Internship Post #8

Post 8:  Reflect on your internship and complete this sentence: “Because of my internship, I am….”

In response to the post #8 assignment, I have three observations to make.  First, “I am grateful” for the opportunity to have worked for the Smithsonian Institution’s (SI) Folklife and Cultural Heritage Department. Having lived in Washington DC for over 40 years, working for the Smithsonian has always been high on my bucket list. Second, “I am more aware” of how digital humanities and information technologies are transforming organizations.  And finally, “I am better prepared” to assist other organizations with this transformation. 

The George Mason University’s digital public humanities program taught me that that “digital tools and resources are transforming the ways in which organizations research, interpret, and communicate.” Today, the Internet and social media overshadow almost all other traditional public media. However, with all transformations there are often many challenges to overcome. For example, with the introduction of new digital tools, there is often a hesitancy to make a complete break with legacy processes.

As a result of my internship, I have learned that organizations need to orchestrate new strategic approaches that encourage their workforce to experiment with and ultimately adopt new digital tools.  In the past, information technology was centrally managed, and new digital tools were introduced cautiously. But today, mobile apps and cloud-based applications are being created with breath taking speed. In addition, large organizations are having a difficult time preventing various departments and individuals from purchasing and deploying new digital tools.

During the past academic year, I was able to participate in two SI projects; one called American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots and the other called Earth Optimism.

The Smithsonian is involved with a variety of interesting educational projects and is a leader in adopting new information technologies.  The institution was a wonderful environment for a digital humanities student to gain work experiences.  According to the Smithsonian’s strategic plan, its goal is to “build on its unique strengths to engage and to inspire more people, where they are, with greater impact, while catalyzing critical conversation on issues affecting our nation and the world.” In regard to the office I worked for, Folklife and Cultural Heritage, its mission is the following: “through the power of culture, we build understanding, strengthen communities, and reinforce our shared humanity.”

The best part of being an intern at SI was observing and learning from a wide and diverse group of dedicated staff.  At the Smithsonian, digital humanities is playing a major role in how information is collected, stored, and shared.  One of my responsibilities was to assist with the launch of a new website “American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots.” Since the project was already well underway, there was not much I could offer in the way of web development. However, by arriving at such a late stage in the project, I could provide user experience with the site and offer some objective perspectives.

American Ginseng presents the shared stories of a wide variety of people with intimate knowledge of the harvest, cultivation, trade, medicinal use, and conservation of this fascinating plant. I also assisted with the development of a social media strategy and toolkit to help with the promotions of the launch of American Ginseng. The toolkit included the graphic presented above, #GinsengFolklife hashtag, and suggested language for Facebook groups to post links to the new site.  In addition, I was able to produce an introductory video that highlighted a Ginseng conference held in Ohio. The video also provided an audio-visual component to marketing the website.

I witnessed how challenging it can be to introduce new technologies, especially in an organization with established procedures and process. I was able to demonstrate the use of a new artificial intelligence (AI) based technology to extract metadata from video content.  I leveraged the AI process to transcribe text from the video taken at the event. The transcriptions saved time in identifying sound bites and determining what video to use in the editing process.

In addition to the American Ginseng project, I also worked with SI’s Earth Optimism (EO) team. EO is a rebranding of the original Earth Day which dates back to April 22, 1970 and was intended to generate awareness of the need for environmental protection. In 2017 the Smithsonian launched Earth Optimism to refocus the world’s attention away from the gloom and doom associated with climate change to a more positive message. At this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, Earth Optimism will be featured for the first time. The EO team is planning many activities and displays including a small tent theater, where visitors will be able to watch videos on Earth Optimism projects from around the world. One of my assignments has been reviewing recently produced SI videos on climate change and the environment.  I prepared a spreadsheet with criteria to determine which videos are of high quality and reflect EO themes, as well as transcribed or captioned to meet current accessibility standards.

As part of this process, I learned a lot about the need for federal agencies to ensure that videos are “open captioned.”  This includes burned in captions, with descriptive text including audio context.  I realized that the Smithsonian currently contracts out this service, but the fact that a number of videos were not captioned reflects the budgetary constraints on ensuring all produced videos meet current standards.  I determined that recent advances in AI technology now make video transcribing and captioning more economical for the Smithsonian. I recommended to the EO team to consider testing this technology to determine feasibility.   

I also learned that the success of adopting a new technology usually comes from the organization’s perceived value of a new digital tool versus a legacy system, or an older process. In the case of burning in captions, the Smithsonian’s legacy process required contracting out the service. But I was able to demonstrate that existing online applications could accomplish the task at a drastically reduced cost and quicker turn around. It is clear that employees need to know that they will not be penalized for experimenting with or introducing new digital tools. In the future, the need to adopt new digital public humanities technology will only grow. Especially if organizations are going to keep up with their mission to “research, interpret, and communicate.”

