Announcing the Dick Dowling Digital Archive

It gives me great pleasure to announce the unveiling of the Dick Dowling Digital Archive and the related exhibit, Dick Dowling and Sabine Pass in History and Memory. The collection and the exhibit, both proudly powered by Omeka, were produced by myself and undergraduate students in Civil War history at Rice University in collaboration with the Woodson Research Center at Fondren Library, the Houston Area Digital Archives, and the Humanities Research Center.

Dick Dowling was an Irish American Houstonian most famous for his role in a Civil War battle fought at Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863. Beginning in the Spring 2011 semester, Rice students in HIST 246, “The American Civil War Era,” began locating, scanning, describing, and writing about historical documents related to Dowling which were then uploaded into an Omeka collection. Students also produced four interpretive digital projects that also now reside in the collection. The Movie Group produced an introductory video (group blog and video). The Map Group produced several maps with ArcGIS showing the past locations of Dowling’s statue in the city (group blog, map, and map guide). The Timeline Group used SIMILE to produce a dynamic timeline of events (group blog and timeline). And the Podcast Group created several audio tours meant to be heard at various Dowling-related sites in Houston (group blog and audio tours).

Other students in the spring and fall semester of 2011 worked to draft, organize, and lay out the exhibit pages for The Afterlives of Dick Dowling, the first major section of the Omeka exhibit featuring items in the Dick Dowling Digital Archive. Students in the fall semester also helped me to think through the other major section, Slavery and the Battle of Sabine Pass, which I composed in bits and pieces over the last several months.

In a future blog post I hope to say more about how this project developed. For now, I’m happy to announce its existence and invite you to take a look around. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, or corrections here or at dowling-archive AT

Google Docs and Group Work

Mark Sample recently had a great post about reading aloud in the classroom, in the course of which he also briefly revealed how he uses Google Docs as a sort of digital whiteboard for collecting responses from students. I’ve also sometimes used Google Docs in the classroom for similar purposes. The advantage of doing this, of course, is that the Google Doc created during class can later be shared with students online. And because Google Docs can be edited collaboratively by several users at once, it also makes it possible to reproduce the old pedagogical technique of having students "go to the board" to write down responses without ever requiring that they leave their seats.

Here’s a quick example of a lesson that I’ve done twice now, with pretty good results. In my course on the American Civil War Era (current and past), I devote several of my classes to discussing the consequences of emancipation for freedpeople. One of my major goals is to help students appreciate the range of different circumstances in which freedpeople found themselves. In one class, I do this by distributing a packet of four primary sources, all of which are available online, and then break students into groups to discuss the four sources.

So long as at least four students in the class have a laptop with them, I can also do this next step: I direct students to this Google spreadsheet, whose settings are usually such that anyone with the link can edit the sheet. I ask each group to answer a series of questions about the document–when and where the episode described took place, the circumstances under which laborers are working, and so on. Each group edits the document simultaneously, and I have it displayed on a screen in the classroom so that everyone can see everyone else’s edits as they happen.

At the end of the exercise, we "rank" how well each case met the expectations and desires of freedpeople (which have been discussed in previous classes). And by having the spreadsheet before us, we are then able to have a discussion about which variables seem to correlate most strongly to situations that benefited freedpeople’s interests. In this case, what I want them to see is that the date (during the war, or after), the state, and the presence of the military helped determine the nature of the post-emancipation labor contracts that developed.

That’s one way I use Google Docs in the classroom. Please share other tips if you have them!

New light on a Lincoln quote

In an age of word clouds, topic modeling, text mining, and infinite archives, it’s not surprising that many discussions about digital history focus on the “big” uses of things like keyword searching and digitized texts. For historians, access to huge archives of online text raises important questions about how to read—and how not to read—a million books. Big archives also create exciting opportunities for visualization and text analysis like Building the Digital Lincoln, Rob Nelson’s Mining the Dispatch, and Cameron Blevins’ work on Martha Ballard’s diary.

But with all these exciting new ventures, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that simple keyword searches can still offer historians new insights into old sources. One of my most exciting “Aha!” moments (the moments researchers live for) came not along ago when I decided to enter a simple text string from one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches into the search box on ProQuest’s database of historical New York Times newspapers. I did one search, and got exactly one result. But that was enough to enable me to shed some new light on an old Lincoln quote.

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The Case of John L. Brown

Last Friday, I was very fortunate to be a presenter at the annual conference of the Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World program at the College of Charleston. This year’s topic, “Civil War–Global Conflict,” attracted a great slate of fascinating papers.

Best of all, the conference organizers asked for presenters to pre-circulate drafts of any length, so the sessions were devoted mostly to discussion. I’m posting the paper that I circulated for the conference in Rice’s digital repository (here’s how and why), and I would welcome any feedback about the paper if you have a chance to read it. Click below for a full abstract.

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Transnational History and the Civil War Era

On Monday, October 18, I was very honored to participate in a roundtable at the University of Houston on “New Directions in the Study of the Civil War Era,” sponsored by the Center for Public History and the Department of History at UH and organized by Eric Walther. The other members of the panel were John Barr (a newly minted UH history Ph.D who has written a great dissertation about anti-Lincoln sentiment in American history), Vernon Burton, Gerald Horne, James Oakes, and Frank Wetta.

Each presenter only had about 5-7 minutes to make some comments before the floor was opened for questions and discussion. And that discussion generated a lot of interesting points that I’m still thinking about and processing a week and a half later. But for now, I thought I would belatedly share my very brief prepared comments.

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