Coincidentally, I am spending this year's Day of Digital Humanities at Carnegie Mellon's inaugural DH Workshop for Graduate Students and Faculty. I thought I'd take this opportunity to round-up the ways that I use digital technologies on a regular basis to write my dissertation and network with other historians. I define DH as: the use of digital technologies to further research and debate on questions that help us understand what it means to be human. The following tools help me accomplish humanistic research and to then share my findings with other historians.

1. DEVONthink Pro Office

The scope of my project is only possible because of the capabilities of my database. In a single dissertation I examine three neighborhoods and three community institutions over 35 years, from the perspective of single individuals all the way up to a national organization. The amount and range of sources required to cover all of this space and time is overwhelming without a way to organize and search documents by topic, by year, by author, by archival collection, or by keyword. Even though assembling a database was a significant time commitment, I can now easily sort and find all of my documents as I write. Every time I move to a new topic I can pull up all of the documents that I tagged with related dates and keywords--for example, when I was writing about Jewish social group work yesterday I reviewed all of the documents I had previously tagged with "group work," "adjustment," and "Jewish social work." Without the database, I would be reading through pages of archival notes to identify relevant documents and then navigating through folders on my hard drive to find the corresponding PDF file. A digital database is more efficient and more effectively aids in historical discovery. 

2. Scrivener

I don't think writing on a laptop qualifies as practicing digital humanities, but I do have a digital tool that allows me to do a better job at writing history--with Scrivener I can better structure my argument than I could with Microsoft Word (practically an analog tool at this point). While others have reviewed Scrivener far better than I ever could, it's been an invaluable tool for wrangling a large, multi-chapter writing project. 

3. Google N-gram Viewer

I recently began teaching myself how to do corpus analysis, a methodology used to analyze bodies of texts in order to understand how the usage of words changes over time--in frequency and in meaning. Until I finish learning how to use some of the more sophisticated tools, I've been playing around with Google N-gram viewer. 

This line graph visually represents the frequency with which the phrase "Jewish social work" was used out of the total words published in each year between 1900 and the present. It helps me better understand when this professional subspecialty emerged (it confirmed what I saw in my sources) and in what years it was most popular. It provides a simple way to observe the rise and fall of a profession, in so far as written discussion correlates with the popularity or relevance of the occupation. 

4. Digital Archives

The bulk of my sources come from physical, paper documents that I find in the archive. I have to go and find them, searching by hand through boxes and folders. I'm never quite sure what I'm going to find. It's hard, fun work, but it's a process that's limited by time and energy. Digital archives provide a precise, easy, and convenient way to supplement these documents. With keyword or author searches, I can access digitized documents related to my dissertation. It's not perfect--I still have to go through the results and pick out what's not relevant--but it expands my source base without having to leave the house. More sources means more diversity of perspectives, and that makes for better interpretations of past events. The digital archives I most often consult are the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project, and Google Books

5. Blog

I blog several days per week about my dissertation and about the experience of being a doctoral candidate. I value the opportunity to share my findings and offer advice about being a novice historian. It's a delightful break from work that is independent and isolating. It provides a forum for debate and collaboration, which contributes to a more thoughtful interpretation of past events.

6. Twitter

I've used Twitter for many years, but recently I've committed to using it more regularly for professional purposes. It's the perfect venue to observe trending interests amongst historians, discover new publications, and ask and answer colleague's questions. 

In the coming year, I aspire to master two more digital tools. As I mentioned before, I want to improve my corpus analysis skills. The second methodology I want to explore is historical mapping, so I can visually represent changes in the neighborhoods I study. I look forward to blogging about the process of learning these new techniques and digital humanities tools!

