Rural Democrats? Don’t call it a comeback.

The 2016 elections, in addition to making what I am trying to get a PhD in about 100x more relevant than I ever could have done myself, have also led to a very, very obnoxious trend among national political outlets: a newfound fascination with rural or agriculturally-oriented Democratic interests, groups, and politicians.

Take, for example, the Washington Post‘s breathless exploration in November 2016 of “Why rural voters don’t vote Democratic anymore,” in which they suddenly rediscover Collin Peterson (DFL-MN7). In the article, Peterson notes that

Donald Trump owes his victory to rural voters who feel they’ve been abandoned by a Democratic Party that has become increasingly urban and liberal.

and that

We have become a party of assembling all these different groups, the women’s caucus and the black caucus and the Hispanic caucus and the lesbian-gay-transgender caucus and so forth, and that doesn’t relate to people out in rural America. The party’s become an urban party, and they don’t get rural America. They don’t get agriculture.

While not nearly offensive as the New York Times’ ridiculous exhortation to “Go Midwest, Young Hipster,” it is incredible to finally read a profile of Peterson, who was first elected to Congress when I was one month old.

Now, just this morning, rural interests in the Democratic Party have caught Politico‘s eye. Looking ahead to Tammy Baldwin’s 2018 reelection defense, not only the media but, inexplicably, the Wisconsin Democratic Party itself appears caught off guard by the fact that there’s a rural interest it needs to pay attention to:

The Wisconsin Democratic Party has already hired five outreach coordinators specifically focused on rural counties, ahead of Baldwin’s first reelection run and the 2018 gubernatorial race in the state.

Amusingly, I spent a few hours over 2 days at the Midwestern History Assocation Conference and Agricultural History Society meeting in Grand Rapids talking about this exact thing! There is suddenly renewed interest among national commentators in the rural (and especially Midwestern) Democrat, yet U.S. Representatives like Tim Johnson (D-SD), Dave Obey (D-WI), Tim Penny (then*-DFL-MN), Kent Conrad (DNPL-ND), Neal Smith (D-Iowa), and others, along with U.S. Senators like Tom Daschle (D-SD), Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Tom Harkin (D-IA), and to a lesser extent Paul Wellstone (DFL-MN) made up a not-unsubstantial part of the Democratic Party from the Midwest during the 1980s, 90s, and 00s.

Suddenly, politicians and (more damningly) the Democratic Party is suddenly realizing it needs to pay attention to rural interests; that it’s not enough to let candidates go it alone. Hence a suddenly-renewed interest in national investment in rural Democrats.

We’ll see if this is enough to reverse two and a half decades of, at best, lukewarm attention to farm policy and rural interests among national Democrats — but publications from Politico to the Washington Post would do well to stop treating this issue or politicians like Collin Peterson (to say nothing of Tim Walz, a 2018 candidate for Minnesota governor) as oddities or bygone phenomena.

Now, there are issues here. Certainly no Democrat or activist would want to see the groups Peterson lists (women, African-Americans, LGBTQ+, to name a few) take a diminshed role in the party or be steamrolled by rural (read: white, Christian, heterosexual, etc) interests. Moreover, the issue of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and historic role of NAFTA that Peterson notes are issues that the Democratic Party–and, looking ahead to a relevant 2018 gubernatorial race, the DFL (I might start doing that more often)–needs to address. As 2016 laid all too bare, there are a number of endemic weaknesses in the national and state Democratic parties that have weakened their ability to run effective and winning campaigns in rural areas. Moreover, issues of gerrymandering increase barriers to Democrats making inroads with rural interests because fewer of them fall in competitive districts (breaking both ways! Ron Kind, in Wisconsin’s rural/exurban 3rd District, didn’t get a Republican challenger in his 2016 reelection bid).

But let’s not pretend this is a new phenomenon which we have no recent historical frame of reference to understand. Don’t call it a comeback, rural Dems been here for years.

Reviewing the Marquette Digital Scholarship Symposium

On Tuesday, September 29 Marquette hosted what organizers Janice Welburn and James Marten promised was the second of many annual Digital Scholarship Symposiums. Held in the Beaumier Suites in the basement of the Raynor Memorial Library, the interdisciplinary sessions both charted a promising future for digital scholarship and highlighted the ways in which current Marquette researchers, both faculty and students, continue to use DH in research and the classroom.

