December! After a all-too-brief but pleasant journey to the home of a college friend for Thanksgiving south of Boston, I’m back at Harvard, preparing for the last week of the fall semester, reflecting on what’s left to be done while also looking forward to a winter vacation spent in Los Angeles and Germany. Having put a few finishing touches on Chapter One of Developing Powers, concerning the history of the study of Afghanistan in the Soviet Union, this morning, and having sent the manuscript – all of it – off to the office printer, I can rest relieved that I’ve taken care of my biggest task for this first semester at the Harvard Academy: getting a workable version of the book manuscript done. That leaves me with approximately a week-and-a-half to complete the work on my project for Professor O’Neill’s Digital History seminar, which is coming along well, and will, I hope, add to the clarity of some of my thinking as I turn to editing the manuscript over the long Harvard winter break.
In the meantime, however, for our final week’s worth of blogging, we’re invited to reflect on the teaching of the digital humanities, using as a point of inspiration the collection of essays in Debates in the Digital Humanities and an older collection of essays published throughout the first decade of the 2000s by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Reading these essays marks a turn in the focus of the course. Up until now, it’s been mostly about tools and skills: how do I do this? One thinks back to Stephen Ramsay’s position paper at the 2011 MLA, “Who’s in and Who’s Out,” in which he famously remarked that “digital humanities is not some airy lyceum.” DH is supposed to be about doing things, building things. Or at least so runs the traditional hacker culture-inspired cant. Many young academics, finding themselves hired – for better or for worse – explicitly to teach something called “the digital humanities” will face concrete challenges of what to teach, often at institutions significantly less well-endowed either financially or institutionally than Harvard, George Mason, Stanford, or any of the usual names when it comes to Digital Humanities. What, one asks, are they supposed to do?
We’ve already experimented with some tactics in Professor O’Neill’s course, so it might be worthwhile reviewing some of those techniques first. You’re reading one right now: the course blog, an extension of what I take to be one old tool for ensuring student participation, the weekly response paper. Yet as opposed to those old three-paragraph position pieces we used to shoot off to one another on Blackboard – wondering if they were ever read – I can say that I read almost all of the other seminar participants’ posts this seminar. The serial, vertical reading style that blogs create encourages me to scan what’s come before and what’s after. It’s easier to respond – bombastically or constructively – to what’s come before. Discussion in the seminar afterwards can, at best, feel more like a continuation of the conversation started elsewhere rather than an attempt to reconstruct the crime (everyone’s opinion on a book) from their short response papers.
Yet as someone who’s also accustomed to writing longer-form blog posts (over a thousand words), I also struggle with whether encouraging what is almost always short blog posts (our suggested length was 300 words) encourages the kind of birdseed literacy that one might like to see historians militating against. As I’ve noted in previous posts, at its worst our discipline can seem too obsessed with “the argument” as encapsulated in a 10,000-word article, usually written in flaccid English. Economy matters, too. But, as I’ll come to in a moment, the 300-word blog post rarely challenges the young historical writer stylistically in a way that a longer position piece might at its best.
Professionally, meanwhile, the course blog offers to the young professor an easy way to grow her or his course portfolio – a documentary trail bigger than what your average coming-up-for-tenure professor as recently as the 1990s could have been expected to produce for committees. Not only syllabi but blog posts, comments, anything in the digital detritus left behind by the seminar can come under administrative scrutiny (for better or for worse) when it comes to making hires, denials, promotions, and other decisions over one’s professional fate.
This relates to another tactic we’ve followed in the seminar, and one discussed online, has been the keeping (almost) all of the course readings online. Older scholarship on technology and pedagogy from way back in the era of the dot-com boom suggests that students even then preferred doing primary research (where it was possible) on the Web over trudging to the library – or at least to feeling pressured to learn nothing but facts about the primary documents. Due to the nature of our course, we’ve dealt relatively little with primary sources as such in the teaching; still, I don’t think I’ve been alone in finding it easier to deal with meeting reading and blogging deadlines when I’ve known that getting one item “done” was always just a click away. As we deal with our digital projects, the decision of how, where, and with what level of curation to include primary sources (especially those in Vietnamese, Persian, Russian, Latin, and other languages …) weighs heavily.
That all said, having done some of the readings on pedagogy, I wonder how helpful it is to divorce the teaching of “the digital humanities” from a pedagogical approach that would remain heavily focused on writing as the core activity of the historian. (Admittedly, maybe some of these questions are on my mind having printed out several hundred pages of prose desperately in need of editorial triage, but excuse the indulgence …) In particular, I find the approach of Mark L. Sample, a professor of English at George Mason (website here) in his essay “What’s Wrong With Writing Essays” misguided. In that piece, Sample starts from what I think is a productive starting point: too often we encourage students to write in a format – the class essay – that is “something that nobody will ever read.” The essay, in short, is read only by the professor. From here, however, Sample spins out of control into a critique of the “traditional student paper” by arguing that
the only thing an essay measures is how well a student can conform to the rigid thesis/defense model that, in the hands of novice scholars, eliminates complexity, ambiguity, and most traces of critical thinking.
Sample goes on from there to argue that he wants his students to “be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product. I call this type of critical thinking creative analysis.” As an example he offers his “Video Game Studies” class, in which he
asked students to design an abstract visualization of a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) video game, a kind of model that would capture some of the game’s complexity and reveal underlying patterns to the way actions, space, and time unfold in the game. One student “mapped” Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1991) onto a piece of driftwood. This “captain’s log,” covered with screenshots and overlayed with axes measuring time and action, evokes the static nature of the game more than words ever can.
Without parroting the arguments of conservative commentators on education – E.D. Hirsch, Roger Kimball, Harold Bloom, and so on – I can think of few approaches more likely than Sample’s to speed the continued de-legitimization of the humanities in America. Look to the last thirty years of critiques of the humanities emanating from the general culture in the United States, and, skepticism towards critical race and gender studies aside, one of the most common – and effective tropes – is that educators are spending too little time teaching texts and too much time teaching television studies, popular culture studies, and other subjects ending in “studies.” That’s not to say that working on, say, the history of video games, and certainly television or radio isn’t valuable; it’s that, at least at the undergraduate level, where students are unlikely to take more than a few dozen courses during what for most will be their only higher education, it is probably a better use of time, and the dollars of their parents and/or the American taxpayer, to focus on core, and often frankly elitist, forms of cultural literacy. Video games and driftwood engraving aren’t likely to make that cut.
Lest other seminar members prepare to pounce on me, my point here isn’t that DH doesn’t have a place in the undergraduate curriculum at all. It does. What I am arguing for, however, is that as long as DH remains a digital humanity, we don’t lose sight of how it interacts with other hard-won skills that are the bread and butter of any undergraduate curriculum. Among those are composition and writing; indeed, as I put together my Omeka project, one of the biggest challenges is distilling down all of the data I’m working with into a readable and concise story. But doing that doesn’t mean just generating content. It means – as I’m reminded as I scour Widener and Lamont for reading material before I dive back into editing of the book manuscript – reading not only my Edward Tufte for design tips, but also the work of his mother, Virginia Tufte, whose work on syntax and sentence construction hearken back to an age in which English departments taught grammar and composition in addition to Video Game Studies. The core of some of our projects, it’s true, is likely to be the work that we’ve done in ARC, Gephi, NeatLine, or other digital packages. But narrative and solid composition is crucial, too. It’s important to unify the insights of Tufte the Elder and Younger, teaching composition and writing as indispensable skills to the digital historian. If we want to train students in skills likely to benefit them in the long run, historians’ ability – at least compared to their colleagues in other disciplines – to write with relatively low amounts of jargon has to remain one of our calling cards.
Learning how to work with the software and write better than our colleagues – to say nothing of writing the software, too – is a challenge, but it’s one that we need to embrace as a discipline.
