Blog

Nearing the End: Reflection and Farewell

This past semester has been a great time learning some new tidbits about history and meeting two kindhearted professors. I’m not originally from Virginia (actually quite new, my first-year post-pandemic), so any history associated with the state is new to me. I loved learning about the ladies of Occoquan Workhouse through my historical research project. Learning about the Night of Terror was especially heart-wrenching. I found the horrors they went through is something that can be easily taken for granted by those who already reaped the benefits from their suffering; it really brings perspective into how far we have gotten. In terms of improving my understanding of how to use technology, especially in relation to my sociology major, I’m grateful for being exposed to excel, believe it or not, I’ve never used it before! I was able to learn what a tidy data set is, and how to make tidy data sets, it was especially helpful being put out into breakout rooms allowing me to learn with other students. Group collaborations were great, something I wish would have been slightly more incorporated, especially due to it being a zoom class. Having a connection with the other students makes it feel like an in-person class. I digress– back to tidy data sets! Being a sociology major, I’m going to come across more history for future courses. For example, for a gender and society course, I’ll be taking next semester, I’m going to be able to create tidy data for stats on topics because sociology and history go hand in hand. Even if my future courses don’t call for it, learning a skill and being able to implement it is better than never knowing it at all. Another aspect of technology that I’ve learned in this history course is the existence of Knightlabs! In general, I am familiar with timelines and spatial mapping, however, I’ve never been able to create a timeline as easily as I was able to with the Knightlab feature. It was also great to learn about some GMU history, especially since this was my first semester! The four literacies were reassuring to learn. I felt some aspects (such as copyright and ethics) were especially interesting due to having such fine lines in terms of legality. In terms of history, I’m glad to have learned about the certificate of deaths of some of the men (Charles Brown, Nathaniel Howard, Thomas Wilcox, etc) who history may have forgotten, even if we didn’t get as much information as we could have it renders as a reminder that they existed. It was a wonderful semester, and I’m glad I got to spend it with both Professor Oberle and Professor Fahringer.

The Final Blog

There is an unlimited number of ways historians could represent primary sources into data. For example, in order to analyze and interpret the past, historians can use raw evidence to dig further into their studies and broaden their knowledge on the cases they are studying. Primary sources can come in the form of journal entries, diaries, speeches, interviews, even donation receipts! (In reference to our Creating Tidy Data assignment) Oftentimes, when historians are studying history from the deep past, information can become muffled in confusing context and can leave blank findings. However, when historians are given a journal or any other source, they can create a tidy data set with the information at hand to neatly organize their findings, as well as simplifying the truths of history– this is evidence of the past after all! 

In class, we’ve looked at several primary sources, the two that come to mind immediately are; the death certificates and the more recent one, the curators’ record of donations. The death certificates gave us an idea of who died in the fires and when they died (though, they all would have been the same day unless they had only sustained injuries). We were able to curate a tidy data set based on our findings, and recognize those of the past; to be able to acknowledge their passing one last time is one of the greatest gifts of history. In our curators’ record of donations task, we were able to split up the data into categories to better organize the information the documents were giving us. These primary sources can be represented as data through the use of excel sheets or Google spread. Laying out and organizing the guidelines of your evidence decreases the chance of error, as well as having an aesthetically pleasing data set. Avoiding confusion and stress is one of many keys to a successful historical research project. 

The advantages of considering primary sources as data are beneficial in understanding while also acknowledging they are pieces of evidence from the past. Wickham’s principles of tidy data are each variable forms a column, each observation forms a row, and that each type of observational unit forms a table. I had previously made this point on a former blog, however, I will restate it due to its importance: it is imperative that scholars understand that organized formatting can truly help elevate research findings while simplifying complex information. 