What We Talk About When We Talk About a Ghetto

Precision in language is less important than consistency of usage. Words and concepts benefit from a bit of flexibility. It represents the grey area and ambiguity inherent in real life. To apply a term differently across bodies of scholarship, however, is to take advantage of this complexity and to obscure distinctions of place or kind, time or degree. Through participating in the Sawyer Seminar, I realized that the term "ghetto" can not be uniformly applied to every place where we see "ghetto" conditions. Although we can create a flexible category for similar cases of urban segregation, they are not all "ghettos." The political power of the term "ghetto" only arises when a parallel is drawn to the historical experiences of European Jewry.

The quest to precisely define a ghetto began early in the Sawyer Seminars. Scholars such as Bernard Cooperman, Benjamin Ravid, Kenneth Stow, and Samuel Gruber argued that the early modern Italian ghettos were neighborhoods where Jews were forced to reside, where non-Jews were forbidden to live, and that were enclosed by walls. This initial definition of "compulsory, segregated, and enclosed" guided our interpretation of racial separation in apartheid South Africa, Nazi Europe, and northern American cities after the Great Migration. We began to see the limitations of this definition. First, it described the physical space but not the rationale for separating populations. Why is separation necessary and valuable to a ruling group? Second, "compulsory, segregated, and enclosed" does not provide any sense of how separation actually occurred in practice. Just how compulsory or how enclosed does the ghetto have to be? Can it be enclosed residentially but open as a labor market, for example? It's too static of a description. Finally, this definition does not reveal any of the socio-economic context within and outside of the ghetto walls. 

By the time we reached the last case study, though, our question had shifted from "what is a ghetto?" to "when and why do we call places ghettos?" It became clear that the word "ghetto" has not been used consistently throughout time and place--South Africans never used "ghetto" to describe the compulsory, segregated, and enclosed areas in which Africans resided. Although the practice of urban segregation spread southward and eastward along with European colonialism, the word "ghetto" seemed to only move westward to the United States. To the best of our understanding, it was brought by Jewish immigrants to the U.S., who by the 1920s were moving into the middle class and increasingly college educated. The newly emerging academic disciplines of history and sociology attracted Jewish scholars who were eager to understand why they had achieved success and upward mobility while another minority group, African Americans, remained in poverty. In the decades following World War II, African Americans adopted the term. It was a politically useful parallel; the American military saved Jews from the Nazi ghettos, yet discrimination kept (black) American citizens trapped in similarly crowded, poor conditions in cities across the U.S. 

These African American neighborhoods were very different from the Venetian Jewish ghetto of the 1600s or the Nazi ghettos. All three were compulsory, segregated, and enclosed in their own ways--(im)precisely defined, they were all a "ghetto." Conditions were similar, though the practices that maintained seperation were very different. Scholars can argue until they are blue in the face about whether it is "accurate" to call postwar American neighborhoods a ghetto when so much time and distance separate it from early modern Italy. I think it's more interesting and important to recognize that, in the twentieth century, African American residents of these areas adopted the term "ghetto" to describe their neighborhoods because they recognized an enduring relevance and value to the word--it highlighted the historical parallels between their marginalization and that of the Jews. 

The question that remains for me is, how and when did widespread adoption of "ghetto" occur? Was there a single person or an article or an event that popularized it? Did it happen quickly or slowly? Was it already in use before the Nazi ghettos, or did that revival of the use of the word "ghetto" during World War II make the transition from Jewish to African American usage possible? To answer these questions, I am working with Profs. Wendy Goldman and Joe Trotter to conduct a corpus analysis of American writing from the 1890s to the 1980s. We know that black neighborhoods in American cities were, by (im)precise definition, ghettos before the 1960s. While I doubt we will be able to identify an exact moment when African American urbanites began describing their neighborhoods as ghettos, I do hope to discover how and why the word only achieved widespread usage in the 1960s and '70s.  


