April 2009



“I hope somehow to be able to speak what Manan Ahmed calls “future-ese,” to be able to learn (some of) the language of the programmer over the course of this year so that I can begin to “re-imagine“, as Ahmed has exhorted, the old in new ways. I’m excited, if duly daunted, by the prospects.” ~ Quoted from my first blog post, 10 September 2008.

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If I ever meet Manan Ahmed, whose Polyglot Manifestos I and II were two of the very first assigned readings for our Digital History class, I would let him know that, like any effective manifesto, his inspired me to take a certain course of action this year – to sign up for the role of Programmer for the digital exhibit that the class would be preparing on the work of Dr. William Harvey.

Incidentally, if I ever did meet Manan Ahmed, I would also casually let him know that I hold him entirely responsible for the sleepless nights I had, agonizing over the code for the program I was attempting to write for an interactive exhibit on Harvey.

I might add here that I knew as much about programming as I did about APIs and mashups prior to this year, which is to say, nada.

(Accusatory) jesting aside, I’ve been reflecting on what it has been like to learn programming from scratch over the course of this school year. I was inspired, as mentioned, by Ahmed’s call for the historian to be more than simply a scholar submerged in past-ese without regard for how their studies might be made relevant to a modern audience (i.e. in present-ese) or how it might be re-imagined in the age of mass-digitization (i.e. in future-ese). How compelling was his call for historians to be “socially-engaged scholar[s],” how apt his challenge for us to become polyglots – master “togglers,” if you will, between past-ese, present-ese, and future-ese – apt especially to those of us with public history ambitions, who had entered the program interested in communicating the past to a general audience in new (i.e. digital) ways. [1]

“All that is required,” Ahmed wrote simply (alas, too simply), as a directive for historians willing to venture into the programmer’s world, “is to expand our reading a bit.” [2]

After my eight-month foray into programming, the words “all” and “a bit” in Ahmed’s above statement strike me as just a tad bit understated. I agree that reading was certainly a major part of my process to learn how to program this year: I pored over, highlighted, marked up, and even wrote conversational notes to the authors of my text (such as the occasional “not clear!”). But I think Ahmed might have also mentioned that not only reading but practicing, experimenting, fumbling, failing, and, yes, even agonizing, are all part of the process of learning how to speak some of the programmer’s language.

Like immersion into any new language, programming has its own set of daunting rules to absorb; break any one of them and you won’t be understood – at all. The program simply won’t run. (I don’t know how many error messages I gnashed my teeth at.) As well, like any language, there is always more than one way to say the same thing – and some of them are more “logical,” “eloquent,” or just plain clearer than others; concision and verbosity, I’ve learned, apply equally in the programmer’s world as they do in the writer’s. (I’ve also observed that my tendency to be wordy applies equally too in the world of code. In fact, I was delighted to learn about the concept of iteration, where lines of repetitive code could be magically – well, okay, mathematically – reduced to a few simple lines, using variables and a certain formula. If only paring down written text were so easy!)

Needless to say, I found the immersion into the programmer’s language very challenging. It was challenging (and, I will admit, even harrowing at times) because not only was I trying to accumulate basic knowledge of the new language, I was also brainstorming ideas for an interactive exhibit on Harvey at the same time. In some ways, it felt like I was trying to devise a Shakespearean sonnet in Chinese or with the vocabulary of a second grader (which is pretty much the extent of my vocabulary in Chinese). All I could envision was something rudimentary at best.

It was challenging to design an exhibit as I was learning the new language simply because I did not know if the ideas that I or others had were actually possible, or, more precisely, would be actually possible for me to learn how to do within the time limit. (I also discovered a humorous difference between the kinds of ideas thrown out by those in Programming versus those in non-Programming roles; the “anything is possible” optimism that technology seems to inspire was not so readily exhibited by those of us who had confronted, and would still have to confront, the befuddling intricacies of code.)

Despite all the challenges, uncertainties, and yes, even secret fears that the particular interactive exhibit I was working on might not come to fruition, things worked out. We hosted our Digital Exhibit on Harvey in early April; all programs functioned; no computers crashed (thank goodness). Looking back to September and my reasons for deciding to learn how to program, I think I am glad, after all, that Ahmed had made it sound so simple. With just a bit of reading, he had written coaxingly, the socially-conscious scholar will be well on his or her way to programming, to filling that gap between the public and the past, and between computer scientists and the future of history. If he had spelled out all the emotions one was apt to go through when learning how to program, I’d probably not have taken it on and thus have missed out on learning to speak a new language, on learning to speak in code.

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[1] Manan Ahmed, “The Polyglot Manifesto I,” Chapati Mystery, http://www.chapatimystery.com/archives/univercity/the_polyglot_manifesto_i.html.

[2] Manan Ahmed, “The Polyglot Manifesto II,” Chapati Mystery, http://www.chapatimystery.com/archives/univercity/the_polyglot_manifesto_ii.html.