University of Virginia Research Associate Professor of Digital Humanities Bethany Nowviskie gave the first keynote address, entitled “Alternate Futures, Visible Pasts.” Dr. Nowviskie highlighted the need for digital humanists and archivists to “design platforms that break the fatalism in historical archives” and position them not as statements of what was, but what can be. Using the concepts of “time’s arrow,” “time’s accountant,” and “the Anthropocene,” she indicted the modern archive for creating and sustaining “projects of retrospect, rather than projects of prospect.” Those projects of prospect, she reasoned, would help sustain movements like “Afro-Futurism,” wherein the greatest example of agency for communities like African-Americans (especially in the context of modern protest movements) are the ability to create an individual philosophical infrastructure.

Following Nowviskie, George Mason Director of Public Projects at the Center for History and New Media and Associate Professor in the History and Art History Department Sharon Leon presented a second keynote address on “Reading Between the Lines: Inquiry-Driven Digital Scholarly Infrastructure.” Opening with a survey of digital collections focusing on the various protests of police shootings across cities like Baltimore and Cleveland, Dr. Leon called attention to her own work on the the September 11 Digital Archive. Using both the September 11 project and her own work with Omeka, Dr. Leon argued for recognition of digital tool-making as academic scholarship, because she and others were “building the platform by which others do scholarship.”

Challenging Ed Ayers’ 2013 assertion that digital scholarship “must do the work we have long expected scholarship to do: contribute, in a meaningful and enduring way, to an identifiable collective and cumulative enterprise.” Building on her discussion of Omeka, Dr. Leon asserted that this attitude was part of a “reinforcing cycle”: Scholars, instead, need to change their conception of what counts as scholarship. Instead, of merely tracing footnotes or replicating research, she argued, scholars need to come to accept “non-narrative interpretive forms” of scholarship as an “equivalent piece of material.”

Returning to Omeka, Dr. Leon noted the importance of Linked Open Data in changing the way scholarship was done. Using the example of “Subject -> Predicate -> Object,” she related how, in visualizations of slavery relationships at Georgetown, she constructed vocabularies of “Francis Nease -> Relationship:EmployerOf -> Priscilla Queen” to map in 2D space the complex social structures of plantations. The “next step” in breaking the reinforcing cycle, Dr. Leon added, was creating platforms like Omeka S which could help adding “modifiers” (prepositions, start/end dates, etc.) which would add chronological and geographical depth and breadth to the 2D model.

A faculty roundtable in which various Marquette scholars shared “Tools and Technologies for Digital Scholarship” followed. Dr. Beth Godbee highlighted the ways in which undergraduate English classes encourage adaptations in digital rhetoric. James Brust of the Wakerly Media Lab highlighted the possibilities of collaboration between humanities and the world of communications, and Elizabeth Gibes of the Digital Scholarship Lab (where I am currently embedded as an intern) noted a number of the different digital tools for the classroom like Tableau and ThingLink. Finally, Dr. James Marten and his interns presented their work on the Near West Side project, which has traced the cultural history of the neighborhood around and west of Marquette, which has incorporated a narrative style to highlighting the lives of various residents of Milwaukee in the early 1930s.

Following a panel including Drs. Nowviskie and Leon, there are a number of important takeaway points for scholars wishing to “do” digital scholarship and universities wishing to support it. On the institutional side, if universities wish to attract young scholars, their faculty will need to abandon the “reticence to do the work to learn how to evaluate the scholarship.” Similarly, digital scholars will need to learn to negotiate when they come into a department what kind of research they are expected to put out, as well as what counts. While institutions need to understand, as Dr. Leon noted, that they merely “can’t put [digital scholarship] on top” of existing research and development, especially for young scholars, those scholars also need to know that they are not learning a technology, but learning how to produce things for that technology.

To be sure, there are potential points of frustration with future generations of digital scholars. Dr. Nowviskie’s sometimes-flippant remarks about the challenges associated with archival research appear either not to appreciate the amount of training and thought put into archival collections or flagrantly disregard the vital need for responsible archivists. Given that staff of the Marquette University Archives were in attendance, the remarks were likely poorly received by some. Digital scholarship must continue to embrace a working relationship with the archive–hardly static, always evolving and changing–as a means of promoting the highest levels of research. To dismiss where scholarship has been merely to embrace the digital would be foolhardy; discussions of how to preserve and embrace the agency of marginalized communities should not reject the archive out of hand. Such characterizations serve not only to further divide the scholarly community but limit historians’ ability to tell the whole story as it happened.

