A Conversation with Jason Heppler

Heppler HeadIf you don’t yet know Jason Heppler, you should.  As an Academic Technology Specialist in the Department of History at Stanford University, and a PhD candidate at the University of the Nebraska, Lincoln, Heppler has already established himself as a leader in the field of digital history. His work on the American West and in digital history promises to change both fields. In the second installment of our conversations series, we asked Heppler to talk about the confluences between western and digital history, digital history’s role in public history, and the struggle over embargoing dissertations.

BlogWest: How did you come to western history, and what is the connection between it and your work in digital history?

Jason Heppler: I’m not sure I can pinpoint the exact moment that the West became what I wanted to study, but at the risk of sounding cliché, I do have a deep love for the region. I’m a fourth generation westerner; my family originally homesteaded in northern South Dakota and I grew up in the Rushmore State. The region has long fascinated me: its landscapes, places, environment, and people. Coupled with a longstanding interest in history generally, I can probably point to my undergraduate education as solidifying me on the path of western history. I didn’t start there—my original interest as a history major was in U.S. military and diplomatic history and the Cold War. But I had wonderful mentors who were western historians or historians of South Dakota (in particular, Charles Vollan, Jon Lauck, and John Miller) who prodded me to think deeply about the region’s past, suggested topics for class research papers, and encouraged me to have ideas for research topics as I started thinking about graduate school.

My first major foray into western history began with my research on the American Indian Movement (AIM) and their impact on South Dakota politics. The topic so captivated me that I intended to continue studying it in graduate school, and did so for my Master’s thesis. Finding a program that was strong in western history made sense for my research interests, and at the time the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had a very strong (and historically robust) program in the U.S West that included faculty like Andrew Graybill, David Wishart, Douglas Seefeldt, and John Wunder.

My arrival to digital history was more circuitous, but I’ve written about this elsewhere and won’t recount it here except to say that I was immediately interested in learning about the marriage between computational/informational technology and history. UNL also happened to have a growing strength in digital history, and the combination of DH and western history made it an ideal choice for my M.A. and now Ph.D. I was especially intrigued by the work going on at UNL and its relationship to Western history. Douglas Seefeldt had two ongoing research projects, one on Jefferson’s West and the other on the Mountain Meadow Massacre. William Thomas was doing exceptional work on the expansion of railroads, and Timothy Mahoney later did work on Lincoln, Nebraska, and experimented with digital narrative and visualization.

So as I was starting my program at Nebraska, historians were studying the West using digital tools to ask new questions of their data or using digital methods to illustrate historical events in the classroom.

Screen Shot 1
Heppler’s concept map visualization for his research on Cody & Show Indians

I carried my interest in the American Indian Movement over to my M.A. thesis and explored it using digitalmethods in my work. Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (CDRH) was especially strong in areas of documentary editing and textual analysis, and contact with those methods led me to digital text analysis for my first project called Framing Red Power, which sought to analyze major media narratives of the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan in 1972. The analysis of a corpus of text allowed me to ask questions I hadn’t otherwise considered and uncovered patterns in language. My interest in text carried over to my next project on Native Americans who worked for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. I started asking questions about Cody’s views of Native Americans, and used text analysis and what I called concept mapping to probe various ideas about progressivism, reform, and Native Americans. The concept map wasn’t so much algorithmic or automatic; rather, it was deeply editorial and choices were made by me as a researcher of what I wanted to pull out from the text and present to the reader.

Going forward, my dissertation research is an environmental and urban history of Silicon Valley, where I am especially interested in environmental politics that emerged surrounding expansive urban growth and postindustrial development. Text analysis will remain part of my method, but I’m also diving deep into spatial history and data visualization. Not much is in development yet (other than web space I’ve set up to start hosting visualizations), but you can watch for things soon.

BW: Digital history is a rapidly growing field, why now and what ramifications do you see it having in the long term?

JH: While rapidly growing, digital history feels very much like a minority method for historians. What we think of today as digital history likely traces its origins to the 1960s and 1970s as “new” historians influenced by the social sciences and their computational methods used computers to calculate things never before attempted by traditional narrative historians. Historians resisted this turn towards computation; Arthur Schlesinger Jr. quipped that “almost all important questions are important precisely because they are not susceptible to quantitative answers.” And these sentiments are still widely held in the field.