It’s the end to another busy but productive week here at Harvard. After recovering from the circadian devastation that a red-eye flight from San Francisco wrought upon me, it was back to the usual rhythm: Persian classes (readings from Ali Akbar Dekhoda), our digital history, and lots of writing. With only slight exaggeration I can say that I’ve completed revisions to the last chapter of the book manuscript (not the last chapter I’m editing and re-working this autumn, sadly …) on the Afghan-Soviet borderscape in the 1970s and 1980s; doing so has been a crash course in hunting down obscure Tajik- and Uzbek-language books on the one hand, and speaking to my anthropologist colleagues at the Harvard Academy for reading recommendations outside of my usual ken. And there’s a rich trove there: works like Jean and John L. Comaroff’s edited volume Law and Disorder in the Postcolony and Adam T. Smith’s The Political Landscape have proven useful in helping me think of how to deal with my own Soviet sources, and to conceptualize the shifts in the Turkestan borderlands during the 1980s: a period when mass administrative purges in the Tajik and Uzbek SSRs corresponded with the installation of the Najib regime in Afghanistan, its ‘National Reconciliation’ campaign, and the Soviet withdrawal. Can we understand all of these events as part of some broader pattern?
Beyond my usual monkish lifestyle of writing and tasking Harvard Inter-Library Loan librarians with hunting down obscure Soviet books, I’m also beginning to make more serious attempts to map the data I’ve been collecting and collating for Professor O’Neill’s Digital History seminar. As I’ve written before, there are fundamentally two databases here: one having to do with the so-called Death Lists – which tell us about the professional and religious landscape of Afghanistan and the timing and geography of PDPA-led mass killing in 1979; the other having to do with emigration from Afghanistan into Pakistan and Iran during the late 1970s and 1980s. Dealing with the former database (the Death Lists) in ARC GIS is proving to be a bit of a challenge: there’s problems in depicting information accurately, much less beautifully, when so many people were killed in the same place (hundreds of deaths in ‘Ghazni‘ get depicted as one dot, rather than a cluster), and there’s the whole chronological component to deal with. I have a couple of ideas here. Most crudely, it might be possible to use a GIF or a Prezi to create an animated version of the chronology of killing in the spring and summer of 1979. But Harvard’s History Design Studio and other outlets for digital humanities in fair Cambridge are also apparently in the process of making it easier for scholars here to use NeatLine, an application developed at Virginia that would be well-suited to displaying what I really want – the chronological movement of peoples across Central Asia. It would help make more clear the ways in which (Afghan and Soviet) Communism ironically ends up destroying the Afghan dream of ‘Pashtunistan‘ – a Pashtun-dominated state in Central Asia carved out of Afghanistan and western Pakistan - by depopulating the core Pashtun territories of Afghanistan and forcing those people into Pakistan (where they constituted, and constitute a humanitarian crisis and provoke anxiety about the ‘Pashtunization’ of parts of Pakistan, most notably Karachi, typically viewed as the ‘property’ of muhajirs or other nationalities.
Still, after an hour or two banging my head against the keyboard in CGIS yesterday, I’ve begun to produce some rough drafts of some of the graphics I might want to use.
I don’t think it’s bad, but there are still some problems – I’m returning to my Edward Tufte. The green dots in the map above each represent 1500 people who had left from provinces in Afghanistan by 1985; the turquoise dots also represent 1500 people who had arrived into provinces in Pakistan by the same date. The overall picture is clear: the migration provoked by the Soviet invasion was was largely one of peoples from provinces like Paktia, Nangarhar, and Qandahar (populous Pashtun provinces) almost entirely into Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, its Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and, to a much lesser extent, Balochistan. Yet there are many quibbles one could raise here. I’ve used a relatively simple terrain and administrative underlay – are there better options? Choosing to depict population as dots is, I think, the right choice here, but then there’s choices of density and visualization, too. Given the size of the map (or the level of the zoom), depicting one dot as one person would fill up all of the provinces in question. What’s the right balance – visually and analytically – between 1 dot : 1 person and 10,000:1? I’m not yet sure how to answer these questions. Perhaps it’s time for more visits to office hours or – more likely – hours in front of ARC. Mapping is time intensive!
But the fact that mapping and, more broadly, other forms of digital humanities, are so demanding of our time raises questions of the sort that we’re invited to consider in this week’s session on professionalization, assessment of DH scholarship, copyright management, and MOOCs. It’s obvious to me from my everyday work patterns that mapping and building (for example) Omeka sites takes way more time than writing (of first drafts, if not polished prose). This makes for a problem. While conditions and Stimmung vary from department to department, history can be a temperamentally and methodologically conservative discipline. It’s not uncommon for colleagues to fret about making a web site for fear that hiring committees would view a digital presence as “unprofessional.” The attitudes of major publishing houses and their editors can be even more entrenched: several publishers I have spoken with view digital projects essentially as a distraction, while one of the most prestigious academic publishers in the United States that I had to deal with for a project as an undergraduate research assistant did not even use e-mail to accept the corrections to a 1,000 page edited collection of documents I was working on, forcing me to babysit a fax machine in the basement of the Princeton History Department one afternoon. With attitudes like this, it’s no surprise that we often lag behind in assessing DH scholarship. If there’s a place where the dumbest stereotypes of the technocratic about the rest of us Luddites are fulfilled, it might be in academia and academic publishing.
Fortunately, many of this week’s readings address how to change this situation. A piece by Todd Presner, a professor of German and Jewish Studies at UCLA, cogently lays out some starting principles for the review of DH material that I think are a good start. Among them are the principle that “the work must be evaluated in the medium in which it was produced and published. If it’s a website, that means viewing it in a browser with the appropriate plug-ins necessary for the site to work. If it’s a virtual simulation model, that may mean going to a laboratory outfitted with the necessary software and projection systems to view the model. Work that is time based — like videos — will often be represented by stills, but reviewers also need to devote attention to clips in order to fully evaluate the work.” This may sound obvious, but it’s essential: I’ve heard of instances where people want to know why I can’t just print out my maps and mail them to a reader. As a young(ish) digital historian, one is often dealing with huge generational and methodological chasms that are hard to leap.
The obsession with “the argument” as a feature of academic history that I brought up last week is another aspect of this. As classmates have suggested, digital history projects are often better at opening up new horizons of questions than definitely answering existing ones. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve often thought that the more falsifiable an argument is in history, the more open-and-shut it can be, yes – but also the less interesting it can get, too. As we know thanks to the work of scholars like Annette Gordon-Reed, there’s now a strong consensus that Thomas Jefferson fathered several if not all of Sally Hemings‘ children. Knowing that that happened is important for how we think about Jefferson and attitudes about race in 18th century America. But arguably more interesting are the broader panoramas that knowledge of that fact raise: the dividing lines of race in American society then, the history of slave-master sexual relations, the history of defining (some would say defaming) Hemings’ as a “slave girl” rather than just a “woman,” and so on. If you think “the argument” of work like Gordon-Reed’s is that Jefferson fathered Hemings’ children, you’re missing the point.
Just as good print manuscripts raise more questions than they answer, good DH scholarship should do the same. We have, however, to be careful not to fall into the trap of claiming that Omeka projects and the like are the same, or worth “half” of a book or article. Notes Presner: “Is a digital research project “equivalent” to a book published by a university press, an edited volume, a research article, or something else? These sorts of questions are often misguided since they are predicated on comparing fundamentally different knowledge artifacts and, perhaps more problematically, consider print publications as the norm and benchmark from which to measure all other work.” At its most ambitious, the digital history movement has to be about questioning these age-old institutional standards – especially so at a time when our books sell pitiful numbers of copies and departments are under attack by administrators.
As other readings discuss, however, we have to be careful about how we put our projects together. A piece by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Owning the Past,” discusses some of the pitfalls of copyright in digital humanities scholarship. Reading the piece, however, reminded me of a special set of exceptions that ironically makes working on the modern history of the Soviet Union and Persianate Asia especially convenient (if not worth the tradeoff of using squat latrines when working at Tajik archives). The history of international copyright law and the Soviet Union is complicated, but with some notable exceptions (Prokofiev, Gorkii, authors who published their works in member countries of the Berne Convention before it being published in the USSR) most works that were published in the Soviet Union prior to 1973 – when Moscow acceded to the Universal Copyright Convention - can be freely used, up to and including (in theory) copying them and selling them for profit. (Not that we innocent historians would do something … but still.) Confusingly, through a set of post-Soviet arrangements, pre-1973 works can’t be reproduced in other CIS countries, but to my knowledge, these laws have no force outside of the former Soviet world.
