Category Archives: digital humanities

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

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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Call me Ambitious: A Composition Class on Moby-Dick and its Contexts

If you’ve seen my Twitter posts the past two weeks, then you know I had the good fortune to attend an NEH Summer Institute hosed by The Rhode Island Historical Society. The Summer Institute was titled “Early American Women’s History: Teaching from within the Archives.” It was awesome and glorious. The institute was under the direction of Elyssa Tardif (Director of the Newell D. Goff Center for Education and Public Programs at the Rhode Island Historical Society) and Suzanne McCormack (Associate Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island). Marie Parys, also of the RIHS, was the coordinator of much of the logistics and an awesome contributor to the institute, too. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be revisiting my time at the Summer Institute through blog posts on various outlets.

Whale Swag. The two cds of sea shanties are still in the car.

Whale Swag. The two cds of sea shanties are still in the car.

Intermixed with my Twitter posts over the past two weeks you likely saw a lot of posts about whales, whaling, and Moby-Dick. I didn’t realize until I arrived in Rhode Island that I forgot to account for the weekend in the middle of the institute. We’d have two days off to do as we pleased. I immediately knew I was going to go to Mystic Seaport and to New Bedford. I’d never been to New Bedford and it had been a long time since I’d been to Mystic Seaport. I travel to Cape Cod almost every summer and passed these places. I’ve wanted to stop, but when you travel with shih tzus life is amazing, but travel is difficult.

This was my time to go to these places.

I love New England and that is an understatement. My mom traveled far and wide in New England. Growing up traveling to New England is what we did as a family. While working on my PhD at the University of Missouri, I often found myself homesick for Pennsylvania. That is expected. What I didn’t expect was being homesick for New England. Part of that homesickness grew out of spending so much time with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe loved New England. Again, an understatement. And my intense feeling for New England manifested in strange ways. When cranberry season came along I’d buy the smaller and more delicate looking cranberries from Massachusetts. Not those monster cranberries from Wisconsin. I tracked down Bell’s Seasoning. I started planning for a New England Thanksgiving that acknowledged the various strands of history and culture that infused the foods of New England. I started this planning in October. Eventually, my mind started turning to Thanksgiving once August rolled around. I hunted down beers from New England. If I could have found decent oysters and knew how to shuck them, I’d have done that, too.

If given the opportunity to visit sites related to a quintessential aspect of New England culture, history, and tradition—then I was going to do it. I had a lot to make up for after being in Missouri. Don’t get me wrong—I love Missouri and I don’t have any of the angst that many people feel about the middle of the United States.

The active life of the Summer Institute meant that I didn’t have a lot of time, but I had a lot to do. The folks at the institute kept us busy with lectures, site visits, and welcoming us to the community of the Rhode Island Historical Society and the city of Providence. They also did not overwhelm us with too much and that meant spending a great deal of time with the participants of the institute outside of scheduled meetings and functions. Forming a community with participants is an important aspect of these NEH summer institutes and seminars; it is equally as important as what happens in the classroom. One thing that I needed to do was create / pitch a class to teach this fall. I was already thinking a lot about Moby-Dick. I was thinking a lot about the archives and what we learned about in our workshops. I was beginning to put these things together. My visits to Mystic Seaport and New Bedford helped to make my class idea come together.

Cotton Bale

Cotton Bale

One of the most striking features of the exhibits at Mystic Seaport, NewBedford Whaling Museum, and the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park is the emphasis on a telling a complete story of whaling in the United States. Each of these institutions emphasized a story of whaling that brought together science, industry, technology, and people both on and off shore. However, what I found fascinating about these exhibits was how they each wove together the story of American whaling with aspects of the story that can easily be forgotten in the wake of the whale hunt. These exhibits told stories that brought together slavery, free African-Americans, the experience of women at home, the immigrant experience, Native Americans and many others. It was a long, rich history of connections that spanned the scope of whaling. I was also overwhelmed by the just how much the whaling industry touched the lives of people as consumers of products. I think all of the exhibits that I saw made it clear that there would be no New England textile mills without the human horror of slavery and the ecological horror of whaling.

Whaling and Textiles

Rise and Fall of Two Interconnected Industries

As I thought more about American whaling and how I would develop this class, I realized that people participating in whaling and its larger cultural influence didn’t need words like hemispheric, transnational, transatlantic, or oceanic studies. I felt that these people knew how much whaling touched their lives and it is manifested in the print and material culture that remains. The way whaling touched the lives of people also shows up in the sea shanties of the time and the numerous variations for many of the songs—and I think that is a powerful aspect of the sea shanties.

A global reach connecting locations around the globe: From New England to the coast of Africa

A global reach connecting locations around the globe: From New England to the coast of Africa

The influence of rhetorical studies on my teaching leads me to see “everything as an argument” and that everything is a text. In the light of my pedagogy, then the industry of whaling struck is a vast intertext— an interconnected world, one saturated with meaning and connections for the whalers, the industries, like textiles, that relied on whaling, and those on shore that were left behind or participated as consumers. The search for that intertext is what would drive the research and writing component of the class I was thinking about developing. Yes, we would read Moby-Dick, but it wouldn’t be about Moby-Dick, it would provide an opportunity for students to follow threads from the book that likely resonated for readers of the novel at the time and those that didn’t read it. Most importantly, I envision this course as an opportunity for students to pursue what resonates with them. I had in mind an opportunity for students to explore this subject of whaling based on their own interests. In this way I’d have the opportunity to draw on the amazing ideas and resources from the Summer Institute to collaborate with students in uncovering connected threads from Moby-Dick.

