Creating A Digital Edition: Looking For Ideas

It is the waning days of this semester and I’ve been planning my class for the spring. One of the centerpiece texts we will be reading in the spring is A Narrative of the Sufferings of Massy Harbison. Harbison is somewhat of a local celebrity in these parts of western Pennsylvania. I am hopeful that reading this text resonates with students as they see places mentioned from their neck of the woods. I wasn’t familiar with Harbison’s Narrative until I visited the Fort Pitt Museum’s Captured by Indians exhibit, which recently closed after an extension of several months.

One of the difficulties I had in planning to use Harbison’s Narrative had been finding a suitable edition for the class. By suitable I mean finding an inexpensive text that students could actually read and mark up. A local organization created a reset version of Harbison’s Narrative. However, the text is tiny, the font is small, and the book was expensive. A publisher specializing in Christian subjects had a text that was a reprinting of a digitized version.

And there is the original digital version that the Christian publisher uses. The PDF version of Harbison’s Narrative was digitized by the University of Pittsburgh’s Library System. However, the version online requires users to page through pages of the Narrative one screen at a time; I knew that would potentially be a burden for students. I sent some emails and was fortunate to receive a full PDF that I could use in class.

The difficulties of finding a version of Harbison’s Narrative got me thinking about creating an online edition of the text. The main project we will be working on in class will be the creation of a digital edition of Harbison’s Narrative from 1825. I’ll have around 88 students in the spring. I envision each student being responsible for transcribing one page of the Narrative. There are around 66 pages in the 1825 Narrative. I also plan to incorporate selections from a later version of the Narrative published in 1836 that includes additional materials supplied by an editor. In short, each student will be responsible for transcribing one page of text. My plan is then to have students create annotations for the text either individually or collaboratively. I’d also like students to work collaboratively on a mapping project using Google Maps that highlights locations mentioned in the Narrative. I am also hopeful that students can create mini-essays on certain facets of Harbison’s Narrative.

Things are still in the planning stage, but I am committed to at least having the students create a transcribed version of the Narrative that includes brief annotations. Ideally we get the annotations online this semester. However, I am not sure what I site I should use to make this project happen. A straight-up transcription of the text would be easy to put up on a WordPress site. Omeka, though not ideal of large bodies of text, could also be a potential way to get this text online. I’ve not used it before, but I know Scalar could be an option. [Just poking around with Scalar and that does seem like an option that could work!]

I’m calling on the hivemind to offer suggestions that will allow for easy annotations of the text. I’m not sure what to use or how to go about doing it. I’d like something that allows for the easy showcasing of annotations for users. Ideally it would be something that would be appropriate for first year students to master. I’m happy with something that relies on hyperlinked pieces of text or as bubbles that users could hover their cursor over as they read the text.

I’ll be working with the Heinz History Center on this project. I know that easily accessible online version of the Harbison Narrative is something the folks at the Fort Pitt Museum have been interested in seeing happen. I’m excited about this opportunity. I’ll have a few repeat students from the fall term and I hope they look forward to our continuing work with the Heinz History Center.


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Hamilton (the musical) has a Genius (the website) Problem

If you follow me on Twitter or have read my post over at Pedagogy and American Literary Studies, then you likely know I’ll be incorporating Hamilton: An American Musical in one of my classes this coming semester.

In other words, “if ya don’t know, now ya know.”

In my class I’ll be approaching Hamilton by pairing it with several excellent of examples of public writing written by historians and cultural critics. Additionally, I plan on pairing Hamilton with several online exhibitions from various museums and libraries.

However, I’m on the fence about using the annotations for Hamilton provided by the website, Genius.