The situation is even more unusual with respect to Afghanistan and Iran. Not only is neither country party to the Berne Convention on copyright (the standard international copyright treaty); the United States makes explicit that it has no copyright agreement at all with either country (the same is also true of Iraq and Turkmenistan, making this the largest copyright-free region in the world). Hence, while Cohen and Rosenzweig wring their hands over the numerous restrictions that (implicitly) Americanists face vis-a-vis copyright law – notably, almost all music is incredibly difficult to use, film slightly less so – simply don’t apply to materials originating in Afghanistan or Iran. In theory, this means that it’s much easier for someone to do ambitious DH work with (for example) Iranian New Wave cinema or indeed anything produced in those countries. One would have thought that the US occupation of Afghanistan – a “strategic partner” – would have changed this; maybe putative US-Iran negotiations and diplomatic normalization will change this, too. But these loopholes make it unusually easy to be a digital historian for this part of the world – and give me another reason to tease our Americanist colleagues for being parochial. (Obviously, there could be serious problems if both you and your pirated collection of Afghan or Iranian works happen to be on Iranian or Afghan soil, or the Internet, at the same time, so one should be careful.)
Last but not least, we’ve invited this week to reflect on the MOOC (massively open online course) movement, a topic that I’ve blogged about in the past and that we frequently discussed in a Rhodes-run University Governance Group discussion club at Oxford. As I’ve written there, I think that much of the usually cited talking points regarding MOOCs – celebrity professors teaching courses! students in Nepal! 500,000 students in one course! – are presented utterly divorced from the context of the dramatic changes in the funding landscape of American universities in the last twenty years. As I’ve written in another post stemming from the University Governance Group, the amount of public funding for public universities in most states in America has been in decline since roughly the early 1990s, which – if you’re paying attention – roughly coincides with the rise of the “development” industry in so many universities. Private fund-raising replaces a public commitment to higher education.
MOOCs, I think, can be seen on one level as part of an attempt by universities to cut costs across the board: an attempt to get even larger-sized lectures and stretch resources even thinner, even as annual attendance costs at public universities top $30,000 a year. A recent memorandum on cuts for graduate funding at UC Berkeley escapes me as I write, but MOOC-ification too often represents an administrator’s dream but a teacher’s nightmare. 500-person lecture classes with one graduate student TA (sometimes the case at a large public university like Berkeley) where students – especially those without means – can barely find support if they’re struggling are small fry compared to the spectre of a 100,000-person course with close to zero administrative overhead. Such courses may make sense for introductory quantitative subjects, but as the press on MOOCs has highlighted, many of these courses have incredibly high dropout rates. It’s unclear how one would manage the grading or assessment of 100,000 essays – Harvard PhD student friends who TA are routinely underwater with loads a percentage of that number – and the repeatedly-cited dream of having Michael Sandel teach every philosophy class is ignorant of the way that humanities scholarship actually works. If history is to fulfill its true function in universities as a dialogue between present and past – rather than mere recitation of ‘one damn thing after another’ – it’s crucial that we emphasize a multiplicity of viewpoints in teaching, and focus on training the next generation of scholars – yes, often by them giving mediocre lectures or classes and learning – rather than sitting soporifically before taped AJP Taylor lectures or their modern equivalent. We have to stay abreast of digital changes to our profession, as many of the readings this week underscore, but as far as MOOCs are concerned, technological Micawberism is not an actual argument.
It’s the beginning of a late autumn push for me here at Harvard. After a brief but refreshing vacation to the Bay Area, I return to a Cambridge where my piles of books-to-read are growing taller almost as quickly as the deadlines for various fellowships and research grants speed towards me. It’s all compounded by the common graduate student and post-doc back-of-the-head sense that one isn’t writing or reading enough, too. For while I’ve been productive in October – almost completing the chapter of Developing Powers that has to do with Afghan Turkestan in the 1970s and 1980s – my writing and reading continues to drive new questions and avenues of reading: after finishing this blog post, I’m off to Widener to consult some Russian- and Tajik-language obscurantia on the Gorbachev-era attempt to exert Moscow’s control over its “southern republics” and the strange history of the Tajik-Afghan border, which was managed by a quixotic mix of post-Soviet Border Guards, post-Soviet Tajik citizens (Army or Border Guards officers who got paid more than they would with state service) and forms the coda to the historical arc of which I want to write in the chapter. Add to this the rush to complete my Digital History project, prepare for a Persian-language presentation on the Khalila wa Dimna, and assorted odd jobs, and I’m increasingly glad that I made the decision to bolt down for a few days when I could.
As has been the case throughout the semester, the Digital History seminar continues to stimulate. This week – another relatively light reading load as we (in theory) concentrate on our projects – the topic is how new media, the “shock of the digital,” and changes in the publishing industry affect the way historians do their work. We’re asked: “Is there a clear path forward for publishing of historical work? Is it dependent on the redefinition or reconfiguration of narrative structures or practices?” As a 1999 piece by Harvard historian Robert Darnton suggests, these are hardly new concerns. A number of tensions are at play. On the one hand, there’s the desire to do good scholarship, to find out what really happened: the insanity, or, more charitably, passion, that drives us to Widener to hunt down stuff published in Dushanbe during the 1990s. Along the way, awards like those that professional associations award for the best dissertation in a field, or more modestly, the encouragement of mentors and professors, propels the young scholar along. Her confidence rises that the six years spend toiling in obscurity might pay off. Yet once one comes to the post-doc or the assistant professor job, and begins to seriously think about publishing with an academic publishing house, it becomes clear how daunting the odds can be. Even publishers like Oxford or Harvard University Press, which are non-profits, often find themselves publishing books with piddling audiences – or at least audiences willing to pay. Writes Darnton: “Sanford Thatcher at the Penn State University Press tells of a book on nineteenth-century Brazil that won two prizes and sold fewer than 500 copies and of another on Islam in Central Asia that received ecstatic reviews and four awards but sold only 215 copies in cloth (it sold a mere 691 in paperback).”
This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the academic presses existed in isolation, but in much of North American academia, the prestige of the monograph with an Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, or similar university press is a necessary imprimatur for career advancement. “[Academic publishers] function as a funnel in the process of professional advancement; yet they can publish only a few of the manuscripts they receive. The authors of the rest of those manuscripts may never make it to the next stage of their careers. Instead, they may fall into the floating population of adjuncts, lecturers, and part-time teachers of all varieties.” As commentators like Sarah Kendzior write, this trend threatens to divide the American academy between a refuge of the lucky, well-heeled, and tenured and a holding pen of casualized academic laborers. The latter group is stuck in a permanent cycle of applying to visiting assistant professorship positions, will lack the time to turn their dissertation into a marketable book, and – particularly in light of the growing time it takes to complete a PhD – will probably lag behind their friends and non-academic coworkers when it comes to conventional life “accomplishments”: stable employment, anchoring in a city and community, marriage, and the professional and financial stability needed to raise children. There is data suggesting that the job situation isn’t quite so gloom-and-doom for graduates of top History PhD programs as the catastrophic tone promoted by the U.S. media would suggest.
Still, as a younger generation of students appears to increasingly view the humanities, and in particular graduate education in them, as an unemployment machine that inflicts trauma on its own, it’s worth raising the question: is our beholden attitude towards conventional publishing practices not only limiting our public reach and presence as authors, but also upholding the legitimacy of an unjust professional structure? Could a transition to something more along the lines of the memex than the conventional academic monograph help? Could a shift towards “vertical reading” – looking at historical work as the synthesis of documents and original sources – as opposed to the traditional view of the monograph as a piece of work almost quarantined away from the research processes that generated it help?
