Assignments Instructions

This course is designed so that all assignments and exercises are scaffolded and generative, meaning that each course module and its associated digital and research project work will lead you to the next module and its associated project work. Your culminating experience at the end of the course will be a project that you develop posing a research question about the subject matter relying upon one of the digital tools or methods that you have mastered during the semester.

Assignment specifics will be presented on the dates marked in the course outline as “assignment introduced.” This page is included to give you an overview of each of the assignments.

Blog Posts

At regular intervals over the course of the semester you will write reflection essays in the form of blog posts on the WordPress course site. For each essay I will give you a prompt associated with the module which we’re currently focused on (e.g., Blog #1 is entitled “On Material and Digital Archives.” These essays should include the following components:

  • Properly considered arguments and evidence
  • Personal experience working in the module
  • Multimodal and interlinked content (since WordPress is an online writing environment, your writing should reflect its form, which features embedded images and videos, links to pertinent sites, and text that is written for a broader audience than just your instructor.


We will be working directly with excerpts from the diaries and letters of James Merrill Linn over the period February-April 1862. These documents are in manuscript form, which means that in order to rely on them for assignments in distant reading, close reading, and visualization we will need to transcribe them into electronic text files. This transcription work will be done in two ways:

  • In small groups within the class you will collaboratively transcribe pages from Linn’s diary dated February 6-8, and April 16-19.
  • Individually you will  each transcribe a letter from Linn to his brother, mother, or father during that same period.
  • You will compile the diary transcriptions into a single file, which will then be used as the source text for our Distant Reading module.
  • Your individual letter transcriptions will be used for our Close Reading module.

Distant Reading (text analysis)

Distant reading allows us to look at a macro level for patterns and themes in large texts so that we can begin to tease out questions about perspective and relationship (that you will explore further in the Visualization module.) Digital humanists have for years created their own customized algorithms that help them do these kind of analysis on a massive scale with particular types of text corpora. Because our text (Linn’s diary) is more manageable, we can make use of  what are called “out-of-the-box” text analysis tools. For this course we will choose from the Voyant tool suite to help us think differently about our texts.

  • You will upload the compiled diary text to Voyant
  • In your initial observation, you will form questions about elements of the text (why are certain words important, at what points in the text does Linn refer to particular people, places, and actions, what are the relationships between particular words, etc.)
  • With your question in mind, you will choose two of the Voyant tools and do a comparative analysis of the text.

Close Reading (text encoding)

Close reading allows us to consider at a micro level how an author expresses her/himself using specific terms, descriptions of people and places, and observations about his/her experiences. There is nothing new about close reading – humanities scholars have always engaged in some form of close reading. What digital text encoding allows us to do is “mark up” or annotate a text using machine-readable code that helps us to edit or interpret that text. In this class we will use TEI-compliant XML markup (TEI is the Text Encoding Initiative, an international organization that has worked with scholars to create a standard form of machine-readable “tags” for XML files – XML is the building block for most of our digitally published materials.

Contextual Research

Our understanding of a subject – whether it be a person, an event, a time period – relies upon our ability to contextualize that subject within a larger framework. For James Merrill Linn his experience as a soldier in 1862 was arguably the core of his focus. For many who grew up in American school systems, the American Civil War should have been at the center of everything that happened between 1861-1865. That just isn’t so. In order to create a context for Linn’s experience and our work with his diaries and letters, we need to look past him and the battles in which he fought and consider what was happening in society and culture more broadly. To that end, you will each choose a research subject from the 1860’s and write short observational pieces about that subject. The class will then, in collaboration, add those observational pieces to a software platform that provides an opportunity to consider time and place in context. The platform we will use is called TimeMapper, and allows for the integration of text, media, and geographical coordinates.

Prosopography (People, Place, and  Events)

After reading the diary and letters, you will have become very aware of the people and events that filled Linn’s consciousness. Using the texts that you have transcribed and analyzed, you will produce a database of those people, places and events (prosopography is a Latin word meaning, “A study or description of an individual’s life, career, etc.; esp. a collection of such studies focusing on the public careers and relationships of a group in a particular place and period; a collective biography. As a mass noun: the study of such descriptions, esp. as an aspect of classical history; such studies or histories as a genre.” (OED) You will determine what data and metadata is important to identify these people and events; we will then use the information you have compiled in the Visualization module.

Visualization Part 1: Networks

One of the more recent digital tools used by humanists to analyze subject matter is network analysis – or, rather, the visualization of social and intellectual networks (among other network types). Using the combined texts of Linn’s letters and diary from February-April 1862, we will use network visualization software like Gephi and Palladio to analyze how Linn’s social network functioned. We will look at comrades in the Pennsylvania 51st Regiment, his family and friends back in Lewisburg, the people with whom he conducted legal business in Union County in an effort to understand what such connections can reveal to us about the world he envisioned.

Visualization Part 2: Mapping

One of the earliest digital approaches used by humanists to analyze subject matter is mapping – specifically Geospatial Information Systems (GIS). GIS can help us to make a different kind of sense about Linn’s understanding of his place in the war. He considered himself a correspondent, sharing reports of what was happening on the front with the people back home. His observations are important, but are by default skewed. Looking at data (and metadata) from Linn’s papers and comparing that with datasets from other contemporary documents as well as the work of Civil War historians, we can begin to ask questions about how Linn’s perceptions meshed (or not) with other reports of the battles in North Carolina in the winter and spring of 1862. Using firs ArcGIS Online and then Omeka’s Neatline interface, we will consider the landscape of 1862 in terms of how Linn and his fellow soldiers would have traversed it, how it would have been envisioned by his contemporaries and negotiated by news media and politicians, and how Linn’s observations can reveal a visual narrative through maps.

Final Project

At the end of it all, humanities research is reliant upon well thought out research questions. The modules in this course will have introduced you to approaches that will help you to address those research questions, but they cannot ask the questions for you. In the final project, therefore, you will ask a question that has intrigued you as you have learned more about James Merrill Linn, the Civil War, the 1860s, United States history … you will then identify one of the digital tools or methods that you have mastered and use it to help you consider your research question. Your project will be evaluated on the sophistication of your research question, your reason for choosing one digital tool or approach rather than another, and your demonstration of how the use of that tool or approach has enabled you to consider your research in a unique and nuanced manner.