Genius is a crowd-sourced and web-based platform that allows users to annotate the lyrics of songs. Genius originally began as a way to annotate the lyrics of rap music, but has since expanded to a variety of other texts, including Hamilton. On the surface, Genius is cool. It allows for crowdsourced knowledge that can be enhanced with links, images, and gifs. It allows for annotations and comments from users. Many works, like Hamilton, can be linked with YouTube or platforms like Spotify that allow for a multimedia experience that echoes the format of VH1’s Pop-Up Video. On first pass, it is a dizzying array of resources presented in a fresh and exiting way. As other people have noted the applications for the classroom are apparent.

check chernow

However, Genius has an authority problem that centers on a veneration of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the musical’s major source material, Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton. The community of editors on Genius makes the veneration of both Chernow and Miranda clear in the instructions and advice to new annotators of Hamilton. One of the editors’ stated goals involves Miranda verifying annotations. Another piece of advice extols users to #CheckInWithChernow. Andrew M. Schocket addresses the problems with the history detailed by Chernow, especially in light of the biography’s resurgence in the wake of the musical’s success. And Schocket isn’t alone. William Hogeland, on Twitter and his blog, has critqued the problem of the musical and its main source material. As a teaching tool, the issues with Genius and Hamilton result in a thorny intertext that requires spending extensive time working through issues of the practice of history as a field, dealing with source evaluation, or exposing students to issues of authority.

First year students often have difficulty navigating issues of authority when it comes to evaluating sources. The difficulty of students becoming critical readers and thinkers, especially in their first semester, is one reason that I find myself pondering the authority problem of Hamilton and the Genius annotations. Chernow’s biography has many of the hallmarks that students see as a “good source”: it is big, it has notes, and it has a bibliography. Or, as the Grumpy Historian, pointed out on Twitter, Chernow’s biography is an example of “How biography (and primary sources, and footnotes) can hide #BadHistory.”

I am wavering on my class using the Genius annotations for Hamilton. It is an extensive source that could be used in powerful ways to discuss authority and source evaluation. I’m using Hamilton in the context of a composition class. We will address issues of authority and the evaluation of sources. However, we can’t do everything in as much depth as I would like. My main focus has to be on wiring instruction. There is not enough time in the classroom. I imagine that there would be more time to devote to such issues in an upper-level class.

my edit

Perhaps the solution is to fix the Genius annotations of Hamilton. Extensive revisions could be done in a class focused on public writing or digital writing. I did an experiment. I wanted to see how easily Genius annotations could be revised and updated. I set up an account on Genius. I created a profile in which I leveraged my academic authority. I made a revision to “The Reynolds Pamphlet.” I made a small suggestion. The original annotation links to a full-text version of “The Reynolds Pamphlet” provided by a partisan political website. I altered the link to take users to a full-text version of “The Reynolds Pamphlet” provided on the Founders Online site from the National Archives. I left a comment that I made the change and the reason for the change. Perhaps there is an even better link I could use, but the purpose of my edit was to incorporate a sound source and see if the change would be accepted.

As a result of this experience I learned that revising annotations on Genius is not as easy as revising entries on Wikipedia. I made my edit on June 30th and it is now July 8th. The original annotation for “The Reynolds Pamphlet” has not been updated. If users click on the list of proposed edits, located at the bottom, then they can see my proposed change. In the intervening days between my edit and writing this post, I did receive an upvote on my proposed change. Small victories.

As another experiment, prior to writing this post, I took a look at the annotations for the line “Martha Washington named her feral tomcat after him” from the song “A Winter’s Ball.” I did this in the wake of a recent article that exploring the veracity of this anecdote. As Joanne Freeman noted on Twitter: “Seems like a non-story, folks, as I noted when interviewed yesterday. Story clearly from a 19th c “story” book.” I thought the “tomcat” line could be a quick candidate for an easy revision. Believe it or not, there are extensive annotations to this one line of the song. It was not a candidate for a quick edit and I didn’t make any changes.

one user noted

One user did comment about the partisan nature of a linked site.

