DH Teaching Experiments

On October 18, 2011, in Teaching, by kholt

So far, I’ve been (sporadically) using this blog to talk about my research on Brazilian social history.  Discussing my research will still be part of my focus, but I want to try blogging more frequently about my experiences integrating digital humanities tools in my courses at The College of Wooster.  I hope to start a conversation about my pedagogical goals, my selection and implementation of web 2.0 tools, and the successes and failures I have using digital humanities methods to help liberal arts students ask new questions and apply critical thinking skills in new ways.

This fall, I’m teaching a First Year Seminar called “Mapping the Americas: Encounters & the Construction of Identity in the Americas.”  Here is the course description:

“This first year seminar will explore the history of American encounters, looking at how individuals have visually and textually “mapped” their own identities in relation to their social and physical environment over the past five hundred years. We’ll read travelers’ accounts, examine the history of map making and visual representations, and consider theories explaining how colonists as well as more modern travelers sought to fit new peoples and cultures into familiar categories.  Readings include Lewis and Clark’s journals, David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, Monmonier’s How to Lie with Maps, Katharine Harmon’s You Are Here: Personal Geographies and other Maps of Imagination, Dolores Hayden’s A Field Guide to Sprawl, selections from Nicholas Feltron’s annual reports, as well as Latin American films.

In our examination of maps from a wide range of perspectives, we’ll consider how travelers and explorers do not merely present unfiltered data.  Instead, all explorers, whether they are traveler writers depicting their experiences through the written word, mapmakers visually depicting their passage through new landscapes, or artists exploring multiple facets of their identities, make a series of creative choices about their artifact’s representation of the viewer and the surrounding environment.  Travel writers draw on objects and customs familiar to their readers and use these as the basis for comparison in describing their new experiences: a new fruit is “just like an apple.”  Explorers draw maps that highlight features of interest to their sponsors: ports, mines, large settlements, tropical forests, relics of past civilizations.  Contemporary memoirists use data mapping tools to visually depict their relationship to the larger world by tracking subway routes, international calls received, their attendance at baseball games.  Taken together, these maps provide insight into larger questions about what it means to be “American” and how notions of community, identity, and belonging have changed over time.

Together we will examine the long history of maps and map making, consider how scholars use digital mapping technologies to ask new questions about patterns in their data, and produce our own maps of social and intellectual networks.  As a final project, students will create their own portfolio of maps to visually display their engagement with the “new world” of the larger Wooster community and their lives as college students.”

As the course description states, I’m trying to get students to think about “mapping” both through the critical analysis of historical maps and through the creation of their own data visualizations.  The course unites first year students with a wide range of academic interests (potential Chemistry, Geology, Religious Studies, and History majors) and extra-curricular pursuits (varsity athletics, knitting, movies, meditation).  While it is intended to develop first year students’ research and writing skills, we don’t hold back on the intellectual content.

Thus far, the students have been very adventurous about experimenting with new DH tools and forms of communication. I have them doing a lot of blogging: the night before each seminar, each student responds to the day’s readings, or shares his/her responses to the speakers in our fall Forum.  This has been a good way for me to tailor the discussions to the students’ interests.  It gives them a lot of practice with informal writing.  And it alerts me to methodological or content questions to address in class.

This week they are reflecting on their posts for the first half of the semester.  I got this idea of a meta, reflective blog post from ProfHacker and have found it very productive.


View of Elmina Castle

Picture 1 of 10

View of Elmina from the coast.

When I teach courses on Atlantic Slavery, we usually spend the final weeks of the semester discussing popular ideas about the history of slavery in the U.S..  In class discussions and in their blog posts, students consider what they had been taught about slavery before taking our class.  Drawing on a wide range of student experiences from touring Gettysburg or Colonial Williamsburg on family vacations to the presentation of slavery in elementary classrooms, we analyzed the historical narratives teachers and park rangers constructed as well as the implications these representations of America’s slaveholding past have for contemporary discussions of race.

Last fall, the students and I focused on the controversy over Our Virginia, the newly-adopted textbook for fourth-grade Virginia history.  In her analysis of Virginia during the Civil War, author Joy Masoff included a claim that “Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson.” When this information about black participation to defend the Confederacy was disputed by historians including Pulitzer Prize winner Jim McPherson, Masoff revealed that her source was a website created by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.  In an effort to reshape the reputation of their group and distance current members from the history of southern slavery, their website presented the Confederacy as a struggle supported by black and white soldiers alike.

