Digital Humanities Summer School

This year’s iteration of the Digital Humanities Summer School at the University of Oxford starts next week.  I attended the week-long summer school last year, participating in the “Introduction to Digital Humanities” workshop.  Other workshops were centered on much more specific areas within the digital humanities, including crowd-sourcing, musicology, text encoding, linked data, and digital humanities for medieval and renaissance studies.

Based out of St. Anne’s College, my workshop provided an overview of the avenues of possibility within the digital humanities.  Along with a variety of practical applications and examples in different areas, we were also exposed to more philosophical issues regarding the digital humanities as a whole.  Several themes and questions emerged throughout the week:

  • How does digital technology fit in with traditional ways in which humanists conduct research and teach? On the one hand, humanists work in similar ways while using digital technology as an enhancement.  On the other hand, we must confront how our traditional methods are to be revised in these new contexts.
  • In what sense can we do things now that we couldn’t do before? Here we have questions of big data and the potentials of having so much data that we as scholars are forced to change our methods (but also have the opportunity to dream up new projects with analytical capacities that were never before available).  We have using crowd-sourcing and citizen science to both process big data and engage the public in new ways.  We have new ways to visualize scale and time – even as a modernist, I am fascinated by thinking about how digital technology can allow us to understand the vast scale of history in new ways and attempt to grasp it.
  • How do the digital humanities fit in with traditional formal disciplinary structures? Digital humanities projects often cross subject and disciplinary boundaries, or require sharing across boundaries.  Is it possible to create structures that will allow for the digital humanities to spread across all disciplines?
  • How do we build infrastructures that allow us to engage with our materials? Digital change is often viewed as short-term and decisions are made quickly for something that needs exploration and thoughtful development for long-term use.  We also must be concerned with the building of infrastructures that will take into account the huge amounts of data accumulation and try not to close off options for the future even if future needs can’t be predicted.
  • Relatedly, how do we protect our current digital technology output to be used as future resources for historians? When thinking about data preservation, we have to consider how to go about archiving internet sources and other related issues with digital archiving, if we need to keep everything, what is important to keep and what isn’t, and who is making these decisions.  It is difficult to predict what is going to be useful in the future, but the volume of information being generated throughout the world is outstripping the ability to store it.  We need to somehow create distance to be able to make decisions that will have a huge impact on future historians.
  • How far along are we in the development of digitization? Changes in the technology of 3D topography, hyperspectral imagery, embedding metadata, etc., will likely greatly change the experience of examining digitized texts and objects in the near future.  The recreation of the physical with digital technology will certainly be impacted and there are questions that go along with that.  How do we go about describing physicality and use to people who are only exposed to an object digitally?  How do you approximate on a screen what it would have been like to read a specific book, for example?  How do you describe something that had multiple uses over time?  How large is something?  Scale on a screen is difficult to communicate and makes a difference to perceived use (such as the difference between a pocket-sized Bible and one that would be kept on a pulpit).  One interesting example we had in our workshop was a medieval anatomy text that had layers of flaps showing layers inside of a person’s skull.  As it stands, it would be very difficult to communicate such a thing digitally.
  • Relatedly, what different considerations should be in play as we move beyond text-based sources?
  • How will accepted editorial principles develop over time? We have questions over who will be able to access digital humanities products, how open academics should be to let other people use data, and infrastructure issues for the product/data owner.
  • What ethical questions must be considered in the sphere of digital humanities? Privacy is the current big issue here.
  • What can academic departments do to integrate digital humanities? And how should digital humanities projects be integrated as part of an academic career?  This challenges traditional departmental and institutional structures, ways in which academics are encouraged to work, and ways in which academic work is evaluated.
  • What does this look like in the classroom? With increased emphasis on gamification and personalized education, can we also maintain focus on skills we already value, like writing, close reading, and critical analysis?

Most important overall was the message of collaboration.  Lone scholars can’t possibly achieve all that is possible in the digital world.  If we are approaching a question from a humanities standpoint, we also have to make it appealing to the people with whom we collaborate who come from a technical background.  How can humanities research questions be interesting to them so that a partnership can be formed rather than a one-way relationship?  Humanists should not be the ones with the questions and the computer science people the ones with the tools, all the time.  And thinking in terms of teamwork and collaboration, allowing each person to bring their different perspectives and skill sets to the table, will open up so much more potential for what the digital humanities can offer.