I noticed, in reading the annotations of the “tomcat” line, that one of the annotations takes Genius users to a partisan blog on Hamilton and Christianity. An additional link takes users to another partisan political website with an article on Hamilton and John and Abigail Adams. Genius annotations for Hamilton reveal links to similarly partisan websites and blogs. However, making meaningful edits to Genius is not as easy as it appears, as my experience with “The Reynolds Pamphlet” shows. Making revisions isn’t just about changing links. Much of the information from the sites cited by users is extensively embedded in the user-generated content on Genius.

Revisions of Hamilton on Genius are needed if the site has potential uses for the classroom, which makes such a project a seemingly ideal candidate for an upper-division class with a digital humanities or public writing focus. Last summer, I wrote about the potential of a digital humanities project focusing on revising entries of American women writers on Find A Grave. In my post I addressed the potential difficulties of such a project because of the prevalence of entries locked by users, many of whom are no longer active users. Hamilton on Genius has many of the same problems because the entries are a year old and the editors behind the project may no longer be active.

I thought writing this post would help me make a firm decision about using Genius in my classroom. I’m still not sure. One reason I like Genius is because it is a repository of musical and cultural references that I’m not in a position to connect for students. However, if my extra credit assignment on Hamilton is any indication, students are very capable of making the popular cultural connections that I can’t provide for them.

I still have a few weeks to plan my classes. I’ll no doubt continue to waiver on the topic of using Genius in the classroom. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Sharing Bad Days in the Classroom

Over on PALS I wrote a short piece on teaching a pairing of Thomas Jefferson and Phillis Wheatley. Each time I write for PALS or I write for my own blog—I’m looking for a chance to write small. The aim: shorter posts, but more frequent posts.

I tried to write small today. For the sake of time, especially for something that wasn’t planned, I tried to write small and I tried hard since I needed to write other bigger things.

I’m always trying to write small when it comes to the blog. I know that is the best blog practice. I know small is good from the blogs I read. I’ve seen the change from longer and in-depth posts to shorter and more frequent posts.

I tried to write small today. It didn’t happen.

Then I thought: maybe it isn’t writing small—maybe it is editing small.

So I tried to edit small.

My post on Wheatley and Jefferson was personal because I shared failure. I didn’t think folks would want to read about my personal experience. Well, at least not in that way. Most things we post to PALS are personal and based on classroom experience. I aimed to cut my story of failure out. However, my bad memory of teaching Jefferson and Wheatley was central to what I had to say. I think. I still waiver on that.

Ultimately, the reason I included my failure was because it was about failure. It is rare that people share failures in the classroom. Social media is awash with awesome, especially when it comes to teaching. We often send out vibes about being awesome teachers and all but scream our students are from Lake Woebegone. People rarely share the bad. You’ve probably read articles about the link between social media and our self-perception changing by reading about every other person’s awesomeness.

I wanted to buck the trend.

I put off writing small or editing small—in order to share the bad. I think that is important. As teachers we need to share more of the bad. You can read about the good and the bad of teaching Jefferson and Wheatley here.

Check out more on #teachingfails with this roundtable post from Pedagogy and American Literary Studies.

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Wigging Out in Class

The semester is drawing to a close. And as it closes, I think about the revising and revamping my courses and the day to day workings of the classroom.

One thing I am working on is trying to make the most of class time, especially when my big plans take less time (for whatever reasons). To this end, I am focusing on developing a stable of activities to use in class when there is still time after whatever major goal is accomplished.

Cue the appropriate mood music

On Thursday the morning class had some extra time. I asked them to use that time to create some wigs using the Design a Wig site from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Now, I didn’t do this just for the sake of fun. It fit in the class. We’ve read some 18C novels. The students have been working on their longer argumentative research papers and are gaining a more nuanced understanding of the time period. Right now- we are reading Royall Tyler’s The Contrast. The edition that I am using features primary materials that deal with fashion and include some cartoons featuring insanely preposterous wigs.

