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The Digital Humanities and Bill Cooper

I’m spending this week in Eugene, Oregon at a NEH sponsored institute dedicated to Digital Humanities work within community colleges. What with one thing and another (writing books…) I’m a little out of the DH loop. Today (day 2) I learned about, and spent some time playing with, some potentially useful tools.

One of these is Voyant Tools, a web-based text analysis tool. Thinking to the manuscript I just sent on to McFarland on conspiracy narratives and conspiracy culture, I played around with loading different iterations of conspiracy theorist Bill Cooper’s MAJESTYTWELVE manifesto into it to analyze the differences. I entered three versions from Cooper’s website(s) and one from another site.

Cooper tended to update his manifesto as his research and interests broadened and, somewhat admirably, he never made any attempt to hide that. The additions over time help illustrate new directions into which his fears and crusades drifted throughout the late 1990s. Below is the output of the analysis:

Voyant output- majestytwelve

[“NOTE! No idea who Bill Cooper is? Get yourself a copy of my short, inexpensive collection of essays The Chaos Conundrum,” Gulyas cheekily suggested…]

My mind is urgently turning over possible uses for this type of tool (and many others) in the introductory history classroom but I’m also thinking of its usefulness in analyzing the changeable and fluid nature of “fringe” parapolitical or paranormal/conspiratorial texts on the internet. It’s a bit of a commonplace that there are numerous versions of key documents floating around websites and–showing my age a bit, here–Usenet. The “Krill Report,” John Lear’s statements, Cooper’s prolific late 1980s output (which, interestingly, he would later imply was not entirely his, claiming that disinformation was being put out in his name), and the like appear in various places, often with variations of varying significance. Tools like Voyant could be used to plunge more deeply, in a textual sense, into the fringe cultures of the 1980s and 1990s.

Yes, this is the first blog entry in six months or so. I’ll do better, promise.

E-Learning and the Community College

And another recent presentation, this time from Network Detroit: Digital Humanities.  With all the MOOC stuff flying around, I wanted to talk a bit about online education and the community college (or at least my community college).  Again, not a polished product and not–honestly–too awfully similar to what I actually said at the event!

My Pseudohistory talk from Midwest PCA

Harappa seals
“Harappa Seals” by Flickr user germeister, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over here (link!) and under the “Papers and Presentations” menu above is what is more or less the bones of the paper I presented at the Midwest PCA conference last week in St. Louis.  I deviated a bit (went over time–sorry, fellow panelists) and–more than anything else–came to the conclusion that this is something I need to return to, probably in the course of working on the largely top secret PROJECT MADOC.

If pseudohistory and its debunking is something you’re interest in, the two places I would send you before anything else are to the site of writer Jason Colavito (@jasoncolavito) and also to the website for a course on Pseudo-archaeology taught by Michigan State archeology professor Ethan Watrall (@captain_primate).  These are two folks who have been (whether they know it or not) an enormous help as I look into these things.


ET&tAZ Out–Media, etc.

I don’t believe I’ve mentioned it here, but my first book, Extraterrestrials and the American Zeitgeist came out last month, and I’ve been doing some media appearances to promote it.  The best one, and most recent, was with Greg Bishop of Radio Misterioso.  I’ve also added a “Books” tab up at the top with information on my writing.  There’s a dedicated site for news on ET&tAZ at and a Facebook establishment for my writing stuff (as opposed to my personal account) here.

The interview with Greg Bishop from last Sunday (June 9) is now available at the website or through the podcast feed on iTunes

It was a great two hour ramble through Contactees and other areas of the paranormal and conspiratorial.  It was great fun and I hope to be on the show again (probably when The Chaos Conundrum comes out, later this summer).  From Greg’s description of the episode:

We also went into a lengthy comparison of John Keel’s Mothman Prophecies as compared to Gray Barker’s The Silver Bridge and decided that Barker’s book is ultimately the hipper, cooler version of the Mothman story. We also talked about the strange book Trance Formation of America and its weird, hilarious and disturbing tales of personal abuse and intrigue by elements of the U.S. power structure. There was also a segment where we tried to top each other with vintage Contactee books that we have in our collections.

This was about the most fun I’ve ever had in front of a microphone.  Hope you enjoy it.

