Is VR a Useful Storytelling Medium for Historians?

This past Sunday, home delivery subscribers to the New York Times received a Virtual Reality (VR) viewer along with their newspaper. Meant to accompany the NYT Magazine's cover story, "The Displaced," the VR viewer gives the audience the opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the narratives they have just read. In the 360-degree interactive video, you follow the three refugee children featured in the print articles. To say you "follow" them does not do justice to the experience--your gaze does not follow their gaze. You are afforded the opportunity to take in the entire world as they see it, to look left when they look right. You see the children sitting on the truck bench behind them, the presence or absence of adults around them, the aid packages parachuting down from the sky above them, and the river beneath their boat. Of the decision to marry this subject with this mediumNYT Magazine Editor in Chief Jake Silverstein wrote: 

We decided to launch The Times’s virtual-reality efforts with these portraits because we recognize that this new filmmaking technology enables an uncanny feeling of connection with people whose lives are far from our own. By creating a 360-degree environment that encircles the viewer, virtual reality creates the experience of being present within distant worlds, making it uniquely suited to projects, like this one, that speak to our senses of empathy and community. What better use of the technology could there be than to place our readers within a crisis that calls to us daily with great urgency and yet, because of the incessancy of the call, often fails to rouse us at all?
— The Displaced: Introduction (November 5, 2015)

Uncanny is an appropriate word. When I finished watching the video, I burst into tears. It is a very different experience to see a life so different than your own than to read about it--you are able to visualize the extent and the scale of the crisis much more vividly. This pairs three intimate, emblematic portraits together with the mind-boggling vastness of the situation. You hear one voice describing the experience at the same time that you see the many, many others surrounding them who are (silently) enduring the same conditions. As a piece of journalism, it's incredibly effective. 

As soon as I finished watching the video, my first thought was, "Could historians make use of VR storytelling?" I believe the answer is yes, VR presents a really valuable medium for conveying past lived realities. Writing history is already an exercise in VR. As historians, we transport the reader to a past reality and help them connect with that lived experience. Narrative history already does what Silverstein identifies as the central benefit of this new medium: it "speak[s] to our senses of empathy and community." If VR can make journalism more vivid, immersive, and relatable, I believe it can also animate historical narratives. But so can standard documentaries. What does VR add? Or, perhaps more accurately, what would make historical VR worth the work? 

As I currently understand it, VR can best be used to demonstrate spatiality. I can imagine it being a powerful medium to convey what it would have been like to be a soldier standing on a battlefield, or to be living with ten other family members in a small tenement apartment. We can describe loneliness or claustrophobia, but wouldn't it be powerful for students to see a short VR video of just how close their bedmate would be if they lived in an 8' x 8' bedroom with their entire family? Or how densely packed (or scattered) soldiers were during a major battle?

These are just some ideas I've been tossing around since Sunday. I recognize that bringing them to fruition would require immense production budgets that are probably beyond the current capacity of most scholars and institutions. Nonetheless, I think it's a medium that humanists should begin to consider! I live by this great quote in The Historian's Craft that Marc Bloch attributes to his good friend and colleague Henri Pirenne: "If I were an antiquarian, I would have eyes only for old stuff, but I am a historian. Therefore, I love life." We should embrace these new methods for storytelling and expand our potential as historians.

Tell me: Do you agree that VR is a useful medium, or do you think it's passing fad? Or do you have other great ideas for how VR could be married to traditional written histories?  

#dayofdh

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!

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.