I think so, although from looking at the projects that do exist it’s apparent to me that we’re still in the middle of a transition. Fifteen years after Darnton’s piece, initiatives like Gutenberg-e, an initiative between Columbia University Press and the American Historical Association, have made digital monographs more common. Works published in this series feature not only conventional bibliographies but also links to online resources that, in theory, invite the reader to do what Darnton proposes in a more recent interview – the shift to the aforementioned “vertical reading” where our attention, rather than being continually devoted to the book at hand, is invited to jump to sources and the “raw materials” of history. More simply, the fact that these books are online makes it much easier for scholars from institutions in the developing world to have access to the materials: with many American institutions complaining about the high cost of cloth books from university presses, the pressure on purchases is even greater for some of the liberal arts institutions and universities I’ve visited in Central Asia.
Still, a cursory look at the Table of Contents of several of these works gives lie to the idea that something revolutionary is apace. These are still clearly monographs, designed to satisfy – or so it would appear – skeptical and fundamentally conservative university press reviewers and tenure committees. As William G. Thomas writes in a piece on his experience putting together a joint article and digital history project on slaveholding and non-slaveholding communities in the Antebellum mid-Atlantic, historians – or at least the current cadre of those in key positions at American universities, the kind of people who review for the American Historical Review - are frequently burdened by an obsession with what exactly “the argument” of a piece is. While an interest in argumentative novelty or clarity is never a bad thing, in reality this mantra often serves as a cudgel with which to criticize novel projects. Writes Thomas of his and Edward L. Ayers’ project:
Several critics claimed that our argument was obscure or unimpressive. This assessment, it seemed to us upon mature reflection, had two related causes. One was that we simply had not nailed down how to convey the most salient points we wanted to make. The other was that the demands of a non-linear, component-driven structure had worked against reading specifically for “the argument.” One reader wrote, “The new format has advantages but also served as a way for the authors to abdicate the historian’s responsibility to make sense of incomplete and disparate information.” We did not see ourselves, of course, as abdicating anything. But there was a problem: these scholars wanted to “track the argument” and they found “this ‘article’ . . . difficult, almost impossible, to read as an article because it has no linear structure.”
Maybe it’s true that the highly immersive projects of the kind like “The Differences Slavery Made” don’t read like articles. Still, as Darnton’s 1999 piece notes and Kendzior’s more acerbic criticism details, what good is there in demanding that all new scholarship adhere to the argumentative structure and guidelines of a format that may be proving itself economically and intellectually bankrupt as an institution? Demanding of young scholars that they can produce “the argument,” that they can write pieces that will sail through the review of prestigious journals like the AHR and major university presses would be fine if these professional pressures existed in isolation. But they don’t. One worries that we are encouraging graduate cadres to take a major professional and personal risk by devoting years to master an art form (the journal article and monograph) that may be valued for largely formal reasons (the tenure committee), rather than its ability to inform or delight a broader public or even a broad academic audience (think back to the sales figure Darnton quoted). In doing so, we risk squandering the potentially formidable prestige that historians have enjoyed at times in American and other societies, a move that is all the more concerning at a time when other disciplines – economics, computer science, political science – have proven successful at colonizing undergraduate enrollments and sophisticated popular readerships.
Is there a way forward? As Darnton’s 1999 essay suggests, one route might be for authors and publishers to expose more of the research and distillation process in their publishing products, rather than focusing on “the argument” that (supposedly) years of professional expert consideration have revealed to the unenlightened reader. I’m not quite sure what such e-”books” would look like, but I am struck by Darnton’s idea of scholarship exposing a ”pyramid” of research where “the argument” stands at the top, but where its foundations – original documents and research practices are made more transparent. That’s how I do work every day with composing platforms like Scrivener (screenshot below), where (subtly) rather than viewing primary sources and “the argument” as quarantined documents, everything - my own chicken scratch and primary sources – goes into one document. Why shouldn’t it be possible to allow readers to see more explicitly the links I made between the former and the latter, and, particularly for those archives where I transcribed or photographed a lot, for them to investigate the documents themselves, too? In light of the general zeitgeist for “curation,” it may seem odd that we remain married to a system wherein documents and archives are, for the most part, hidden from readers (the few that we have), and where evaluations are made largely behind the scenes in a process that would strike many as hierarchical and secretive. In “the real world,” platforms like Pinterest or RapGenius don’t eliminate the position or prestige of artisans or musicians; instead, readers/patrons are invited to engage with collections, products, lyrics, and maybe even legal decisions in a way that actually spreads and boosts the profile of the primary creators (designers and rappers). There remain incoherencies and difficulties in making parallels here: somehow I doubt that Drake will be thumbing through Soviet archival documents in the same way that I listen to his music as I write. However, remaining wedded to a model whose basis remains anonymous expert opinion, non-profits selling 300 books total of our works, and the munificence of major universities and research foundations seems even more precarious.
The semester, and your humble narrator’s introduction to Harvard, continues to speed by too quickly. After bidding farewell to visitors to Cambridge at the beginning of the week, I gave my first seminar talk at Harvard – kindly hosted and catered for by the Russian & East European History kruzhok (circle). Presenting some re-worked material from one of the more polished chapters of Developing Powers gave me the chance to think more about issues I had missed until now: the role of “free” places like Afghanistan or Chernobyl in the mentality of the last Soviet generation; that same generation’s perception of what really mattered in terms of world politics (Afghanistan was seen as “hot,” Poland in spite of Solidarity not so much); and the ways in which Soviet and Afghan cartographic practice imposed certain developmental visions on the landscape of Afghanistan. After the Q&A (and smuggling some pizza back home), your humble narrator finds himself back in the rhythm of scrambling between writing & editing, ordering obscure maps of Central Asia from Harvard’s wonderful map librarians, and cleaning up the data that I do have to add the cartographic and digital spine that I desire for the book project.
Which raises all kinds of reflections. This week, for the Digital History seminar, we’re asked the following: “Describe the data you plan to use for your project. In what ways (if any) does it differ – in breadth, depth, format, etc. – from the “data” you have used to write papers in the past? How are you dealing with problems of information density, sample size, etc.?” Had you asked me this question as recently as a year ago, I’d have given a pretty conventional answer: Russian and American archives, special collections of Afghan material like the fantastic Arthur Paul Collection at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the University of Arizona’s digitized collection of government newspapers, and the usual litany of secondary materials. The considerable amounts of VLKSM (Komsomol) reports from the ground in Afghanistan I viewed primarily useful for their prose, not the tables and charts that they themselves contained. But in part as a result of taking the Digital History seminar, I’ve been challenged to think about more creative ways to “scrape” and make use of the considerable amounts of data – not just prose – that exists in the sources I do have. Add to that new materials like the Afghan Death Lists, and my own growing awareness of sources on the refugee crises in Iran and Pakistan that followed the invasion, and the question becomes not what to use, but rather how much, and why.
In any event, to answer the question more directly, as I go ahead with the project for the seminar, I’m concretely working with several sources that have to do with state-led violence and forced migration in and from Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s. The overall aim is to provide a robust quantitative picture of what I see as one of the major ironies in the story I’m telling: Afghan leaders successfully enlisted foreigners to build the developmental hardware of Pashtunistan (the idea of a state that would be a national homeland for much of the region’s tens of millions of Pashtuns) throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but the combination of an ultra-nationalist PDPA Pashtun Communist government from 1978-1979 and, even more importantly, the Soviet invasion, destroyed the possibility of such a Pashtun commonwealth, at least on the terms originally envisioned by leaders like Mohammad Daoud Khan and Zahir Shah. As the UCLA historian Nile Green observes, this crucial period of the late Seventies and early Eighties is one of several mid-century moments in which Afghans and foreigners move clumsily (and violently) from one vision of state-building in Central Asia to another: one in which both Afghans and foreigners play a role in state construction and state destruction. With the dream of Pashtunistan destroyed via mass emigration (prompting Pakistani authorities to fret over a Pashtunization of Pakistan on terms not their own), Soviet nation-builders embark on a doomed quest to build a Soviet-style territorial state in Afghanistan – doomed because of the lack of an economic base and the fact that many parts of the country were depopulated by up to a half of their 1979 demographics.
