Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Shooting the Ayatollah" Passes!

This afternoon I successfully passed my Masters in History thesis defense. And I was worried....

Drs. William Stueck (my academic adviser) and John Morrow of the University of Georgia History Department and Alan Godlas, professor of Islamic Studies in the UGA Department of Religion gave me a good run for my money, critiquing the full text of Shooting the Ayatollah: Photojournalism, the Press, the Foreign Policy Public, and the Iran Hostage Crisis. The defense went very well, with none of the abuse or argument that other grad students had led to expect. Guess that means my committee liked it.

This thesis quantifies the volume, type, and tone of images used by the mass-market newsweeklies – Newsweek, Time, and U.S.News and World Report – to depict Iran and the Iran hostage crisis in an attempt to characterize related media coverage. In four chapters, this study’s quantitative approach describes the entire lifecycle of hostage crisis media – from its creation in Tehran and Washington by news service reporters and Iranian photojournalists, its communication on the pages of the American news magazines, a statistical examination of news media consumption by various strata of American society, and a comparison of the American press and its Arab analogue. This thesis also tests a number of core assumptions about hostage crisis media coverage that dominated the contemporary press and continue to linger in the current historiography, providing a new, more accurate image of the crisis’s cultural impact.

I had to invent a fairly complicated means of content analysis that could both quantify broadcast television coverage of the hostages crisis (CBS, shown here) as well as comparably handle printed coverage with it's variance between text, imagery, and cover news features. I was also fortunate that the vast majority of the US media's photography was credited. And while I can't know who the particular AP or UPI photographers were, I can measure the contract and staff photographers. Thus I was able to find that the most prolific photographers were, in fact, Iranian. Take that, Edward Said.

The next step is to work this overlong (161 pages) thesis into an overlong academic article. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

J.D. Presents at Brown University

Earlier today I had the opportunity to present my paper, “A Historiographic Analysis of Visual Texts: Reviewing Information Graphic Methodologies as a Means of Historical Argument” at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for History and Computing at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

The associated paper, of the same name, was recently published in the International Journal of the Book. This article examines the use of visual texts as a medium for historical argument, emphasizing methods for interpretation and an analysis of successful visualization methods. This essay focuses on two classic visualizations – those of William Playfair and Charles Minard – as benchmarks for the comparison of several modern historical visual texts – including works by Richard Bulliet, √Člisabeth Carpentier, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and the National Geographic. The full text of the article can be purchased online for less that $US4.17

My presentation, which I also gave at the 4th International Conference on the Book at Emerson College, Boston, on October 21, 2006, covers much of the material in the paper. But the presentation covers material not included in the paper and vis-versa. Because the presentation includes material analyzed since the article's publication, I wanted to include some that material here.

In the text, I expound upon the information design techniques used by the National Geographic (NG) in their coverage of the Civil War. Since that early analysis, NG has once again produced a marvelous example of argumentative information design. With "Century of Death" (January 2006) NG presents a clear and concise picture of genocidal activity in the 2oth century. In the classroom, I often have trouble impressing the magnitude of the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin's purges, or Mao's Great Leap Forward. But here, in simple black and red, the chronological order, duration, and scale of the last century's genocides are laid bare and easy to weight relative to one-another. And rather than diminishing the cost of the more recent Rwandan or Kosovar genocides, the result is a continuity of death. What is more, the multivariate visual text provides the samples quantities, making the diagram explicitly quantifiable as well as relatively so.

One piece that escaped the presentation, however, was my discussion of Jonathan Riley-Smith's maps of the First Crusade. In my presentation I focus on examples of good visual texts. But Riley-Smith’s map, “Recruitment for the First Crusade, 1095-1103,” (in The First Crusader, 1195-1131) a visualization of copious quantification of 791 certain, probable, and possible crusaders, nonetheless fails to communicate a sophisticated visual argument. But Riley-Smith fails to ask many of the related questions about why these people went on crusade. This is surprising because his other works have addressed these issues.

For instance, in The Atlas of the Crusades, edited by Riley-Smith, multiple recruiting centers and the recruitment campaign for the First Crusade are graphically depicted across a map of medieval France. And while this map also falls short of becoming a rich thematic map, a simple combination of this information with the demographic scholarship depicted “Recruitment for the First Crusade, 1095-1103” would help build a more sophisticated argument for the impact of crusader recruiting.

The conference in Providence went well. My work was well received and I was glad to see others working on related issues of historical visualization. I was also glad for my first post-thesis vacation (as part of my introduction, it was mentioned that I defend my thesis on Wednesday ... the collective gasp filled me confidence ... no, what's the opposite of confidence? Less fear). I sat on the green at Brown among the worst frizbee throwers I've ever seen and read my first fiction book in about two years, careful to cover the spine so that none of the Ivy-leaguers would laugh at the menacingly large lettering, "Conan."

I should also point out that, in my wanderings around Providence, I was delighted to discover the Rhode Island School of Design just down the hill from Brown. I had considered applying to RISD as an undergrad (before I decided against a career in the arts...oh...) and found it's artistic halls a pleasant respite from the hemp-smoke shrouding Brown atop the college hill.