Guest Post by Rhiannon Callahan, PhD Student ’25 (Research Assistant)

“Truthiness” and collective memory

When I began my MA coursework in 2018, I experienced one of those moments where something just clicked. To paraphrase a Jedi with whom I share a nickname (I had it first!): something inside me had always been there, but now, it was awake. And I was afraid. This awakening came during my historical methods class, when my professor described, as he saw it, the “three versions of history.” The first of these, he told us, is what actually happened. The second: what people reported as having happened. And the third, is what “we” believe as having happened. The notion that while historians aim to faithfully capture the actuality of an event, yet can never truly approach 100% certainty, shook me to my core about the nature of objectivity. Is history really just about, as Stephen Colbert would say, “truthiness”? There is a lot to unpack, but stay with me here: this is where the fun begins!

Once my initial shock wore off, the realization that what actually happened can only be arrived at with degrees of certainty through what people reported (we might think of this as evidence in the historical record), has had a profound impact on my understanding of what exactly historians do. It is that final category, what we believe, that really struck me as incredibly important, for it is what we as a society (scalable through the levels of community, nation, and global) tell ourselves about our past. This belief about our past – which may be helpful to think of as collective memory – is intricately bound with what was reported or preserved in the historical record, because it is often shaped by conflicting or contradictory evidence. And it is further complicated by relations of power: who is meant by we and our in these contexts? 

How exactly does one reduce a person’s entire life to a mere 1500 words?

Now I find myself at Northeastern University, a first year PhD student privileged to work as a research assistant under the direction of Professor Angel Nieves, where I am trying my best to contribute to the invaluable work on Apartheid Heritages. In writing annotations for this project, the work is deceptively straightforward: compile a descriptive and argumentative entry for a digital database – a simple essay, really. Ideally, this should encapsulate the person, organization, or key concept that forms an integral part of the project. I say “deceptively” because the heavy lifting comes into play through the subtext of the assignment. How exactly does one reduce a person’s entire life to a mere 1500 words? Or conversely, how do you flush out significance in cases where little has been recorded in the primary sources or secondary literature? What about a concept as broad and politically charged as “student” in the context of apartheid South Africa? Perhaps most importantly: who the heck am I to decide what is significant, to attribute worth to this bit of information from the archive or secondary literature? These questions may seem either profound or mundane, depending on your point of view. They are central to what historians – aspiring and veteran practitioners alike – do. They are in essence, about the truths we cling to and how those shape collective memory and memorialization.

A Day in the Life: Comparing Sam Nzima’s Testimonies Before the Cillie Commission and Truth and Reconciliation Commission

During my undergraduate studies, I was fortunate enough to take an excellent survey of South African history that has proven quite valuable in terms of grounding my analysis in an approach that is attentive to the patterns of the longue durée. However, a project such as Apartheid Heritages is in many ways the antithesis of a survey, with its attention to role of space and place in shaping how people both interact with their environment and find avenues of liberation in unlikely ways. This is not to say that my research and the overall project are not informed by long-term, systemic patterns, but simply that my previous experience with the “bird’s eye view” of South African history is not mutually intelligible with the project at hand. What I’m trying to say is that even with significant relevant experience, there has been a lot of on-the-job learning.

On-the-job learning

If I can impart a few wisdom nuggets on the reader, I do so humbly with the hopes that these suggestions have value in and outside of the academy, and their utility can be applied to a variety of projects that require research and critical thinking:

Organization

Develop an organization system early in your process – and stick to it! Adopting a cohesive and navigable system earlier in my own process would have saved countless hours doubling back to find a specific reference to something I found important in my notes. I have not always been a fan of taking notes electronically: for digital sources it is perfectly fine and quite seamless using a split screen window. This can be incredibly effective for making use of the “search” function to quickly find what you are looking for. However, for printed material I find having my laptop open to be rather distracting and thus tend to use a combination of sticky notes and a notebook. 

Footnotes

Mine footnotes in any book in your possession (or eBook). This is useful not just for finding valuable primary sources – many of which have been digitized, and who knows, you just may find something that another researcher passed over, or simply weighed against its inclusion in their narrative. But this is also to see which authors in the secondary literature are in conversation with one another. While many scholars will clearly flag this in their literature review/historiography section of their introductions, others engage and reference more subtly.