In order to tell this story, I’m trying to link together several sources, each of which tells a slightly different sub-story of its own. There’s the Death Lists themselves, which are a story of state-led killing rather than forced migration. They, however, are useful for contrast in that they allow us to get a sense of what regions (provinces, and even subdistricts), professions, and religious groups of Afghanistan Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin targeted, and when. Having geo-coded a good chunk of the data already, there’s some findings there that already surprise me. I am struck by how urban a phenomenon the killings were: if I find enough good maps of 1970s-era Kabul, the data about which neighborhoods of Kabul people were plucked from (to be shot and killed at Pul-i Charki prison) is there to produce an urban micro-history. Whereas the Soviet invasion led to depopulation in primarily those provinces along the border with Pakistan – Nangarhar, Kunar, Paktia, Paktika – the terror conducted by the PDPA appears to be more local and concentrated along the Soviet- and American-constructed ring road. Provinces like Ghazni (to the south of Kabul) and Baghlan (a cotton-growing center north of the Salang Tunnel) were particularly hard hit. Now that I’ve finished coding professions for victims, too – classified according to International Labor Organization standards and the data supplied in the original Death Lists – I can begin to get a sense of both the “professional topography” of the country right before the war, and of what groups were particularly targeted by the PDPA (Army officers and students took huge hits).
The second major source base – one that I’m pleased to report is getting more robust with every day – are reports from the refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran which tell us more about the provinces from which refugees were ejected, or fled from, as they went into Afghanistan’s non-Soviet neighboring countries. These sources – now from 1985, 1989, and 1990 – allow us to get a better sense of how the Soviet invasion emptied out the country, how it terrorized the country, in ways that differed from domestic terror. Some of these sources even include data from small (n=2,000) surveys on refugees’ professions, showing us that the refugee crisis was one driven more by farmers and the uneducated (whereas the Death Lists tells us that Taraki and Amin’s terror was one against officers and the intelligentsia). As I accumulate more data from refugee publications, I can even begin to get some sense – one has to remember how damned difficult statistical collection was – of the rates of depopulation of those border provinces (most of which were emptied out by as quickly as 1982; word of the Soviets appears to have spread quickly). In the next couple of weeks, I need to start to think more seriously about how I all want it to look; Professor O’Neill reports that Harvard is moving quickly on making it easier for graduate students and post-docs to build implementations of NeatLine, a chronological visualization tool that works with Omeka. Building something like a digital and chronological atlas of “Pashtunisan” that walks the reader from the spring of 1979 (the beginning of the Death Lists’ data) to 1990 (when the refugee figures end), and shows us how three million people performed mass migrations during that period – one of the largest forced migrations in recent history – in a way that had major ramifications for Pashtun, Pakistani, and Soviet visions of political order in Central Asia.
How does it all differ from sources I’ve used in the past? Obviously, many of these sources are data in the sense that there’s relatively little prose to accompany them. As a historian – even one trained in Economic and Social History with wonderful teachers at Oxford – I’m still inclined to think of text as the raw material from whence we get started. And in many of the drafts of chapters that I’ve worked on, I’ve tended to view documents like the VLKSM reports as just that – text, products of a specifically Soviet discursive system, and so on. The “really” interesting moments for me were those tidbits that come out of the woodwork when you pore over the bureaucratic prose: Soviet-Afghan marriages, advisers glossing over the execution of 5,000 mujahideen near lazurite mines in Badakhshan, and the ways in which these borderscapes and episodes of mass killing, respectively, became covered up by the “government of paper” that was Komsomol and, arguably, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union more broadly.
But working with these more data-driven sources has had a perceptible effect on how I work with the same sources. Take the case of Badakhshan – a rugged mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan that borders with Tajikistani Badakhshan, Pakistan’s northern areas, and even the extreme southwest of the People’s Republic of China. During the Soviet invasion, the high-altitude trails and passes of the region were traversed not only by mujahideen (many of whom were, as the aforementioned report makes clear, engaged in trading lapis lazuli for weapons) but also Western doctors and NGO workers who provided humanitarian aid to the locals. With the Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and the nascent institutional vehicles of global health all in one place, writing about Badakhshan during this period is like being a mako shark at a seafood buffet. Even more so after my attempted “digital turn.” Many of the VLKSM reports from Fayzabad (the provincial capital of Badakhshan) tell us about not only Soviet- and Afghan-led attempts to recruit youth into the PDPA during the 1980s, but also the recruitment figures for various mujahideen groups in the mountainous province, down to the level of the subdistrict. I’ve yet to do anything concrete here, but I wonder: if I can find out more information about these subdistricts (geography; accessibility of roads to Fayzabad vs. passes to the Panjshir, Nuristan, and eventually Pakistani Chitral; the extent to which they were depopulated by the invasion), might it not be possible to better explain and visualize (especially important for such a rugged, inaccessible place) the battle between the PDPA and mujahideen groups for Afghan youth in these area? I’m not sure yet. But the process of becoming more fluent with data – and viewing it as equally useful as bureaucratic prose – lends a new vision and sense of adventurism when I see tables like those in the archives.
It’s time to get to work.
The semester at Harvard speeds by all too quickly. One week, our digital history seminar has just begun; now, as the leaves begin to turn, and the evenings grow longer and longer, we’re already knee-deep into discussions about mapping and various spatial history projects. At the same time that I continue to re-write the book manuscript stemming from my dissertation, I’m also hard at work – and delighted in doing so – building in a digital component to Developing Powers. Using the huge amounts of data that were released in the Afghan ‘Death Lists’ last week along with available data on refugee movement across South and Central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s, I hope to create an interactive platform for examining forced migration and mass killing in Afghanistan during a decade that turned the region upside down.
Along the way, however, we’ve been forced to pause to ask whether such spatial history projects (or even components to conventional projects) necessarily indulge in what one might call the reductionist nature of GIS epistemology: they locate all historical phenomena primarily as ‘spatial,’ obscuring the equally important and rich linkages that events and texts have beyond their geo-location. To what extent (so begins the prompt for this week) do existing GIS projects address and cope with this difficulty, and how might our own projects rise to the challenge?
It’s a big question, but one that some of the sites we’ve explored this week – Stanford’s Spatial History Project, HyperCities, and ORBIS (a fascinating cartography of how long it took, and how expensive it was, to move goods and people across the Roman Empire) – necessarily raise. And without sounding like a Luddite, I have some sincere doubts about the attempt to frame so much in history as being primarily ‘spatial.’ In some cases, I dare to say, events were important precisely for not being spatial at all. In other cases, an obsession with demonstrating competence in spatial history turns out to be a myopia towards linking spatial history with other methodologies. Yes, yes: the work is important and good. But at a time when many core competencies and disciplines in the humanities are under attack – the dissolution of language departments comes as one recent example in a pattern – I am skeptical of attempts to brand spatial history as fundamentally new (as opposed to the fuddy-duddies who are so outmoded as to actually read things, learn languages, and – the horror – engage with books more than 200 pages long).
It’s easier to ground this discussion in an example or two. Consider the ‘Holocaust Geographies‘ project, being led by Anne Knowles and Albert Giordano (Middlebury and Texas State, respectively) in conjunction with Erik Steiner at Stanford. ‘The Holocaust was a profoundly geographical event that caused mass displacement and migration,’ begins the opening statement to the project. I’m not exactly sure what ‘profoundly geographical event’ means here, though. At first glance, all events outside of a general intellectual history are geographical, and even then, once one begins to investigate the linkages between intellectual centers, universities, publishers, and so on, it seems like it’s possible to describe almost any event as ‘geographical’ in character. It’s not clear whether ‘the geographical’ is the primary characteristic of the Holocaust.
