November 6: Getting Around

Screenshot 2015-11-06 16.36.24

Folks have moved around since there were folks.  Historians who spend their time pondering ancient peoples sometimes suggest that human beings have always been travelers.  We like to go places.  Especially now.  You and I might live in the most mobile society ever.

My home is in a little town surrounded by a LOT of space.  By “space” I mean relatively empty land.  Well, I don’t really mean empty, because it’s full of fields and meadows that are full of productive plants and animals.  But There’s not a lot of people per square mile.  There are a lot of roads, though.  Years ago I was told that no state has more roads per person than mine.  I think this must still be true.

These roads–plus a vehicle, of course–make it easy to go places.  Lately gas has been cheap.  A round trip to the University campus in Fargo is about 300 miles.  It costs me less than twenty dollars when I drive my little brown Mazda.  Time costs me more.  When I’m lucky I only have to drive over once per week.  Three times when I’m not so lucky.  Either way, the travel is easy.  It’s not unpleasant, either.  I like the scenery.  I like the sunrises and sunsets.  I see a lot of them.  I like the sense of traveling through a land that looks sparse but isn’t.  And I like thinking about the folks who’ve lived in this wide open part of the country.

I’d miss these roads and conveyances if they weren’t here.  I doubt I’d even be here if not for highways and cars and fuel.  Maybe nobody would be here.

“Tyranny of Distance” is a theme that runs through much of my region’s history.  That tyranny is quite downgraded nowadays.  I wouldn’t call it tyranny.  Synonyms for tyranny don’t work either.  The “cruelty” of distance??  Not really.  The “despotism” of distance?   Nah.  The “severity” of distance?  Possibly.  “Unreasonableness” also comes up as a synonym for tyranny.  That word resonates sometimes on pitch-black subzero 5:00 AM departures.  But the sun always rises.  Even when it hides behind a grey veil I always know it’s there.

Mobility has done a lot for us here in the sparse-looking lands.  We have reason to be grateful for it.


November 5: Grateful for the Past

A favorite question of mine–generally posed in a college classroom–is “how many of your ancestors had children?  Most classes have someone who gets it in about five seconds, but over the years I’ve had pauses for up to perhaps thirty seconds.

The answer, of course, is “all of them.”  After a few moments for reflection, I’ve occasionally added a suggestion that if the students want to be ancestors, they’re going to need to have children also.  It’s a seed planted.  A “suggestion” is something that is supposed to gestate.

Today is a good day to think about what we’ve received from the past.  Genetically, we’re an intricate combination of past influences.  Emotionally and psychologically, we’re woven from experiences and our responses to them.  Those responses, again, were conditioned on intricate combinations of factors, some of which can be identified.  Most are likely invisible.

We’ve inherited more than we think.  A high school classmate with pronounced mannerisms told her teacher and fellow psychology students (I was one of them), “I’m nothing like my mother.”  A few weeks later I accompanied my dad on a plumbing repair job at her mother’s house.  I’ve forgotten what we fixed there.  I’ve never forgotten the mom and her mannerisms.  I thought the daughter was a rather distinct echo of the mother.  Even an indistinct echoes has a clear sources.  We are all echoes.

We are more than the sum of our experiences, thankfully.  That “more” can disguise the underlying materials that have gone into our construction.  A room’s facade conveys desirable qualities while covering the joists and concrete and cables and pipes and vents that give it basic shape and make it function.  But paint and trim are not the substance of a room.   If the finished appearance of our lives is appealing–whether more or less so–its real quality depends largely on what lies hidden underneath.  It’s that hidden part that needs appreciation.

Introduction to Prairiethanks

This blog is my way of expressing things I’m thankful for.

Giving thanks is recognizing and acknowledging what we have.  We all have resources.  We have life.  People.  Experience.  Things.  Beauty. Skills.  Memories.  Opportunities.  One could name other categories and countless subcategories.

When we recognize and acknowledge our resources, we gain power.  By “power” I don’t mean the ability to oppress and destroy.  Power can of course have that negative connotation.  But I’m of the view that most people want to use what they have to help others and make things better.

Our mass media overwhelms us with sounds and images and crafted impressions of things we don’t have.  We can feel pretty deprived when we see that we don’t possess the fine clothes, the pretty faces, the fit bodies, the cool or practical or luxurious items paraded before our eyes.

We easily feel deprived.  But is this feeling valid?  Perhaps. But more often we’ve failed to take account of what we do have.  Not knowing our resources, we feel we are without power.

Giving thanks as a habit and attitude of mind is a corrective.  The purpose of this blog is to exercise this corrective.

I’ve named it “Prairiethanks” because I live in prairie country and drive through it regularly.  Southeastern North Dakota looks sparse, especially at this time of year.  The harvest is mostly done.  Fields are shaved bare.  Trees are quickly becoming skeletons.  Rivers are low.  Warmth seems scarce.

But this prairie country is full resources.  I plan to consider these in depth in blog posts.

