Faculty Spotlights

Offenburger develops online organizing tool for research collaboration

By Carole Johnson, university news and communications

Frustration led historian Andrew Offenburger to create a research organizing solution that solved two problems: what to do with all his source citations and how to better teach research analysis to students.

The solution? SourceNotes, an online platform he developed that helps researchers organize their notes from primary and secondary sources. But that's not all it does. If users wish, they can work collaboratively and share their annotations with others, similar to the open source concept. They can choose to share during the research process or long after it is completed. 

That last feature makes SourceNotes different from products currently available on the market and marries research analysis with data analytics.  

Offenburger, assistant professor of history at Miami, first envisioned his idea when he was in graduate school at Yale University, but enthusiasm for the project skyrocketed last summer when he realized the potential benefits incorporating student learning into product development.

Collaboration is at the core of SourceNotes

Offenburger began the project collaborating with Greg Reese in the Research Computing Support group and Eric Johnson in the Center for Digital Scholarship. Relying on his past experience as a systems administrator, Offenburger then wrote the original code for SourceNotes during 2016 and launched it in the fall. The program is now in the fine-tuning stage and ready for adoption in classes at Miami.

It’s supported this year by a Digital Humanities Research Fellowship through the Miami University Humanities Center, as well as a teaching grant through the Center for Teaching Excellence.

SourceNotes includes three key features in addition to the collaboration capability:  

  1. It tags key words to entries. "Fairly standard with most platforms,” Offenburger said.
  2. It tags historical people to documents. "For instance, if a newspaper article mentions the ‘Rough Riders,’ it may not mention Theodore Roosevelt specifically, but the researcher can add his name as a tag for future use, helping another researcher who may be focusing on Roosevelt,” he explained.
  3. It can enter annotations with a timeline box. "When a historian or even a journalist is ready to write, he or she can access the timeline, which easily finds the notes relating to that particular time in history,” a feature Offenburger loves to show off as the “ultimate” in organizing.  

He admits that many researchers and writers might not want to share their material with the general public but, in his opinion, “ideally, researchers shouldn’t mind too much about sharing their sources,” especially long after a book or paper is published.  

In fact, he was thrilled when his former advisor at Yale, historian John Mack Faragher, agreed to upload his source notes on Daniel Boone. The first idea for such a program, in fact, came from a research seminar with Faragher. 

Offenburger pushed hard to speed up the development of SourceNotes over the summer to use it as a teaching tool. In his vision, he saw a classroom full of students building a research database while honing their critical analysis skills.

He started with one class. During the fall, 17 students enrolled in his course, “Historicizing the News,” used Goodwin’s Weekly, published in Salt Lake City, analyzing issues from 1902-1919.

“I chose this publication because it offered a good balance of news types (politics — local and national — theater notes, social notes, ads, even jokes),” he said.

Students learn by doing: creating research databases

Senior journalism major Dana Humen said she “learned all of the time and energy that goes into archiving information and creating databases. I also learned how to best select what key terms and other information should be noted when archiving information to optimize the search process later on.”

Her classmate, Jacob Bruggeman, a junior history major, focused on a particular theme, gender references.

“Through using SourceNotes to analyze gender norms in a particular weekly publication — through which I learned how to effectively utilize primary sources — I became aware of the gender dialectics in the American West at this point in history and how gender dialectics were perceived and portrayed by the public.”

Over the duration of the course, they entered about 10,000 records into the system.

“This type of collaboration would not be possible with existing platforms,” he said. "Imagine the amount of historical data that a class of 300 students could generate." Offenburger is taking his product on the road, meeting with Miami faculty to develop future research collaborations.

Collaborative Teaching: Food in History

This Spring, the History Department experimented with a collaboratively-taught, grant-funded thematic class about Food in History.Food in History class

The course, coordinated by Dr. Elena Jackson Albarrán, was uniquely designed to showcase the faculty’s diverse geographical and methodological expertise. It was taught by nine History faculty members from the Oxford and regional campuses and featured four guest lecturers from other academic units or universities. 

Organized roughly along chronological lines, the course began with an overview of medieval European foodways, and ended with the global industrialized food complex, traversing time and space through China, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Russia, South Africa, the U.S., and Mexico along the way.

Class members explored:

  • the ways that economic historians see food as commodities that link regions of the world together through trade;
  • cultural historians see it as a marker of identities;
  • social historians use it as an organizing principle around which gendered labor, family structures, and power dynamics are established;
  • environmental historians examine the ways that patterns of food production have altered soil conditions and waterways.

The serendipitous evening meeting time lent itself to an unforeseen perk: most faculty members supplemented their lectures with a thematically-relevant dinner (or snack) for the class.Food in History 2

For a final assignment, students were asked to design a restaurant to expand Uptown Oxford’s culinary selections, and to reflect on the historical foodways learned in class in designing its theme, clientele, décor, and menu.

This collaboratively-taught class is the second of its type; in Fall 2014 the History faculty taught a course on 1968: The Year that Changed the World. This model is intended to bring students in contact with a wide selection of the department’s faculty, as well as to encourage pedagogical development and build collegiality at the instructional level.

Students reported satisfaction with their experience, reporting that the diversity of instruction gave them a positive impression of the respective talents of the participating faculty. Different teaching styles accommodated a range of learning styles, and the rotating roster of professors kept the course material fresh and interesting. The food, of course, provided icing on the cake, so to speak.