The Ghetto: Concept, Conditions and Connections in Transnational Historical Perspective

Rarely do faculty members of the Carnegie Mellon history department come upstairs to visit the offices of their graduate students. With the exception of four professors who pass through because their offices ring our bullpen, the history grads are segregated and enclosed in a windowless room with yellow fluorescent light. It's just 30-something of us, four columns of cubicles, a mini-fridge, and Livy (our temperamental high capacity printer). So when Prof. Joe Trotter, one of my committee members, showed up on the top floor of Baker Hall last April it was already quite unusual. Then, when it turned out that he was looking for me, it was terrifying--the 20th grade version of being called to the Principal's office. What had I done wrong? Did he know about.... how could he? 

Instead of getting in trouble, I was offered an opportunity to become a pre-doctoral fellow and participate in the Department of History's A.W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar Series on "the ghetto." Prof. Trotter and Prof. Wendy Goldman applied for this unique grant two year ago after they became curious about the long history of the ghetto as a place, as an experience, and as a term to describe crowded and poor urban spaces. The A.W. Mellon Sawyer Seminar Fellowship Program provides a university academic department with funding to intensively study a research question through a year-long discussion series. This seemed like the perfect way to explore the "concept, conditions, and connections" of the ghetto from its inception in 11th century Italy to the "making of the ghetto" in the twentieth century American city. Profs. Trotter and Goldman invited scholars to submit papers related to the seminar's four case studies: Jewish Ghettoes in Early Modern Europe; Ghettoes and the Colonial Project in Southern Africa; Nazi Ghettoes and the Holocaust; and the African American Ghetto in the United States. Seventeen were selected (plus  two bonus papers from post-docs) and these papers were circulated before each meeting for participants to read closely. We then gathered at each session and, after a twenty-minute presentation by the author, began asking questions about the specifics of their research and about the "big picture" questions of how the ghetto, as a place and as a term, has changed throughout history.  

Over the course of this academic year, I attended 18 seminars and spent in the range of 60 hours reading, thinking, discussing, and arguing about the definition of a ghetto, the role that the ghetto has continued to play in creating social hierarchies, and the enduring value and relevance of  the term (i.e. have historians overextended its usefulness by applying it to too many different kinds of spatial separation?). It was an incredibly valuable experience because it forced me to think more critically about a) the neighborhoods I study in my dissertation and b) the words I use to describe those neighborhoods. I will write more about our findings and its influence on my work in future posts, but for now it suffices to say that the Sawyer Seminar has had (and will continue to have) a big impact on how I theorize and approach my research. 

Wind Down, Gear Up

As I watch my colleagues fighting their way across the finish line of the spring semester, I feel like my year is just now getting started. Perhaps that's because it's been almost a year since I defended my dissertation prospectus, became ABD, and began researching and writing my dissertation. I also had a fellowship this year that released me from my teaching duties, and so I never felt particularly moored to the rhythm of the academic calendar. If the Jewish new year coincides with the commencement of the academic year in the fall, and the Gregorian calendar resets in January, then it just feels right to celebrate some kind of New Year in the spring. May has become my Dissertation New Year, a time to be inspired by the accomplishments of the last twelve months and an opportunity to make resolutions for the next phase.

I am starting two major projects in the coming weeks. The first is an oral history project at the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood. I will interview staff and members who have been affiliated with the agency since the 1960s or 1970s. These oral histories will provide additional perspectives on the events that took place at the Y and in Washington Heights during these tumultuous decades. My travel and time in New York will be supported by a generous grant from the American Academy for Jewish Research. 

The second project is a bit out of left field, but I'm very excited about it. I will be conducting a corpus analysis to identify when the term "ghetto" was adopted by African Americans to describe  segregated urban neighborhoods in the United States. I will write about this in more detail in the coming weeks, because corpus analysis is not a methodology commonly used by American historians. It's part of an increasingly popular field called the digital humanities, and I've recently had the opportunity to learn about and practice methods for using digital tools in scholarly research and dissemination.

I feel rejuvenated by these new undertakings. Each is its own education and brings with it a new set of logistics. It's crazy but fun, and somehow I'm still managing to write my dissertation in fits and starts. Stay tuned for more.