Defining Freedom

Last semester I co-taught a class on American history since the Civil War. Throughout we emphasized a central theme: the changing meanings of freedom. In a prelude to the lectures on the Great Depression, we asked the class (mostly first-year Irish students, with a smattering of visiting international students) to take a few minutes to write individual responses to two prompts:

  1. Define freedom.
  2. Can meaningful freedom exist in a situation of extreme inequality?

Their varied answers gave me a lot to think about, particularly in comparing current political perspectives and goals in the US versus Europe.

The definitions of freedom fell along a spectrum from what I think of as individual to social freedom. In that roughly order and in condensed form, they included:

  • The right to live on your own terms
  • Ability to do completely as you like with no repercussions / limitations
  • Ability to do as you like within the limits of the law / reason (as long as that law is democratically established)
  • Ability to choose how to live, act, and speak without oppression, discrimination, or fear
  • Ability to achieve a fulfilled life, in which all basic needs are met and personal progress can be attained
  • Ability to do as you like and go where you please as long as you obey rules and laws that protect other people’s freedom
  • Democratic government and enfranchisement
  • Rights: vote, speak, practice any religion, safety, health, property, basic human rights
  • Equality: Ability to pursue opportunities (education, careers, wealth, property, government, etc.) regardless of race, gender, sexuality, faith, or culture

Somewhere between the individual and the social there is a shift from singular to plural; as the definitions move along the spectrum other people gradually begin to enter into the equation.

The shift became even more apparent in the responses to the second prompt. Not all the students gave an exact yes or no, but I categorized their answers for the chart below:


Even many of those choose yes or no also qualified their answers. On the no side, they argued that inequalities inhibit freedom, because not all members of the society have the same freedoms in practice. Many of those who said yes added that freedom might still have limitations when there are extreme inequalities. In between, they said it depends on the nature or extent of the inequalities or that some types freedoms may exist (e.g. freedom of speech), but not necessarily meaningful freedom overall.

This was not a comprehensive survey, but from discussions with students and friends (surveyed even more informally) I got a sense that if combined with demographic data on nationality, political views, or socio-economic background the results would be even more interesting. It strikes me that the ‘individual’ conception of freedom, and the idea that it therefore can exist even alongside inequalities, is more characteristically American. The European welfare state idea – and the government influence it involves, which many Americans are quite hostile to – is based more on the freedom-as-equal-opportunities definition. Each has emerged from a unique set of historical and social circumstances.

As ways of thinking, these ideas suffuse our national collective mentalities. They pervade our political discourse. In the United States I think it would take more than legislation to successfully adopt social programs such as public healthcare or free education: it would take a shift in mindset and a commitment to a broader definition of what it means to be free.

Thanks to Sarah Thelen for being an awesome co-teacher and for comments on a draft of this post!

New on Oral History @UCC

This year’s crop of students have added their interviews to the class website, Oral History @UCC.

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Quirke of the Irish Defense Forces spoke to Adam Mangan about his experiences as part of the UN Peacekeeping forces in Lebanon. He felt the Irish made particularly good peacekeepers: ‘I have often heard of situations where there would be conflict in a sort of a check point and… everyone would be shouting at each other. Suddenly the commander would come in and say to the fellow, the leader of the opposition and he would say, “hey, would you like a cup of tea?”‘

Two students focused on local sports in which they have a vested interest: Jason Abbott interviewed fellow Cobh soccer players David Curran and John Flanagan about relatively recent history. They discussed the relationship between the League of Ireland club Cobh Ramblers and the youth club, Springfield Ramblers and the sport’s strong community support. Curran recalls going to matches when he was young and says, ‘I’ll always remember how the stadium was full and everyone singing on one side of the ground. There was a great buzz about the place.’ Darren Collins, a graduate of Presentation Brothers College in Cork, interviewed three people involved in rugby union at the school. Denis Hegarty attended Pres in the 1960s and came back as a teacher and rugby coach in 1991 and felt  a great camaraderie existed between everyone involved in the sport: ‘Winning wasn’t the be all and end all. You wanted to win something, but you just wanted the lads to enjoy their sport.’

