Teachable Primary Sources: Oliver Parker’s Recipe for Revolution

Boston Tea Party w.jpg
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When I was preparing to teach a course on the American Revolution last spring, I wanted to ask students to build an interpretation of the revolution’s causes. But I kept coming back to the same problem: most of my assignment ideas seemed to implicitly encourage them to focus on a single cause for the revolution.

Historians know better than to attribute any major event, like the American Revolution, to a single cause. While we can argue about the correct mix of factors—republican ideologies, economic incentives, efforts to protect slavery and white supremacy, demand for Native land, cultural changes, etc.—no serious scholar would claim that the revolution had a single cause and that nothing else mattered. The past is too rich and nuanced for that.

For that reason, a question like “What caused the American Revolution?” is an impossible one to answer in a brief essay. Asking students to answer some version of that question with evidence would be asking them to ignore most of what they had just learned. A good essay exhibits clarity, and nuance is challenging to clearly convey in just a few pages. When I thought about how I would answer some of the prompts I was considering, I realized that I was setting students a nearly impossible task.

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In-class activity: making simple network graphs with Palladio

[note: this is an activity I developed for my Smith College course “Doing Digital History” taught in the Spring of 2020]

Early American Newspaper Citations

  1. Download this data that I produced as a part of my research.
    • It represents nearly the entirety of late 18th century North American newspapers’ citations to newspapers outside of North America. These are all aggregated based on city and weighted by the number of citations. It’s structured in five-year increments.
  2. Go to Palladio. Click start.
  3. Paste in the data from the above file. Click “load.”
  4. Click “Graph” on the header (in between “Map” and “Table”)
  5. Under settings, for “Source,” choose “City of Origin.” For “Target,” choose “City of Publication.” (it doesn’t actually matter which of these you choose for which). Tick “Highlight” for one of them.
  6. Tick “Size Nodes,” then according to “Sum of Weight.”
  7. You’ve just created a very simple network graph.
  8. Click “Timeline” below. Palladio will recognize “Year” as a temporal variable, and allow you to look at how the network looks during specified time periods.
    • Note that the data is structured in five-year increments: 1755–1759, 1760–1764, etc. You can’t get more granular than that.
    • How does this network of citation change over time?
  9. Click “Facet.” This will allow you to explore the data based on particular cities.
    • How does Boston’s role in the network change over time?

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In-class activity: topic modeling the State of the Union with MALLET

[note: this is an activity I developed for my Smith College “Doing Digital History” class from Spring 2020]

This quick guide is based on a more complete tutorial in The Programming Historian.

Step 1: Download these three things

Java developer’s kit

Download MALLET.

Download the SOTU corpus. [this is a slightly modified version of a corpus I found here]

  • N.B.: the Java kit takes about 300mb of space. If you’d prefer not to install software on your personal computer, hop onto one of the classroom PCs.
  • I have written these instructions for Mac users, but they can be easily translated to PC instructions. Using PC guidelines mostly involves making sure that the slashes go the opposite way. See Mac and PC directions on The Programming Historian site.

Continue reading “In-class activity: topic modeling the State of the Union with MALLET”