Hadley Wickham, “Tidy Data,” Journal of Statistical Software 59, no. 10 (August 2014)

Introducing the History of the Occoquan Workhouse

After thorough consideration and some back and forth between which topic I would like to dedicate my research paper to, I have the pleasure of learning more about the inmates in Occoquan Workhouse, now referred to as the Lorton Correctional Complex. I’m interested in learning more about the jail facility that was responsible for imprisoning female suffragettes who were caught picketing the White House demanding their right to vote. With a history of misconduct, overcrowding, and corruption, the Occoquan Workhouse will be a topic I can dive deep into and uncover the rich history that potentially hastened and encouraged the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Prior to hearing about the Occoquan Workhouse, I had a special interest in the prison system and in particular the corruption and advancement that often is associated with both the law and law enforcement. I am hoping to analyze some of the facts and the history associated with the women who were imprisoned in the District of Columbia in December of 1917. A specific quote from Trouillot that immediately stuck out to me when I thought of the rehabilitation system was, “power is unproblematic, irrelevant to the construction of the narrative as such. At best, history is a story about power, a story about those who won.” (p.5). Often we can forget that history isn’t a form of fiction due to our more recent understanding of history being far attached from the past, however, we must not forget to acknowledge the fact that the consequences and advancement we experience now is coming from those who suffered on our behalf. The way we live in both a modern and Western society is the result of “those who won.” We see history from the side of the victor, and it’s important to note that in history there will always be two sides. By keeping my research authentic I will be implementing a method of Trouillot from Silencing the Past to learn more about the history of Occoquan Workhouse by solely basing my research through my findings, not how I feel about the situation or my previous biases regarding the prison complex. I want to be able to recognize the corruption and negative aspects, however, I will not let that aspect insert itself into my work and compromise the integrity of my findings. My sole intention is to learn more, not distort truths or to prove something as being right or wrong. Let’s get our history on! 

Tidy Data & Organized Research: Working Together for Better Data

In Hadley Wickham’s “Tidy Data,” Journal of Statistical Software readers dive into the world of tidy data, and how organized formatting can truly help elevate research findings while simplifying complex information. In Wickham’s journal, readers find that the three principles of tidy data are that each variable forms a column, each observation forms a row and that each type of observational unit forms a table. Analysts, as well as computers, prefer information to be laid out as tidy data because it makes it “easier to extract needed variables…”  due to the fact “…it provides a standard way of structuring a dataset.” (Wickham, 2014). Wickham claims tidy sets are particularly well suited for vectorized programming languages. Initially, I did not understand this statement due to the fact some language was foreign to me, therefore resulting in having to do outside research for clarification. It was then that I found that vectorized programming languages let a person perform mathematical functions on entire lists as if they were singular objects. Despite the order of variables and observations not affecting the analysis, good ordering allows a better scan of the raw variables. 

Some of the best methods for organizing your research are working to tidying messy datasets. Wickham argues that most messy datasets can be tidied with three small sets of tools: melting, string splitting, and casting. “​​Melting is [described] by a list of columns that are already variables, colvars for short.” (Wickham, 2014). However, other methods for organizing your research are simply taking well-organized notes, using your sources to generate new or improved ideas, and incorporating preliminary readings to get a sense of the deeper meaning into what your research topic is truly about. 

I would incorporate tidy datasets and organizational research methods into my scholarly practice by simplifying the information I have at hand. To elaborate, after having conducted my research and studying my readings, I would take notes to jot down my findings. Notes are unbelievably important! You can not study something you’ve already forgotten, nor would you want to pass down misinformation due to foggy memories. With a simplified version of my research, I would be able to create a tidy set, and as Wickham mentions numerous times, tidy sets generally are messy at first! That’s where I would implement the new skills of organizing and following the three principles to elevate my tidy set. I don’t expect perfection, nor should any true scholar. I’ll make mistakes, learn from my mistakes, and ultimately make new mistakes. Being a scholar is all about implementing research, adjusting said research, and continuing to learn. 