Embrace the “doodads”

Some of my other responsibilities have also been to perform departmental service in order to ensure that a program that prides itself on the embrace of digital humanities is in fact putting its best foot forward when it comes to having a navigable and engaging digital presence with its department website. As someone with a personal history of calling pieces of tech “doodads” or berating them when they do not cooperate – and other behaviors stereotypical of someone twice her age – a good deal, if not all of this work has taken me out of my comfort zone. That is a good thing.

Clear your mind

Finally, indulge in a healthy bit of escapism. Focus. Clear your mind. Go to a galaxy, far, far away (that’s quite literal for me but whatever it is for you that allows you to switch off your brain and wind down at night). History is not for the faint of heart. It is filled with people who wield power in unjust ways, who use their privilege in an exploitative fashion. It can be “triggering” to study, and so much of the archive is filled with the voices of oppression while accounts of marginalized peoples are few and far between. Be careful not to amplify the oppressors’ voices, these difficult histories still warrant study in order to dismantle white supremacy and to elevate voices of liberation in order to contextualize and understand the struggles that gave people’s lives meaning and shaped the modern world. 

History is needed now

We live in an era where it is becoming clear increasingly clear that silence is complacency – a tacit endorsement of the status quo, which was not working for so many before we spent the last year (or has it been one really long month?) in a pandemic-induced pocket universe. With the catastrophic toll from four years of reactionary political leadership, the unprecedented loss brought on by the pandemic, and the January 6 Insurrection – informed by their (misguided) belief in what had happened – shows that  it is okay to not be okay right now! Find a constructive avenue to channel that discontent, one that aims to build through coalitions (even and especially if you don’t agree on everything) rather than tear down those who would be your allies and fellow travelers. It also goes to show that researching, writing, and teaching good history, activist history, is necessary now more than ever, and I am fortunate to be able to contribute to that in some small way. For without good history, democracy dies – with thunderous applause.

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Guest Post by Cassie Tanks, MSLS ’22 (Research Assistant), “Finding a place in DH: My ‘MySpace’ tech skills”

Thanks for the coding lesson, Tom

My fingers grope the back of the brand-new computer tower beneath the desk in my family’s computer “room,” a corner of the communal living room awkwardly stuffed with a desk and a chair that emerged somehow from the depths of the garage. Finally, I find the port I’m looking for and insert the phone cable. I take a seat, brush the dust bunnies off myself, and, after AOL finishes its squealing and whining, I immediately begin editing the HTML and CSS code of my MySpace profile. The song is changed (Yeah! By Usher ft. Lil Jon and Ludacris), the music player is hidden, the background of my page is now purple with glittery stars (I know, very cool), an angsty-teenage quote now scrolls across the page, and, of course, I’ve changed my top eight.

Image of the Apartheid Heritage(s) digital archive that I am building and managing on the Omeka content management platform.

The year is 2004 and this marks the beginning, and end, of my experience with coding. That I am now, and have been, a research assistant for Apartheid Heritage(s) is surprising, to say the least. I am constantly looking up definitions of tech terms and watching videos to understand the technological underpinnings of the work that I do. My YouTube search history is heavily peppered with phrases that use the terms “[this tech] for beginners”, “[that tech] for noobs”, or something similar. 

Finding a place in DH

But Apartheid Heritage(s) and my work for the project push against this exclusionary tendency by resolutely and unwaveringly centering humanity at every step of the process. From the text that I write, to resource metadata, to conversations about how to effectively incorporate annotations in a 3D digital environment on Scalar, the humanity of the subject and the user are central. Because of my (extremely) modestly growing skill-set – and my comfort with this type of research – I feel better able to share with you some things that I have learned to date (I occasionally need to remind myself the same, too).

Librarians have been invaluable sources of answers and guidance in everything from answering questions about metadata for the Apartheid Heritage(s) archive to explaining HTML embedding tricks and secrets.

Ask librarians

One, librarians love to help and teach people, especially beginners. Shameless professional plugging aside (I’m currently in the process of earning my MSLS ), I have learned so much by just reaching out to librarians and information professionals at institutions across the country – including institutions with which I have no affiliation – and they will step forward and help with a program simply because they happen to possess knowledge of it. I also worked in San Diego State University Library’s Digital Humanities Center for a while and the digital humanities librarian would practically skip over to tell me about how much she enjoyed seeing someone with no former experience learn a new DH skill. Bottom line, never ever underestimate the joy that helping people brings to a librarian.

