The Spring semester of 2019 is now drawing to a close. Overall, I am glad I took this class. I learned about many different digital methods that historians and academics in related fields use to analyze and present topics of interest related to history to various audiences. While slavery was not really on the top of my list in terms of topics I was eager to research, I nonetheless could appreciate the amount of quality work that was and is currently being done by academics and even volunteers in an effort to keep the conversation going about the complicated topic of slavery. The time it takes to not only write a transcript of a letter or other primary source material but also detailed, descriptive metadata as well as do a close reading of the material to be able to write a narrative or make an argument is mind-boggling, as I have now experienced this process first-hand thanks to this class. I commend the people who do this kind of work.
As the semester has gone on, I have gotten bogged down with more and more work in the class to the point where I haven’t fully been able to catch up. Still, my thinking has changed over time with regard to my knowledge of the uses of digital methods and historical thinking because of the class and the activities I have done throughout the semester. Within the first few weeks of the semester, my classmates and I were given an introduction to historical thinking skills we would be developing throughout the semester. This primer was very useful to me and is something that I can take away from this course even after it is over. Some of what we learned was typical of what I had learned in my past years of schooling about understanding a resource and researching a topic. On the other hand, I also learned about how historians think, giving me insight into a mindset that allows me to explore historical materials more deeply.
Over the next few weeks, we learned about different kinds of digital tools historians use to analyze historical materials. The only tool I was already somewhat familiar with was ESRI, though I hadn’t used the StoryMap tool before; I just worked with geospatial data in a class I took in the past. The other tools, including MALLET, Voyant, the narrative map tools like StoryMap JS, and Flourish, all have their uses and are good to know for anyone looking into doing historical data analyses and making visualizations of the information learned from such analyses. As I learned about these different tools, I was struck by the wide variety of methods historians and other academics can use to analyze a set of materials. For example, if a researcher wanted to identify topics in a large set of text-heavy documents, the use of a text analysis tool like Voyant could cut down on time significantly rather than combing through the material manually.
Now that I have more of an understanding of how to think like a historian and use digital tools and methods, I have revisited my visualization about the number of enslaved people embarked and disembarked on Intra-American slave trade voyages to revise it. The revised edition can be found here: https://public.flourish.studio/visualisation/338756/. I changed the dependent variable from number of people embarked and disembarked, which wasn’t telling much of a story, to mortality rate. I also decided to use the database for Trans-Atlantic voyages in addition to the Intra-American voyage database. That way, there would be a comparison between the two types of voyages, which may be of interest to someone wanting to compare the two experiences. Finally, I added a source attribution at the bottom of the new visualization, which was missing in my first data visualization.
I think the growth in my understanding of how to visualize data is reflected in the changes that could be seen from my old visualization to the new one. My first piece, I feel, did not convey a particularly compelling message. Comparing the total number of enslaved people that embarked with the total number disembarked does show some change over time, but there wasn’t much to be concluded other than that Intra-American slave voyages didn’t have a significant rate of disappearance and death of enslaved passengers and that the number of people embarked in 25 year intervals continually increased from 1626 to 1800. Having raw numbers can be somewhat compelling, but the barely visible changes between the number embarked and the number disembarked didn’t seem to warrant much of a need for the comparison. My new visualization, in contrast, has a more interesting story to tell. Using a mortality rate in percentage terms makes each death more significant and may compel the viewer to want to learn more. Comparing the Trans-Atlantic voyages with the Intra-American voyages show how the former were more deadly compared to the latter. I think this is another point I feel the former visualization lacked. These differences show how I have evolved my thinking in constructing data visualizations.
I would like to close this reflection with some thoughts on the kind of work I would like to do and approaches I would like to learn going forward. Though I am not too interested in continuing to learn about historical methods or pursue the topic of slavery, as my major is in the environmental sciences, there are several approaches that interest me. I have some experience with programming languages like R and Python, so I have worked with some packages for text analysis and data visualization. This class, Doing Digital History, has helped expose me to other tools that could be used to do those things. I am highly interested in looking into more specialized tools like Voyant. I also haven’t really done much with MALLET yet, so I would like to learn more about how to use that tool. I think the broad topics taught to me by this course really gave me a good taste of the kinds of digital tools that I could use to perform data analysis applied to my area of study.