November 4, 2015

CREATIVITY (9-21-15)

Milnor Wolf


This past week PBS aired a new two-part American Experience episode on the life and work of Walt Disney. Disney was one of the top creative geniuses of the modern era. What stood out to me, however, was the intensity of his determination to turn his inspirations into reality. His earliest animation projects required massive investments in time and effort, as they were based on sketches of thousands of thousands of cartoon characters. When he began his longer projects, especially Snow White, he faced a much more daunting task of producing tens of thousands of drawings, all of them requiring a level of quality and sophistication that seem staggering when we consider that they had to be done by hand. Considering this, I concur with Edison’s famous statement that genius is “one percent inspiration and ninety-eight percent perspiration.” Of course, Disney employed a small army of artists to do the perspiring. But without his enormously intensive creative drive, none of his great film works would have seen the light of the movie projector.

I can imagine a variety of sources of inspiration for creative thoughts, depending on the individuals doing the thinking and their life situations. My own creative thoughts tend to center around a depth analysis of phenomena, such as contemplating what geological and biological structures might lie beneath a landscape scene, or what muscles and bones work together to produce the elongations in the neck of a pelican that I am photographing on a still pond near sunset. I want to know what is underneath what I am seeing.

The most meaningful—or at least practical—aspect of creativity must be, I think, the determination to make the inspiration into a real product. Currently I am working in an archive, where I am preparing and cataloging and scanning historical images from my town. This takes a lot of work. The project stems from a creative impulse, and at times it seems as if the work has little real connection with creativity. But it is work that has to be done. It is like a bridge that has to be built in order for the parade to cross over and be seen by the public. The measurement of the creative impulse, in the final analysis, will be whether it has sufficient power to propel the building of that bridge—and perhaps many other bridges—so that the tangible created product is finally delivered.


Tina Seelig’s TedX presentation on creativity is excellent. I watched it once, then while driving early Monday morning, I listened to another (slightly longer) version that was posted at Vimeo. Seelig’s main idea is that the product or solution that we get is bound up closely to the type of questions that we ask and procedures that we use to obtain that product or solution. “The question you ask,” she says, “is the frame into which the answers will fall. And if you don’t ask a question in a thoughtful way, you are not going to get really interesting answers.”

Creativity is inhibited when we assume that we must follow a certain formula or recipe, perhaps imitating someone else whom we believe to be successful. Seelig identifies six facets of creativity, all of which are bound together: attitude, knowledge and imagination form the inner part of creativity, and culture, resources and habitat form the outside environment.

Seelig’s talk is a good reminder that creativity is not one specific ingredient that we either possess or lack in a certain fixed amount. Rather it is something that exists within an ecosystem with inner and outer influences. Knowledge, she says, is “the toolbox for the imagination” and not an end in itself. This is a helpful reminder that merely stacking up piles of information is not a terribly productive way of becoming skilled or educated.

Furthermore, Seelig emphasizes that the creative process is not like a jigsaw puzzle that requires one to have all the right pieces. Rather, it is like making a quilt, where varied and irregular pieces can be fitted together to create something unique and original. This is a very helpful metaphor for our documentary making process.

With the quilt metaphor in mind, I will propose some answers to some specific questions related to this semester’s documentary project. The bulleted questions were posed:

  • Who is the intended audience?

The film will be directed to a general audience, primarily those who either live in the Red River Valley or have some knowledge of it.   It will, however, not require special knowledge to understand.

  • Purpose of the film?

The film will share basic facts about the Red River Valley and its environmental history in a way that will increase people’s awareness of the natural systems and processes that have shaped and continue to shape the place they live.

  • Has any media been produced on this subject?

There are books on the subject. I imagine there are also video documentaries on the subject (or closely related) that ought to be looked up.

  • What kind of visual style will be used?

I anticipate that landscape scenes will provide the predominant visual style.

  • What kind of music will be used?

Definitely we should employ some rendition of the great song “Red River Valley.”

  • Historical context and background of the story?

I have a book—one that is dated but reviewed positively by Tom Isern, entitled Red River Runs North! that I plan to read. I’ll be looking for some direction from our class expert in terms of what to read and research.

  • Who, what, where, when, how, why?

All good questions. For now, I will be reminded to be thinking of them.

REVIEW OF TWO WEBSITES (Digital History Assignment for Sept. 14, 2015)


By Ken Smith

The two website I chose were both related to North Dakota history. The first was prepared by the History Channel, and is at, and the second is part of a project called “The US 50” which is at picked these for several reasons. First, they come up on the first page of a Google search for “north Dakota History” Second, they are both fairly small sites. Third, they both appear to have been created under commercial auspices and seemed likely to have been assembled by people who do not work on North Dakota history as professionals. Amateurs, in other words.

The main page for the US 50 site on North Dakota informs us that

North Dakota is one of the great states that make up the United States of America. We have gathered large amounts of information about North Dakota into one place from various sources such as the state Governor’s office, the US Geological Survey (USGS), the US Census, the US Postal Service and many other authorities. So whether you are looking for North Dakota history, the state bird of North Dakota, or the best places to visit in North Dakota, the answers are just a click away.