Indeed, in a sense one could argue that the majority of what we know as the Holocaust was ungeographical, in the sense that many victims were killed not at sites (of the kind that the Holocaust Geographies project seeks to model in agonizing detail), but rather in mass shootings in anonymous locations in present-day Belarus and Ukraine. In that sense the event remains placeless in another sense: given the memory hole and difficult research conditions in Belarus today, precisely the kind of archaeological work needed to reconstruct the place-ness of the Holocaust in the forests and swamps of Eastern Europe remains challenging. Ironically, writing a history of the murder of European Jews through the sites that the Holocaust Geographies project proposes – Auschwitz, transports from France and Italy, ghettoes in Hungary, and evacuations to the west from Auschwitz – actually writes out the Eastern European-ness of the event (a Holocaust that’s more rural, more Yiddish, more Polish, more Belarusian, and more Soviet …) in favor of a more conventional (for Anglophone audiences) narrative that focuses more on Germany, France, Italy, and urban Eastern Europe, rather than on the places, languages, and identities that were really at play for the victims. If one were to draw a north-south line through the spaces the project purports to interrogate, more Jews died ‘outside’ (to the East) of the project’s space than inside of it, to the West. The perceived novelty of ‘the spatial’ here seems to mask the actual methodological conservatism of the project.
More than that, one could raise a (boutique?) administrative criticism of these spatial history projects. While they are often led by tenured professors at universities, one cannot but read the language of the Spatial History Project or HyperCities and be struck by the ease with which they traffic in a dialect of Principal Investigators, research assistants, open-ended projects, and, obviously, ‘laboratories.’ In short, they seek to sound like Big Science, again feeding unintentionally into a rhetorical delegitimization of traditional (‘outmoded,’ ‘solitary,’ ‘analog’) humanities and social science research. Studied more closely, however, the organization of some of these endeavors actually hews more to conservative lines. At Stanford’s Spatial History Lab, the team of ‘researchers’ turns out to overwhelmingly consist of tenured Stanford professors, all of whom received tenure through … a monograph published with a traditional and prestigious academic press. While an army of perspicacious and talented graduate students works within this structure, there remains a difference between ‘lab staff’ (untenured workers, albeit often with Master’s degrees and significant Digital History experience) and the main contingent of ‘researchers’ – tenured professors.
In short, the conservative impulses of the American university remain strong even as new projects speak a language of administrative reorganization and change. HyperCities is more ecumenical with a mix of tenured faculty, ‘independent fine art professionals’ from Los Angeles, and the salaried but untenured technical types which populate these projects. HyperCities appears to outsource payment of undergraduate research assistants through a UCLA-administered competitive grant process, whereby undergraduates apply for pay, and also hires on unpaid interns. In short, professionally few of these projects actually seem to be an exit valve, in spite of the talk at conferences about Digital Humanities being a growth field. Rather, what we see is DH factually being seen as a nice add-on that the tenured (because they wrote a book) professors do in addition to their ‘normal work’ – sticking in national or thematic fields, writing articles for journals organized along disciplinary lines that don’t include DH, and so on.
What to do to avoid these pitfalls in my own work? I’m not yet at the stage to be offering sweeping administrative reforms to American university departments: mastering ArcGIS and some of the tools from last week is about all I can handle at my current pay grade. Regarding my first point, however – not falling into the temptation of labeling everything as spatial and then not actually paying attention to spatial problems in one’s own research – it strikes me as important (if also obvious) to have the modesty to allow the data that I find from my sources (the Death Lists and refugee lists) to help structure the kind of argument I make in the main text of Developing Powers. This might sound like banal advice. But I am often struck, in reading treatments of Afghanistan’s modern history (less so in the Soviet literature than in the American) how un-spatial, or weirdly spatialized, it is. As a result of the Second Anglo-Afghan War and decades of British and Pakistani strategic thinking on the frontier, we hear heaps about the Khyber Pass, even though it’s not where most of the killing or forced migration took place in the 1980s. The same is true of the obsession with Helmand Province post-2009, even though (as security experts pointed out at the time) that province contains less than five percent of Afghanistan’s population.
Hence, as I proceed with this project – and especially lacking the kind of hard-won on-the-ground expertise that anthropologists like Noah Coburn have provided for the field – it seems important to highlight in my writing the stories of the places that the data shows were most hard-hit by killing or flight. I have many tales from those regions, thanks to my Soviet materials (even if we have to read between the lines), and the data I have increasingly from the Death Lists. Now comes to unify these sources – themselves mediating between Moscow, Kabul, and the countryside – and tell a story that does the events justice.
After a brief but exhilarating trip to Moscow for what turned out to be a fantastic conference on the history of Russian and Soviet photography, your humble narrator finds himself spending this overcast weekend recovering from jet lag and nursing cups of tea whilst taking care of the chores that inevitably pile up when one spends life on airplanes. There’s plenty to be done. After some thinking and conversations with fellow graduate students at Moscow, I think I have a strong idea for how to revise one of the chapters of Developing Powers on northern Afghanistan, and I’ll have the chance to test out a few of the ideas at Harvard’s Russian and East European History workshop in a few weeks’ time. Visitors are constantly arriving in Cambridge, prompting your author to make runs for the favorite tea of the day (chai one week, sleepy chamomile the other). Readings in centuries-old Persian texts pile up, too, making the more modern Afghan texts I use in the manuscript – difficult but at least written decades rather than centuries ago. As always, the seminar I’ve been taking on digital history continues to prompt valuable ideas about how to transform the project beyond just a “mere” monograph made from dead trees.
The theme for this week of the class has been neogeography – how we use GIS tools from ArcGIS and MapInfo to ever-developing tools like NeatLine and PastMapper – and its applications to our own work. It’s a timely topic for discussion. Just as I had submitted an initial proposal to Professor O’Neill for a digital history project having to do with the outflow of refugees from Afghanistan into Pakistan and Iran throughout the 1980s, this past week the Netherlands’ National Prosecutor’s Office published a groundbreaking series of detailed lists of the more than 4,000 people who were murdered by the Communist PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) regime from 1978-1979. These killings constitute a terror separate from the one the country saw after the Soviet invasion in December 1979; following the overthrow and murder of President Muhammad Daoud Khan in July 1978, an internally fractured but still potent ultra-nationalist Communist Party embarked on a killing spree of land owners, Shi’ites, former members of the Daoud regime, and members of the wide spectrum of old anti-Daoud Left groups. The files – available here in Persian through the Dutch authorities – which contain detailed information on the names, professions, and ambiguously-named “places” of the victims, provide one of the most comprehensive looks yet to the Afghan (and international) public about the timing, scale, and geography of the atrocities.
The New York Times’ piece describes how the files became public:
The chain of events that led to the lists’ discovery began with an asylum request by Amanullah Osman, the head of interrogation for Afghan intelligence in 1978 and 1979, who fled to the Netherlands in 1993. In his asylum interview, according to the prosecutor’s office, Mr. Osman admitted to signing documents concerning people who were to be executed. “That was expected and desired of me,” he said. “If you don’t go along with it, you can never attain such a high position.”
The Dutch denied him asylum but never expelled him, and eventually opened up a war crimes investigation. That led them to a 93-year-old Afghan refugee in Germany who gave them the death lists, which she had gotten from a former United Nations official, Felix Ermacora, who had never released them. Dutch authorities said they were confident of the lists’ authenticity.
The prosecution was dropped in 2012 when Mr. Osman died, and the Dutch decided to release the lists. “The close relatives of the deceased in this case have the right to know the truth about the circumstances of the disappearance and the final fate of their loved ones,” the prosecutor’s office said.
In the context of post-1979 Afghanistan this all makes for emotional – and potentially explosive – material. Many people knew nothing about what happened to their relatives since the day they disappeared in the year-and-a-half rule of Nur Mohammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin. Naturally, however, there are calls for war crimes trials against the captors and jail officials who carried out these executions. But given the spree of bloodshed which 1978 began in the troubled Central Asian country – one that has not yet ended – others fear that opening a formal domestic or international war crimes tribunal would prove exceptionally complicated and fraught in a country that is, in many places, still effectively at civil war with itself. Making public later files that document 1980s-era atrocities – which already exist thanks to the painstaking work of Afghan and international archaeologists – would potentially implicate large swaths of the country’s political élite in human rights offenses. In short, the discoveries and release of the files constitute just the beginning of what will, one day – hopefully under conditions of peace – be a long public reckoning with more than thirty years of mass killing. All of the problems one sees today in Guatemala or Dhaka surrounding the use of historical materials and war crimes trials – the former a topic exhumed in some detail by fellow Harvard professor Kirsten Weld – are there to explode.
