Noted filmmaker Jake Boritt is coming to Carlisle on Wednesday, May 7, 2014 for a special free public showing and discussion of his latest film, “The Gettysburg Story,” a state-of-the-art documentary about the pivotal Civil War battle narrated by actor Stephen Lang. What makes this film especially unique and cutting-edge is Boritt’s use of high-definition camera-enabled drone aircraft. His innovative project quite literally depicts the 1863 battlefield from a perspective that you have never seen before. You will be amazed at the visual spectacle and fascinated by Boritt’s discussion of how 21st-century technology helped bring to life this classic 19th-century American story.
Digital Scholarship Lab. University of Richmond, 2014. http://dsl.richmond.edu/projects/
Reviewed by Leah Miller, Dickinson College
The Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond uses technology to digitize and present historical data in a way that reveals hidden patterns. The lab consists of eight main projects which present various insights into American history:
While the data covered by these projects spans all of American history from Columbus to the present, particular focus is devoted to the nineteenth century. Rather than presenting the large-scale, political history which is available in the average classroom textbook, these projects analyze the movements and actions of the common person. The result is a series of new stories about the experience of the average American—white, black, male, female—who worked, migrated, fought, and suffered for their freedom.
The most recent project is the digitized Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, originally drawn up in 1932 by U.S. naval historian Charles O. Paullin and geographer John K. Wright. The print edition of the atlas—which includes over 700 maps on 166 plates that cover American history from 1492 to 1930—has greatly impacted many historical publications even to the present day. Recently for the New York Times, project director Robert K. Nelson explained that “Paullin’s maps show ordinary people making a living, moving across the landscape, worshipping at churches, voting in elections.” This new, digital edition changes the way we can interpret these maps. Each map has been georeferenced and georectified to provide accurate and optimal web-viewing, but the viewer can switch to a high-quality scan of the original plates. The user can also toggle a sidebar with Paullin’s original text and legends, as well as zoom in and out and adjust the transparency of the map overlay. Permalinks save all these preferences and ensure they can be accessed in the future. Series of maps that show progression of movement or activity through time have been animated. For example, the animation of slave populations from 1790-1860 shows the concentration of southern slave power and its expansion westward concurrently with gradual emancipation of slaves in the North. Furthermore, the statistical annotations provided for this map declare the exact numbers and percentages of slaves in each county, and by 1820 provide a breakdown of the slaves’ genders. Some maps are accompanied by additional analytical blog posts. “Vanishing Indians,” by lab director Robert K. Nelson, discusses the atlas’ shortcomings when it comes to portraying Native Americans in their relationships to each other.
The Visualizing Emancipation project is another interactive map which highlights slavery’s end during the Civil War. The map “presents a history of emancipation where brutality is sometimes easier to see than generosity and where the costs of war and freedom fell disproportionately on the most vulnerable in the South.” Users can filter through different types of emancipation events (i.e. African Americans helping the Union, their captures by either army, fugitive slave-related incidents, etc.), as well as different types of sources, including books, newspapers, official records, or personal papers. Like the Atlas, this map is animated, so as the user toggles pins and filters on and off, she can follow the relationship between emancipation and the position of the Union army, or the agency of slaves in obtaining their own freedom. The project also features certain events and figures as starting points for understanding emancipation, with the ability to pinpoint each event on the map. I only wish that there were at least one featured example where a person or group were involved in multiple events, so a user could follow their physical journey using the map. For those teaching emancipation, there is an accompanying lesson plan and worksheet. Students are encouraged to contribute by submitting information they find in primary source documents, since the map, which covers “only a small slice of the available evidence documenting the end of slavery,” could never be complete.
Voting America also makes use of animated maps to show changes and differences in voting preferences for presidential and congressional elections (1840–2008). The key factor is scope, which illuminates different patterns and trends. For example, changing popular votes at the state level show which parties won each election, while at the county level show how each state was politically divided. The dot-density maps are even more democratic, as 1 dot=500 votes in an area; this way, more third-party votes are recorded. For these types of maps, every legend shows important political events in history; so, one can watch the progression of voter turnout since 1840 and note the effect the Fifteenth and Twentieth Amendments had. The user also has the option to view individual elections in each of these capacities. Population maps show the location and movements of black Americans (represented—a bit stereotypically—as black dots) and white Americans (represented by pink dots). Unfortunately there is no option to view these populations together, nor is there any representation of immigrant populations. The project is accompanied by an interactive map which can be used to compare presidential election years, but my computer, running Adobe flash player version 126.96.36.199, was unable to open it. An alternative version is available through Google Maps, but currently this feature is down. Finally, a “Scholars Corner” provides expert analysis by DSL staff on certain voting trends.