This week’s Public History readings examine the relationship between history and the environment. Both Rebecca Conard’s and David Glassberg’s articles mention a key idea that environmental historians take for granted: that there is nothing natural about “nature”, nothing inevitable about the way that physical landscapes have evolved over time. The presupposed dichotomy between the urban and the “wild”, between human beings, on the one hand, and the “natural” environment, on the other, is not so clear cut at all. Rather, as Glassberg and Conard show, individuals, communities, organizations, and governments have played an important (if at times unnoticed or unemphasized) role in shaping the physical landscape. [1]

Both authors point out how the environment has often reflected the heavy hand of human agency in order to make it conform to certain ideas about desirable landscapes. Their discussions of national parks, in particular, suggest that what a landscape does not show is just as important – or even more so – than what it does show. Speaking of national parks in the western United States, Glassberg writes that “the landscapes tourists encountered in these parts, seemingly inhabited only by elk and buffalo, would not have existed if the native peoples had not first been defeated and removed to reservations, and the wildlife populations carefully managed to encourage picturesque megafauna and discourage pesky wolves.” [2] Similarly, Conard mentions how the desire of the US National Park Service to present parks as “pristine” and “uninhabited” spaces were influenced by ideas about the “romantic wilderness”; such an approach to national parks meant that visitors would not see that “these landscapes were ‘uninhabited’ only because U.S. Indian removal policies either had killed the former inhabitants or had relocated them to reservations” [3].

What’s missing from the physical landscape, then, is as instructive as what is apparent to the naked eye. How to convey a landscape’s significance and complexity to a general (and often uninformed) audience, in terms of its cultivated image as well as the absence or removal of elements of its historical development, remains an important task for the public historian. It’s a task that, as Conard strongly suggests, would benefit from discussion and collaboration among those who are intimately involved in preserving and presenting the history of the environment: historic preservationists, environmentalists, and land managers. [4]

In essence, Glassberg’s and Conard’s articles remind me that the landscape is also a source of historical information. It can be “read” as a historical text for insights into the changing values of a community, region, or nation over time. “Landscapes,” as Glassberg writes, “are not simply an arrangement of natural features, they are a language through which humans communicate with one another.” [5] Of course, as the author shows, this language is a complex one, reflecting conflicting interpretations and understandings of the environment. These conflicts also raise important questions about how one conception of the landscape comes to dominate others (and thus to shape its preservation and development in specific ways), requiring us to ask, as Glassberg does, “whose side won out and why?” [6]

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[1] Rebecca Conard, “Spading Common Ground” in Public History and the Environment, edited by Ed. Martin V. Melosi and Philip V. Scarpino, (Florida: Krieger, 2004) 3-22. David Glassberg, “Interpreting Landscapes,” in ibid., 23-36.

[2] Glassberg, 25.

[3] Conard, 6.

[4] Ibid., 4-5, 8.

[5] Glassberg, 29.

[6] Ibid.

When I was studying history as an undergraduate student, I was particularly fascinated by discussions about historiography. Perhaps it was the influence of my English Lit background, but I tended to do close readings of historical accounts, approaching them almost as literary texts that reflected much about the assumptions and attitudes, biases and values of the writer. It was therefore interesting to be asked in certain history classes to analyse the works of historians not primarily for what they revealed about the past, but for what insights they provided about the particular way of doing history that was “in vogue” at the time.

Over the course of this year, I’ve seen how the idea of the present’s imposition on the past is as applicable to public history as it is to traditional, scholarly history. History in the public realm is certainly as much (or perhaps even more) about the present — that is, the “present” of whoever is, or was, writing the history, composing the plaque text, or curating the exhibit, for instance — as it is about the past.

Museums, for example, as Helen Knibb’s article, “ ‘Present but not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections,” suggests, do not necessarily present information, in the context of women’s history, about the actual lives and experiences of women from a particular time period. Instead, the artifacts may reveal more about the preoccupations and personal tastes of curators, or about the collecting or donating impulses of those whose items are on display. With regards to the latter, Knibb suggests that women may have simply donated items they thought were important from the standpoint of the museum or of society, rather than in relation to their own experiences. She raises the interesting question of whether “museum collections tell us more about how women collect than how they lived their lives.” [1] Knibb’s article reminds me that museums themselves are constructed sites that are very much influenced by contemporary concerns.

The idea that public history is as much about the time period of the people presenting the history as it is about the history being presented is, I’m sure, hardly startling. But it does remind me of the need which underlies the rationale for these blogs – the need for self-reflexivity. As history students, my peers and I have been trained to read historical accounts critically, with an eye open to its constructed nature, to the ways in which the account reflects the biases of the historian and the preoccupations of his or her time. As public history practitioners, we will have to direct that critical gaze inwards, to assess how our own assumptions and biases are shaping the histories we will help to produce. Moreover, we will also have to negotiate our way through the assumptions and biases of others, who, in the collaborative realm of public history, will also have a stake – sometimes a very substantial one – in the history-making process. Given how contentious history in the public realm can be, not only the need for critical self-reflection but also the ability to practice what Rebecca Conard has called the “art of mediation” [2] are crucial requirements for the practicing public historian.

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[1] Helen Knibb, “‘Present But Not Visible’: Searching For Women’s History in Museum Collections,” Gender & History 6 (1994): 355, 361-362. The quote is from page 362.

[2] Rebecca Conard, “Facepaint History in the Season of Introspection,” The Public Historian 25, no. 4 (2003): 16. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/.