Kathleen Kole de Peralta, PhD will speak on Wednesday, November 9, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET. This talk will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Kole de Peralta is Clinical Assistant Professor of History at Arizona State University. Dr. Kole de Peralta’s talk—the second of two virtual lectures that are part of the Data, Health, and the Digital Humanities: Shared Horizons II virtual workshop—is co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of the NLM/NEH partnership to collaborate on research, education, and career initiatives. Circulating Now interviewed her about her research and upcoming talk.
Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?
Kathleen Kole de Peralta: I was born and raised in Michigan in a small town. I grew up near the Dow Chemical plant and that seemed to influence my interest in trying to understand, and even cope with, how the plant, its pollution, and other byproducts affected people’s health and quality of life in my community.
In my current role, I am the program lead for the global history track in the online MA program at Arizona State University. Although many people were forced into online teaching thanks to the pandemic, I actually sought out this role because I love teaching online. I find that it is very challenging, but also rewarding to teach well asynchronously. I also recognize that this challenge is not for everyone, in many ways it is much easier to walk into a classroom and work with students in person. However, there are people who don’t have the luxury of taking 3-hour seminar classes in the middle of the week. Perhaps they work, have family or caretaker obligations, maybe they don’t live near a university, or they may be active members of the armed forces. The important roles that people play in their families and communities shouldn’t exclude them from a chance to learn and advance their careers.
My typical workday is always changing. I meet with students several times a week, teach, read, and develop ways to improve our program. I am fortunate to work with a fantastic colleague, Dr. James Dupey, who is equally committed to sound digital pedagogy and creating an excellent program for online MA students.
CN: In your NLM History Talk, “Life after Lockdown: Pandemic Perspectives from Peru” you draw on data collected from around the globe. Tell us a bit about the Journal of the Plague Year: A COVID-19 Archive project.
KK: The Journal of the Plague Year (JOTPY) is a digital online crowdsourced archive. It started in March 2020, like many COVID collecting projects, and we are just now winding down our active collecting phase. From the beginning, we partnered with universities and institutions around the globe including the University of Melbourne of Australia and the Filipinas Heritage Library. The objective of the project was to document the pandemic, with the lofty goal of helping future historians understand what it was like to live through these historic times. The archive, to date, has 20,000 items submitted by people around the world. About half of those submissions were collected by ASU or our partner institutions and the other half were submitted by the public. It contains all kinds of materials that traditional archives don’t have. We have over 1,000 oral histories from around the world, memes, emails, photos, videos, art, and social media posts. The range of materials reflects the open nature of our submission process. We accepted every story people found important and wanted to tell us and thereby we attempted to democratize the collection process, allowing anyone to step up and say “this counts as a pandemic history and this is worth remembering.”
CN: In this talk you look at gathering data from Peru, what are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in building the archive?
KK: There are many challenges. One notable challenge and this was true across the archive, is that many people do not believe that their experience has important historical significance. When I talk to friends and family in Peru they are often reluctant to share their stories and it can take multiple conversations before I can encourage them to make a submission or participate in an oral history.
Another challenge is that I wanted to avoid simply extracting stories about Peru and sticking them in the archive. That makes the archive about me, and what I find important, rather than about preserving Peru’s pandemic history. I wanted other people to select the stories or jokes they found important. What makes a submission special is not just the object but the contributor’s memory, feeling, or story attached to that item.
A third challenge is that the pandemic was traumatizing. The experience in Peru was very different than in the U.S., the social and physical mitigation strategies were stricter, and the loss of life was enormous due to factors such as a broken public health infrastructure, huge inequalities according to geography and social class when it came to accessing basic sanitation needs like running water and masks, and vaccine distribution challenges. Therefore, for many people the pandemic is a very painful subject to discuss, so people need the time and respect to share their stories on their own terms.
A fourth challenge that comes to mind is internet access and bandwidth speeds. There are estimates that as of January 2022 over 1/3rd of Peru’s population does not have internet access and among those that do, there is a significant population only accessing material via mobile phones. This means that for Peruvians with limited data plans, spending allotted data contributing to an archive may not be a top priority.
CN: How can digital humanities methodologies help us understand the pandemic?
KK: Well, the very nature of the pandemic necessitated socially distanced collection practices, which were facilitated by digital collection methods. But as many humanities students will have learned, for most of human history the records that were preserved or saved pertained to elite and powerful people. Thus, using digital crowdsourcing as a methodology is a way to approximate more history “from the ground up,” more history that shares the stories of people who may have never read about someone like them in a history book much less an archive. JOTPY has confronted head-on long-standing archival silences. We collected stories from mothers, undocumented workers, the service industry, children, older adults, and more. The students working on the archive were constantly identifying silences and asking how we (as a team) could work to ethically address that silence. One of our partner institutions, Brooklyn College, collected a story that I think about regularly. It is a story about what it is like to work as a minimum wage worker at Mcdonald’s during the pandemic (https://covid-19archive.org/s/archive/item/38933). Her story is so moving, I hope future students and archive visitors read and discuss this story for years to come. That doesn’t mean we did a perfect job. There are still some notable silences and shortcomings in terms of representation, but it was a valuable lesson to understand how archival silences are made and some of the project’s limitations.
CN: How did you originally become interested in digital humanities? What inspires you in your work?
KK: I’ve always been drawn to digital technology. I grew up in a time when technology was constantly changing and improving, and that meant that there was always something new to learn. For example, our first family digital camera used floppy discs and you could only take six pictures before filling up the disc. As a reporter for the high school newspaper, it was rather obnoxious. Now, I have a phone that can hold over 1,000 photos before I have to reconcile what to do with those files and where to store them. I suppose the point here, is that even when studying history, I’ve always wanted to understand and learn new software. This is in part out of curiosity, as in what does this tool do? But it is also pragmatic in the sense that I’m willing to learn about almost any new program or tool, but then I ask myself how would I use this to improve my teaching or research. If it doesn’t meaningfully help me in either sphere, I move on and set that technology aside. When I wrote my MA thesis my advisor encouraged me to create my own maps to locate indigenous communities in Spanish Florida, mostly because the existing maps were done by archaeologists who reflected what they found in the ground, versus historical records that talk about where things were in relation to other landmarks and towns. When I wrote an article on miasmas and health in colonial Lima, Peru I returned to Adobe Illustrator so that I could map where certain smells were occurring in the city and what areas of town might smell the worst. If I had unlimited time, I would work on building 3-D models of sixteenth-century Lima, Peru, but I am not quite at that stage in my career.
When I teach the digital humanities, I push students to learn 4-5 new programs in a semester. I think that the digital humanities allow us new ways of thinking about the past, and also new ways to organize, sort, and visualize data. But digital humanities is more than just shiny tools and colorful word clouds, it is equally important to master an array of skills so that students are prepared to enter the workforce. They may want to continue teaching or working in academia, and that’s fine, but no one should be limited. I’ve had students who learned ArcGIS take those skills to go work for the FBI. In other words, technology opens doors beyond what we first imagine for ourselves.
Kathleen Kole de Peralta’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.