? What editing was done to the photo? Is it a staged photo and why? What are some of the elements in the photo? Is there any reason why the photographer included certain elements and not others? Together with the students, we try to uncover the history behind the image. I can have them identify certain things that are unique with the image. I can also take the image, make some editing to it and have them try to spot the differences and to tell me why certain things are emphasized in one image and not in the other and what the image teaches us?
The same approach can be applied to film as well. I can assign the students a film and make them uncover the historical differences between what is portrayed in the film and what is in other historical sources. I will have them spot the differences, what is emphasized in the film that helped them have a better appreciation of the event. I will ask them, If they were expert historians asked to consult on the making of the film, how would they approach the historical facts? I will also have them focus on the technical aspects of the film, as well as the context of the film. Who are those in charge of the film? What other films have they done? Is there a relationship between this film and their other work? How does the original script compares to the final project? What was cut out of the film? Why?

In this way, the students are trained to be historical detectives who are trying to uncover the evidence that is depicted in the image or film. With this approach, I am not doing a one-way lecture on the film, but together with them, I am helping them have a better grasp of the historical event by following the same procedures historians use when doing history.