Three other projects in the lab focus on the American Civil War. Mining the Dispatch uses topic-modeling, a computerized method of pulling together multiple documents that have the same key words within them. This can reveal interesting categories and patterns among texts. In this case, Nelson ran every issue of the Richmond Daily Dispatch from November 1860 to Lincoln’s death in April 1865. Some of the more interesting topics are fugitive slave ads, anti-northern diatribes, military recruitment versus conscription, humor etc. Nelson juxtaposed line graphs showing the frequency of similar topics, and, tentatively, relationships emerged. This project is still in its preliminary phase and because of its algorithmic collection process, the data is imperfect. Still, it is a good jumping off point for research questions.
The Virginia Secession Convention project seems to diverge from the site’s aim to tell the average American’s story. It seeks to explain the decision of the VA delegates to secede from the Union through their full-text searchable speeches and the Convention’s proceedings. However, as the Data Visualizations page shows, their decisions were likely influenced by their constituents. Each county is annotated with statistics about the constituents: percentages of slaveholders and the enslaved, average farm value per acre, and pro- or anti-Union stances.
Finally, though Hidden Patterns of the Civil War largely highlights many of the projects already discussed, it also includes other mini-projects and tools, like a collection of maps that shows the migration patterns of black Virginians who married after the war, a Google Earth tour of the Richmond slave market developed from a sketch by painter Eyre Crowe, and a full-access digital database of the Richmond Daily Dispatch during the Civil War.
While the two remaining projects are less relevant to the nineteenth century, they are great tools for the classroom. Redlining Richmond maps and annotates the racist categorizations of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (a New Deal agency) in the late ’30s. The assigned value of each neighborhood is based on race and nationality, and shows the lingering effects of slavery in the Jim Crow era. The History Engine is a “moderated wiki” where students generate three-paragraph “episodes” (rather than arguments) about people, places, or events in American history, drawing on local university or online archives and secondary sources. Because registration is required, each submission is carefully screened for quality and accuracy. The project’s aim is to place students from around the world in conversation with each other and their work.
The eight projects of the Digital Scholarship Lab thoughtfully and extensively explore the individual experiences of Americans during the nineteenth century. The Lab’s innovative use of technology illuminates otherwise obscure patterns of growth, contest, suffering, and change. This is an invaluable resource for studying the social history of our nation, and a must for anyone teaching or learning about the American Civil War.
The reaction to President Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns was swift. 32,000 viewers clicked through the video to HealthCare.gov, more than 1,000 tweeted about the segment, and health plan enrollments skyrocketed as the final deadlines approached. None of those suggestions of effectiveness, however, prevented Fox News host Bill O’Reilly from leveling a pretty tough criticism. O’Reilly was blunt and authoritative as always: “all I can tell you is Abe Lincoln wouldn’t have done it.”