My Wig

Behold: A wig I made

On Thursday morning I asked students to take a look at the wigs featured in the primary sources of our textbook. Then I asked students to visit the Design a Wig site and create their own wigs by collaborating in groups. They were already in groups- so that made sense. The Design a Wig site is fun. It is also educational. It does provide a few snippets of historical information as it walks users through the tutorial for using the site features. Well, if that doesn’t sound like the  kind of video game tutorial that makes a pedagogy of video games appealing to many people?

On the spur of the moment this worked well. If I planned this out I’d make a few changes. Perhaps have students explore a larger sample size of wigs, design a wig, then ask students to write a collaborative group reflection paper. However, there is something to be said against making something fun and creative become an extra piece of work for the students and the instructor.

Just one more thing. This wasn’t completely out of the blue. I knew I wanted to use this site at some point. It had received a lot of attention over the past few months. I also knew that I’d use it with The Contrast because of the primary source materials. I just hadn’t thought of the actual implementation of using the site in class.

I leave you with the wigs from Thursday.





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Touring the 18C in Pittsburgh: A Quick #ASECS16 Guide

My father was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but I’m relatively new to the city. In exploring Pittsburgh, I’ve been looking into the eighteenth century side of things. With the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies meeting coming up soon, I thought I’d write a quick post highlighting some of the eighteenth century related things to see in Pittsburgh. The ASECS conference hotel, the Omni William Penn, is located downtown and is in close proximity to some sites related to the eighteenth century that are worth checking out if you have some time.

Pittsburgh: A Transatlantic Black and Gold City

2015-12-13 10.50.09.jpgA cool thing to do while in Pittsburgh is to think of the city and its history in a transatlantic context. I’ve spent a lot of time as of late driving between western and eastern Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is a big state and driving gives me a lot of time to think. One thing that has helped make the drive a little more interesting is thinking about Pittsburgh, and that big swath of in-between Pennsylvania, as a transatlantic contact zone between indigenous peoples, the British, the French, and many diverse groups. Maybe it is just me, but thinking of Pittsburgh as a transatlantic location helps in looking past the skyscrapers, the sports teams, and all of the black and gold.

Speaking of black and gold: You might be wondering what is up with all the black and gold in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has a long and complex history. The city is defined by many things, but black and gold is the most visual manifestation of the city’s identity and the color scheme is rooted in the eighteenth century and the city’s connection to William Pitt. Pittsburgh’s professional sports teams– Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins—all feature black and gold as their team colors. Black and gold is also an important part of the city’s civic identity, too. A recent article delves succinctly into this black and gold history and I recommend it as a crash course to the black and gold.

2015-12-13 10.19.52.jpg


Things to See and Do Near the Conference Hotel

Be sure to check out Point State Park which is also home to the Fort Pitt Block House, and the Fort Pitt Museum, all within a 20 minute walk of the conference hotel. Known as The Point, it is the site of Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt. The park features some interpretive information. Visitors can also walk the footprints of Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt.

While at The Point, check out the Fort Pitt Block House, the only confirmed remaining remnant of Pittsburgh’s eighteenth century built past. There is no admission fee to the Block House. It is an interesting site that is run by the Fort Pitt Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution of Allegheny County. The Block House isn’t just a site of interest for its connection to Fort Pitt, it is also worth a visit if you’re interested in history and memory. The site includes a small commemorative garden celebrating the efforts of women in the early twentieth century to save the site from being turned into a stockyard.

2015-12-13 11.15.31.jpg

Fort Pitt Museum

If you have some extra timeat Point State Park, I’d encourage you to visit the Fort Pitt Museum. The museum is part of the Heinz History Center and is not affiliated with the Fort Pitt Society. The museum introduces visitors the history of western Pennsylvania, focusing on the struggle for the region during the French and Indian War. Currently, the Fort Pitt Museum features a special exhibit called Captured by Indians where visitors can “[t]ake an epic journey to the heart of the early American frontier as the Fort Pitt Museum explores the practice of Indian captivity.” This is an interesting exhibit and is worth the museum’s nominal fee.

