Over the past few weeks, a discussion about trigger warnings has percolated across the blogosphere. Educators, op-ed columnists, and pundits have debated the use of these warnings about potentially upsetting content on syllabi or in the classroom (and leave it to the Chronicle to publish a disdainful mockery of the concept). As I’ve developed my courses, both at the survey and upper levels, I have confronted some of these same questions about the past: Is there anything in history from which we should shield our students? Or, to put it more broadly, how should we approach material that some of our students may find offensive, hurtful, or painful?
The ongoing discussion about whether the humanities in general, and history in particular, are relevant to today’s students can often get deeply abstract (enough so to be off-putting even to many of us invested in the question). But the debate and discussion also has a practical element. In my classes, and in particular in my survey courses (which most students are taking for general education credit), I encourage them literally to see the history that lies right outside their doorsteps.
“March 17, Sunday – St. Patrick’s Day. The Provincials are throwing up a battery on Nook Hill on Dorchester Neck, which has occasioned much firing this night. This morning the troops evacuated the town, and went on board the transports at and about Long Wharf; they sailed and got most part of them into King Road. About noon General Putnam and some troops came into town to the great joy of the inhabitants that remained behind.” – John Rowe, 1776.
Open up most any early American history book and flip to the list of tables and figures. Chances are you’ll find—if provided—maps devoid of almost any indigenous peoples. If the book is more recent, perhaps instead you’ll find that the author included two maps: one of European settlements, and one of Native American peoples. Or, just maybe, you happen to have on hand one of the few books to merge all of these together. But look closely and see if you can find the usual tension—an unbalance resulting from the projection of European empire on one hand, and the illustration of limited, isolated, scattered indigenous nations on the other.
How can so many maps of colonial North America display European power and political influence, but not do the same for American Indian polities and groups?
In the last two weeks, I’ve been working with two digital projects that I think are incredibly useful for both teachers and historians. The first, from NYPL Labs, is the Stereogranimator. Developed in response to the large body of stereoscopic photographs at the New York Public Library, the Stereogranimator allows you to create either anaglyphs or animated gifs of the 3D images originally captured by stereographs. In the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, stereography soared in international popularity and allowed viewers to feel as though they stood in front of landmarks, battlefields, local and national celebrations, and the wreckage of natural disasters.
While many of these stereographs have been preserved at archives and libraries around the world, the images require a stereoscope to be viewed properly. These devices function in a similar manner to the View-Masters many of us grew up with, but most individuals, archives, or libraries do not have access to turn of the century stereoscopes.
With the Stereogranimator, this is no longer an obstacle. NYPL Labs has created a tool that allows users to establish the overlapping focal point of the two images and produce a single, three dimensional anaglyph or animated gif. Here are two that I made earlier this week:
I am excited by the Stereogranimator because it allows for users to experience and understand two very important aspects of the late nineteenth century. First, it allows individuals to gain a better understanding of what the late nineteenth century looks like. For those who don’t study this era, the idea of nineteenth century photography will likely conjure up either Mathew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War, or black and white portraits of awkwardly posed subjects. Stereographs allow for a better sense of the nineteenth century akin to the returning popularity of colorized photographs. By adding depth or color, the nineteenth century suddenly feels more alive and accessible to the modern viewer.
Secondly, the Stereogranimator provides insight into the culture of the late nineteenth century. Prior to the Civil War, most Americans had not been more than twenty miles from the place of their birth. Not only did stereographs depict distant places, but the sense of depth and scale allowed for viewers to feel as though they were standing at the site. For consumers in New York City, for instance, traveling to the site where General McPherson died during the Battle of Atlanta was possible but impractical. Stereographs allowed for these scenes to be captured and shown to individuals throughout the country. With the Stereogranimator, users have a straightforward way to view stereographs and in the process, experience a slice of nineteenth century popular culture. In my next post, I’ll talk about a recently released project that creates a historical soundscape of the early twentieth century.
Southern Spaces is seeking submissions for our latest call for papers on Music and the U.S. South, edited by Dr. Grace Elizabeth Hale. Submissions are due March 17, 2014, and more information can be found here. Feel free to get in touch if you have questions!
“I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one and another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.
What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.
A couple weeks ago, the Open Knowledge Foundation released TimeMapper, an online too that allows you to create timelines and maps through Google Spreadsheets. I’ve been using it since it was released and have found that it creates clean, professional timelines once you get the hang of it.
TimeMapper creates your timeline based on information you’ve entered into a GIS-style spreadsheet. OKFN Labs has provided a template that establishes the basic data TimeMapper will recognize. It looks like this:
See the Place and Location columns? As long as you’ve set it up correctly, the template will automatically process the Place column and convert it to Latitude and Longitude using an OpenStreetMaps API. On your map, it’ll place solid pins for specific locations like towns, and translucent pins for regions like counties. One downside is that as you add more and more data to your spreadsheet, it can end up looking pretty messy. Here’s what mine looks like now:
This spreadsheet fuels a timeline I’ve created of the individual Civil War battles that constituted the Atlanta Campaign of 1864. The finished product looks pretty fantastic. For now, the descriptions and images are sourced from Wikipedia. If I end using it for ECDS’s Battle of Atlanta project, I’ll be writing up the descriptions myself. I also intend to move the locations to the actual battlefields rather than the towns in which the battles took place. Down the line, I’ll also be using TimeMapper for riots in Boston that moved from location to location. Overall, TimeMapper is an accessible tool that makes it easy to create timelines for large and small projects alike.