Worksheets: the bane of my existence

It’s hard to not make assumptions about students. About how they’ll behave, what they’ll understand, what their interests are… When creating lesson plans and other educational programs, I do my best to imagine how a hypothetical student would react to a particular question or story, but it’s hard to do that tucked away in an office and sitting behind a computer.

At AAMP last and this week, I got to put myself squarely into the minds of a student seeing an exhibition for the first time. Now, I’ve been to AAMP before, but I confess that I’ve always skipped right past half of their core exhibit, Audacious Freedom, also known as “the timeline room.” The gallery, dominated by a mural of important figures and other images relating to the Black community in early Philadelphia, has always been darkened by other visitors in the middle of watching a narrated timeline projected onto the walls.

So, worksheets in hand, we were tasked with scouring the timeline to answer questions that students presumably would on tour.

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This worksheet involved finding specific people, after which students can choose two more to learn about. I always enjoy educational activities that include drawing!

Admittedly, many of the worksheets were difficult! Occasionally, information was difficult to find or contradictory, such as a worksheet asking about the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” while the label read “Gradual Emancipation Act.” Or, directions were unclear, such as a worksheet asking to compare two figures, and literal-minded me tried and failed to compare their disparate opinions and life accomplishments, instead of the worksheet’s goal of imagining and comparing their general life circumstances.

To be fair, we were completing the worksheets to work towards revising them, in addition to getting to know this gallery. But how many worksheets have I created at NMAJH, anticipating how students would use them without testing them myself?

There’s not too much longer until PhilAesthetic opens, and I can’t wait to jump into the galleries to talk about the Black Arts Movement. But in the meantime, I’m reminded what it’s like to explore a new museum for the very first time, hunting down facts and images that may seem obvious to seasoned staff, but not to me.

Some thoughts while I prepare to both be and have an intern…

I’ve just finished my second week, and first full day, of my internship at the African-American Museum of Philadelphia, and I haven’t really done anything blog-worthy yet. And I’m perfectly okay with this! Instead of jumping into my eventual projects, I’ve had a useful and meditative introduction to what will be my second home over the summer, as well as a chance to compare it to what I remember of being an intern at NMAJH…

Internships at NMAJH, at least in my department, can be pretty precarious. Behind the scenes, we have plenty of interesting, meaty projects people can work on. (That’s how I became involved in Becoming American!) But it’s a very fast-paced department, with multiple large projects happening at once that often overwhelm. We often rely on “learning by doing,” digesting new information through the process of preparing new curricula and docent guides, or through attending the trainings and lectures we arrange for docents.

So I was pleasantly surprised when, at my first full day of my AAMP internship, we all sat down for about 3 hours to discuss a number of scholarly articles relating to their upcoming exhibition, PhilAesthetic. We had been given the articles as homework — overviews of the Black Arts Movement as well as features on specific artists like Richard Mayhew. This was an incredible help for me: I’m relatively new to both African-American history and art history, so the readings made it easy for me to feel out of my depths. Taking the time to discuss the information helped me to gain ease in discussing these issues, an ease which will become important for leading tours where, as a white person, I’ll be expected to talk about the Black Arts Movement and how artists worked through issues related to oppression, resistance, and identity.

This has gotten me thinking about how non-Jewish interns at NMAJH, particularly those in education who will give a tour at some point, have acclimated to our subject matter. To be fair, it’s not a direct comparison; the exhibition’s narrative focuses on Jews as an ethnic group, more than a religion or culture. For example, knowing about kashrut (dietary restrictions) is only important for interpreting the story of the Trefa Banquet. Issues of Jewish identity, fears of intermarriage, disagreements between denominations, and other trickier topics. Meanwhile, if I give a tour of PhilAesthetic, I may have to discuss Amiri Baraka’s controversial views on what it means to be “Black enough,” using violence to end racism, and sexism…

(A side note disclaimer that, of course, NMAJH has non-Jewish staff and docents. But they all pretty much started years before me, so by the time I started, they had all gotten used to the “office culture”…)

Perhaps I’m just getting too hung up on these issues of identity and speaking about groups you are or aren’t a part of. I’ve long been fascinated by ideas of “belonging” and “exclusion,” and so it’s been so interesting to see how those ideas function in ethnographic museums. Until now, I’ve been focused on observing visitors in this situation, but how does it affect staff as well? A non-Jewish friend commented to me the other day that she’s always thought that she wasn’t allowed to go to Jewish museums, but I’ve even had other friends ask if they have to be Jewish to respond to job ads. (No, of course not, that’s illegal!) What level of knowledge does a non-Jewish or non-Black person need to give tours at NMAJH or AAMP, and how much ownership of that knowledge can/should they take?