Visiting The Strip: The Heinz History Center and More

The  Heinz History Center, which is about a 20 minute walk from the conference hotel, is worth checking out, too. The Heinz History Center covers the entire history of Pittsburgh. Exhibits of note include Clash of Empires: The British, French & Indian War, 1754-1763 and From Slavery to Freedom. The Heinz History Center features other interesting exhibits, such as their Visible Storage. Plus you can see items related to Mister Rogers, too! The Heinz History Center is also the home of the Detre Library & Archives.

If you are at then Heinz History Center, then you are not far from many of the shops and restaurants in  The Strip. If you’re interested in Italian specialty foods, then The Strip is worth a visit. The Strip is also the home of Primanti Bros and their famous sandwiches. People have strong feelings about Primanti Bros. The sandwiches aren’t too expensive. I think the sandwiches are best when nice and hot. I recommend sitting at the bar to ensure a hot sandwich.

In this post I wanted to focus on some of the eighteenth century related things that Pittsburgh has to offer. If you have some more time you might want to check out the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, which include Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Carnegie Science Center, and The Andy Warhol Museum. The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is also a fun time. Lastly, if you like baseball, the Pirates home opener against the Cardinals is on Sunday April 3rd at 1:05 PM.

I’m still learning a lot about Pittsburgh and all the things to do and see. And eat. If you have questions don’t hesitate to shoot me an email (specterg at DUQ dot EDU) or contact me on Twitter: @GregSpecter.

Note: Here is an updated section based on my scant food knowledge in Pittsburgh.

Several folks on Twitter have posted regarding food options for Pittsburgh. I’ve only been in Pittsburgh since August and can’t speak in great detail as to places to eat in Pittsburgh beyond a small sample set. However, I’ll share what I know.


There is a high concentration of restaurants in The Strip, which isn’t too far from the conference hotel. I can only speak to Primanti Brothers. However, you can find a restaurant guide to The Strip here.

I’m more familiar with the restaurants on Bryant Street. Bryant Street is located in Highland Park, which is a short ride from downtown. Many of the restaurants on Bryant Street are frequently featured in local newspapers and best of guides.

Applewood Smoke Burger Company is located in the Park Side Pub. Their burgers feature locally sourced ingredients. Prices range from $9 to $14. I’ve had nearly every burger they serve. Each one has been excellent. Their wings are also excellent. They do serve salads. I usually get my burgers done medium-well which tends to be medium at most other places. If you go, just order the doneness of your burger one step up.

Park Bruges serves mostly Belgian inspired food. They are well-known for their mussels and frites. I do recommend getting those. They also serve poutine, which is very good, too. The bar is nice with a decent selection of foreign beers, but it does tend be expensive. The food can be expensive depending on what you order. It is also very popular and tends to get very busy. Point Brugge is a sister restaurant located near Bakery Square. I’ve heard positive things about it, but I have not been there.

Smiling Banana Leaf serves Thai food. It is fine for a neighborhood place. I wouldn’t say to travel all the way to Highland Park to dine here.

Joseph Tembellini Restaurant and Teppanyaki Kyoto are also on Bryant Street. I’ve not been to either restaurant, but people seem to like both of them.

If you go the Carnegie Museum or Natural History / Art, then you might want to check out Union Grill, which is nearby. They serve burgers, sandwiches, and other things. I’ve been there a few times and enjoy it. It is like an everyday kind of establishment. It doesn’t seem to get too busy. There are other restaurants on the same street, but I’ve not been to them.

Here is a best of guide from Pittsburgh Magazine. You’ll see that many of the locations on Bryant Street make the list.


I have been to a place called All India on North Craig Street. I do not recommend it at all.


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Revolution, Marketing, & the Legacy of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies

I’ve been working on a project examining poetry at the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies since the fall of 2014. Of course, when I began this exploration I had many questions. I had the big research questions.