This case about the state-sanctioned presentation of history in the classroom, coupled with readings from James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton’s 2006 edited volume Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, brought many of the debates we had about the ongoing significance of slavery and public memory.  If the goal of public history sites is to get visitors to ask hard questions and see the past in a new way, how do educators balance the need to engage visitors to support the project with the need to present uncomfortable truths about slavery ands its legacies?

These discussions about slavery and public history were fresh in my mind as I visited Ghana in May as part of the College of Wooster’s Hales Fund International Travel Seminars.  During the final days of our trip, we visited Elmina and Cape Coast castles.  How would the Ghanaian government present the sites’ histories to a diverse audience of Ghanaians, African-American, and white tourists?  What would be the tour guides’ “take-home message” about the contemporary and historical significance of the Atlantic slave trade?  How would tourists drawn to the site for so many purposes react?

For the first section of the tour, the guide at Elmina emphasized the horrors of the conditions in the holding dungeons.  The details of captives’ experiences of sexual violence, unsanitary conditions, separation from family and friends, crowding, and the intense heat were all too easy to imagine when faced with the physical site.  Centuries later, the stench of the suffocating air in the dungeons lingers. Having visited many other Portuguese forts, I was awed by the sheer size of Elmina.  The structure is massive – certainly many times larger than contemporary military forts in Bahia or Rio de Janeiro, suggesting its central importance to the early Portuguese colonial empire.    On the dungeon floors, we saw the floral wreaths honoring the many slaves who died before and during the Middle Passage.  The guide told stories of resistance, and the harsh punishments that awaited men and women who fought back.  The physical impact of the space created a profound sense of empathy with the Africans sold into slavery here.  I was impressed by the emphasis on Elmina as a site to bear witness.

Unfortunately, our guide’s final summing up left me more cynical about the Ghanaian tourist board’s presentation of Elmina as a historic site.  With his tourist audience clearly in mind, our guide finished with a plea for the need for forgiveness and racial unity.  We should leave history and especially the need to place blame for the atrocities he had described behind, and instead work together for a better future.  Although I was prepared after reading Bayo Holsey’s Routes of Remembrance for a discourse that distanced contemporary Ghanaian life from the history of the trade, and I recognized the difficulty with constructing a narrative that would speak to his diverse audience, I was still disappointed with what seemed to me like such blatant pandering.  For me, the message that we needed to “forget the past” betrayed the emotional power of the site, the stories of suffering and courage, and the continuing legacies of European imperialism in contemporary Ghana.

The site included a display highlighting the “impacts of European contacts”, including “Education”, “European languages”, “Religion”, and “Multiracialism”, illustrated with photos of light-skinned Ghanaian families.

And yet this depoliticized message was itself formulated in response to the need to market Elmina as a tourist site appealing to a national and international audience.  When members of our group asked our guide about how he formulated the final section of his tour, he acknowledged that it was largely in response to complaints from European tourists who felt they were blamed for the slave trade.  Ghana needs the tourist dollars that are their fourth largest source of foreign income.   And as our photos from touring Cape Coast show, not all Ghanaian young people view the sites with the same sense of reverence that Diasporian visitors do.  Exposing as many visitors as possible to the site itself seems key to honoring the memory of those who died there and pushing the visitor to ask new questions about the historic legacies of the trade.

Note: this is a republication of a blog post I wrote for the Hales Seminar’s communal blog.  You can read the reflections of the entire group here.


Diccionaryio da Lingua Brasileira

On December 21, 2010, in Research, Teaching, by kholt

I often point students to the Oxford English Dictionary when we discuss colonialism and race in the Atlantic World: looking at how the use of terms like “white” and “black” have evolved over time can make my arguments about race as historically constructed make more sense.