Finishing up Spring classes here–I made some changes in keeping with the teaching post below and I’ll be sort of thinking through how that went in the next few weeks.  Need to start keeping this up as the main site–I feel I’m too scattered, with regard to internet presences…

Teaching- this turned into kind of a longish thing…

The recently ended 2013 Day of Digital Humanities was a great opportunity for me to take a quick look at what I do in a typical day and how “the digital” intersects with my work.

Being a full-time faculty member at a large community college, my work is first and foremost teaching.  This semester, I’ve got five sections (3 “traditional”, 2 online) and in all of them, I’ve been thinking of ways to change up what I’m doing.  Many of these potential changes involve digital things.  Since the next classes I’m teaching will be compressed 7 1/2 week classes, a rethink is in order, regardless.  Here are some things I’m thinking about (subject to change–few of these ideas will be set in stone before the first day of classes and, maybe, not even then).

Visual Dynamism

I really enjoyed using Google Earth in the classroom (see below) and the students seemed to be more engaged with historical data mapped over satellite imagery than they usually are with the maps that I use.  This got me thinking about other, more visually dynamic ways to present information.  Prezi, of course, is popular, but I can’t afford the amount of Dramamine necessary for me to cope with using it.  There are a variety of interactive timeline tools which may be useful as well.

Get the students to talk more

I’ve been teaching, in one way or another, for around a decade at this point and the biggest weakness I have is–without a doubt–encouraging useful discussion in the classroom.  Whether it’s because I like the sound of my own voice too much (likely) or because the mass of students are intimidated (or annoyed) by the usual handful of students who do 90% of the talking, it’s something that I need to work on.  One key, clearly, is to find ways to ensure that students are familiar enough with material to usefully discuss it.

Exams are terrible

I hate grading them, students hate taking them, and my assurance that they’re the best (or even a good) way to assess students is decreasing every semester.  In my online classes, I’ve been experimenting with weekly cumulative assessment as a way to replace exams in a manner that is relatively low-stress, but “high-yield” (yes, I think of student learning as a field full of soy beans).  It needs tweaking, but I may be on to something.  Or not.

Students, in general, seem to like history, hate history classes

I am, however, teaching a history class, so…yeah.  Problem here.  Working on it.


Over the past few years, I’ve used both BlackBoard and self-hosted websites as a means of digitally-disseminating information to students as well as for recording grades.  This semester, I’ve been using Bb exclusively and while there have been headaches, the students seem to engaged with the material there more than they do on non-Bb sites.  Despite my usability concern with Bb and my desire for more open tools, I also have a compelling need to consider the students.  I’m still thinking this one over.

Omnia Mutantur

Everything changes, all the time.  What works one semester may not work the next.  What works one day might not work the next.  We often have to adjust and adapt to the students to whatever degree that it is practical.  If it is the students who must adjust to us, then we must provide tools to support and guide that change.  Often, we are in the position of having to not only teach our subjects, but also the skills of being a student.  These skills change over time.

These are disconnected thoughts, rather than a solution or manifesto.  There are dozens of books about teaching “today’s” students.  Some of them are worth reading, if only to argue with.  

This ended up longer than I expected.  TIme to hit the publish button and get back to work.


Crossing Things off Lists

Nothing is more satisfying that completing a project (or, at the very least, a significant phase of a project).  Most of the things I’ve been working on have really long gestation periods, so it’s nice to see some forward momentum.

978-0-7864-7116-4Extraterrestrials and the American Zeitgeist is moving through the publisher’s pipeline.  I spent a shameful afternoon responding to copy edit queries and wondering why I never see mistakes the first (or second, or third, or fourth…) time.  That bit’s done now and it’s moving on to the final phases leading to publication.


Similarly, Doctor Who in Time and Space, to which I contributed a chapter, is due to be released soon. This was pretty fun to do, even if it involved me having to watch (and think deeply about) the 1996 Fox Doctor Who television movie.

OPERATION LEMURIA, which I can’t talk about because I’m deeply superstitious, is completed and in other people’s hands; I’m just waiting for feedback at this point.

RANDOM ANACONDA, a revision of course outcomes for MCC’s “History of the Holocaust” course, is done and the paperwork is moving through the bureaucracy.  The only remaining work is explaining the changes at a bunch of meetings.