The Modernist resurrection of Moby-Dick gives it this aura of just floating out there in the world as a piece of art. I think that makes it hard to get to the heart of what resonates culturally with the book’s depiction of whaling. It isn’t Ishmael and the crew floating in the middle of nowhere. Moby-Dick and the whaling industry are tethered to the commerce and culture of the time. There is no escaping it. Even something as simple as a sea shanty is a testament to the same connections and pressures.


Another confluence of whaling and the textile industry occurs in “Johnny Come Down to Hilo.” Johnny is rather taken with a “down east gal with a down east style,” but the song likely originates with African-American work songs from the Gulf Coast. A low stakes digital humanities project in the classroom could map the locations mentioned in different versions of this shanty and others.


One reason that I was also drawn to the idea of class that would provide students the opportunity to explore the intertext and contexts of Moby-Dick is that there is a wealth of digital collections available online. Students wouldn’t have to rely on database access to historical collections. Access to resources is at the heart of how I plan my classes. I want students to have an opportunity to rely on databases and the library, plus other sources. However, as we well know, not all libraries have a wealth of resources. Thankfully American whaling has a robust digital presence thanks to some amazing work by various museums and archives.

At this point a reader of this post might be thinking “You spend all of your time thinking about Harriet Beecher Stowe. Couldn’t you do this with Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” That reader would be right: I could do this with Stowe. I am sure I will at some point. I do have selfish reasons for focusing on Moby-Dick. I do spend a lot time thinking about Stowe. This Moby-Dick class is something different. I think it is healthy for me pedagogically, mentally, and intellectually to do something with Moby-Dick and not Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

My selfish reasons aside, I do have an even bigger reason for pitching a class on Moby-Dick. I’m thinking of this as a course to be used as composition class. Yes, a composition class (and I’ll come back to this in a moment). In developing themed composition classes I’ve tried to create courses that would provide ALL students, regardless of interests and majors, to make their own connections and follow their own path of inquiry through research and writing. This idea of creating a space that empowers students to follow their own path is an important part of my pedagogy. In creating a class on Moby-Dick and not Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I’m thinking about the range of students that I’ll encounter, specifically STEM majors and students not in the humanities. In this regard, my selection of Moby-Dick is inspired by the full story of American whaling as told by the museums that I’ve visited recently. At these museums the story of whaling encompasses hundreds of years and the move towards conservation and the protection of the environment today. The legacy of whaling links biology, science and technology, and environmental activism. Yes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin possesses that same resonance today; however, I’m still thinking about student access. I think it is potentially easier for students to connect with the legacy of whaling today as opposed to the fact that slavery still exists throughout the world today.

Science, Whales, and Museum Advocacy

Science, Whales, and Museum Advocacy

At this point, gentle reader, you might think I am Ahab mad for creating a class like this to run as first-year introductory writing class. I’ve thought a lot about that issue. I know of instances where Moby-Dick has been used successfully as a one-read or in the composition classroom. I take solace in the fact that there are a lot pedagogical resources that I could draw on when implementing this course. Honestly, I don’t think I could have conceived of this class three weeks ago. I owe a great debt to the presentations at the summer institute. I might owe an even greater debt to all the amazing participants that I met. I have such an amazing boost in my confidence as a scholar and teacher since attending this institute. I had the opportunity to pick up so many amazing teaching tools for using the archive and working with difficult texts. I feel confident that I could do this class.

I’ve also thought of this Moby-Dick class as one that could scale based on student need and ability. I envision this course not as being about Moby-Dick, but a course about the connections and knowledge that students create through research and writing. To that end I’ve given thought to the texts I could use. There is of course the excellent Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick with a great deal of illustrations and contextual materials. The California Press edition of Moby-Dick is also another choice with its wonderful illustrations. Lastly, there is the option of the abridged (gasp) and illustrated edition of Moby-Dick from Spinner Publications. You can see rather large sample of the Spinner Moby-Dick here. The Spinner Moby-Dick is filled with wonderful primary images, maps, and documents. It isn’t clear from the sample pdf, but these are high quality archival images in color. It is a beautiful text.

I want to create a course that allows students to make their own connections and to explore their ideas based on their own interests. Moby-Dick is a hard text, but I think the way I’m conceiving of this provides students a safe location for the hard and rewarding work of self-discovery and the creation of knowledge through writing and research.

And we could all look forward to a field trip to see this:

Note: I have thought about various assignments for this course. Multisource argumentative essays would be one of the main sets of assignments. A creative multimodal assignment is another option. Lastly, I think a course like this would lend itself well to low stakes digital humanities projects that could be completed individually, as small groups, or as a class. Tools like for distant reading, like Voyant and Wordle, along would mapping tools, like Google Maps, would be just a few things to consider.

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