In the same way, I often rely on 19th century Brazilian dictionaries when talking about racial terms in Imperial Brazil.  The Universidade de São Paulo’s Brasiliana Digital collection offers an easily accessible way to look at the standardized definition of racial terms in the 1830s, providing a searchable scan and full-text pdf of Luiz Maria da Silva Pinto’s Diccionaryio da Lingua Brasileira (Ouro Preto: Typographia de Silva, 1832).  Pinto was a native of Goyaz, and his dictionary claims to be representative of nineteenth-century Brazilian local usage.

The most common designations of qualidade, or individual social status, I find on 1830s Brazilian censuses are pardo, branco, preto, and cabra.  Luiz Maria da Silva Pinto’s definitions are fascinating.  First of all, he makes no mention of branco as a racial or color term, but defines it as “De côr semelhante à de neve, etc.” (“of a color similar to snow, etc.”).  This is interesting because record keepers in notarial and parish registries frequently use branco to describe people.  Pinto’s dictionary is not silent when it comes to terms suggesting African descent.  Pinto defines preto as “Negro (como subst.) Homen preto” (Black.  Preto man); pardo as “Adj. “De cór entre branco e preto.  Mulato.”; and cabra as “Filho do pai mulato e mai negra, ou ao contrario.”

Douglas Cole Libby’s BRASA X presentation “Quitéria Moreira de Carvalho, Mina Forra, and Six Generations of Her Descendants in 18th and 19th century Minas Gerais” made big impression on me, and provided a valuable reminder of the need to carefully historicize racial terms.  In a remarkable piece of archival work, Douglas painstakingly reconstructed six generations of a freed Mina slave woman’s descendants as recorded in parish and notarial records.

In addition to thinking about life histories of former slaves and their descendants in Minas Gerais, Douglas considered how colonial record keepers applied color designations like crioulo and pardo to successive generations.   His findings suggest that we should think of these as color designations, or markers of status, rather than “racial” designations.  He found that pardo, in particular, could imply a broad ranger of mixture, including indigenous ancestry.  Douglas argues the records for colonial Minas, pardo served as a social signifier implying a slave past, rather than merely indicating the child of a branco and a preta.

This might imply that the early Brazilian Empire was a period where  “racial” terms became – at least in theory – less flexible in their use as Brazilians paid greater attention to questions of descent and ancestry.


BRASA: Digital History

On August 20, 2010, in Conferences, Research, by kholt

It has been a few weeks since I got back from attending the 10th Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA) meeting in Brasília, and it is nice to have a bit more time to reflect on everything I saw and heard.  I should have kept up with my intention to tweet during panel sessions, but once on the scene I felt self-conscious that twitter is not yet part of Brazilianist conference culture.  Maybe Brazilianists are all about Orkut.  Plus the #BRASA tag is in frequent use already on Twitter, apparently with connotations I don’t quite get.  What else could it mean?  Wait, don’t answer that.

Even though I know it is contrary to the very nature of conference blogging to reflect on the panels from such a distance, I want to share some of my thoughts.  In self-promoting mode, I’m going to start with the panel I organized on Digital History: Challenges and Promises of New Methodologies.  My goal with the panel was to bring together Brazilianists working in Brazil and the U.S. to discuss the possibilities and pitfalls of digital history, and to share our digital projects on Brazilian history.  While we employed digital tools in different ways, taken together we made a compelling argument for the appeal of digital history for diffusing primary sources, making research into Brazilian history more accessible to students and non-Portuguese speaking researchers, and mapping data in new ways to make spatial arguments about historical change.

As I said at the conference, I could not have done it without the help and friendly encouragement of Ian Read, and Jane Landers’ generous participation as our commentator.  Jane’s work as Director of the NEH-funded project Ecclesiastical Sources and Historical Research on the African Diaspora in Brazil and Cuba is a testament to the importance of digital projects for preserving and diffusing historical records.

Ian Read “Geospatial Approaches to Brazil’s “Era of Epidemics”

Before the 1850s, Brazilian port cities were free from the epidemics of communicable diseases that plagued other Atlantic ports.  Ian’s research demonstrates how advances in transportation technology coupled with Brazil’s greater participation in Atlantic shipping routes linking North America, Europe, and the Brazilian coast after 1849 inserted Brazil into an epidemiological web that wreaked havoc on a Brazilian populace and economy.  His larger project considers how the devastating epidemics Brazil suffered during the second half of the nineteenth century, including yellow fever (1849), cholera (1855), and bubonic plague (1899) impacted Brazilian economic development.

