Writing On The Past, Literally (Actually, Virtually)

Crocodoc Screenshot Baez Time 4

annotation as a means for getting students writing on history.

In the first weekly assignment for Digitizing Folk Music History, students use the digital annotation tool Crocodoc to write directly on the past. Which is to say, students are able to annotate archival and historical documents in their digital form (Crocodoc is one of a number of annotation tools out there, see for instance MIT’s Annotation Studio). Students in my course are able not only to write on historical materials in the sense that they can explore the topic of the revival, they can also quite literally (though more accurately, virtually) make marks upon the documents themselves. They can, in some sense, now touch the documents, draw on them, comment on them, and overlay their own experience of reading directly onto and into the material itself.

However, they do all this in a rather paradoxical fashion since they are after all in fact viewing not the artifacts themselves, but instead the digital surrogates of the archival artifacts. Such are the ironies of the digital medium: distance provides a new kind of immediacy, the retreat from the material dimensions of the material to the virtual ones in fact allows a new kind of material access.

What does all this play and paradox mean however? It signals many things, from the need for new ontological and epistemological understandings of historical evidence in the digital epoch to the opportunity for new kinds of tactics of historical inquiry that harness what the digital can do (and make sense of what it cannot).

Pedagocially, I have found that annotation is a vital way to get students more “into” history in all senses of the preposition. It demystifies evidence while also enlarging its significance. It reminds students, or gets them to consider for the first time, the vexing but powerful ways in which history is constituted by interpretations of evidence, of artifacts, and of all that they reveal or conceal, disguise or simply ignore.

It also quickly gets students thinking about scale: how does the microscopic from one article relate to macroscopic understandings of the folk revival writ large (sung large?)? How does this detail over here (say an image of Joan Baez on the cover of Time magazine in 1962 relate to an advertisement next to the article about Baez and the folk revival for the 1963 Chevrolet Corvair Monza (an ad clearly geared to women who might aspire to be like or at least admire Baez)? Annotation becomes a way of enlivening awareness of details and of their relationships to other details. It challenges students to notice things and to make meaning of them as if the past were a puzzle of myriad details caught up (or sometimes even missing) in the artifacts we deem our evidentiary basis for historical interpretation.

Crocodoc Screenshot Baez Time 3

It also invites students to lose themselves in this great mass of details, to glimpse the great mess of the past from which history is forged, made, and, potentially, remade again and again in relation to different uses of different bits of evidence. In this sense, my annotation assignment works against the grain (against the bitstream?) of contemporary developments in the digital humanities. I ask students not to speed up analysis, not to harness computational means to do previously laborious scholarly activities more quickly but rather precisely the opposite: I want them to use the digital to slow down (as in, since we’re working on the folk revival, “slow down, you move to fast”—sorry couldn’t resist).

Digital technology does not make details more seamless and flowing in this case, as in little modular bits and bytes of data that can be algorithmically analyzed as a whole (though that’s worth doing too). Rather, it makes the details more sticky and firm. The dematerialization of artifacts into code allows, through annotation, for a kind of re-materialization of evidence in its many discrete and multidimensional parts. The ability for digitized artifacts and annotations of them to converge in one space on our screens offers a new kind of sensitivity to particularity. Modularity and flow enliven particularity and singularity.

Crocodoc Screenshot Baez Time 5

Table Crocodoc Screenshot Baez

Annotation also slows down the path from evidence to argument by asking students to do more of the connective work of description and explanation: not just why this detail or that one, but also, more simply, what is this detail? What do you see? What do you here? What is there in the evidence? Then, one might begin to ask not just what is the analytic end to which the detail led, but also how can you, as historian, document through annotation the path from evidence to description to significance? One cannot, in this version of annotation, as easily jump to conclusions, as it were. One must instead spend more time making sense of how details can serve as the fuel for the engine of historical meaning-making.

And that particular detail that emerges from working on digital annotation does not merely have significance for history or for digital humanities, but also for the ways in which we make convincing arguments and arrive at particular stances and opinions in the contemporary world: as thinkers, as observers, as democratic citizens.

Next up: Timelines.

More from Digitizing Folk Music History 2014 Edition.

More on the Digital Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project.

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