These are humongous questions that I’ve been interested in exploring (although I’ve been struggling to fit them into the mold of a thesis project). But in the meantime, I’ve been thinking about what I can do for our interns, especially our non-Jewish ones, to help them be comfortable with our environment and content. I’ve always been a huge proponent of checking in, encouraging questions, defining Hebrew terms, etc, but is that enough? Or am I just making too big a deal out of what’s actually a non-issue?

Timeline of the Life of Eva Baen

As an educator, I occasionally run into a problem: tunnel vision. Sometimes, I get so excited telling a story that I forget to paint the larger context, or I put so much time into setting up causes, influences, effects, etc, that I forget to include the smaller details that bring the subject to life. My final project for Digital History is an attempt to supplement this issue.

Using Timeline JS, I constructed a timeline of the life of Eva Baen, the young immigrant who acts as the centerpiece of the program I coordinate at NMAJH, Becoming American: History of Immigration 1880s-1920s. (Note: this is not an official Museum resource, but I hope to eventually bring it to that standard for that purpose.)

In this timeline, I juxtapose events from Eva’s life, and her family’s, with major events from US and Russian history. That way, teachers would be able to use this timeline to supplement their classroom lesson and tour with whatever isn’t covered, as well as relate the program to other subjects that aren’t included in the tour at all, such as the Great Depression and the New Deal.

Timeline entries are divided into four categories: Eva’s life, her family, US history, and Russian history. This was partially inspired by the Patriots & Pirates exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum, where different colored ropes representing France, the U.S., Great Britain, and the Barbary States show how these different nations interacted over time and through various conflicts, like the War of 1812. This is replicated with the horizontal bars along the bottom of the timeline, as well as the background color of each timeline entry: purple, green, blue, and red, respectively. This makes it easier to distinguish between different entries from a glance.

Additionally, the juxtaposition of events makes it easier to come to certain conclusions that are much more compelling than simply being told about them in a classroom. For example, students can see the date when Leon and Bessie came to the U.S. just before the Johnson-Reed Act and hypothesize that, without other information and knowing that Eva’s parents make it to America eventually, that the parents probably came with Leon and Bessie in 1921.

Those already familiar with Becoming American will notice that there are a lot of artifacts left out of the timeline that are usually covered in the lesson. Only two artifacts from the lesson are included: Eva’s family portrait and one of her attendance cards. This choice was made for three reasons. First, a lot of the artifacts cover the same parts of Eva’s life. We have many school-related artifacts, for example, and including them all will lead to a very lopsided timeline. Second, my department is currently putting together digital resources on a variety of platforms, such as Smithsonian Learning Labs. Those are much better used to display all of the artifacts than the timeline would be. Third, this gives me a chance to show other resources that are not included in the program, such as census records, and relevant pop culture to which connections can be made, such as the animated film An American Tail.

Additionally, many of the timeline entries contain links to relevant resources, particularly lesson plans. These were found from organizations like the Library of Congress and PBS, and are primarily suited for middle and high school students. One of the downsides to using a timeline is that entries must be organized by specific dates or date ranges, which makes it difficult to learn about subjects that are not necessarily so clear-cut. Several of these lesson plans, such as one on photography during the Great Depression, continue Becoming American‘s focus on material culture as learning tools. Entries also link to the growing genre of educational series on Youtube, such as Crash Course: the intention is to connect these materials with resources that students may already be familiar with.

On its own, this timeline does not seek to act as an educational tool itself, and in fact includes little more than bare bones about Eva Baen’s life. This is partially because many stories from her life are not tied to a specific date, and because that is the purpose of Becoming American, not this timeline. Instead, this timeline is meant to serve as a supplemental resource, a way of looking at this subject from a different perspective, and a gateway into a variety of connected subjects that can be further explored in class rather than at NMAJH.

Imagining a Better Wikipedia

A few months ago at PubComm, on a whim, I attended a workshop titled “Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins of Wikipedia: Understanding and Working with Wikipedia Culture” by Mary Mark Ockerbloom, the Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. While I had only added to an informal school-specific Wikipedia once, for a class, I was swept up in her descriptions of writing and citation standards, the vigilance of power users, and especially the unbalanced demographics of Wikipedia users and how that affects what topics are covered, and to what extent, on the website. Ockerbloom showed statistics about how, for example, 85-90% of Wikipedia users who indicate their gender are men. The number of articles about men vs other genders, and their respective lengths and depths, reflects this.

I think this issue is a prominent one in any crowdsourcing project: how do users affect what work is being done? To be fair, this is an issue with any project: people will naturally want to do work that is more relevant or interesting to them. However, on the larger scale of crowdsourcing, these kinds of biases become more apparent. How does this get fixed, to make sure that the products of Wikipedia editing are distributed more evenly?

