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Experimenting with the Digital Humanities to Remix Scholarship

This image shows the signs marking the OAH 2018 Annual Meeting.

OAH 2018

The hallways are dimly lit and lined with windowless rooms. As you walk down and gaze into one beige rectangle after another, the same performance is taking place. A person stands behind a podium with his or her head bent down reading from prepared prose. Behind is a screen for a presentation, but few are in use. The audience is seated in neat rows of stackable banquet chairs. Heads are lowering as eyelids slowly flutter; others in the audience type away on laptops and phones (as if we are any better than our students!). As you continue past such descriptive room names as Salon A, Salon B, Salon C, and Salon D, you are startled by the ring of applause emanating from the rooms. What curious place is this, you ask yourself.

Suddenly, participants begin to flow into the hallways. They whisper with colleagues about the frustration of listening to another hour and a half of written papers while gazing at passersby’s torsos where name tags display each person’s name and institution. Upon recognition of a name or institution, eyes glance up giving the person a one-over. Welcome to an academic conference.

If such a scene seems stuffy, stodgy, and stale (at best), you are not alone. It is why my colleague Taylor Arnold and I began working with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) to experiment with different ways to organize scholarship. The result is the OAH Theme Visualizer, an interactive conference program for the largest annual gathering of historians of the United States. The visualizer offers participants a platform to explore across events by theme, augmenting the traditional program organized by day, time, and type of event. It reveals how different kinds of events such as Chats, Film Screenings, and Papers address a shared theme such as “Migration” and “Social Movements.” Using methods from the digital humanities, different forms of scholarly knowledge are aggregated according to shared themes to reveal new connections across the conference and ways to (re)organize the field.

Each conference event is assigned to a topic, using a computational method called topic modeling that identifies latent themes in a textual corpus. Each topic is a list of words that tend to co-occur in the event descriptions. These topics can be understood as themes or discourses. For example, words like “politic,” “culture,” “performance,” and “gender” tended to co-occur in conference abstracts. Abstracts included papers such as “The Black Queer Possibilities of Southern Vaudeville” and films such as Agents of Change about 1960s student organizing on college campuses. We labeled this theme “Culture, Performance, and Activism.” We developed the interface by adapting the Signs@40 Topic Model Browser software built by Andrew Goldstone.

Three goals drive the project. First, we wanted to de-center the paper as the most prominent form of historical scholarship, an assumption reified by the field’s continued focus on books and articles. The visualizer organizes the conference around common themes, and therefore areas of inquiry, that can be explored through different forms of scholarship. Film screenings, roundtable discussions, and papers address a shared theme such as “Political and Social Struggle,” for example. These modes convey scholarship in various ways, including visually, aurally, and performatively, expanding our field’s ways of knowing and the repertoire of knowledge creation.

Second, the theme expands the field’s traditional organization. We had expected at least a few themes to cluster by time period such as early America, events such as the Civil War, or geography such as the American South. To our surprise, the conference clustered around themes that traverse these categories such as “War,” “Gender,” and “Culture, Performance, and Activism.” While the Civil War is prominent, “War” isn’t limited to historicizing sociopolitical events defined by armed conflict; the struggle over how to construct and tell history in the past and present is a prominent area of inquiry. Events under “Gender” explore the topic as a subject of history and a theoretical frame for interpreting history. While the events clustered reveal a configuration of gender studies that is still highly focused on women, a more expansive queer(ing) history can actually be found under the theme “Culture, Performance, and Activism.” Such a reorganization reveals the emergence of shifting subfields such as women’s history to history of gender and sexuality and now queer(ing) history as well as the exciting impact of performance and cultural studies on the field. This reorganization asks participants to see the field from different angles.

Finally, we built the OAH Theme Visualizer as a part of an OAH initiative to experiment with the forms and organization of knowledge creation at our academic conferences and in the academy broadly. By starting the Amplify Initiative, OAH is creating and promoting multiple forms of scholarly knowledge to expand the scope and reach of the field. Such an approach seems only fitting for a conference arranged around the theme “The Forms of History.” The visualizer – a digital platform built using cutting-edge methodologies from the digital humanities – enacts the OAH’s larger provocation. Let’s support and encourage various forms of knowledge creation that let us see and create scholarship from different angles.

The hallways are dimly lit and lined with windowless rooms. As you walk down and gaze into one beige rectangle after another, you smile with excitement. The chairs in Salon A have been rearranged into a circle where an impassioned discussion ensues about the latest award-winning book. The sound of a public historian’s documentary flows from Salon B. In Salon C people are wearing augmented reality headsets exploring early nineteenth America. Salon D is a session on using spatial analysis for digital storytelling. Screens abound in Salon E where players take turns on the latest indie historical game developed by a team of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty.

Suddenly, participants begin to flow into the hallways. They speak hastily, recounting with enthusiasm the latest session. While listening, you check your phone to see which of the next sessions address the theme of “Migration.” You’ve finally narrowed it down to either the performance in Ballroom A or a walking tour of the city lead by local community historians. Welcome to an academic conference.

Lauren Craig Tilton is an assistant professor of rhetoric and communication studies at the University of Richmond.