Especially damaging to computational methods was the publication of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery in 1974. Published in two volumes, one devoted exclusively to the quantitative methods and data, the book tackled one of the most contested issues in American history. The book’s methods were problematic, resting heavily on interpreting quantitative analysis and addressing purely economic questions while largely ignoring the textual and qualitative analysis of other historians. Historians criticized Fogel and Engerman for removing an enslaved person’s agency, and criticized their methodological, statistical, and interpretive errors. And their data collection itself was problematic, coming almost exclusively from a single plantation rather than a statistical aggregate of the American South.

I say this not to dissuade the usage of digital methods, but rather because it’s important to know the history of digital history. In this case, the methods are somewhat contentious.

Since the 1980s historians have pioneered new techniques, begun using databases for historical computing, collaborated with librarians and technology professionals, and explored new forms of scholarly communication.

The phrase “digital history” emerged in the 1990s with Ed Ayres and William Thomas at the University of Virginia, when they founded the Virginia Center for Digital History. Their first large project included The Valley of the Shadow, a project that examined two communities in the Civil War in close proximity to each other but on opposite sides in the Civil War. Early projects like The Valley and Philip Ethington’s Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge, among others, had an ambitious goal, as Douglas Seefeldt and William Thomas note, to offer alternatives to historical scholarship and experiment with new historical and methodological approaches.

What we have at our disposal are new ways to ask deep historical questions over longer time frames and/or in larger data collections. Jo Guldi, David Armitage, Ted Underwood, and others have written about what it means for scholars to have ever-growing source material to work with. Historians have an ability to explore longer time frames but also a potential to move beyond the case study in our narratives. For example, we can examine language patterns decade by decade using text analysis to understand the longue duree of things like public land policies. But the case study isn’t likely to go anywhere either; digital methods have the potential to enrich these studies spatially and temporally. We can visualize information at a micro level, such as animals in San Francisco, or regionally, like railroads in the West.

I also hope to see digital history push for some cultural changes in the profession. We have reached a point where we need to reevaluate some of the conditions for tenure and promotion; digital methods may lead to rethinking the monograph as the gold standard; and digital history gives us an opportunity to engage with audiences more widely and deeply. This isn’t to say that everyone must do digital history (this is, after all, a framework for analysis and communication—I wouldn’t expect everyone to use digital history any more than I would expect every historian to use political history) or that books are dead, but rather that the discipline has opportunities before it that can enrich our work and captivate new audiences.

BW: What do you say to scholars who do not have the technical skills to build the sort of projects we see coming out of programs like Stanford’s Spatial History Project?

I believe historians can do a great deal of work by picking up a small amount of technical background. I’ve watched graduate school colleagues who, two years ago, would’ve balked at the idea of doing social network analysis and building a network graph to analyze their data, for example. Today, they would say they couldn’t imagine not using digital methods or that they prefer digital methods. With the proliferation of off-the-shelf tools, it also means the barrier to entry is much lower. You don’t have to pick up a programming language or be somewhat tech savvy to get started anymore.

Geography of the Post Office project map in collaboration with Standford PhD canidate Cameron Blevins
Geography of the Post Office project map in collaboration with Standford PhD candidate Cameron Blevins

I’m very aware that not every institution is Stanford or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and has the resources, expertise, technology, or skills to get scholars started in digital history methods. One of my guiding motivations in digital history is to help empower scholars who want to do this work to be able to do it. The good news is that there are more and more off-the-shelf tools for getting started in various digital methods. Interested in social network analysis? You can take a look at Gephi—it has a bit of a learning curve, but there are some good resources for getting started. Spatial history has a fair number of tools available to get started, ranging from Google Earth, Tilemill, Tableau, and Google Fusion Tables for point data, to QGIS or ArcGIS for working with shapefiles or georectifying maps, or Neatline for layering information on top of maps. Cleaning up and preparing your data (which is likely to be about 80% of your work) can be done with Excel and Google Refine. Charts and quantitative data can be built and visualized with Tableau or Excel. Text analysis can be done with Voyant. The tools exist for scholars to easily begin exploring their data.