Beyond the images of progress trumpeted by the PDPA (here in a 1978 or 1979 Pashto-language documentary film), thousands were brutally tortured and executed. Might the tools of neogeography help us better penetrate these myths and do this traumatic history justice?
But I digress. For the historian of Central Asia – if one like myself more concerned with development and modernization than mass killing and atrocities – the death lists hold enormous potential, if also a fraught one, for better understanding the past. Can the tools of neogeography potentially help us to better understand – whether as academics or as people making scholarly interventions into a fraught domestic Afghan debate – these dark days of the country’s past? Or do they slide, as early 1990s-era critics of GIS techniques argued, slip too comfortably into an autistic positivism that does little either to understand the past and/or facilitate truth and reconciliation in post-genocide societies?
I’m still putting together a usable spreadsheet from the Dutch documents – their PDFs convert sloppily to Excel documents – and so I don’t yet have a workable .XLS or .CSV database to use as a test platform for many of the tools O’Neill has invited us to test this week, but a tour of several of the suggested options we have on the seminar syllabus (and one that’s not) invites several thoughts on how one might write the history of atrocities in 20th century Central Asia. One that has particularly grabbed my eye since we were introduced to it last week (albeit indirectly) is GeoTrellis, a piece of software produced by Azavea, a Philadelphia-based software firm that produces GIS software primarily for private sector clients. A team of digital historians at the University of Richmond, having secured an NEH Office of Digital Humanities start-up grant, used GeoTrellis towards the end of “visualizing emancipation,” the name of an impressive project that follows the timing of the release of slaves throughout the American South (and North) in the years during and after the American Civil War. The key concept here is that GeoTrellis allows us to track not only the place (inherent almost to the definition of GIS software) but also the timing of events. By seamlessly “playing” one map layer after another in chronological sequence, we get a sense of quantitative change over time that bolsters our (hopefully polished) prose writing.
The application for data like the Afghan Death Lists – which include the date of execution of many victims as well as their “crime” and place of origin – through software like GeoTrellis is potentially enormous. With a source like the Death Lists, of course, it’s crucial to remember that we’re limited by the terms of the executioners, and have to be mindful about reifying them further. Many innocent Afghan Shi’as were murdered for having committed the crime of being a “Khomeini,” while by far the most common charge against ordinary individuals was “Ikhwani” (member of the Muslim Brotherhood), a charge that could be applied with equal impunity towards hardened followers of the brutal commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or anyone who stood in the way of the PDPA regime’s megalomaniacal ambitions to create a Pashtun-dominated Central Asian state that would modernize itself leaps and bounds faster than had even the Soviet Union – no matter if it took mountains of Afghan corpses or a direct war with Pakistan to accomplish this goal.
Yet if the historian keeps in mind the criminal nature of the files she has at hand here, there’s a potential wealth of information we could glean about the history of Afghanistan by plugging a database derived from the Death Lists into software like GeoTrellis. We might get a better sense of the timing of the confessional killing directed from Kabul, as well as the extent to which the PDPA regime – dominated at first by ultra-nationalist Pashtuns from eastern Afghanistan who overthrew the (southern) Durrani regime of Daoud – devoured its own versus eliminating opponents from southern tribes first. We’d get a better sense, too, of the limits of PDPA power (how many victims came from Kabul and the environs, as opposed to the hard-to-reach Hazarajat massif or the mountains of Badakhshan in northeastern Afghanistan?). A more detailed analysis of the killing under Nur Mohammad Taraki as opposed to Hafizullah Amin (a fellow PDPA leader who murdered Taraki in September 1979, alienating the PDPA’s patrons in Moscow) would help us better contextualize Soviet decision-making in the autumn of that year and help understand (or discredit) Soviet claims that one of the legitimate reasons it had to invade was the unsustainable civil war and reign of terror that Amin (as opposed to Taraki) had unleashed on the country. In short, there’s lots of motivation there for your humble narrator to keep on updating the spreadsheet to turn it into something that the gears of GIS programs like GeoTrellis might accept.
Other pieces of software that we were invited to examine this week offer their own advantages, albeit ones perhaps not as well suited for the Death Lists (as opposed to other kinds of data). For my original proposal for our Digital History project, I intend(ed?) to use ArcGIS, one of the most widespread GIS suites that does (or so I thought) most of what I need to depict the displacement of refuges from their homes in Afghanistan to the neighboring countries (other than the Soviet Union). Practically speaking, as someone who’s migrating from using MapInfo and hence makes a lot of dumb mistakes in non-MapInfo or non-Google products, one of the advantages of Arc is that there’s plenty of expertise around for it, particularly at Harvard’s Center for Geospatial Analysis. Having smart Harvard undergrads to
exploit ask for help is an important and useful resource, one that’s not available (yet?) for less general-use products like Time Map. More seriously, though, one fears that in piggybacking on to using ArcGIS, or R (another popular visualization tool), historians risk simply enslaving themselves to the existing tools used by quantitative political scientists, rather than reflecting critically on the specialized tools they might need for their own work.
For me personally, that’s where tools like Neatline, a “a geotemporal exhibit-builder” that allows historians to build-in visual narratives to the geographical data they’ve accumulated. Scholars have used Neatline both as a general-use mapping tool (one that looks more attractive than most Arc maps, I would add), but also – more creatively – as a tool to embed micro-narrative sources (diaries, travel accounts, and so on) into maps. Add to this the fact that it integrates seamlessly with Omeka, and the temptation to build seamless exhibitions incorporating Neatline maps is strong indeed. However, since the basic thrust (at least as advertised) of Neatline is its ability to track micro-level movement across (usually) historical maps, I wonder how useful it is for analyses of macro change of the kind that I’d hope to tell with my refugee data. If only I knew – if I had the data to tell – where individuals from Afghan villages went to in Pakistan or Iran, it’s easy to imagine how one might draw beautiful maps of the escape from the PDPA into the relative safety of the Northwest Frontier Province, or slums in Tehran. To my knowledge, however – or maybe to my ignorance [perhaps the UNHCR archives in Geneva have something] – such data just isn’t there, at least not behind closed doors in Peshawar, Tehran, or Islamabad. But maybe that’s what the coming weeks are for: scouring the resources of Harvard and other libraries to see if there is something – maybe in Iranian or Pakistani publications – that might help us tell this micro-story. Yet there’s the question, too, of whether I really want to (or can) narrate a story of escape, when perhaps what’s most important (and what the data does help us do) is a story of the depopulation of many parts of Afghanistan. Maybe Arc is just enough?
I’ll have to give it a think. For now, there remains – as always – much writing, much reading, and much thinking to do. Things could be worse.
As the semester at Harvard continues to hurtle by – already next week at this time I’ll be in Moscow for another conference – the pressure mounts on ways for me to re-think aspects of the book manuscript. Having spent many months transcribing lengthy reports, themselves filled with charts, tables, and maps about Soviet advisers’ work in provincial Afghanistan, how do I boil it all down? How to add my how historical interpretation of Soviet development in the Third World to the narrative embedded in those documents? How do I turn the quantitative information in these reports into something useful for the 21st century reader without merely recapitulating the argument made in the pages of the otchyoty (reports) that advisers from Komsomol wrote? These are all important questions not only of narrative, but also of design – how to visualize information (whether from the database or the archive) and then tie it in with the argument you’re making in prose.