Putting aside the question of whether Abraham Lincoln really would have refused to appear on Between Two Ferns, there are a few important issues to consider when comparing President Obama’s stated goals for his unusual interview with the political experiences of President Lincoln. Those comparisons can begin with O’Reilly’s criticism itself, which actually sounds quite similar to some 19th-century commentaries about Lincoln. Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his diary, once accused Lincoln of “cheapening himself” as a public figure, noting that:
“He will not walk dignifiedly through the traditional part of the President of America, but will pop out his head at each railroad station and make a little speech, get into an argument with Judge A and Squire B, he will write letters to Horace Greeley, and any editor or reporter…or saucy party committee that writes to him…”
The letters Emerson was referring to – public letters – particularly rankled some 19th-century American opinion leaders. Douglas Wilson, a historian and two-time Lincoln Prize winner, notes in Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words (2007), that Lincoln’s unprecedented use of public letters was viewed by some as “undignified.” Lincoln was about as compelled by that criticism then as President Obama is now. The two presidents seem to share a desire to avoid, in Obama’s words, the “Washington echo chamber.” They both sought out mediums and messages that would do just that, resonating with everyday people and conveying a highly personal touch. In attempting to quench the desire to directly connect, Obama has the internet and Lincoln had the public letter. Beginning in 1862 with his letter to Horace Greeley and continuing in 1863 with longer missives to Erastus Corning and James Conkling, Lincoln shaped popular opinion and shared his views with constituents by “corresponding” through newspapers. His messages, on slavery, emancipation, and federal power, were circulated and read widely. The Conkling letter, which we recently annotated on Poetry Genius, includes Lincoln’s famous line stating that, “there can be no appeal from the ballot to the bullet,” and employs shifts in tone and argument to convince a broad swath of the political spectrum about the wisdom of the Emancipation Proclamation. Wilson, again in Lincoln’s Sword, argues that these public letters demonstrably helped improve the president’s popularity and support for the Union cause.
A public letter to the editor of a newspaper or a political leader is a long way, however, from appearing on an internet comedy show hosted by the actor from Hangover 3. And it is worth noting that Lincoln’s public letters rarely employed humor in any substantive form. He was far from unfunny, though; in fact, in connecting with political leaders and laymen alike, Lincoln employed a similarly eclectic sense of humor that was also subject to criticism. In fact, some public figures attacked Lincoln for his humor in a way that will sound familiar to keen observers of the Between Two Ferns debate. Historian Louis Masur has a great short post (“Lincoln Tells a Story”) at the New York Times Disunion series which details both some of Lincoln’s story-telling habits and the uneven reaction. He quotes Richard Henry Dana, a prominent nineteenth-century writer and attorney, who spoke for many New Englanders when he complained during the war that Lincoln “does not act or talk or feel like the ruler of a great empire in a great crisis.” In a scholarly article titled Lincoln’s Humor: An Analysis, Benjamin Thomas fully chronicles the 16th President’s flair for pith, wit, and tall tales. The article is a treasure trove of Lincolniana, ranging from yarns and one-liners to comic biography and commentary on 19th-century humor. Thomas notes that according to Henry C. Whitney, one of Lincoln’s friends from his Illinois years, “any remark, any incident brought from [Lincoln] an appropriate tale…he saw ludicrous elements in everything.” Thomas’s analysis is instructive, at least in one sense. After all, it is hard to imagine that the man who asked whether a Nebraska river named Weeping Water was called Minneboohoo by the Indians (“because Minnehaha is Laughing Water in their language”) would not have enjoyed at least some of Two Ferns banter about strange spider bites and 800-ounce babies.
Lincoln didn’t lampoon Nebraska’s American Indian population in a public speeches or documents, though. Much of the humor Thomas describes appears to be drawn from personal interactions described in diary entries or recollections. The historian argues that after 1854, Lincoln’s public persona became more serious. O’Reilly, who has written a book on Lincoln, might have this fact in mind when he criticizes President Obama. O’Reilly could argue that as Lincoln ascended to power, he acknowledged the seriousness of the moment and changed the tone of his rhetoric. It is true that Lincoln’s rhetoric during the late 1850s and 1860s lacks some of the Springfield lawyer’s earlier folksy-funny style, but this shift did not help him shed a humorous public countenance. In the House Divided research engine, we feature several anti-Lincoln cartoons, like the one detailed above (“Columbia Demands Her Children”), which take him to task for not being serious enough (See also “Running the Machine” and “The Abolition Catastrophe” –all from the 1864 reelection campaign). These images seem to indicate that there were personal and political dimensions to Lincoln’s humor that extended well into the years of his presidency.
It is never simple to compare different moments in history, but what is at the heart of President Obama’s appearance on Between Two Ferns - the desire to connect directly to citizens and convey a persuasive message – is familiar to all who study the history of American politics. Lincoln shared President Obama’s interest in communicating directly with the American public, and doing so in a way that was original and compelling. While his humor and desire to connect with voters do not converge in his public letters, Lincoln used both humor and public correspondence in the same way that President Obama used Between Two Ferns: to develop a personal rapport with constituents, and bolster their support for a national agenda. Few things are more presidential than that.