The American Civil War in Irish Unionist Memory

The American Civil War was one of the key historical points of comparison for Irish unionists as they fought against Home Rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The Civil War itself was easily within living memory during the Home Rule period, ending only twenty years before the first Home Rule crisis.  Joseph Hernon’s short article on the “Use of the American Civil War in the Debate over Irish Home Rule” shows how British politicians and intellectuals who had supported the Northern States later as Liberal Unionists used the Civil War example to oppose Irish Home Rule.  Hernon writes that the principles of states’ rights in the Civil War, which helped to validate the Confederate standpoint, were used as examples by the Liberal Unionists.  They feared that if Ireland was granted Home Rule the Irish nationalists would use states’ rights principles to demand complete separation.

Hernon rightly points out that there are limits to the logic of this parallel, because slavery as a moral issue played such a large role in the American situation.  However, fear of states’ rights leading to Irish separation was not the only way that the Civil War example was employed in unionist rhetoric.  The Civil War, considered the greatest war in living memory at the time, was frequently used to develop themes of legitimacy of the Ulster cause, the sense of betrayal by Britain because they would not fight to hold the Union together, and unity as part of the spirit of the age.

During the first Home Rule crisis, unionists used the Civil War to develop several themes in their rhetoric.  With Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule, many Ulster Liberals turned to an alliance with the Conservatives.  As the Liberal Party was faced with schism during the first Home Rule Bill, T.W. Russell, MP for South Tyrone, defended the stance of Liberal Unionists.  He stated in an 1886 Stirlingshire speech:

My alternative is – ‘Maintain the Union, be scrupulous to redress every Irish wrong, be even generous in view of the past, but govern the Country.’  I am told that Democracy will not consent to do this.  Let us not be too sure of that…. The great Democracy of the United States answered to Abraham Lincoln, not to Jefferson Davis.  And to maintain the Union there the cannon thundered in the valley of the Shenandoah, the musketry rattled on the heights of Fredericksburg, and Grant fought and conquered at Richmond.  And the Union was maintained there, just as I firmly believe it will be maintained here.

Russell defended the Liberal Unionists’ choice to break from Gladstone, committing them to maintain Liberal social policies in Ireland while supporting the Union.  When faced with the question of whether Home Rule was inevitable, the Civil War provided an example of a people willing to commit everything to maintaining unity rather than separation.  Many Liberal Unionists maintained that they were willing to give every consideration to bettering the condition of Ireland other than destruction of the Union.

Ulster’s Liberal Unionists used the American Civil War example to condemn Gladstone’s Home Rule stance.  Belfast Reverend R.J. Lynd wrote,

Mr. Gladstone is not infallible.  Had he his will, the United States of America would now be cut into two kingdoms, and slavery would still retain its grim hold on the kingdom of the South without any control from the North.  To us Irish Liberals, who loved him and followed him with a devotion and personal veneration seldom equalled, but never surpassed, there could not be a more melancholy spectacle under the sun than Mr. Gladstone as a Liberal leader presents now.

The former supporters of Gladstone identified a pattern in his support of the Confederacy and his promotion of Irish Home Rule.  As implied by Lynd, an immoral cause would have a hold over a helpless minority in each case.

Ulster unionists used the American Civil War as an historical example in many other cases.  They cited the partition of West Virginia from Virginia as precedent for the protection of a significant loyal minority from a disloyal majority.  They used the Civil War to deny Irish nationalists the right to compel the Westminster Parliament to change the relationship between Ireland and Great Britain within the Union.  For example, they claimed that even if, like the South during the Civil War, Irish nationalists might technically be acting within constitutional bounds by demanding Home Rule, Parliament should not grant Home Rule if it would lead to greater dangers.  In the United States, Civil War was preferable to the North than allowing the South to legally secede from the Union.  The threat of an independent Confederacy to the North was similar to that of a Home Rule Ireland to Britain, because of the dangers of total separation.

Unionists used the Civil War example to show that attempting to use Home Rule to pacify Irish nationalists would be futile.  They claimed that the North had refused to pacify the South during the Civil War; therefore the British government should refuse to pacify Irish nationalists with Home Rule.  If Home Rule was granted to the disloyal Parnellites, total separation from the Union would be an even greater threat.  This threat was also used to justify Ulster unionist militancy against the British government in an attempt to prevent the implementation of Home Rule – even if this militancy led to the outbreak of Civil War in Ireland.