Another common theme was migration: Eve Millett-Trimble interviewed her mother, Carmel, who was born in Nottingham and moved back to Fethard, Co. Tipperary with her family at age twelve. She remembers the move through the eyes of a child: ‘The actual move of going to Ireland I was quite excited about. We’d always heard the stories about Ireland growing up. My father was a very good storyteller, raconteur, and all we ever heard about was how nice it was… We thought we were going back to this sort of wonderland the way dad described it.’ As an adult she re-migrated to England in the 1980s and then returned to Ireland with her family in 2000.

Conor Long interviewed Con Griffin, who migrated to England in the early 1960s and became a successful plasterer, running his own business. He returned to Ireland in 1990 and when asked if he felt Ireland was ‘home’ (at 9 minutes into the interview part linked) he said: ‘Yes, but it didn’t matter to me where, because I had left when I was a kid and really, when I come to think of it, my real home was probably London. You know, because I could get a little bit excited when there was a hurling match on and when Tipperary are playing Cork, just for the hell of it I might put out a flag and get all excited about Tipperary, but that would be only a one-day-wonder, ‘twould never last two days. I haven’t got that kind of, you know, thing about place or anything like that.’

Feel free too leave comments or questions about the interviews here or on the website.

Oral History @UCC

Launching the Oral History @UCC site in the School of History, with Deirdre Kerins, Clíona O'Carroll, and Prof. Geoff Roberts

Launching Oral History @UCC as part of ‘History Open Day’ on 6 March 2014 with Deirdre Kerins (student), Dr. Clíona O’Carroll (Folklore), and Prof. Geoff Roberts (History)

Last year I was delighted to be given the opportunity to design and teach my own undergraduate course in Oral History at UCC, the first time such a course has ever been offered. The course is centred around individual research projects, so each student gets to choose his or her topic and the readings and in-class discussions provide methodological and interpretive guidance. The first group of students – all of whom were in second- or third-year and pursuing major or single honours degrees in history – also agreed to participate in an experiment with me: putting their interviews online. I set up a website using the open-source content management system Omeka and the educational service Reclaim Hosting and in the last two weeks of the term we turned the class into a workshop (aka crash course) in digital archives. The result is Oral History @UCC.

Some favourite moments from the students’ interviews:

  • Growing up in inner city Dublin, Maura Kenny remembers that one evening a week her mother would go out and ‘my father’d look after us and we used to have kind of a party every Friday night when she was gone!’
  • Jackie ‘The Farmer’ O’Sullivan was born in 1912 in rural Co. Kerry and tells Deirdre Kerins about how life was different in his youth: ‘when I left school I was sent out to a farmer working when I was sixteen years: milking cows, digging potatoes, cutting turf…’
  • Retired Garda sergeant Donal O’Donovan starts off this interview sounding exactly like you’d expect a garda sergeant to sound.
  • Joan O’Regan from Co. Limerick remembers the day of her first Holy Communion particularly because, as she says, ‘I think it was the first time I ever tasted a chocolate biscuit’.
  • Grace O’Callaghan of Cork City talks to her nephew Matthew about her work in O’Donovan’s butchers and recalls the shop’s importance to the local population: ‘You’d often hear them say “If I went anywhere else but Donovan’s my mother would kill me!”‘

Interviews by this year’s group of students should be on the site by early December.

Confessions of a DH Skeptic

I confess:  I’m doing a Ph.D. in Digital Arts & Humanities. I also confess that when I’m asked what my Ph.D. is in I say History. Why? Because that’s my research area and at least people have an idea what history is. (Alright, sometimes the wrong idea – ‘Oh so you must remember loads of dates and stuff, right?’ Wrong. – But an idea nonetheless.) On a related note, I’m not yet convinced that digital humanities is actually a field of study rather than an umbrella term for a set of methodologies and beliefs shared across many fields. The third part of my confession relates to the aims and program of the digital humanities. Yes, I certainly think that new technologies can make a positive contribution to the types of research questions we ask in the humanities, the ways that we ask them, and processes of teaching and learning. However, I confess I find myself rather less than enamored by the way many scholars promote these goals in speeches and articles. Therefore I say I’m a skeptic not because I believe DH has nothing to contribute, but because I remain uncertain of the manner in which that contribution comes to force.