In amongst all of this stuff, I’m implementing some changes in my online classes.  It’s been a busy Winter so far, but I’m hoping that the work I’m putting in this semester will, down the road, save me some time.

Now, to get some grading done.

Games and History

On the list of links to your right, you’ll find a new one.  It’s the final report for my 2012 Faculty Innovation Award.  Inspired by the posts on Play The Past, I explored how I could use games (and, more broadly, historically-based media) to enhance how I encourage my students to be better consumers of historical media.  I used the game Colonization as a starting point–because there’s just so much wrong with it–and tried to develop a writing assignment that will force students to begin examining historical media more critically.

Teaching: Successes and Failures

FAIL stamp by Flickr user hans.gerwitz

I’m one of a group of faculty taking part in a workshop at the beginning of the winter semester.  Part of our preparation for this is to come up with an example of a success and a challenge in our teaching.  I thought it would be useful to throw it out into the world and—possibly—get some feedback or ways to clarify.

A Success
One success I’ve had is encouraging students to have a hand in creating their assessment activities.  In my early world history class, I’ve put students into groups and asked them, for each chapter, to come up with 3 to 5 questions that would be good short answer exercises on an exam.  Then, as a class we discuss each question  discussing what makes that question a good or bad question

How do we determine a good versus bad question?

  • Does the question address what they need to know about the material covered in that particular section of the course?
  • Does the question make sense (grammatically, stylistically)?  Is it clear?
  • Is it answerable given the information to which students have access (Have I talked about it in class? Is it discussed in the textbook?  Did we read a document that covers the information?)?
  • Are potential answers concise enough for short answer questions or would it be more suited to a longer essay?

And rarely, but crucially:

  • Is the question based on an utter misunderstanding of the material?  If so, how do we fix it?

The end result of this is that students then have a section of their exams that are crowdsourced, giving them some ownership and removing some avenues for complaining about the content of the exam.

A Challenge

I’m going to be honest.  I’ve never liked using the euphemism “challenge” when we often mean “problem” or “screw-up”.  Thus, I’m going to discuss–not challenges–but rather failures for which I repent and for which I have been attempting to atone.  There’s a whole truckload, revolving around student assessment.

  • Assessments that build on previous ones–I would like to create a system of historical document analysis instruction that leads students to ask gradually more complex and nuanced questions of sources as we go further into the semester.  Failures result from poor planning, lack of time, and my failure to adjust projects to account for shifting class ability (a project that worked well in one section bombs in another and I, usually, don’t pick up on the warning signs until too late to adjust effectively).
  • Exam essays should be the result of a series of practice essays written and critiqued.  Failures resulted from poor time management in the classroom which, in turn resulted from poor scheduling at the top of the semester.

I want to do two things in my classes (regardless of the time period or place covered):

  1. Train students to think critically about the past.
  2. Train students to communicate their conclusions about the past.

I’ve got notions of how to do this more effectively, but developing ways to operationalize these notions continues to be a critical failure point.

Weeks 1 & 2

I’d been toying with the idea of keeping track of the semester in some sort of weekly/biweekly way.  Instead of doing further toying or thinking, I decided to just go ahead and do it.  This is for me to keep an eye on where I’ve been and what I’ve done in the classroom this semester.

Early World History: We’re through the human origins stuff and rapidly moving from archaeology to actual history.  River valley civilizations are up next and I’m excited about showing lots of pictures of Harappan ruins.  One new thing I’m trying in this class is a chapter-by-chapter opportunity for students to create their own exam questions.  They submit a question, and I shove it into a GoogleDoc and let them comment, forming a sort of interactive study guide.  We’ll see how this goes.

US to 1877: Behind already—rejigging this from the 6-hour a week spring session to a 3-hour a week system has, apparently, befuddled me.  Hitting New England witchcraft on Monday, which is always fun.

US since 1877: In the regular section, also a bit behind.  This section of the semester (gilded age to WW1) is my least favorite, with the notable exception of the Spanish-American war, which is awesome.  The honors section of this course is going well, I think.  The first dedicated discussion day was full of participation and student seem keen to come up with a topic for their “migration”-tinged research project.

Outside of the classroom, this week saw the unveiling of MCC’s 9/11 memorial, Constitution Day, a visit from some people representing the Aspen Institute and a couple of tech workshops.  In the end, I would be very surprised if there is a busier week than this the rest of the semester.