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My Tables are Awesome

This past spring, I was having a conversation with Mia ZamoraAlan Levine, and Keegan Long Wheeler about the NetNarr course. Alan was putting together a table for a website that looked really slick, and when I asked what tool he was using, he said Awesome Tables. Four months later, I’m obsessed.

I am particularly susceptible to the charm of Awesome Tables, because I subscribe to the Tom Woodward school of using Google Sheets for everything. Awesome Tables adds a second sheet to a google spreadsheet. This second sheet has cells containing html, css, and js code, all of which format your data into an interactive table. Here’s the table that my Projects page is running:


Here’s the Google spreadsheet driving it. You can see the data on the first sheet and the code on the second.

I’m excited about this stuff for a couple of reasons:

  1. You can use the second sheet to work through basic website programming with real data and see the results by refreshing the table. I could see using this in a class to teach some basic web coding.
  2. There are about a dozen pretty nice templates built so it’s easy to quickly turn a spreadsheet into a decent looking database.
  3. Google Sheets is powerful because of the ability to use google scripts to collect data. You can use HTTP GET calls to mine data and standard javascript to parse the xml or json files into the rows of the table. You can also POST to google sheets from other web apps or use 3rd party services like Zapier or IFTTT to link it with other web apps with APIs.

There are other ways to build similar tables with bootstrap or even raw html and css, but Awesome Tables is fairly easy to use and embed. The connection between the data and the output is fairly intuitive and easy to manipulate.

By way of example of what you can do quickly and easily, here are a couple of Awesome Tables that I’ve been working on in the last couple of weeks:

Sometimes I Do History

Last week, my second article was published. Like the first, it is in an open access journal, this time Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science. While I now spend most of my time writing code or thinking about pedagogy, I still occasionally crack open a book and think about eighteenth-century history.

Lately, I’ve been reading and writing about how the basic stuff of nature, dirt, water, and air became tradable commodities. How did we go from understanding earth, water, fire, and air as the four basic elements to commodities that could be classified, measured, and traded in markets around the world.

The eighteenth-century is an interesting time period in this story, because of the simultaneous and mutually supportive advances in science and economics. Chemists like Joseph Black were working through new theories about the importance of different kinds of soil for agriculture and how the various solutes in water affected their taste, industrial uses, and medical efficacy. At the same time, his good friend, Adam Smith, was working through the foundations of modern economics.

In a digression away from chemistry and commodification, my article focused on the philosophical and religious beliefs of the economist Thomas Malthus and his famous Essay on the Principle of Population. This is the text that said that humans develop resources at a geometric rate while they, like most animals, reproduce at an exponential rate. Malthus thought it was inevitable that population would increase faster than food, and thus people would always want for food and other resources.

A diagram of the Malthusian Curve depicting the inevitable of want

Malthus’s theory has been used since the publication of his theory in 1798 to not only explain deprivation but also to justify it. Charles Darwin used the theory in the formulation of his theory of evolution by the survival of the fittest. Herbert Spencer extended the point to say that because deprivation is inevitable, it is the duty of the strongest people and strongest societies to lead.

In the 20th century, the memory of Malthus became intertwined with this Spencerian concept of might makes right. Imperialists used these theories to justify colonialism in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Eugenicists pointed to Malthus and Spencer to justify their theories of racial and class supremacy in the 1930s. From Ayn Rand to Rand Paul, this concept of social evolution has continued into the modern day with the bootstrapping, individualist economic theory that casts poverty as inevitable and the poor as undeserving.

In my paper, I returned to Thomas Malthus’s personal religious and philosophical beliefs to see whether he shared this belief that the inevitability of need is justification for social inequality. I found a Malthus that did not match the common memory. I’ll close this rambling bit of self promotion with the abstract for the paper and a link to the article.

The first edition of Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population is best understood as an exploration of human nature and the role of necessity in shaping the individual and society.  The author’s liberal education, both from his father and his tutors at Warrington and Cambridge, is evident in his heterodox views on hell, his Lockean conceptualization of the mind, and his Foxite Whig politics.  Malthus’ unpublished essay, “Crises,” his sermons, and the the last two chapters of the Essay (which were excised from subsequent editions) reveal a pragmatic, compassionate side of the young author that was under appreciated by both his contemporary critics and modern historians.  The Essay has been mischaracterized by David McNally (2000) as a “Whig response to Radicalism” and by Patricia James (1979) as a reaction by Malthus against his father’s liberalism.  This article argues that when he wrote the first edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus was himself a liberal dissenter and Foxite Whig rather than an orthodox Anglican or a Burkean defender of traditional class relations.

John Stewart, “Reform and religious heterodoxy in Thomas Robert Malthus’s first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population,” Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science 19 (2017), pp. 1-17.

I am Open (and so can you!)

The book cover for Stephen Colbert's book I am America and so Can YouFor the next few weeks, I will be taking a history course, something I thought I would never do again after I finished my dissertation. Shawn Graham is teaching an online digital history course at Carleton University and has opened it up for non-matriculating students.

The entire design of the course is fantastic for open learners. Rather than just allowing us to watch from the rafters, Shawn has set up a Slack team and is active in the channels. Shawn asks that students blog for the course and use github to keep a record of their progress in the coding exercises. The course readings are all openly accessible and Shawn has asked that the students use Hypothes.is so that their reading notes are open (you can find them in the Hypothes.is stream with the tag hist3814o).

For the first week, Shawn has assigned a set of readings on the concept of open notes research within history and the humanities more broadly. Open notes research is more commonly practiced in the sciences. Jean Claude-Bradley was advocating for the concept in chemistry as early as 2006. Open notes science improves reproducibility and verifiability of results, and it also opens up the vast array of information that is gained during research but never published.

Open notes research has been slow to catch on, and it doesn’t take long to brainstorm possible objections. Publications are the coin of the realm in academia, and sharing your research notes could possibly allow someone to scoop your ideas. However, I agree with the readings that Shawn has curated and his push during this week of the course that open notes research is the best practice. Clearly, as I am writing this blog, I feel that sharing my thought processes helps me to clarify my thoughts and develop my understanding of my research. Sharing our reading notes with Hypothes.is and collecting our code in GitHub take this a step further. We’re thinking, reading, and experimenting (coding) out loud.

I am taking Shawn’s course, because I want to see how he uses Slack, and because I think the course design is fantastic. I’m already a convert for open notes research and have blogged about it repeatedly hereherehere and in many other posts. This site as a whole is an argument for open notes research and the related ideas of getting rid of disposable assignments and empowering students to contribute to a broader knowledge community. However, I did enjoy the week’s readings, especially Caleb McDaniel’s post that turned me on to open notes research a few years ago. I look forward to joining in for the exercises next week (this week everyone was learning MarkDown and Git). Most of all, I want to encourage any readers in the ed tech world who have not taken a digital history or digital humanities course to at least poke around Shawn’s course to see the wonderful overlap between that knowledge domain and the current ed tech focus on digital literacy and citizenship.

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