For this presentation, Ian used digital mapping to examine the emergence and diffusion of yellow fever in the 19th century Americas.  You can see the video of his dynamic map here on his blog.  His incorporation of geospatial evidence – from Brazil’s isolation from the yellow fever cases in the rest of the Americas before 1849, to his work linking the spread of yellow fever upriver in Louisiana and Brazil with the introduction of steamship technology – is a wonderful example of how to employ digital methodologies to make new historical connections.  He persuasively argues that the immense boom in travelers lured from Europe and the east coast of the U.S to take the sea route to San Francisco after the discovery of gold in 1849 – a voyage that by necessity involved a dramatic increase in the traffic to Brazilian ports – was crucial in the spread of the aedis aegypti mosquito, the vector for yellow fever.

Mario Marcos Sampaio Rodarte “Publicação crítica de censo sócio-demográfico e econômico para a província de Minas Gerais”

Mario represented a team including Clotilde Andrade Paiva and Marcelo Magalhães Godoy from the Centro de Desenvolvimento e Planejamento Regional (CEDEPLAR) at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais.
More than a decade ago, a research group headed by Clotilde began working on the painstaking task of creating a database of the 1830s Listas Nominativas (Household Census lists) for Minas Gerais.  The team has always been generous about sharing this work with outside researchers.  I first met Marcelo at the Arquivo Público Mineiro in 2002 when he saw me transcribing the manuscript census for Sabará and offered me a text file of their dataset.  This act of kindness saved me months of tedious work.

The Household Censuses are a goldmine for scholars interested in any aspect of 19th century Mineiro social or economic history.  Parish by parish, the census lists the inhabitants divided into households.  Each individual is identified by name, age, color, marital status, free/freed status, occupation, and relationship to the household head.  The level of detail included reflects the priorities and knowledge of the local census taker; for example, some parishes divide slaves into family groups and provide information about African ethnicities, while others simply list slaves in order by sex and age.

For the panel, Marcos presented the CEDEPLAR team’s new website providing access to the full set of Household Census files, which includes data for more than half a million individuals (about 10% of the Brazilian population, and about 60-65% of the population of Minas Gerais at the time).  The website allows anyone who registers (free) to run queries on any of the variables recorded in the census, as well as to subdivide their research by region.  The site also provides filters that allow searches that focus on the head of household: to name just a few examples, the age differences between spouses, the free/slave status of spouses, household head’s occupational status, the presence of slaves, and classification according to Laslett’s household type.

These sources have already inspired groundbreaking historical investigation like Laird W. Bergad’s excellent Slavery and the Demographic and Economic History of Minas Gerais, Brazil, 1720-1888; greater accessibility can only increase the historical debates over Minas after the mining boom.

Katie Holt “Imagining Bahian History: The 1835 Santiago do Iguape Household Census Database”

My own work in digitizing one the 1831 Household Census for Santiago do Iguape, Bahia has similar goals, albeit on a smaller scale than CEDEPLAR’s comprehensive project.  In contrast to the nearly-complete coverage for Minas Gerais, only four 1830s Bahian censuses survive.  Located in the township of Cachoeira, Santiago do Iguape was home to many of the Recôncavo’s most extensive sugar plantations.  The best know historian who has worked with this source, and published many insightful analyses of seigniorial family structures, slave ownership by free people of color, codification of notions of race and identity, is Burt Barickman.

The Mapping Bahia website is a research project that makes use of two key strengths of digital history: first, the opportunity to make primary sources more widely available, allowing students and scholars interested in the history of Atlantic slavery and the African Diaspora to learn more about sugar plantations in Brazil; and second, the ability to collect, evaluate, and analyze sources in dynamic ways using digital tools as a historical methodology to create a more nuanced understanding of domestic life in a plantation setting.  By bringing together quantitative evidence, travel accounts, and images, what new insights can we gain about the construction of social networks in Bahia?  A website has the potential to create a collaborative space for historical investigation, an open ended scholarly commons.