Crowdsource

Two, crowd-source the answer to your question. I have lurked on, and posted to, many a subreddit and message board threads where I have received guidance that helped me along my digital journey. Are there sarcastic answers? Yes – the internet is a wild place. But helpful folks can be found between the haters. You will notice the glaring absence of harnessing the knowledge of the Twitter-verse. This works well for some, but I have made the personal choice to avoid Twitter at all costs.

This “noob” is now a proud owner and operator of a modest GitHub repository, something that I believed would be out of reach for me! Though my projects may be small and beginner, I am mighty proud of them.

Embrace your experiences and curiosity

Three, lean into the fact that you are learning and developing along with your digital project. This is perhaps the most important because, aside from giving yourself the space to make mistakes and fully engage with the learning process, it is a reminder that you bring an outside perspective to the project. Ask why something is done the way it is. Point out when things do not make sense for the user. Question if things are “too much” or “too flashy.

DH needs you

Not only is there space for you and for me in DH, there needs to be space for perspectives that shine a different light on a project. It may seem trite to say that there is no digital humanities without, you know, humanity but I think it is critically important to remember. I  boldly go forth and embrace my MySpace coding roots (but not the roots of my attempt at chunky highlights – those can stay in 2004) and I sincerely hope that others do too.

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Guest Post by Collin Gilbert ’20 (SDSU Undergraduate Research Assistant), “Conflicting Testimonies”

My work on the Soweto Project originally started with the reading of the book Truth, Lies, and Alibis by Fred Bridgland. My focus was to gather testimonies that had anything to do with Stompie Moeketsi and his death at Winnie Mandela’s residence on 585 Eagle Street in the township of Soweto, South Africa on the night of December 31, 1988. These testimonies were to later be added to the already large number of JPEG files (mostly court case documents and newspaper clippings) taken by Dr. Nieves while in South Africa. Something that is important to understand is that with a project with this sort of content and magnitude, a sense of direction is a necessity to the progression of work. We have all this information, but without the big picture in mind, the work we had gathered so far was just words and pictures on paper. Our ideal image of what the project was to achieve relied heavily on the mysterious idea of spatial history, an idea that has no clear definition. Keeping all this in mind, the reading and marking of testimonies proved straightforward as pages could be marked as you went along, and were easy to return to later.

After much debate on the subject, it finally clicked for me that what brings a space alive to most readers is the people within it, so what better way to capture spatial history than with the life stories of those most impacted by it. What this meant for my own work on the project was that we wanted to lock our focus on the life of Stompie Moeketsi. His death is important to that life, but it has only been told through the lens of how it affected Winnie Mandela and the African National Congress. It was a fact that Stompie had been killed that night in the courtyard of Mrs. Mandela’s residence, but that one moment did not define his entire life. Gathering this story will require more than just words from extant texts because those who knew him have to date said little about his life. The discussion of gathering new and original testimonies from those closest to him is exciting, but could also potentially cause problems for those involved. The lack of information about the Mandela property itself is also an issue for our spatial project and gaining access to it is going to be difficult. There are also several technological challenges that are quite daunting, but that is a beast better tackled on its own. One thing is certain to me, I want to tell this story, and I am willing to do whatever it takes as a historian to make sure that it is told.

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Nieves and Sullivan Awarded Mellon Foundation, NHPRC Digital Publication Grant

San Diego State University Associate Professor of History and Digital Humanities, Angel David Nieves, and his Co-PI, Elaine Sullivan (UC-Santa Cruz) were awarded a $100,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission towards the creation of a publishing cooperative for 3D scholarship and digital scholarly editions. The project, “Scholarship in 3D: A Proposal for a Digital Edition Publishing Cooperative,” intends to develop the necessary shared knowledge base and infrastructure for the successful publication of scholarly 3D digital editions, and to create new pathways to publication for scholars working with 3D content.

The planned cooperative will create prototypes to digitally publish and access historical collections for four projects currently in development by participating faculty. Institutional partners on the grant include USC, UCLA, UMass-Amherst, UT-Austin, UVA, Claremont Colleges, Hamilton College, Maynooth University (Ireland), the Alliance for
Networking Visual Culture, and the American Historical Association. Publishers on the grant include Stanford University Press, the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press at UCLA, and the University of Georgia Press.

The project is significant as it joins together two areas of scholarly inquiry in digital humanities that seek to identify and address the long term challenges of digital preservation of historical resources and to provide access to a range of content types, especially in the modeling of 3D reconstructions. The proposed Cooperative first meets at UCLA, Feb. 22-24, to begin their work. Lisa Snyder (UCLA) will host the meeting and act as our Project Director and site coordinator.

