Tag Archives: Wikis

Historical Code Monkeys

For years historians engaged in digital work have used the “I can’t really write much code” excuse as a way to avoid everything from learning simple tools like CSS to more complex ones like MySQL and PHP. Alas for me and everyone else who has used the “me no code” excuse, we’ll have to find a new reason why we can’t program.

Bill Turkel and Alan MacEachern have just released The Programming Historian and with its release my excuses go poof. As soon as you go to the website that is the “book” you’ll see that it is a wiki and so an evolving project rather than a static monograph. This approach seems particularly right to me given how fast the technologies we use change. With each change the authors will be able to update their work to keep us all closer to the cutting edge.

You’ll also see that this project is by no means complete. The “coming attractions” list is extensive and over time I expect it will get even longer.

Also of particular note is the fact that the authors provide a list of their peer reviewers. Peer review is an essential part of scholarship, but as we all know, it is mostly blind or double-blind. As befits an open source project, the list of peer reviewers for The Programming Historian is open and available.

If, like me, you have been putting off learning more sophisticated programming skills, this project is the place to start, because it is accessible to the average historian and is written by historians for historians. You won’t get to claim the status of “code monkey” after reaching the end of the current iteration of the project, but keep at it. Someday you too can be a historical code monkey.

No. That’s Not Your Name!

As someone whose research and teaching center on modern Eastern Europe, the most recent news from across the Atlantic is just more fodder for a great lecture. For the umpteenth time, the Greek government has vetoed Macedonia’s entry into a European structure–in this case NATO–because those pesky Macedonians persist in calling their country Macedonia. Can you believe the nerve of those guys?

If you have followed events in the Balkans since 1989 at all, you know that this particular comic opera is one of the few comedic moments since the wars in the former Yugoslavia began. If you haven’t been following Balkan events, read on to find out why the Macedonian ambassador to the United Nations has to site behind a nameplate that reads FYROM rather than Macedonia. That’s Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for those not up on the abbreviations.

The root of the problem is a dispute about history, which is why this story makes a good lecture topic. Any Greek nationalist worth his or her stripes will tell you that the ancient kingdom of Macedon was a Greek state. And any Macedonian nationalist worth his or her stripes would shake his or her head and with great weariness remind you that, no, Macedon was a Macedonian kingdom and so when Alexander the Great conquered the rest of the Greek states, Greece became Macedonian, not the other way around.

For something like 2,000 years no one thought to argue about whether that territory north of what is now the Greek state was or wasn’t Macedonia. But in the late 19th century the new Balkan kingdoms of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece all cast their covetous eyes on the place. During the Balkan Wars that preceded World War I, some of the worst fighting was in and over Macedonia.

After World War II, though, the real trouble started, because Greek communist fighters operating out of Yugoslavia tried to topple the Greek government and many Greeks came to believe that Tito had named his country’s southernmost province Macedonia as a way of claiming sovereignty over northern Greece.

But so what? The communist insurgency failed and Yugoslavia behaved. The name of that southern Yugoslav province still rankled plenty of people in Greece, but in the end, what was there to do? I suppose there are people in Mexico who don’t like the fact that the United States has a state called New Mexico either.

The real trouble started after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. Can you believe it? The people who call themselves “Macedonians” and who speak a language called “Macedonian” decided to call their new country “Macedonia.”

No! No! No! The Greeks shouted. Posters, buttons, bumper stickers, even patriotic songs (in Greek) trumpeted the slogan “Macedonia is Greek!” And the Greek government used its leverage as a NATO, EC (later EU) and UN member to prevent the newly independent Macedonian state from calling itself Macedonia, hence the FYROM compromise.

When I was living in Slovakia in the mid-1990s I met a American human rights lawyer who was working in Macedonia. He had recently traveled to Greece for a conference and when he crossed the border into northern Greece, the border guards stamped “Invalidated” (in Greek) on his Macedonian visa and work permit. Not surprisingly, when he returned to Macedonia, the Macedonian border guards just shrugged and snickered at those silly Greek border guards.

As recently as this past February, the U.S. State Department proposed what we might call the “New Mexico” solution, trying to convince the Macedonians to call their state “New Macedonia” in their membership in various multilateral organizations like NATO and the UN. Wisely, the Macedonians declined.

During the height of the first phase of this controversy in the 1990s, a Bulgarian friend told me that Bulgaria’s foreign minister had proposed that the Macedonians try something similar. His suggestion was that they call their country “Not Macedonia”. That way, whenever the Greeks complained, they could say, “But it’s Not Macedonia.” I have no idea if this story is true or not, but if it is, I think it’s the best solution anyone has come up with.

I’ll conclude by pointing out that the Macedonians are definitely winning the naming dispute, all aggravations about NATO membership to the contrary. The Wikipedia entry for Macedonia calls the country the Republic of Macedonia or just Macedonia. And if Wikipedia says that’s your name, well, that’s your name…isn’t it?

[NB: After two weeks of energetic discussion by a number of readers (see the comments below), I have cut off comments on this post, in part because the discussion had ceased to be civil. TMK]

Wiki Etiquette for Students

The folks at PBWiki.com have created an Educators’ Wiki that includes a number of useful resources for those who are using wikis in their classes. I’ve used the PBWiki platform in my classes before with good success, but it is just one of many possible wiki platforms out there. I do like the page on wiki etiquette for students, because it offers them a pretty comprehensive guide to how to use and behave on a wiki site. For me this will be particularly important in coming semesters because I’m considering having my students create a class wiki in the fall rather than me setting up a blog site as I have in semesters past.

Since I’ve been so happy with blogs (and have written about my happiness numerous times here), why would I change to a wiki? Part of the reason is that I’m one of those instructors who is constantly changing things in my classroom, always looking for the best way to get my students learning what I want them to learn. But in this particular instance, the main reason is that I’m still finding the blog conversation in my classes to be a little artificial. The students still mostly use the blog to answer questions I pose, rather than taking off and writing for themselves.

So my hope is that with a wiki they may just take control of the class website themselves, deciding what content should be included, amended, etc. And the creation of a wiki will help them understand even more how larger wiki projects like Wikipedia work. I will continue to require them to write a Wikipedia entry as I have done in semesters past, but this time around that assignment will be more of a warm up for the main online work of the semester.


The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University will be holding THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp), May 31 and June 1, 2008. Sponsored by CHNM and the podcasts Digital Campus and THAT Podcast, this event will be an “unconference” on digital humanities. An unconference is an event where the participants decide what the sessions should be about on a day-to-day basis, rather than by the organizers in advance. In that sense, this will be a truly open source event. THATCamp is filling up fast, so if you want to attend be sure to visit the website now and register.