One solution is through Wikipedia edit-a-thons, such as through the Wikipedia Rewriting Project, which organizes drives to write about underrepresented topics, such as women and people of color. These kinds of events have raised amazing traction in the past few years and have contributed to a wealth of new articles being added to Wikipedia, however this is ultimately a small dent. Could there be another model for this, beyond simply encouraging people to write about underrepresented topics more or gaining more women and POC users?

I was struck by the simplicity of other crowdsourcing projects, such as Building Inspector. Through this site which seeks to improve map-reading AI, users can identify colors on a map, fix footprints, and transcribe addresses. Users choose the task they want to do, and the website presents a small area of a map for users to complete the task. The website automatically produces different areas of the map, so user preference for map location does not factor into the work being done. It’s a fairly mindless activity that users can click through and make an impact on the digital humanities without much consideration or energy.

Can some of this function be translated to Wikipedia? This could perhaps be done with minor edits, such as proofreading and finding citations. A user could log on and be presented with a random paragraph or “[needs citation]” marker. The user could then proofread the paragraph for comprehension, or attempt to find a citation for the claim. This would especially make it easy for more people to contribute, especially those who do not have the time, energy, or knowledge to edit Wikipedia more fully. However, this would take much more energy than simply clicking on a map, and of course does not solve the issue of submitting content in the first place.

Of course, the problem of Wikipedia containing a significantly larger portion of articles about white men is much larger than just Wikipedia: the patriarchy, white supremacy, and other forms of oppression all play a role in current Wikipedia users both being and writing primarily about white men. These hegemonies must ultimately be dismantled, but in the meantime, let’s all go join edit-a-thons!

Web Map Project: Visualizing Immigration

For my map project, I created a Google Maps that shows some of the major ports for Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, as well as some of the larger departure ports in Europe. While simple, I think that this is a useful way of looking at topics relating to immigration, considering that immigration is all about movement: using a map helps people to visualize this more easily.

I used Google Maps primarily because I’m already familiar with it, and because most potential users would be too. I think this is an important consideration when creating digital projects, in terms of increasing ease of access. While this creates a feedback loop of sorts (where users are losing an opportunity to learn about new technologies) and Carto has different features, for the purposes of my map, I would want users to focus on analyzing the content rather than having to wade through learning how to use a different site, such as the beautiful but opaque The Knotted Line. (Also, to be honest, I had a lot of difficulties navigating Carto’s website!)

I think one of the biggest takeaways from this map is how large immigrant populations correspond with geographic convenience. It makes perfect sense that huge populations of immigrants lived in East Coast cities like New York and Philadelphia because those are the ports that they enter. However, this map helps to demonstrate why those East Coast ports were so popular: because the distances make sense to go from Latvia, to England/Netherlands, to America’s NE coast. One can also see why other programs, like the Galveston Plan, were so important in terms of redistributing immigrants throughout the rest of the country.

Taking this project further, I would be interested in incorporating train lines that brought immigrants to populous inland cities, such as Chicago. How far west did immigrants settle? It would be interesting to compare this with Asian immigrants entering through Angel Island and other West Coast ports, although legislative restrictions such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 directly impact the number of incoming immigrants. It would also be interesting to see how these numbers and paths change over time, similar to the New York Times’s Immigration Explorer.

100 Years Later: Making Statistics Usable Again

Last semester, I wrote a historiography on Jewish immigration to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, a period that is typically defined as ranging from 1881 to 1924. During this time, approximately 23 million immigrants came to this country, about 2 million of which were Jews from Eastern Europe.

While researching books to write about, I found a fascinating dissertation (political science PhD at Columbia University) on the subject: Jewish immigration to the United States from 1881 to 1910 by Samuel Joseph, notable because it was written in 1914, while mass immigration was still happening!

In his dissertation, Joseph took a primarily statistical approach, quantifying newcomers into categories based on things like country of origin, destination, port of entry, occupation, and even literacy levels.

When I read this book last year, I realized that this information might be really useful in  my work at NMAJH. However, while this book has been digitized, Joseph’s statistics are presented only in chart form, which is difficult both to interpret and to feed through an OCR.

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Destination of Jewish Immigrants, 1899 to 1910, by division. The percentages help to visualize the difference in these numbers, but can this be improved?

So for his assignment, I wanted to see how I could make these statistics more useful, both to visualize them, and to make them more convenient than having to scroll through a slowly-loading 200 page book on Hathi Trust. I made the following charts through Excel, which I had to learn how to do last year to create board reports at work. Here are a few reasons why I love Excel:

  1. You can make a variety of charts super quickly.
  2. You can manipulate/fix the data and see how that changes your chart.
  3. It’s really easy to customize how the chart looks, such as making colors easier to read, including data values, etc.
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Here is that same chart, which I translated into a pie chart. Now it’s a little easier to quickly see that same distribution! If I had a little bit more specific information (such as how he’s defining these divisions), I would consider a heat map of the U.S. that shows people’s destinations.

