The Wheaton College Digital History Project: Digital Humanities and Undergraduate Research

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Kathryn Tomasek

    Wheaton College

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The Wheaton College Digital History Project: Digital Humanities and Undergraduate Research
Tomasek, Kathryn, Wheaton College,
Digital History
Can undergraduates contribute meaningfully to a long-term digital history project? What role can transcription and markup play in the undergraduate history curriculum? How can collaborations among instructor, archivist, and technologist contribute to undergraduate research? What is the role of collaborations with other small liberal arts colleges and with large research universities?

All too often, students majoring in non-science disciplines have little exposure to computational thinking and working with computer code. At the same time, digital methods of analysis exert growing influence on the practice of many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. The Wheaton College Digital History Project seeks to bridge this gap using tools from Digital Humanities.

The Wheaton College Digital History Project
Since fall 2004, undergraduates in History courses at Wheaton College have been transcribing and marking up nineteenth-century documents from the Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections for digital publication. The opportunity to begin this work arose when a confluence of events combined new interest in and experience with the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) at Wheaton College and the acquisition of the pocket diaries of Eliza Baylies Wheaton. Beginning in January 2004, Wheaton College collaborated with Mount Holyoke College to host a two-part conference that explored uses of TEI in teaching and research at liberal arts colleges. The conference included instruction in TEI from Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman of the Women Writers Project at Brown University.

Our first effort at incorporating TEI into a course occurred in fall 2004. Students in an introductory course on women's history, U.S. Women to 1869, learned about the economic uncertainties in the lives of unmarried white women when they transcribed and marked up the journal of Maria E. Wood, the daughter of a Maine Baptist minister. Each student was assigned to transcribe a set of pages from the journal, and then groups of students marked up the entire journal using themes from the course: family, work, religion, death and mourning. At the end of the course, the students expressed a sense of having gotten to know Wood and having understood the past better than they ever had before.

In subsequent semesters and summers, students have collaborated with members of the faculty and staff to create digital editions of the diaries of Eliza B. Wheaton. The three students who worked together in summer 2005 became a community of enthusiastic historians. As they transcribed the travel journal and pocket diaries of Eliza Baylies Wheaton, they used their spare time to explore the town of Norton, especially its cemeteries, where they looked for the birth and death dates of people mentioned in the documents. During subsequent summers, student workers continued to transcribe and mark related documents.

In spring 2009, the project took a new turn, as students in the research methods course for History majors began to transcribe and mark up pages from the daybook that Laban Morey Wheaton kept between 1828 and 1859. This book records financial transactions that reflect some of the range of Wheaton’s business interests during these forty years, including agricultural pursuits and rentals for land and houses as well as tax collections, fees for legal services, and the operation of a general store in Norton, Massachusetts.

Undergraduate Research
Teaching Module
Students examine Laban Morey Wheaton’s daybook alongside his account ledger and cashbooks that date from the same period to get a fuller idea of the financial context for the daybook transactions. Each student transcribes a two-page spread using a Google spreadsheet to facilitate keeping track of the tabular data. The academic technology liaison converts these documents into XML files that students open in oXygen and mark up using the guidelines of the TEI. Students code the transactions for personal names, commodities, amounts purchased, amounts charged, and mode of payment—cash or credit.

In another class meeting, the academic technology liaison demonstrates visualization tools to show students examples of ways to display results of querying the files. Students write short History Engine episodes based on the transaction of their choice, in preparation for writing papers based on the data they have transcribed, coded, and queried.

Collaborations: Archiving, Pedagogy and Research
Since Wheaton College is a liberal arts college that prioritizes teaching and learning, including students in the process of scholarly research makes sense, as does promoting a collaborative pedagogy in which members of the faculty and staff come together to deploy their complementary expertise in leading students through the process of research and writing. The College Archivist and Curator of Special Collections identifies the documents to be transcribed in collaboration with the instructor, who uses her scholarly expertise to identify secondary sources that will help the students contextualize and interpret their findings. The archivist guides students to sources that help establish the local context for the documents. The Technology Liaison for Humanities instructs students in markup and querying data. He also performs backstage transformations that make the data available in appropriate forms for students to mark up, query, and manipulate.

Students contribute more than their labor since they bring to the documents a perspective distinct from those of the archivist, instructor, and technologist. Their very unfamiliarity with the historical context allows them to bring to the project questions that enable new insights into the implications of the data that they help create. Whilst we do not expect them to contribute to the digital humanities at the same level as graduate students, we do value their participation, and we hope to prepare them for advanced study in the field.

Next Steps: Transcribe Wheaton
Since we have developed a workflow and are comfortable with using this assignment as a teaching module, we are piloting targeted crowd-sourcing to speed transcription. Students continue to transcribe, mark up, query, and write about transactions from the daybook in courses.

Transcribe Wheaton, modeled on the Transcribe Bentham project at University College London, will provide a portal and tools to allow students and friends of Wheaton College to participate in digitization of financial documents from the Wheaton Family Papers either as part of their coursework or as a volunteer contribution to the ongoing work of the Wheaton College Digital History Project. We hope that faculty members in courses in Anthropology, Computer Science, Economics, and other fields will use the teaching module to employ transcription and markup in their courses. We also hope that graduates of the college will assist in the project, and we expect to be able to open transcription beyond the college by 2012.

The Long Term
When we began transcribing the pocket diaries of Eliza Baylies Wheaton, we chose TEI because we appreciated the flexibility of XML and we liked the idea of performing transcription once and being able to manipulate the data thereafter. That initial decision has affected the choices we made as we began transcribing the financial records, which are much more abundant in the Wheaton Family Papers collection than are diaries and letters. Such records are in fact abundant in many archives, yet they are underutilized by historians, in part because of their inaccessibility. We hope that our project will contribute to the development of standards for TEI markup of tabular records, thus encouraging similar projects that will increase the accessibility of historical financial records and other tabular data.

Since our project combines archival, pedagogical, and scholarly purposes, we find ourselves negotiating constantly among them. The collaborative nature of our project and the multiple varieties of expertise and interest brought to it by each member of the team necessitate ongoing consultations among the archivist, instructor, and technologists. Like many projects in digital humanities, ours requires a certain amount of comfort with technology from the archivist and instructor, combined with an equivalent amount of comfort with the humanities from the technologists.

Because ours is a small liberal arts college, we rely on collaborations with other institutions to support our project. Our technologists, for example, have spent 2010 collaborating with colleagues from other liberal arts colleges as well as from Brown University and the University of Virginia as they plan a presentation tool for TEI documents produced at small colleges. And members of our project team have taken additional courses with Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman as we continue to hone our TEI skills.

Our poster/demo features our project website: Whilst the website currently serves as a brochure for the project, we hope to include additional features by the time of the conference, including links to student writing about individual transactions from the daybook, as well as a portal for transcribers.

We share our project as an example of a long-term project in digital history that includes undergraduates as significant partners in the digitization and interpretation of a hidden collection that offers insight into the relationship between capitalist accumulation and women's education in the nineteenth-century United States.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2011
"Big Tent Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Stanford University

Stanford, California, United States

June 19, 2011 - June 22, 2011

151 works by 361 authors indexed

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Series: ADHO (6)

Organizers: ADHO

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  • Language: English
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