Graduate Students Collaborate with Digital Paxton Project
Graduate students Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt partnered with PhD student Will Fenton of Fordham University to create pedagogical tools to that expand engagement with his site Digital Paxton: A Digital Archive and Critical Edition of the Paxton Pamphlet War. Their work was recently published on the site. We asked Kate, Marie, and Kelly how they got involved with the project, what they learned about digital projects, and how they have evolved as public history practitioners.
How did you come to work on this project?
MP: We’re in Dr. Roberts' "The Revolution Will be Digitized" (HIST 361) course this semester. It's an undergraduate course, and as grad students the three of us got together and decided that we wanted to go deeper into the digital projects that Dr. Roberts had assigned. We were thinking of ways to do that, and we came up with two: contributing to the Paxton Papers site and putting together a digital critical edition of Common Sense.
KS: Fordham University English Ph.D. student Will Fenton spoke about his Digital Critical Edition of the papers produced during the Paxton Pamphlet wars in our course. As part of the class, we transcribed some of the handwritten letters of the "Friendly Association" papers. Kate, Marie, and I enjoyed the process so much that we offered to write a set of guidelines to help future transcribers participate in the process.
MP: Working on the Frederick Douglass project came out of wanting to help Will Fenton set up a system to crowdsource transcriptions from people. Dr. Roberts suggested that we help with the Frederick Douglass event and that we take a survey of the people who attended, in hopes of understanding what people struggled with and what worked so we could apply that to our transcription project with Digital Paxton.
What was working on the Frederick Douglass Transcribe-a-thon like?
KJ: What a fantastic event! It was a privilege to be part of such a special project, and to see so many students engaging with and appreciating historical work. We developed and administered surveys to the participants of the event, and I really enjoyed going through their answers and seeing what elements of the project and event they connected with most.
KS: It was inspiring to take part in the Frederick Douglass Transcribe-a-thon and see how it made participants feel they were contributing to something meaningful. Making this set of papers more accessible at a particularly poignant moment in our political history was a subtle form of activism that felt even more powerful given the large turnout to the event. The video broadcasting and digital platforms enabled us to sense that we were part of an event taking place across the country.
What do you think are some of the benefits to working on digital projects like this, in regards to engaging students and different publics?
KJ: Digital projects like the Paxton Project allow for such a wider and more diverse audience to have access to the incredible materials that archives, universities, and museums hold. Not only that, but these kinds of projects also allow students, scholars, and the interested public to engage in dialogue about these materials, and offer new perspectives and insights.
MP: I think digital projects have a lot of benefits, particularly when working with students. They offer an immediate result in the way other projects don't; if you transcribe something in FromThePage for the Paxton Papers, you can see right away what your transcription looks like, and it doesn't take long for it to get up on the Paxton Papers site. Digital projects have a lot of potential for engagement, particularly when they're related to topical issues. And it's easy to sell digital projects to students as skills that they will use in the future.
KS: Our surveys from the Transcribe-a-thon emphasized several lessons about engaging diverse publics in an event such as this one. We noted that setting was key in making participants feel like this history, and their contributions to its documentation and dissemination, were important. Through speeches, song, and food, the Transcribe-a-thon organizers were able to effectively emphasize the mission, purpose, and relevance of the project.
What are some of the challenges to digital projects, again in regards to engaging students and different publics?
KJ: With a wider audience and more diverse perspectives, you also have a greater variance in prior knowledge and understanding. It can be tricky to bridge that gap between meeting people where they are at in terms of understanding the subject, and still allowing for more complex analysis.
MP: I think one of the biggest challenges is assessing your audience and their needs. Particularly with students, we assume that because they're our age, they are also digital natives and comfortable with whatever technology we hand to them, but that's not always the case. And the audience for the Douglass project--and for Paxton--isn't just students, so that's a whole other set of audience expectations to take into account. Sometimes, too, it's hard to articulate why a particular project should be digital. The timeliness and relevance to modern social issues made the Frederick Douglass event easy to pitch, but I've found that other things, like our Common Sense project, are harder to pitch to non-historians as being important.
KS: Our observations of the event and our survey results also pointed to some concerns regarding the ethics of inclusion. Problems of accessibility, such as limited access to laptops and unclear directions on when and how to start transcribing, hindered some participants’ ability to actively engage in the process of transcribing. Additionally, the structure of the transcription platform controlled participants’ ability to find a page not yet transcribed, as well as the ease with which they could complete transcriptions. We learned through this that it is important to clearly outline directions both verbally and on paper, and make sure users have the equipment needed and the knowledge to navigate it at the beginning of the event.
How has this project shaped you as a public historian? What did you learn about public history practice and yourselves as practitioners?
KJ: I think this project really helped me gain a clearer appreciation for the skills and perspectives public historians bring to the table. There's a lot of fantastic work happening in the academic sphere, but it takes more than simply posting it on the web to share it with the public.
MP: I think this project has helped me think about audience. With the Frederick Douglass project, we were able to collect feedback from our participants and get a sense of how we could have made it better; it was a chance to implement audience feedback into the project we did with Will Fenton and the Paxton Papers. I think this was really important; even though we weren't able to put together another transcribe-a-thon, which was one of our original goals, we learned a lot about how to make one both successful and relevant.
How would you like to see the project move forward?
KJ: I think the Paxton project has a lot of potential for classrooms. It's a fantastic way to get students interacting with and thinking about primary sources.
MP: I think it would be great to do another transcribe-a-thon with Will Fenton and the Paxton Papers!
KS: It would be great to see people start using our guidelines to assist the Paxton Project in transcribing its documents. I would love to see Will host a crowdsourcing event, or to have educators use our transcription guidelines as a pedagogical tool in their classrooms. We’ve shared the results of our survey with Will Fenton as well as the organizers of the Frederick Douglass Transcribe-a-Thon. We hope that the patterns they reveal will result in even more effective and fulfilling crowdsourced transcription events in the future.