Last year, nearly 750 participants signed up for a unique online learning experience. “Understanding Lincoln” was the first open, online graduate course offered in partnership between the House Divided Project at Dickinson College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Taught by historian Matthew Pinsker, the course focused on classic Lincoln texts –not just his great speeches, but also his most important personal and political letters. The participants studied and debated these documents through a series of live, interactive online sessions and helped create a brand-new website: Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition. Now, as we are getting ready to launch the 2.0 version of this exciting course (REGISTRATION CLOSES ON MAY 27, 2014), we think it’s worth sharing some of the comments from those who joined us during Fall Semester 2013.
From our auditors:
“I have seen the future, and it is “Understanding Lincoln.” Thanks again, and keep going with this approach as far as it will go!”
“I originally was just going to give the general kudos already stated above on a highly educational, interesting, and enjoyable course. But having started to take [another] MOCC more recently in which I was very disappointed, I’ve decided it is important to re-enforce some of the particular techniques you used that were noticeable by their absence in the other course. [Most important], the use of live interaction in video classroom sessions including on-line participation….The [other] course restricted live videos to semi-scripted sessions with teaching assistants, while “discussion” sessions were simply non-video chatrooms, sometimes with a 2nd level teaching assistant throwing in an occasional question, sometimes totally unstaffed. In the video classrooms, Matt’s active role as discussion leader was very effective, particularly given your ability to actively monitor the chatline.”
“My goal in doing this was to add to my own knowledge, of course, and to provide some material to the greater community in the class. This whole experience has been a very positive one for me and I thank you for all of your hard and good work in putting it together.”
From our graduate participants:
“I just wanted to thank you again for the great academic experience provided through “Understanding Lincoln.” I really learned a lot from the class and enjoyed every minute of it… I only wished I’d had more time to devote to my research! I loved the amount of freedom we were given to create our own projects and having never designed a Web site before, I learned a great deal not only about historic content but also about 21st Century presentation! There’s a lot more I still have to learn, but this was a good start! In a strange way, I found all of our writing assignments to be a great release from my day-to-day school and family demands, so I really am sorry to see the class come to an end!”
“I’m so glad I took this class — living with Honest Abe these last four months has been a really moving experience in more ways than I can count and frankly, has made me realize that I need to keep pursuing history research and exploration as much as I can.”
“I just want to express my thanks in offering a challenging and yet rewarding course. My multi-media project has been shared with 100 other history teachers in my district and I have utilized it many times in my own classroom. The students are tickled at seeing their “teacher’s work” for a class on display in addition to its usefulness so I appreciate your multimedia project assignment. I look forward to learning more…isn’t that the key to a successful class?”
“I’ve taught professional development courses and taken a lot of them myself, but I honestly found this to be one of the best classes I’ve taken since I was an undergrad 11 years ago. I appreciated the expertise, depth of content and the flexibility you gave us to find our own areas of interest. I also thought the online format was just a really interesting way to take a class. Most helpful to my teaching, though, the website is already proving to be an amazing resource. It’s a great project that is really going to help a lot of teachers across the country.”
“I am really proud of what I have learned through the course of this project and I thank you for the opportunity to do this for my students. I have very much enjoyed the course!”
“I really enjoyed the format of the class and the material presented within it. It was a logical arrangement of topics and primary sources, and I hope that our work helped you get closer to reaching your goal of creating an in-depth website that looks closely at Abraham Lincoln as both a person and president.”
“I want to also thank you for the experience provided by this course. I feel like it has enhanced my confidence teaching Lincoln and made me step out of my comfort zone and embrace the technology. I learned a great deal, love the Lincoln writings site and will use your close readings in my classroom.”
“Thank you for an exciting past few months. Not only did I learn quite a bit about Lincoln, but I also learned some great technology programs to use with my students.”
“I know that I am a better teacher from the time I spent working on this course.”
Registration for the 2014 edition of the “Understanding Lincoln” course will remain open until May 27, 2014. Full graduate student tuition costs $600. Auditors pay a small fee of $25. To sign up or to find out more details, go to the course registration page (http://gilderlehrman.org/programs-exhibitions/understanding-lincoln-graduate-course) and see for yourself.