I would also say that historians shouldn’t hesitate about reaching out to their colleagues in computer science. And don’t be afraid to dive into programming yourself. Many scholars have explored programming in their own work—Lincoln Mullen, Caleb McDaniel, Stephen Ramsay, William Turkel, myself—and having the option at your disposal to customize your tools or shape tools to fit your problems or research questions can be invaluable. There are good resources out there for getting started; just pick a language and run with it. For starters, you can look at the Programming Historian or the Rubyist Historian.

BW: Digital history is often lumped in with public history. Yet, there are a number of historians who have effectively used digital tools for research. Are we flattening digital programs simply because they look different from the traditional “scholar sitting in an archive” understanding of the profession?

William F. Cody Online Archive
William F. Cody Online Archive

JH: Digital history can be a great complement to public history, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be public history. The tendency to combine the two together reflects the interests of the digital community, which often sees this work as serving both a public and scholarly purpose. Roy Rosenweig, the late historian at George Mason University and founder of the Center for History and New Media as it was known then, has noted the great benefit digital history offers in democratizing history: “Once [digitization] is accomplished, [sources] can be made accessible to vastly greater numbers of people. To open up the archives and libraries in this way democratizes historical work.” Often, public and digital can go hand-in-hand, and indeed digital methods perhaps makes it even easier to build public-facing projects. HistoryPin, Spokane Historical, Our Marathon, the Bracero Archive, the William F. Cody Archive, and many many other projects serve multiple purposes: public history, crowd-sourcing, scholarly research, and communication. There is tremendous value in opening up access to our cultural record, our scholarly processes, and our historical scholarship to a wide audience.

That said, I think it’s a mistake to somehow believe that because something is digital, it isn’t scholarly (as the profession is occasionally wont to do with public history). Richard White notes that digital methods are deeply scholarly:

Visualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.

Digital history doesn’t divorce historians from the actual work of what we do, but it augments and enhances. There are research questions that historians can ask that are otherwise impossible or incredibly difficult to answer without the aid of computational or informational methods. Digital history allows historians to pose new questions of their sources in ways difficult or impossible before.

BW: Finally, you were among the critics of the American Historical Association’s statement on embargoing dissertations this past summer. Could you explain why and what the issues were as you see it?

JH: I think the AHA is short-sighted in its approach—on all the issues facing new Ph.D.s and early career scholars, their solution is to lock down scholarly work? A lot of really smart people have addressed the problems with the AHA’s decision. I’ll add that my issue with the AHA’s decision isn’t so much that they’re looking for ways to protect early career scholars. The decision to encourage an embargo, however, strikes me as misguided. I would’ve expected the AHA to take an approach more sensitive to the current realities and take a stand on publishing, tenure, and review. The AHA is also out of step with its peer organizations, Timothy Burke points to the Modern Language Association and American Anthropological Association for example, who have begun exploring ways to embrace open access scholarship and adopt new standards for scholarship. In the end, the AHA has decided that the monograph is the gold standard (and went so far as to suggest, with no sense of historical context, that “history has been and remains a book-based discipline.” The presumption is that history must be a book-based discipline.) The dissertation and the book are often quite different pieces of work. Is it really the case that a dissertation is so little revised that it’s the same as the book? And if that’s the case, why doesn’t the dissertation then count towards promotion? If, after all, the dissertation has been peer reviewed, shouldn’t that then convey something toward one’s professional capacities?

The AHA should have approached this differently: 1) open access dissertations and revised manuscripts are perfectly acceptable measures of scholarship and can demonstrate the capabilities of a historian; 2) both print and digital should both be considered in hiring and promotion guidelines. This isn’t to suggest that early career scholars must open access their dissertations or must embargo their dissertations; the options are available to them to make the decision that they believe is best for them. But the AHA’s position gives a tacit nudge to embargoing as the appropriate course of action when, instead, both approaches should be available for consideration to hiring or tenure committees. The AHA should be providing better guidance on this issue. A huge reason I like my job as a historian is because I get to advance knowledge and disseminate that knowledge to wide audiences. I suspect many historians are the same way, and if so, why isn’t digital distribution—much easier and faster than print—just as acceptable for scholarship and the advancement of knowledge? Junior scholars especially are at a point in their careers where dissemination of their ideas is crucial, and digital distribution of their work serves as an ideal form for them to do so.

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