Reviewing “Visualizing Emancipation”

Published in 2012 by the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond, Visualizing Emancipation is a interactive digital project “mapping the interactions between federal policies, armies in the field, and the actions of enslaved men and women on countless farms and city blocks.” Geared toward scholars, students, and teachers alike, Visualizing Emancipation provides a geographic examination of emancipation during and after the Civil War,

Various sections of the website serve as a digital narrative, teaching resource, and data set. First and foremost, visitors to the site will land on the map page, though an instructional introduction lays out the website’s purpose (quoted above) and its intended audience,then provides links to three different pages: “For Teachers,” “Get Started,” and “Learn More.” We shall return to the latter two, because while “Get Started” brings visitors right to the map, “Learn More” sends visitors to the “About” page, which is useful context for exploring the website.

(It is worth noting, additionally, that “Learn More” should really read as something which more definitively points to an “About” page. Those pages are additionally accessible by the “About the Project” link at the top of the map page.)

The “About the Project” section notes the basics of the project, a discussion of methods, an explanation of the types of events, and a rundown of the contributors to the project. The data for the project comes primarily from the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), and the authors are careful to note the distinctions in various sections of the army, territorial legalities of slavery, and differences in emancipation events. The latter, in particular, helps explain why some of the red-dot emancipation events have particularly large halos around them–many events, especially those of sexual violence, could not be pinpointed with particular accuracy. In total, the undergraduate students scouring a number of contemporary sources, especially the University of Virginia Valley of the Shadow project, compiled over 3400 events.

Moving to the map, users are initially met with a screen zoomed out to encompass the entire South and most of the theater of the Civil War:


Pressing the play button in the bottom left-hand corner begins a timeline scrolling on the bottom of the screen corresponding to month-long segments of the Civil War. Given records available, pins appear on the map detailing the position of Union troops, while emancipations appear as they occurred, then disappear. Filters are available in the top right-hand corner of the screen. The “heatmap” option is not selected by default, though it is useful for providing a more general overlay.

Clicking the events opens a popout screen within the map:


The popout box, while a bit cumbersome, contains a lot of detail. A newspaper description of the event, along with details as available, a date, and a citation provide context for the emancipation. Moreover, the dropdown menus immediately above the map allow the user to sort events (the above example is “Uncategorized”) like “Fugitive Slaves/Runaways” or “Irregular Fighting (insurrection, raid),” among others, and source types.

Ultimately, the mapping timeline demonstrates a number of facets to emancipation. To be sure, older historians of Civil War era emancipation are vindicated–slave emancipations, especially self-emancipations, would occur in locations with little-to-no army presence. But it is clearer that as the Union army advanced, emancipations increased.

The For Teachers section provides a number of links and lesson plans for teachers, particular upper-level high school and college. While the details are sparse and some pages beyond the landing page are under construction (have they ever not been?), Featured Events provides educators a useful jumping-off point for incorporating Visualizing Emancipation into the classroom through following individual emancipation to points on the map.

The project is ongoing, however. Links for scholars to submit events of emancipation and download the data as a KML file allows Visualizing Emancipation to be relevant to higher-level research and, much like other projects like the Living New Deal (which I use in the classroom through an interactive Google Docs project), continue to evolve.

Some confusing word choices (the landing page could do with a little more clarity of direction) and clunky layout in the “About” section (so much gray space in the margins) do create a nuisance but fail to distract from the overall impressive scope of the project. On a more scholarly level, adding the experiences of western slaves, particularly in Confederate Arizona and New Mexico, along with continuing to mine Northern cities for accounts of arriving emancipated slaves, would help to broaden the geographic focus. Emanicpation was a national experience, even if the political events of the time (like the Proclamation) did not, as the map nicely delineates, actually ban slavery in border states.

Also impressive is that Visualizing Emancipation works nicely on mobile devices and could be a boon to both interactive high school classrooms with iPad carts or college discussions where students may only have mobile devices. It is a solid and illuminating work of scholarship which continues an ongoing trend in historical scholarship to join space and experience together to expand the sociocultural history of slavery and emancipation.