This post was prompted by reading Alan Liu’s article, ‘The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and Critique’ (Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Dec. 2011). Like many other articles on the status or definition of digital humanities, the reader gets the impression that he preaches to the converted, beginning with the very assumption that it is indeed a scholarly field and therefore merits attention as such. Another indicator of the fact that he speaks to those already familiar with the area is his excessive usage of what we might call ‘jargon’ (but Liu’s own research is in literary theory, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this). This type of language can have the detrimental effect of scaring off scholars who might otherwise express interest in what digital humanities has to offer. All DH scholars seem to expect the continued growth of the area, probably rightly so considering technology’s continued permeation of everyday life, but if the goal is for digital humanities to ultimately become synonymous with humanities in general and we don’t want to wait for a generation or two to go by for that to happen, then talking with and to current scholars (and the wider public) in practical terms that resonate with them would probably be a good idea.

For example, my first experience in digital humanities (though I knew nothing of that phrase at the time) was as an assistant/intern working with both the IT and History departments and my high school for three summers when I was in college. I’m not a tech-geek by any standards, but got on well with people from both departments and could therefore serve as a liaison between them. At the time, the school was adopting a one-to-one tablet laptop program and the history faculty wanted assistance figuring out how they could cope with and utilize the laptops in their classrooms. These are some of the best teachers and most intelligent people I know, but for some reason many found themselves intimidated by their own unfamiliarity with the technology. What scared them was not the fact that the students might draw maps digitally rather than on paper with colored pencils or the concepts built into a program such as Photoshop or the fact that the students might know more about the technology than they did, but the words. What does it mean if someone tells you to create a new layer in Photoshop and you’ve never used the program before? Very little. But start by saying that a layer is like a transparent sheet on top of the image so you can draw without affecting what’s underneath and it might click. The concepts behind much of the work in DH are straightforward and connected to those already present in the humanities generally, but start using acronyms and technical terminology and you lose a lot of people very quickly because it may not be clear to them if the time or effort it takes to figure out the technicalities just to get to the basic message will prove worthwhile.

Another aspect of Liu’s article that struck me is his discussion of the scale of digital humanities projects and the idea that they are constantly getting bigger. He writes, ‘scale is a new horizon of intellectual inquiry’, that all scholars should be able to access and analyze all the world’s digital information from anywhere; a lofty ambition indeed. This struck me as remarkably similar to the early emergence of social history – the ‘social’ aspect came to mean something covering the diversity of lived experiences (broadening the focus of the historical discipline to realms beyond the political and elite). Those associated with French Annales school of thought expressed the ambition to write ‘total history’, to capture all the variety of life. However, in practice historians came to understand that this could only fully take place on a relatively small, local scale. Though Liu mentions the Annales in the critique portion of his article, the second part of the realization of scale within social history seems to have failed to dawn on him. Big fish have their place, but in studying the whole ecosystem the small fish also deserve a mention.

To avoid ending the article on an entirely negative or critical note, I have a counter-proposal for the propagation of the digital humanities (whether or not we actually call it a ‘field’). First, preach to the unconverted in clear terms. In this regard, I think Ted Underwood’s article ‘On the Digital Humanities’ and the Journal of American History article/dialogue ‘Interchange: The Promise of Digital History’ (Sept. 2008) are much better places to start than Liu’s piece. Secondly, focus on smaller-scale applications of tools and methodologies. Make it clear how individual scholars or small groups with limited resources can gain from and contribute to the digital humanities, because they all have something to offer. Maybe once these issues take greater precedence I’ll become less of a skeptic.