History often feels like a passive subject. It is something that had happened in the past, of course has influence on the present, but it is something unchangeable. Besides being considered from different points of view, historic facts are facts. History is also static and learning history is often through textbook or lecture. And so the phrase “doing history” is a bit uncommon. Before this class I had never considered how involved one could be in learning history. Doing history suggests taking an active part in understanding the material and not just reading and writing notes. Doing history could be anything from making data maps, graphs (anything interactive) to even just engaging in mediums beyond text. As a history major I have had a lot of experience in college in learning the subject, but I can not say that before this class I have ever interacted with the material like I did here. My experience was heavily based on textbooks and lectures. Maybe a bar graph or data map used every now and again, but I never paid much attention to them. I would skim the visualization, figure out what they were about, come to a conclusion and move on. A visualization is a much different interaction with the material then the traditional textbook. It is much more engaging; it encourages the viewer to actively look through the information and to process it. At the same time, numbers in textbooks are easy to skim over. A textbook explanation of how the population in the United States has changed (population in 1800 is___, 1810___, 1820___) is much different than a map showing population density in different areas over time or even a bar graph showing the increased population over time. The viewer engages more fully in using this method. Through this class I have a deepened appreciation for using visual data to better understand history. But reading the information is not enough on its own, the experience is enhanced when you understand what goes into making good data visualizations. Anyone can make a data visualization, but when using it for historical learning, it is important to know what good data looks like as they can be easily altered to show the narrative the author wanted to portray. And for this reason, knowing what to look for in good sets is so important.
The topic of this class was incredibly important. In my experience with history classes, those which talked about the Civil War and slavery (and related topics), slavery was almost always referred to as the institution. The purpose, structure, outcome, and politics are often what are discussed. Here and there individuals would be named and their narratives told, such as Nat Turner, but more often than not individual narratives were not taught. Instead this class approached slavery in such a way, at an individual level, that made using data sets and visualizations useful. In the books we read, Unrequited Soil by Calvin Schemerhorn and The Dawn of Detroit by Tiya Miles, the enslave narrative is set at an individual level. The Dawn of Detroit explores a number or individual narratives but really focuses on the lives of the Denison Family. Unrequited Soil looks at several different individual narratives throughout the history of slavery in North America, including Nat Turner and Henry “Box” Brown, along with lesser well known individuals. This is what I really enjoyed about this class in particular, it allowed me opportunities to learn about slavery not as the institution but more on how it influenced individual lives, beyond the usual teachings of ‘they were enslaved and had an awful life’. These readings and the activities we used put enslaved individuals at the center of their narrative, people who took active roles in their own lives. And so, the lessons and readings being centered around the topics talked about in class materials, the portfolio activities were much more beneficial. It gave us the opportunity to work with the information (or similar information) to what we were learning, creating an active learning exercise for a more in-depth understanding. As the purpose of the class is to “do history” this was incredibly important. Doing history brought many of the materials we used to life and allowed us to actively learn.
The project I want to revise is Portfolio 14. This visualization compared the number of and job held by enslaved individuals compared between Martha and George Washington. I did this because I was interested in the gender dynamic where, in this case, Martha holds more enslaved individuals and thus more wealth in the marriage. This was a result of her dowry from a previous marriage, but I was still curious as to whether or not this was a common thing. I liked that this visualization does indicate the difference in their “holdings”. This was shown by the size of the circle, the total population circle and then the circles within indicating the occupation and the number of people who did that work. Martha’s circle is bigger than George’s, though not by much, but it serves as a visual representation of the population. Within the larger circle, the occupational ones change size depending on the variables, male or female and by age. But I wanted to take this further to see where there was a difference between genders, within the population of enslaved workers. I wanted to see if there was a difference between Martha and George to determine if there was a job which fell in their category more often than the other and to see if there was a gender difference as well. I also wanted to see a comparison between adult or child enslaved individuals, and what jobs were more common. Using this data, there are a variety of questions that could be asked. I learned through this class that every detail, no matter how small, is incredibly important in understanding history. My initial model was not as accurate as it could have been, it only measured the number of workers. While this was useful data it did not get as detailed as I would have like. To fix that I took it a step farther and broke down the categories to gender and age. Unfortunately I was unable to put gender and age on the same visualization as I felt that would have been most beneficial to what I wanted to do. That being said, I felt using specifics told a better story than my initial visualization.
Going forward, I would like to continue working with metadata and sites like Omeka or the online exhibits we looked at. With online exhibits it is much easier to reach a wider audience and so it is incredibly important that the information is presented accurately and easy to go through. Or being able to work with metadata would be useful with cataloging artifacts. After college I am interested in working in a museum or a similar setting and I want to be able to use what I have learned in this class going forward.