Pat Seed “The Cartographic Invention of America began with Mapping Brazil”

Pat Seed, despite heroic efforts, was not able to attend BRASA in person.  She volunteered to create a digital version of her research presentation for us to show, but a technical glitch kept us from viewing it during the panel.  I am thrilled to be able to show it here so that the many attendees who wanted to see her presentation now have the opportunity.  She narrates her video in English, and the text is in Portuguese to reach a broader audience.

Pat’s work interrogates the European imagination of the world as reflected in maps, using early Portuguese maps to argue for Africa’s central place in the Portuguese worldview even after 1500.   As she reminds us, Columbus’ voyages forced Europeans to move away from their previous tripartite conception of the world.  Pat argues that even after 1492, European writers clung to this tripartite vision by continuing to depict the Caribbean as a chain of peripheral Atlantic islands.   Only Cabral’s voyage to Brazil prompted the Portuguese to adopt to a vision of the world with four distinct regions.

Through a careful analysis of five of the seven maps depicting Brazil in the first decade after Cabral’s journey, Pat asks us to reconsider the worldview and accomplishments of Early Modern Portuguese cartographers.  Pat marshals visual evidence to show that these Portuguese representations of Brazil were born from the tradition and experience of nautical cartography honed in Africa.  This is visible both in cartographers’ remarkable technical accomplishments in creating maps of Brazil in the first two years after contact, and in their spatial representations of the Americas that continued to place Africa directly in the center of the world map.  At the time when the maps were created, Portuguese cartographers were understandably focused on Africa and African routes to the spices of the East.  The graphic design of these early maps reflects contemporary Portuguese priorities.

In many ways, Pat’s analysis of these early maps of Brazil build on her larger digital project exploring the history of Portuguese mapping of the African coast in the late 15th century.  Her website Portuguese Mapping the African Coast employs geospatial visualizations show the progress of Portuguese expeditions as they mapped coastal Africa.


Wetherell’s Stray Notes from Bahia

On July 19, 2010, in Research, by kholt

James Wetherell served as British Vice-Consul of Bahia from 1843 to 1857. His travel account Stray Notes from Bahia (Liverpool: Webb & Hunt, 1860), published after his accidental death at age thirty-six, presents an encyclopedic approach to teaching his readers about Bahia. His experiences and impressions are gathered chronologically. The short entries, written in a telegraphic style, come under headings ranging from historical entries on “families” (explaining the proud tradition of illustrious families claiming descent from Catharine Paraguassu) and the history of Bahia’s settlement, to sociological examinations of “black doctors” and “negro dances” to botanical entries on tropical fruits like “jaca.” James Wetherell’s account is interesting both for his attempt at recording the minutiae of Bahian life, and for the insight it grants into a young British man’s interpretations of the region.

To think about the relationship of Wetherell’s entries with other travel literature, I applied techniques of “distant reading” borrowed from Franco Moretti. This technique is a good compliment to close textual analysis in that the resulting textual abstraction allows new patterns and relationships – some of them significant, others meaningless – to emerge. Again, while not a replacement for traditional primary source analysis, techniques like text clouds can surprise viewers with new insights about how authors use language.

This visualization gathers two-word phrases from Wetherell’s text, making their relative size an indication of their prominence within the text. One strength of doing this analysis with the Many Eyes program is that when viewers mouse over the clusters, the context for the phrase appears. Readers who want more information can then search in the Google digitized copy of Travels in Bahia for more detail.

One thing that leaps to mind with this visualization in Wetherell’s vision of the tropics as abundant, as seen in his frequent emphasis on “large size” (of trees, fruits, flowers) and “large quantities” and “immense quantities” of goods consumed, imported, and observed.  You get a sense of Bahia as at the center of a trade nexus, exporting tropical products harvested with enslaved labor.  Taken together, there is a real economic focus to his terms.

Also revealing is a consideration of how he talks about “black women” in his text.  First, “black men” doesn’t appear as a term, but taken together “black woman” and “black women” appear eleven times.  Wetherell is particularly interested in their dress (whether in “gala dress” or “half-naked”) and in their social interactions with black men in an urban setting.  While he does discuss elite marital practices and behavior, neither “white woman,” “European woman,” nor “Portuguese woman” appears in the cloud.  The lenses of gender and race inform Wetherell’s evaluation of Bahians, making his critique of African-descent women more obvious.