Tag: Doing History (Page 1 of 3)

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.

Digital Note-taking in the History Classroom, part 2

Lately I have been working on a web project called Spanish Borderlands with Raphael Folsom. The basic idea for the project is that students in Raphael’s upper division history course on the Spanish colonial borderlands will read primary sources and take notes into an online web database. Rather than each student creating their own stack of 3×5 note cards on their readings, their notes will collectively pool in a Drupal system that can then be searched by bibliographic or thematic content. Raphael can model good note-taking for his students and the students can share their notes when it comes time to write their analytical papers. For more information on this project, see my earlier post, Digital Note-taking in the History Classroom.

Adding Related Cards to Our Displays

One of the fun parts of working on this project with Raphael is brainstorming desired features for the site and then figuring out whether or not I can actually build them.

One of Raphael’s ideas was that every notecard in our database would include lists of related notecards at the bottom of the screen. Thus all notecards related to the same primary source would be listed. In a second list, all notecards related to the same author of the primary source would be listed. Additional lists might include all notecards by the same notetaker or all notecards related to the same place.

Screen shot of the related cards tab on SpanishBorderlands

As students are entering notes, they will be able to see what other notecards exist. When it comes time to write their papers, they can either do searches across the database or crawl through the database based on these lists of matching cards.

Technical Process

Drupal Views Contextual Filtering by Field Value

I wanted to document how this works technically, because I couldn’t find a straight-forward statement of how to do this anywhere online. The payoff is two lines of PHP, so if you’re not a Drupal user or a complete nerd, I’d suggest stopping here.

Technically speaking, we wanted to embed a table of nodes on each note-card content display. I’m using Drupal 7, so the Views module is great for generating tables. The challenge was how to filter the table to only show those nodes that match the pertinent field from whatever card I happen to be viewing. Thus I needed to set up a system that would pass the value for the field from the node when I call it, to a filter to produce the desired view table.

Drupal Views has filters that are fairly easy to set up. You can use this to make sure you’re only looking at one type of content, only published records, or only records that match certain criteria. You can then publish these views as a web page or a Drupal block that can be part of a web page. You can also expose a filter so that a visitor to that web page table can filter across a field for their desired results.

Screen shot of a Drupal View highlighting the filter section.

The limitation on filters is that you need to set the value of a field or allow the user to set the value of a field. It cannot be used to filter dynamically according to the value of a field in a node. For this functionality, you need to use contextual filters. The common uses of contextual filters are to build a block that can be added into a page including all nodes in a similar taxonomic category or all nodes by the same user. Drupal handles taxonomies and users very well and has these functionalities built into contextual filters in a fairly straight forward way.

Contextual filters does not have similar functionalities for dynamically filtering by a field value. In order to do this, you need to use PHP to generate the value for the filter. In the example below, I have told my view to filter by the field Source Author. If I wanted this to always filter for the value “John Doe,” I could simply type in “John Doe” and the filter would work. But I wanted the table to pull the “Source Author” from the piece of content currently being viewed and filter the table for that value. To do this, I use the following two lines of PHP:

$node = menu_get_object();
return $node->field_author[LANGUAGE_NONE][0][‘value’];

The first line of this code tells the system to pull the information for the current node. The second line “returns” the first value of the field “field_author.” The code thus pulls the value of the “field_author” to the contextual filter, which then filters the table to show all matching results. If I wanted to filter by another field, for example to show all cards related to the same bibliographic source, I could change “field_author”  to “field_source.”

Screen shot of the contextual filter by php menu in Drupal Views

Using this contextual filter, I produced a view that shows me a table of all nodes that share the given field with the node currently being viewed.

I repeated this process to produce several of these views producing tables matching different fields. Next I used the QuickTabs module to produce something called a QuickTabs block. This allows me to tab between my multiple table views of related cards.

A third module called Display Suite allows me to add my QuickTab block to the content display as a custom dynamic field.

Screen shot of the Drupal content display panel depicting Display Suites custom fields

Having built my contextually filtered views, compiled them into a tabbed display, and embedded those tabs into my content display, I now have my Related Cards tables viewable on each note-card in the system:

Screen shot of the related cards tab on SpanishBorderlands

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