My internship experience demonstrated that there is an evolutionary process in adopting DH technologies. For example, the Smithsonian embraced content management technologies, especially digital asset management years ago. But for the most part this has been more text based. Today, there is a demonstrable need for media asset management, especially with the exponential growth of audio and video files. As a result, the need to automate the process of summarizing media content by extracting metadata, is becoming a high priority.

In conclusion, my internship helped me understand that after forty years, digital humanities is no longer about the technology.  Rather it is what an organization can do with technology, and who ultimately can have access to the information.  What I learned from the Smithsonian, is that all organizations are challenged by their role as a gatekeeper of knowledge. However, I was glad to see that the Smithsonian recognized the need to constantly reevaluate its strategic approach to new technologies, especially artificial intelligence.  I believe this will assist them in their mission to share information and to engage with audiences.

Teaching & Learning History Uncategorized

Historical Thinking

U.S. Army officers on a staff walk at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

The United States military uses staff walks at Civil War battlefields to teach new officers that history matters. While military tactics and technologies have changed in 160 years there is still much to learn from the past. These staff walks demonstrate a few of the principles we are learning in our class about teaching history.

Author Sam Wineburg, (Thinking about Historical Thinking) states that reading about history and truly experiencing it are two different things. He points out that it takes an extraordinary amount of effort to conjure up or imagine a world that we have not lived in. For Wineburg “Historical Thinking” requires students to be immersed in the range of opinion in the day and become familiar with ideas or logics that seem “anathema” in the 21st century. For officers in 2021 it is difficult to comprehend how soldiers fought side by side in ranks and willingly exposed themselves to enemy fire. Yet, in the 19th century that is how armies fought.

In “Thinking Historically,” Stephane Levesque challenges the old paradigm of teaching memory-history. In this model teachers are more concerned about students accumulating information, such as dates of events, and names of people and places, rather than being taught how to critically investigate. Instead Levesque proposes that teachers guide their students to create their own “defensible” historic interpretations. In essence, teach them to be historians by learning how to become more empathetic. To accomplish this students need to see the connection between primary source material and interpretation.

During their staff walks, these young officers can draw upon the readings of first hand accounts and official records of the battle from those that actually fought. These primary sources allow the officers to draw their own conclusions or interpretations as to whether the historical participants acted accordingly to military doctrine and tactics of the day. Walking the battlefield provides a brief but important immersive experience to better understand the event.

Finally, Dr. Lendol Calder, in “Uncoverage,” identifies the historical paradox in teaching history. Instead of trying to “Cover” history, by providing volumes of information, teachers should instead be providing their students the means to “Uncover” history. Calder believes this can be accomplished by focusing on a “signature pedagogy” that provides students with ways of being taught that requires them to “do, think, and value what practitioners in the field are doing, thinking, and valuing.” According to Calder, students can be taught this signature pedagogy by encouraging them to ask the big questions, such as “what is history, why study it, and what problems trouble historical knowledge?”

So, what are some of the questions about teaching history we can learn from these staff walks? First, in teaching students about a specific historical period why is it important to have them study relevant opinions drawn from primary sources? Second, while studying events, people, and places is important, how can we also teach students to interpret history? Finally, how can we get students to think like a historian, and ask relevant questions?

As you can guess, the answer to these questions lies in a better understanding of “historical thinking.” In order for us to be better history teachers we need to provide our students with the tools to not just learn what we already know, but how to go deeper and retrieve what is not yet uncovered. To do this, we have to help our students construct a more accurate picture or framework of history., This can be accomplished by demonstrating and encouraging students to do the following in their history projects:

  • Seek out multiple accounts & perspectives
  • Learn how to analyze primary sources
  • Better understand historical context
  • Establish “claim-evidence” connections

The military has understood these concepts for years. They know that studying old Civil War battles is not always relevant to today’s modern warfare. But as Levesque points out the student who is led “to look at matters historically, has some mental equipment for a comprehension of the political and social problems that will confront him in everyday life.”

Public History Uncategorized

Project Progress Report 3/8/21

I am pleased to report that there has been much progress in starting the “Mapping the Civil War in Arlington” project. The basic site theme and layout has been worked out. Also I have started populating dozens of items in the hosted Omeka platform. I think the first challenge that needed to be overcome was understanding the item, collection, exhibit hierarchy that Omeka provides inside the box. Then ensuring that item definitions, and collection descriptions were logical. Finally, the were the need to conceptualize how exhibits were going to be developed.

At this point in the project, a persistent problem is inputing the metadata and tags. There is a reason that this type of work is specialized. Since I consider myself a forest type of person, working on the individual trees seems tedious and laborious. Building this collection right, will take some time and some other sets of eyes.

For this reason, I also want to include a contribution feature to encourage other people to upload files and the associated metadata. I would compare this to Tom Sawyer encouraging other boys to paint the fence. It is my understanding that Omeka has a plugin that supports this feature. I am seeking some assistance to help me set this up.

One bright spot so far is the “mapping feature” that Omeka provides. Since the title of my project includes the word mapping, having the ability to place an identifier on a map to locate a geographic reference to an item is pretty cool. I think for students this will be a popular feature, especially if they want to see if anything happened in Arlington near where they live.