Hence, I’m glad that the assignment for this week’s installment of Digital History was to read Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information, an early 1990s manifesto arguing for several principles of design in data visualization. Tufte, as his Wikipedia page instructs, has a deep background in the subject of how social scientists, architects, historians, and, well, anyone, can present information in charts, graphs, and maps more effectively. Nor is this just a boutique field. As Tufte’s dissections of charts of 1990s-era New Jersey Transit and Metro North train timetables, information design is something we run into every day, whether we’re commuters en route to the city or consumers at a restaurant. As Tufte has pointed out, many of the design flaws in the Columbia space shuttle (which disintegrated upon return to Earth in February 2003) could have been avoided based on technical data available at the time – but a combination of bureaucratese and poor use of PowerPoint made it near-impossible even for the most eagle-eyed of NASA readers to figure out what was really going on even after a piece of debris created a large, and eventually fatal, hole in the Columbia‘s wing. “Convinced that the reports [on the damage to the shuttle] indicated no problem rather than uncertain knowledge,” Tufte argues, “high-level NASA officials decided that the Columbia was safe, and, furthermore, that no additional investigations were necessary.” It was, arguably, a design mistake that cost seven people their lives.
No matter how much we historians puff our chests, the stakes in our own graphical design aren’t quite so high as that. Still, how we present our data in charts, tables, and other graphics, matters greatly for how much we can persuade others. And at a time when historians still face inter-disciplinary pressure from (for example) quantitatively oriented political scientists, whose snazzy R graphics dazzle – even as policymakers find much of the actual quant research almost worthless – it’s important that we find a way to make the case for the interesting-ness and public (policy) value of our research as forcefully as possible. And that means good visual design.
So, what lessons can I (for one) take from Tufte’s gorgeous little manifesto? For my own work, I’d offer two observations, the one having to do with how I design my own graphics, and the second a meta-observation on the data regime (to ink a pomo phrase) of Komsomol and the Soviet Union writ large as it sought to remake institutions in Afghanistan (and perhaps the Third World more broadly). With respect to the first point, I am particularly struck by Tufte’s thoughts in Chapter Three of Envisioning Information on “layering and separation,” particularly in the context of my own amateurish attempts at mapping and historical GIS. “Effective layering of information is often difficult,” writes Tufte. “An omnipresent, yet subtle, design issue is involved: the various elements collected together on flatland interact, creating non-information patters and texture simply through their combined presence.” Maps, in other words, create unintentional visual noise due to the way they’re constructed of different data layers. The historian-cum-mapper ought to think wisely about how basic design decisions about base layers (for example) or the way we represent data (shadings, points, etc.). Otherwise she or he risks losing the reader’s attention – the most valuable asset she has to earn or lose.
A couple of examples from my own dissertation – if I may be permitted to risk losing the aforementioned reader’s attention right away – viewed through my newly-critical post-Tufte eyes, offer a couple of examples of what works and what doesn’t. While working on the D.Phil. at Oxford, I had the fortune of learning how to use MapInfo, a useful GIS tool that did everything I asked of it. I could make base maps of South and Central Asia to show elevation changes over the region.
As far as Tufte’s design principles go, I don’t think this is terrible, but there are still several issues here. Because MapInfo’s other default schemes for displaying elevation were malfunctioning at the time, I chose the color palette above. It’s, well, vivid, but it has a number of problems. Because it displays points by elevation (rather than also taking aridity into account), one gets the impression that the parched deserts of southern Afghanistan and southeastern Iran are in fact quite green, when the Persian names (“Desert of Death,” “Place of Sand”) are probably more accurate. The same applies to the lands to the west of the Indus River in what is Pakistan today – they’re dry, too, as is the coast of Baluchistan (the coastal region along the Arabian Sea). And yet it all appears lush. Not good. We also run into some trouble on the places I’ve included in the map: everything gets equal weight as a dot, regardless of whether it’s a national capital (Kabul, Islamabad …), a minor provincial city (Zahedan, the capital of Iranian Sistan and Baluchistan), or a geographical feature (the Khyber Pass or the Bolan Pass). In terms of my state ambition at the time that I drew the map – to depict this part of Asia as one arena rather than the chopped-up “place in between” it usually gets depicted at, thanks to 20th century area studies optics – the map isn’t a total failure. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that there’s a “failure to communicate” here, but the map above is what it is: part of a dissertation written by a historian who dabbles in GIS, rather than the other way around (or, better yet, an excellent historian who’s also pretty good at GIS).
Look elsewhere in the dissertation, and things get – if not ugly – then neither pretty when it comes to other maps. Take this example above, a map I was trying to make of Paktia Province, a historically unruly border province in eastern Afghanistan that plays a prominent role in the dissertation as somewhere where West German agronomists and foresters carried out all sorts of developmental interventions. Here, however, we get a loud, obnoxious clash of colors between the topographic base map (which I think works on its own to give a general picture of the region, if you exclude the whole problem of depicting aridity), and the bright red which I, for some reason unrecalled to me now, selected as the overlay to depict the location of Paktia. While the reader gets the most basic point – Paktia lies on the Durand Line – the low level of transparency of the overlay obscures a more subtle, but also essential point: the province consisted of valleys dominated by small cities. One, Gardez, relatively easy to get to from Ghazni or Kabul, but the other, Khost (the capital of Paktia then, since spun off into its own province) lay in its own valley that was easier to reach from Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. That’s a really obvious but important point when it comes to West German foresters’ assertion about the “natural” flow of Paktia’s valuable cedar trees to Kabuli, not Karachi, markets, but the well-intentioned reader has no way of figuring that out from the map, since the opacity of the red overlay obscures the local geography. We get a general (if also visually loud and obnoxious) picture of where Paktia Province is, but the map ironically falls into the same pitfall that marked so much of 20th century development – an obsession with administrative borders and administrative overlays in a way that makes the overall presentation blind towards geography and the constructed nature of some borders (but especially that of the Durand Line). I won’t beat myself up too much for this problem now – the D.Phil. had to be submitted, I had other things to do, I hadn’t read Tufte then … – but it’s important to grow mindful of these design problems if one is seeking to write digital (and analog) scholarship that sparkles.
More speculatively, one might also apply these design-centric criticisms to some of the source material I’m working with: the reports that VLKSM (Komsomol) operatives wrote from the field. There’s plenty of great information in a lot of the reports they wrote – the ethnic breakdown of the Afghan Communist Party’s youth groups, the professional breakdown of new recruits to the organization, prices for foodstuffs in local markets in Afghan Badakhshan, and so on. The problem, however, is that the information is often presented in what Tufte calls “flatland” – black and white charts in which information is too often constrained into the prison cells of the spreadsheet. Take the following randomly-selected table from a VLKSM report on the situation in a DOYA (Democratic Organization of the Youth of Afghanistan) cell from Fayzabad, Afghanistan from 1985. Overlook for a moment the foreignness of the table being in Russian and you’ll see, well, not much popping out from the page on what is supposed to be a chart of the reasons why DOYA’s membership numbers were sinking in the province during that year. (The top row depicts the names of the months of the Solar Hijri calendar in Afghanistan, which has different names from its Iranian counterpart. The chart runs from Akrab, which roughly corresponds to October, to Hamal, which ends in mid-April.)
There’s some interesting raw data going on here: we have reasons ranging from “removed from the registry” to “send to the Armed Forces” to “KhAD” (the Afghan secret police) to “recommended for the NPDA [sic] (the PDPA, the Afghan Communist Party)”, “died,” and, at the bottom, “received [into DOYA].” Yet the picture of what’s going on in the organization (a stagnation in recruiting figures, the fact that DOYA functioned a funnel for young Afghans into state institutions like the Army, KhAD, and the Sarandoy, the Ministry of the Interior’s police force , not to mention the disturbing fact of nine children being killed) isn’t so clear. One can’t be too tough on the men who wrote these reports, operating as they were from ultra-remote locations in a war zone, seldom equipped with anything more than a pen and paper to write these reports. The fact that they made it from the field to Kabul, and thence to Moscow, is impressive enough – one reason why I’m glad to work with these documents. Yet maybe we ought also to probe the ways in which VLKSM had become stuck in ineffective data design. What trends go undetected, or are insufficiently highlighted in the above presentation? Given the vast amount of paperwork that VLKSM churned out – blessing and a curse – there’s no shortage of such charts to break down. Having read Tufte and (hopefully) ingrained better design eyes now, it’s with added scrutiny that I’ll turn over the pages of these reports as I continue to slog through mucho writing, re-writing, and editing of what I hope is a project that not only reads well, but sets a high bar for “envisioning information.”