Hadley Wickham, “Tidy Data,” Journal of Statistical Software 59, no. 10 (August 2014)

Let’s Get Ethical, Ethical ♫

Considering the four literacies ethics, privacy, copyright, and licenses that were discussed during our class on September 7th, it was shown that they all play an equal role in the research being conducted by future and current scholars. These literacies affect your research and scholarship as either a historian/scholar by defining the guidelines of what information you are legally and morally allowed to publish and/or obtain. 

Through ethics, you need to be aware of normative, alternative, and harmful potentialities. Will your research cause psychological, physical, legal, or social harm to the subjects being researched? Being aware of ethics of care and understanding the risk-benefit analysis must be prevalent. It is imperative that researchers are granted consent before furthering their research in order for their project to be considered ethical. 

Another literacy is privacy; privacy is important to prevent public disclosure of impermissible facts, defamation of character, or appropriation of logos or names. A surprising fact I was not aware of when it came to privacy law was that your project may proceed if the subject matter of the collections is no longer living. Whether that was common knowledge or not, I genuinely never thought about it despite it making complete sense. How can a dead person give consent? It leads me to question research regarding Egyptian history and the mummies involved. Who grants archeologists consent to unravel the remains of people who were once actual living people with families, memories, and an entire history– only to be picked apart for scientific research purposes? 

Under copyright laws, the content in which researchers are allowed to use is defined by strict guidelines. Copyright affects your research in the way that plagiarizing carries heavy consequences and it is important to understand the copyright and license depending on the project being worked on. However, you are not legally able to copyright facts. This allows researchers to further their studies without copyright laws preventing them from publishing their own findings and hypotheses. An interesting fact about copyright laws that I learned from our meeting was that a person is unable to be hit with a copyright strike when it is anything from the government.  

In order to avoid copyright laws, the last literacy to follow is licensing. Licenses simply come down to being a contract not to sue. It allows historians and scholars the ability to use the information to further their research without fearing backlash and possible legal repercussions under fair use. 

Important considerations to think about before beginning a digital humanities project are: Is the information being obtained ethically (for example; has consent been given prior to starting the project)? Some strategies to account for ethics can be consulting journal publications, imposing access controls, and/or developing best local practices.

What Can You Find Out About From Someone Online?

Reflecting on my current digital presence, it can be noted that I do not have an active online presence under my government name. When you Google my name, you are met with my LinkedIn that is inactive and was solely made to fulfill a past class requirement. My LinkedIn profile has no photo, and only shares the college and high school I went to, however, I no longer attend either institution so I feel safer allowing that to be public knowledge. As I write this, I am thinking of deleting my LinkedIn. The next link is an inactive Facebook account that I made when I was around the age of 12, as it was the first time I was allowed to use the internet for leisure as opposed to school work. The next couple links to follow will be a Prezi PowerPoint I made when I was in 6th grade for my social science class, my inactive Goodreads account that I lost access to, a link to my blank YouTube channel that is linked to my Google account, and lastly my high school commencement event photos from 2017. When you click on the images tab on Google, there are no images that are of me. While it may be argued these results couldn’t possibly reflect who I am because of how little information there is to base a reflection on, I believe they do. My online presence, or lack thereof, shows I don’t want strangers to perceive me in any sense. I’m an open book to anyone that engages in a personal conversation with me, however, I do not wish to extend that part of me to those I don’t know. I do not want just anyone to have access to me. I acknowledge that being curious is a part of the human experience, but it creeps me out knowing strangers can find out anything they want about you through a quick search on the internet. It all comes down to my comfort levels, and how safe I feel being online. Even thinking back to when I was creating this website, I went by “ruqayyama” because I wasn’t comfortable putting both my first and last name out there. My name isn’t one you’ll find tons of students sharing in a classroom, and I simply don’t want it to be an easy task to find out anything you want about me through a Google search. My website will allow me to publish what I am personally comfortable sharing with the world, and being in control of what I write makes me feel safer than having pieces of mine published without my go-ahead.