Like the United States, Ulster unionists were faced with demands for Home Rule.  They felt that the British government was not making any effort to combat these demands but simply accommodated them despite the threat of the destruction of the Union.  Ulster unionists observed the extreme measures taken by the Northern States to prevent the implementation of Home Rule.  They resented being painted as bigots and fools by British Liberals and Irish nationalists because they wanted to do the same thing in their country.  Unionists developed themes of legitimacy of the unionist cause because of the perceived similarities with the Northern states, and betrayal by the British who were unwilling to stand up to the nationalists’ Home Rule demands.  Moreover, the British government was going against the worldwide trend toward unity as exemplified by Italy, Germany, and the American Civil War.  The American Civil War symbolized the power of the Union to endure threats of separation and disconnection if only there were people willing to fight for it.

Smartphones and Mobile Technology: Learning anytime, anywhere?

As I continue on in my 6 month course in Technology Enhanced Learning with the Open University, I’ve come across a week devoted to mobile technology (handheld technology in particular, such as smartphones and tablets) and its potential uses for teaching and learning. It’s an interesting topic and one I thought I’d explore a bit here.

As an introduction to the week’s topic, we’ve basically been asked to consider three things: 1) What types of mobile technology do we each use? 2) In what ways do we use mobile technology? and 3) Which of these ways contribute to what we might call learning?

There are also other factors under consideration, such as how frequently we undertake each activity, whether we perform each action for fun or for work, and how we have used mobile technology in our teaching (or plan to in the future). The recent rise of modern tablets (Apple’s iPad debuted in 2010), smartphones becoming increasingly common and more affordable, and free WiFi on campuses and/or affordable data plans are allowing more students and teachers to work on the road, check their email and messages, and stay connected to the classroom community throughout the week.

Suggestions for the types of mobile technology we might have access to included a basic cellphone, a smartphone, an iPod or mp3 or mp4 player, and/or a tablet. I hadn’t thought of my old iPod Touch, something I’ve rarely used in the past two years since I got a smartphone, so I was happy to have had the list of suggestions. We then completed surveys on how often we used each item and for what (such as for fun, for work, or for social uses). These then led to a discussion about mobile technology and learning that was supplemented by a reading about mature students’ use of mobile technologies before the iPad came on the scene.

You might be thinking, ‘I have a smartphone and I don’t use it for “learning”. I’m not a student’, which is basically how I started out the week, too. But then I began reading about some examples of ways in which people do use mobile technology for learning and realised that I do use my smartphone in ways that contribute to my learning. For example:

  • I check the weather using dedicated apps (applications) or on the web
  • I send and receive emails to and from other practitioners to discuss work and ask and answer questions
  • I scan through the Pinterest app to get new ideas and find how to guides on a range of topics, including developing infographics for history topics
  • I pop on Twitter to see if there are any new calls for papers for upcoming conferences and edited collections
  • I’ll Google any questions that come up while watching a television show.

I’ll also note that a number of my classmates and I agreed that we consider our laptops to be mobile technology, although in my (somewhat old) Macbook‘s case, not handheld mobile technology — it’s far too heavy! If we agree that laptops are mobile technology, then the list of uses for learning expands dramatically. So the next time you pick up your phone to check a message or Google something, think about how you might just be learning something new!

Suggested readings:

Anderson, M. (2015) Technology Device Ownership: 2015 [online], Pew Research Center.

Dahlstrom, E., Brooks, D.C., Grajek, S. and Reeves, J. (2015) ECAR Study of Students and Information Technology, 2015, Louisville, CO, EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research.

Kukulska-Hulme, A. (2012) ‘Language learning defined by time and place: a framework for next generation designs’ in Díaz-Vera, J.E. (ed.) Left to My Own Devices: Learner Autonomy and Mobile Assisted Language Learning, Bingley, UK, Emerald.

Kukulska-Hulme, A., Pettit, J., Bradley, L., Carvalho, A.A., Herrington, A., Kennedy, D. and Walker, A. (2011) ‘Mature students using mobile devices in life and learning’, International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning, vol.3, no.1, pp.18–52.

The Economist (2015) ‘Planet of the phones’, The Economist, 28 February.