Prof. Nieves’s project, Apartheid Heritages: A Spatial History of South Africa’s Townships, brings together 3D modeling, immersive technologies, and digital ethnography in the pursuit of documenting human rights violations in apartheid-era South Africa. Nieves, who has been on leave at Yale University this past year as a Presidential Visiting Associate Professor, returns to the SDSU campus this fall as an active member of the Area of Excellence (AoE) in Digital Humanities and Global Diversity. The work on this year-long planning phase, if successful, anticipates extending other grant opportunities to graduate and undergraduate students working in digital humanities in the Department of History.

https://mellon.org/resources/news/articles/mellon-foundation-nhprc-announce-digital-publication-grant-winners/

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Guest Post by Jack Hay ’19 (Hamilton College DHi Student Intern)

by Jack Hay, Class of 2019

I came to this project from a technical background.  I am a 3D designer and a software engineer but my work on this project has led me from the safe confines of Computer Aided Design into the deep and troubling history of “native housing” on a large scale during apartheid.  It is the design of these houses that gives the project clarity as these rudimentary and hastily wrought plans constantly remind one of their legacy.  

My experience in architectural design software when I joined this project had been centered around upscale homes with the luxuries of sustainable design and other costly construction, but these were no shingle-style summer homes on the ocean.  In Soweto the floors were often packed earth and the furnishings simple and industrial.  Open space was provided for in neighborhood plans to accommodate the military for crowd control.  

My work on this project began with the process of modeling these simple township houses using ARCHICAD.  ARCHICAD is an industry-grade architectural software that I had experienced while working for an architect close to home.  I have also had experience with a number of CAD tools in the past.  After speaking with Professor Nieves about the project I decided that the ARCHICAD toolset and out-of-the-box photo-rendering options would be a good infrastructure to model with.

As I completed each model, I would add more and more detail; bringing complexity and specificity to the industrial building materials.  I used complex profiles to model components in a 2D view before extruding them into the 3rd plane.  I also took advantage of the rendering engine to generate images that added realism to the models for presentation.

The destination and use of these models is still being defined. My goals for work over the summer include creating a larger 3D model to present the individual models in a realistic setting and configuration, an ARCHICAD-centered video tutorial series, and an online 3D library.  Meanwhile, my daytime job this summer consists of work in cloud infrastructure and software development at EBSCO Information Services where I hope to bring some level of experience to the process of building a database from the ground up.  

If you are interested in the 3D modeling side of the project, I urge you to watch my DHi intern’s presentation (~30 mins) which covers the breadth and depth of 3D work on the project.  I also hope to release a video series that covers the tools and techniques that I use which will be available on the DHi website.  This will cover the technical elements of ARCHICAD and the process of drafting from planning to completion.  I hope to document my experiences with the larger visualization and the library as well.

This post arrives early in the evolution of this project. Drafting a 3D model in powerful architecture software is the easy part.    

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Development of the Soweto Virtual Environment

Throughout 2014, Gregory Lord (Hamilton/DHi Lead Designer and Software Engineer) and Kevin Xiao ’15 (Hamilton/DHi Student Intern) began to design and implement the early version of the Soweto Virtual Environment.  This work doubled as both an active DHi development project, as part of the Dangerous Embodiments grant (funded by the NEH, partnered with the University of Arkansas, and later University of Mass., Amherst), and as a student training and development project, training Xiao in the use of 3D modeling and game design tools.

Xiao participated in the project as a 3D modeler and scene designer for the Soweto virtual environment, learning the fundamentals of 3D modeling over the course of his participation in the project, studying under Lord.

To develop this model, researcher and project director Angel David Nieves, Ph.D., provided the development team with blueprints for a variety of houses that comprise the represented section of the Soweto township, along with the Orlando Methodist Church.  Using this data, Xiao and Lord designed 3D models that used these blueprints, making sure to capture both the layout and dimensions of each building.  From there, the team used a combination of both historical and modern photographs and images to texture the houses, bringing them closer to a photorealistic appearance.

Finally, the team imported each of these models into the Unity engine, where they combined the models with tools that allowed them to create an accurate street map from Open Street Maps data.  By putting all of these together, and reconciling the building locations with maps of the region, the team recreated an accurate representation of a particular block of the Soweto township, serving as proof of concept for what will later be the full township.

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