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These show the number of Jews with certain occupations in the Russian Empire in 1897, and then what percentage that was of the total amount of people with those occupations. So even though the most Jews work in manufacturing, those Jews only occupy 10% of total manufacturing jobs. I tried to fit these two data sets into a single chart but couldn’t figure out how to do it without having two axis or simply labeling the first bar chart with the percentages.

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This line graph shows, over time, how many immigrants were arriving in Philadelphia from each country. A footnote on the graph explains that, in 1891, Austria-Hungary and Roumania [sic] were counted as “Others.”
I think it could prove useful to eventually continue doing this for the rest of the book, or at least transcribing Joseph’s charts into plain text. If possible, that would involve checking his statistics against his original sources, which come from a variety of places (census records, synagogue and charity reports, etc), so this information can be made more consistent and to clear up any uncertainties.

Interpreting Difficult Histories, and a jumbled mission statement of sorts

If I could have my way, I would definitely radicalize the children. There are many opportunities to do this at NMAJH: discussions about creating communities, mutual support in the face of discrimination, activism, and stories about people like Clara Lemlich, Abraham Cahan, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Sally Priesand. Ways to encourage my students that they don’t need to live within the limits that society places on them, that through knowledge and effort and teamwork, they can make the world a better place.

Except… I don’t. Granted, my position has shifted to more back-end work so I don’t lead tours as often as I used to, but I always shy away from really engaging topics that some might consider controversial, such as the labor movement. I’ll interpret them in an enthusiastically affirming way, but then stop short of necessarily bringing it to the present, or in ways that relate to students’ lives. “Something to think about,” but only on particularly brave or daring days.

Why can’t I take that last step? Maybe not of actually radicalizing children (a joking accusation about one of my interpretive plans for Dr. Bruggeman’s class) but of engaging in these topics in immediately relevant ways. Fear plays a large part. Of trying to persuade students and risk not holding my ground, of angry teachers or parents, of offended visitors, of misrepresenting the Museum. While NMAJH’s Mission Statement centers education on a personal level, we still have a policy of nonpartisanship, and I have certainly heard stories from docents about intense political discussions with visitors that they weren’t able to de-escalate.

Discomfort, too. I saw a lot of my own practices paralleled in Cathy Stanton’s descriptions of the Acre tour in Lowell. While I always try to be conscious of how I emplot topics, there is always the temptation to take the easy path that Stanton’s tour guides often did, of simplifying stories with the purpose of displaying multiculturalism and positivity. There is a discomfort of addressing my whiteness in relation to my students of color, of my being a third-generation American talking about immigration to students who are themselves immigrants or first-generation. An uncertainty about which is better: trying to talk about students’ experiences with the risk of getting it wrong, or letting students tell their own stories with the risk of losing my historical (or general) authority. (The second one is always better, no question, but it’s hard!)

Jill Ogline’s description of NPS’s priorities also resonated with me: I want the students on my tour to have an enjoyable and comfortable time, possibly similar to the “good vibes” described by Handler and Gable, in the hopes that a positive experience will encourage them to visit museums in their free time. (Especially given that many of the students I guide are from demographics that tend to be excluded from these kinds of institutions.)

A main component of Stanton’s conclusions is that, to create effective and relevant interpretive experiences, we must embrace these discomforts and fears through a critical questioning of traditional narratives, systems of power, and our emotions and assumptions. As I further my career, study both the field of public history and the content, improve my interpretation techniques and even develop my confidence and comfort, I intend to follow Stanton’s advice.

Not just because of my own politics, but especially after the recent election. It’s barely been three days and the number of stories about hate crimes, threats, and violence is terrifying. While I have not yet experienced any direct harm and probably will not for a while, museums must take a hard stance to promote messages of unity and calls for mutual support while warning against the mistakes of the past. Morris J. Vogel, the president of the Tenement Museum, released a statement explaining,

We explain to visitors that Americans in the past sometimes lost confidence in their national future and lashed out against immigrants in reaction. We try to help visitors appreciate that immigrants often had to build new lives in the face of hostility. Generations of newcomers prevailed even in these circumstances; it is our strong hope that today’s immigrants will prevail as well. […] Renewing our shared commitment to tell stories of the American past can help us comfort and strengthen one another—and shape America’s future.

This is what I hope to achieve in my tours, when I give them – acknowledgment of the pains and triumphs of the past while asserting a hope that can only be achieved if we actively strive towards it. When developing tours, I hope to leave space for docents to have these tough conversations, supported by trainings that address topics like cultural sensitivity and skills like facilitated dialog and I ASK. I also hope to improve in these skills myself. I hope to use the museum as a space both to educate and validate. While I may not radicalize the children, I want them to leave my tours inspired to make the world better than it is right now.