Postcard from Rosslyn Chapel

131 Rosslyn chapel

Rosslyn Chapel – photo credit: L. Flewelling

I was just thinking about this trip to Rosslyn Chapel the other day – it was the first day trip I went on after moving to Edinburgh, with one of my (now) very close friends.  The town of Rosslin is about 20 minutes outside of Edinburgh.  At the time, it wasn’t all that long after the publication and film adaptation of the Da Vinci Code, which prominently featured Rosslyn Chapel.

Rosslyn Chapel dates to the 15th century, and as you can see was under extensive restoration at the time I visited.  The restoration project has been complete since 2013 and you can now see the chapel fully without scaffolding.

Rosslyn Chapel website

121 Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Postcard from Collingwood on Georgian Bay

Postcard from Collingwood on Georgian Bay


Collingwood docks. Photo credit: P. Dumas

After the completion of the railroad connection to Toronto in 1855, Collingwood, on the coast of Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada, became a hub of passenger and freight traffic from the Toronto area and the east to the United States and western Canada. At one point so many people were flowing through the port that Collingwood had its own American Consulate. The town was renamed in 1854 for Admiral Horatio Nelson’s second in command, Admiral Lord Cuthburt Collingwood. Collingwood’s shipbuilders were internationally renowned in their time, but the “Yard” closed in 1986 and only the massive elevator remains (see above).


Collingwood’s Historic Train Station. Photo credit: P. Dumas


Collingwood Grain Elevator. Photo credit: P. Dumas

IMG_0265View of the Blue Mountains from Collingwood. Photo credit: P. Dumas

Reflections on Transnational History, Part 2: Globalization Paradigm

I recently revisited Lynn Hunt’s Writing History in the Global Era, a historiographical whirlwind that examines how globalization impacts the ways in which we write history – as well as how the ways in which we write history potentially impact globalization.  And is this a good thing?  (I’m not a theorist by any means, but this seems like a topic that is important to keep questioning.)

When I first read the book, I remember thinking that it spoke to the ways that Paula (my lovely blogging partner) and I – as well as many of our former PhD-candidate colleagues – approached history and our chosen topics.  But what I wondered then was if our personal experiences (as international students at a Scottish university) were what drove our approaches to transnational and global history, or if it was some larger force at work in the world today influencing us: “the global era.”  Hunt questions, “Is this increasing attention to the global context of history just an effect of globalization, or might it be one of its causes?”  How did we relate to what seems to be a larger trend in our contemporary historiography?

On a personal level, I became particularly interested in the idea of parallel history during my undergrad: two events in different countries that seemed to be unrelated but actually had ties between them.  Studying Henry Grattan in Irish History class at the University of Oklahoma drove home the idea of separate-yet-intertwined events happening in two nations at the same time (Grattan was an Irish politician during the time of the American Revolution).  And certainly emphasized that globalization has no clear starting point – the sense of interconnectedness and interdependence of separate areas of the world is not something that we can place on a timeline.  When does globalization begin?

Growing up I was completely enamored with the history of the American West (and Laura Ingalls Wilder).  As I moved forward in the study of both American and Irish history, I found it fascinating and strangely discordant that American pioneers were moving out west on wagon trains and homesteading at the same time as Charles Stewart Parnell began his fight for Home Rule for Ireland.  On surface-level, these two things seem to have nothing to do with each other, but Irish unionists used the image of American pioneers and the “frontier spirit” to justify their own stances as they opposed Parnell and attempted to save the Union with Great Britain.

Hunt writes, “Where cultural theories emphasized the local and the micro-historical, talk of globalization inherently underlines the importance of the transnational and macro-historical developments.”  But to be effective, transnational history must combine the micro with the macro.  We risk using overly-individualized stories to generalize too wildly about an historical event, but it also helps us to make history a human story even while focusing on the global picture.  The challenge then becomes knowing enough about all of the separate contexts to be able to tell if our micro-history is representative.  We have to look at a wide-range of scales of analyses in both time and space, insofar as this is possible.

Toward the end of the book, Hunt questions, “Does history have an implicit goal, whether that goal is defined as freedom, progress, modernity, or globalization?”  And it seems like, no matter how we individually arrived at our topics or adopted the “globalization” approach, the ways in which we study history are 1) looking back to find traces of our modern conditions in the past and 2) somehow unconsciously looking at history in ways expressly tailored to prove that our current times are the most progressive up to this point (this might be why our paradigms shift over time).  At any rate, I suppose the only way to try to avoid this kind of teleological thinking is to keep examining our own motives and relationships to our subjects, and repeating “contingency” over and over again.