For next week I am going to spend time on better defining tags and collections. Also, I am planning on creating specialized pages for resources, videos, and lesson plans. I realize that the collection or curating process is reiterative and it is necessary to revisit and constantly add information as necessary.

Finally, it did not take too long to get familiar with the Omeka platform. The basic functionality and navigation are well thought out. I’m glad to see that you can add additional themes, and someday, if my grant is awarded, hire a graphic designer to create my own custom theme. Words of advise to those that will someday have to do a similar project. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Do your homework and review collection sites that work well. This will make all the difference in feeling confident to proceed.


Happy New School Year

Greetings to all of my fellow returning GMU classmates.  For those that I have not already met please let me introduce myself. My names is Peter Vaselopulos and I am recently retired from the United States Agency for Global Media/Voice of America, where I was the Deputy Chief Information Officer.  I have an MS in Managing Information Systems from GW, and a MA in International Communications from American U.  I’m working on this certificate program because I am very interested in Arlington’s Civil War history.  I’m currently involved with a historic preservation effort to save one of the few remaining open space properties in Arlington where Union soldiers camped.  Check out the link and sign the petition  I wish I had taken this class before getting involved with the effort.  For the moment I’m experiencing Public History in realtime.  Looking forward to this class and learning what we could have done differently. One of my goals for the semester is learning more about Omeka. I would like to use it as a repository for Civil War digital records for Arlington’s Historical Society.



The focus of this blog posting is to determine the pros and cons of using crowdsourced knowledge. Many of us can still remember our parents purchasing encyclopedia sets. They became a valuable resource to complete our homework assignments and book reports. But even then we warned by teachers not to totally depend upon them as a sole resource. So it goes with Wikipedia. As defined in its logo, it is the “free” encyclopedia, and as we all know, you usually get what you pay for.

The concept behind Wikipedia is quite eloquent. Contributors and editors working online attempt to objectively crowdsource in realtime a scholarly article on a particular topic. Since the process is dynamic, knowledge becomes incremental and transformative. Centuries earlier, scholars “crowdsourced” by writing and sharing letters. While a much slower process, this effort did contribute to a period of “enlightenment”. However the problem facing us today, is the process may be too easy and quick. As a result, the veracity or truthfulness of the information may be diminished.

For my class assignment I had to review the Wikipedia site for Digital Humanities The site started in 2006 and provides an interesting perspective as how the field of study has evolved. From my review of the site it took about ten years for the editors and contributors to finally settle on a framework to present their sourced information. During those years it appears there was a lot of back and forth in trying to better define DH and provide better reference material to aspiring students and researchers.

In reviewing the DH site it became obvious that one problem of Wikipedia has to do with the credibility of the contributors or authors. So in essence, a single source or contributor, may not be as credible as the totality of the crowd (multiple sources). On the one hand, Wikipedia is very democratic in permitting a multitude of scholarly viewpoints, but it provides a simple governance process in allowing everyone the ability to edit each other’s contributions. This hopefully keeps everyone on “honest” by making sure they back up their statements with viable scholarly sources. In essence the online equivalent of “prove it.”

Another problem with Wikipedia has to do with the online posturing or confrontations between contributors. While somewhat entertaining, it reflects a 21st century lack of civility driven by our culture’s dependency upon social media. The scholarly process does provide for an “iron striking iron” methodology to craft a final and strong product. But the relative anonymity of social media permits some contributors or editors to exhibit rude behaviors that prevent others from wanting to share information or participate in the exchange.

Finally, according to Roy Rosenzweig, in his article “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” (2006) its printed guidelines states that it’s primary goal is to “avoid bias.” Wikipedia encourages contributors to write their articles from a neutral point of view, factually and objectively. But even in it’s recommended policies, Wikipedia acknowledges that posting unbiased scholarly research is “difficult” since all articles are edited by people who are “inherently biased.”

So despite Wikipedia’s obvious challenges how should one approach the site and it’s posted articles? First, one should always start at the beginning at look at when the site was created. One of Wikipedia’s great features is that you can time travel and follow the knowledge so to speak. By tracking the posts, edits and contributions you can gain valuable insights as to what were some of the conflicts or controversies that were identified and eventually resolved.

Another guideline is to also evaluate who are making the most contributions. As with most scholarly debates, there are usually only a relatively few subject matter experts attentive to posting and editing. So it is worthwhile to check their biographies if possible. This will go a long way in determining their credibility as a source.

Wikipedia provides a lot of statistics, especially in regard to the volume and pace of editing. This is usually a good point of reference to track and review from a historical perspective. As with most new postings their usually is period of time where both contributors and editors make changes at a substantial volume then it slackens off. This lasts until a new posting somewhat stirs the pot and once again there is some agitation and changes made.

Finally, it is useful to track the “content” menu over time. This provides a valuable insight as to how the “crowd” wants to frame the “knowledge” and information being presented. In