And I also had logistical questions: Was there an archival record? Where was this archival record?

Looking for an archival record of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies naturally led me to the potential of exploring materials related to Moravian College. Was there a connection? Did they have materials? Information on the webpages for the library and the school archives seemed to indicate an avenue of pursuit, but it wasn’t screaming “hey, look here! Hey, start here!” Additionally, there was the issue of access. Library websites made it clear that there was not a full-time archivist available.

Eventually, I sorted out my archive questions out and have since spent a lot of time at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem.

The connection between the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies and Moravian College wasn’t exactly clear when I began exploring this project in the fall of 2014. On the surface, however, that connection seems to be clearer today. Sort of. Or, at least, the connection Moravian College wants to make to the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies and a revolutionary past has become clearer.

Moravian College’s embracing of its historic past is interesting to me as someone involved in higher education. My composition classes in the spring of 2015 and the fall of 2015 addressed on higher education. In class we frequently explored the marketing of colleges. Together we took a critical eye to the marketing rhetoric of colleges and universities. One of my classes in the spring of 2015 was a dual enrollment class. We often focused on Lehigh Valley colleges and universities since many of the students were going to schools in the area. A local focus also made sense since we could frequently use local media coverage of area schools as a jumping off point for discussion. The online presence of Moravian College was something we explored often.

The above paragraph is an attempt to build my ethos. I remember what the website for Moravian College looked like a year or so ago. It certainly doesn’t look like it does at this moment. Just trust me: it was a rather typical website of a small liberal arts college in a nice community. When I began initially exploring the website of Moravian College in the fall of 2014, there wasn’t anything distinctive about it. It was what one expected from the website of a small liberal arts college in a bucolic setting.

Last fall, I found myself again visiting the webpage of Moravian College. Things had changed.

Navigating to Moravian College’s website forces the viewer to confront immediately a revolutionary past. It isn’t subtle.

Moravian Splash Page

When a viewer of the website scrolls down, the call to “Be a Little Revolutionary” recedes and they’re confronted with a very short history of the origins of Moravian College.

Scroll Down Moravian Website

The “16-year-old girl” mentioned in the short history blurb is Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf, daughter of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf.

Moravian Revolutionary in Your Blood

Taking ownership of that “revolutionary” claim.

When I visited the Moravian Archives in the fall of 2015, I noticed that the streetlights surrounding the campus of Moravian College featured flags proclaiming their motto for all to see. “Be a Little Revolutionary” is a marketing campaign that seems to be everywhere. Again, these streetlight flags were not something that I saw present in the summer of 2015 when I first visited the Moravian Archives.

a lot of revolution now and then

wow much revolution such colonial past wow

The new list of best places to work in the Lehigh Valley came out recently and there was a profile of the award winners in the local newspaper. Each workplace profiled is listed with a little bit of information, including the founding date. The local paper, The Morning Call, lists the founding of Moravian College as 1742 and in another article, featuring factoids, lists the claim of “the sixth oldest college in America and the first school to educate women.”

best place to work

Competition for students is difficult. I understand the drive of colleges and universities to undertake attention-grabbing ad campaigns and to develop buzz phrases for marketing purposes. I do know that the history of education in American, especially women’s education, is complicated. It is far too nuanced for sloganeering. I’ve not delved too far beyond the #18C in tracing the connection between the schools. It is certainly much more complicated than what a marketing campaign tries to make it. This use of the idea of revolution, The Revolution, and a historical past is driven by marketing. It is a clever and organized campaign.



This isn’t an all-inclusive post about the history of the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies and it isn’t a post about the history of Moravian College. It is a post drawing attention to branding and marketing of higher education today. I think this post is a starting point for highlighting the collapsing and simplification of a rather complex historical past, not just of the boarding school and Moravian College, but also American history and the history of women’s education in the United States.

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