Searching for Colour: A Brief History of Modern Nail Polish Colours

Summer is almost here, which means that I’m finally breaking out my flipflops and painting my nails in fun, bright colours. I’m a fan of sparkles, metallics, and have bought and worn just about every colour or polish (varnish) I can think of, such as lime green, navy with silver flecks, lemon yellow, gold, silver, baby blue with a pink sheen, and black for Halloween. I can remember just about every colour I’ve ever owned (thanks in part to my somewhat photographic memory and my love of these colours). I bet I’ve used over 100 different colours over the years.

Long before Pinterest was sparking my interest in new nail designs I was looking to express myself through my nail colour. I spent much of the 1990s searching for just the right fun colour of nail polish, but unlike today it was almost impossible to find polishes that weren’t a shade of pink, red, or purple unless you stumbled upon a small, relatively-unknown brand in a drugstore or pharmacy. These were typically of lower quality, thicker, less likely to set fully, and chipped easily or peeled off. But within a very short time high street/drug store brands dramatically expanded their selection of colours and, happily, have kept offering this wider range.

red polishes

So I thought that I’d chart how the major cosmetic brands in North America began offering a full range of nail polish colours in the final few years of the last millennium.

Wet n Wild

Wet n Wild was the first widely available drugstore brand to offer a couple alternative nail polish colours. By 1996 they had a shimmery white that wasn’t just for french manicures (which most whites were made for) and a deep navy blue.

Cover Girl

Cover Girl decided to experiment by offering alternative colours that were meant for warm, cool, and neutral skin tones. They produced peach (warm), mint green (neutral), and turquoise blue (cool) nail polishes (I had all 3) and rounded out the new collection with matching lipsticks that changed colour to a shade of pink once applied.

cover girl nail polishes

L’Oréal Paris

L’Oreal Paris came out with a collection of bright, fruity-inspired coloured polishes. There was lemon yellow, lime green, and a bold blue, plus many more bright colours. Thanks to L’Oreal and their eye-catching advertising campaign, there was now a full rainbow of colours available on the market.

loreal rainbow


Chanel held an annual contest with Seventeen magazine where people could send in just about anything to inspire the next big colour, and in 1997 the winner was Night Sky, a deep navy with silver flecks. Suddenly alternative nail colours weren’t just in drug stores but were now being developed and sold in the most expensive makeup counters at high end department stores. All colours were now mainstream!

chanel blue polish

What’s really exciting is that I think we’re starting to see the same thing now happening with lip colour. At Sephora yesterday I was able to compare four dark blue lipsticks from four different brands and already have two from different makes at home. This might call for another blog post sometime soon…

Postcard from Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle - photo credit: L. Flewelling

Harlech Castle – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Perched on a near-vertical cliff at the edge of the Irish Sea, Harlech Castle was completed in 1289.  The fortification was part of the ring of castles built by Edward I during his invasion of Wales.  The castle was captured and used as a headquarters by Owain Glyndŵr as he rose up against the English in the early 15th century.

Cadw: Harlech Castle

22 Castle from a distance edit

Castle from a distance – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Visiting the Ulster American Folk Park

107 Folk Park edit

It was pretty amazing to find out that a major part of my personal area of study was the subject of its own museum, the Ulster American Folk Park near Omagh in Northern Ireland.  The folk park is a primarily open-air museum, with buildings, streets, and countryside representing the “old world” and “new world” for Ulster emigrants.  Visitors enter in the “old world,” with its thatched roof cottages and village streets with original buildings, historic school house, and the homestead of the Mellon family.  They make their way to the dockside and cross the Atlantic on board a “ship,” and arrive in the “new world,” with historic log cabins and houses that have been brought over from America and reconstructed on site.

119 Mellon house

Mellon House – photo credit: L. Flewelling

The Ulster American Folk Park was built around the site of the Mellon House, which remains in its original location, and historic buildings from Ulster and America have been moved and reconstructed on site to best portray life on both sides of the Atlantic, centuries of migration, and enduring connections between Ulster and America.  Truly an impressive undertaking to create a site with historic and representative buildings, demonstrations, and even animals and crops to portray their region and time period.

171 Western PA Log House

Western Pennsylvania Log House – photo credit: L. Flewelling