The generic first line is a giveaway that this is not a professional history site. The second line suggests that they have done some online searching to amass their information, but that what will be found at this site is probably not coming from anyone who has done much formal study of the state. So, I expected to find some basic information that should be generally reliable, though probably not anything profound. That’s OK, because sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed.

Here is a screenshot of the site:

Screenshot 2015-09-13 18.46.10

I like the simple organization. The square boxes off to the side remind me of things I saw on websites I was visiting nearly 20 years ago. Personally, I like the simple style. In any case, the design seems functional to me. The categories make sense. Below the introduction is another series of links that are also straightforward.

Since I was mainly looking for what the sites had to say about North Dakota History, I read through the eleven paragraph, 1,324-word section on “North Dakota History” which took just a few minutes. It’s not a bad overview, considering the limitations of the website’s purpose. It basically runs from the glacial age to the second Dakota boom, but says nothing about the state since the first decade or two of the twentieth century. Perhaps the writer thought that “history” meant things that happened at least 100 years ago, or perhaps the writer thinks that North Dakota has just stood still since then. The latter probably isn’t the case because the other links (Historic figures, Outdoors, Tourism, Governors, Cities, and Colleges) all feature information that mostly falls in the last 100 years.

I noted that the “Historic Figures” section only features five people. Lawrence Welk is at the top, Actress Dorothy Stickney fron Dickinson, artist Ivan Dmitri from Harvey, baseball player Roger Maris, and journalist Eric Sevareid. The “state quiz” is equally sparse: only five questions are offered. The section on geography has only two items: a US outline map of states with ND highlighted in orange, and a link to Google Maps centered on the state. I would like to have seen a map with at least some detail of the four or five geographical/geological zones of the state, and perhaps distinguishing the variance in landforms, so that people do not make the mistake of thinking that the entire state is just one bland postage stamp.

The History Channel’s North Dakota site is, oddly enough, focused more on current history. It features a wallpaper photo of a buffalo against a green prairie landscape: one might expect a historical website on the state to have a historic photo, perhaps a 120-year old picture of a prairie town or a steam threshing team or even a buffalo. Below the buffalo is a window for a four-minute video called “Silicon Prairie” which highlights the tech development in North Dakota, touts the low unemployment rate and low cost of living. It refers to “sunny Fargo” and claims the town has more days of sunlight than most anyplace in the country (which I doubt, given the last few winters). The video says nothing about oil and gas development, which is odd since the summary line in the video refers to the factors that “shape today’s North Dakota.”

Here is a screenshot of the site:

Screenshot 2015-09-13 18.48.14

Between the buffalo and the video is a one-paragraph summary of the state’s history, running from 1803 (the Lewis and Clark Expedition) to statehood in 1889, then mentioning the “scenic badlands” of the Roosevelt National Park. Below the video window is a list of basic facts about the state: capital; population; size; state nicknames; state motto; state tree; state flower; and state bird. Below this is a section of “Interesting Facts” consisting of exactly six items, all of them very short.

A four-box section near the top of the page takes the viewer to “Article” (the main page), “Videos” (one video is provided, mentioned above), “photo galleries” and “shop.” The photo section consists of exactly nine photos, which are nice but topically narrow. The “shop” section is disappointing, as it simply links the viewer to the currently featured history videos for sale by the history channel, which have nothing to do with North Dakota.

The North Dakota us50 website and the History Channel website are both small and simple, with very cursory information provided.  I like the interface of the us50 site better, though understandably some will see it as clunky and old-fashioned. If I were putting together a website for a historical subject (say, for the State Normal and Industrial School at Ellendale), I would probably like to use a similar navigation format, but I would use stylistic devices to make the site look like a historical project and not a commercial one. Instead of square boxes, I’d probably want to use period-looking boxes, perhaps with calligraphy-like print.

The History Channel site is not as clunky looking, but in reality it’s no more sophisticated than the us50 site. It’s very present-oriented. Though both sites are utilitarian in nature (appealing to practical interests rather than a more liberal, knowledge-based pursuit), they both have some value. People who know nothing of North Dakota would get some ideas, not necessarily balanced, but not necessarily deceiving either. Even the best thought out and designed sites are going to be used in very selective ways. There does not seem to be any way to force people to study these sites thoroughly. The web by nature invites lots of clicks, jumping from place to place.

When I think of historical websites I often think of massive projects like the Victorian Web or But these are so far-reaching they are hard to evaluate. I think there is value in smaller sites, with limited links and pages, but my big concern is the wise and careful selection of materials. Also, one must consider what audience one is trying to reach. Potentially anyone, from an elementary school kid to a serious history professional, may end up looking at the site, and so the designer just has to be aware of this. Designs that somehow hold the viewer’s attention for longer periods, rather than inviting them to click around quickly, would be my preference (if such designs exist).

It would be nice to incorporate somehow some of the interactive elements that come with social media. The idea of just putting up a set of pages has its simple attraction, and I am hesitant to weigh down site pages with lots of links to social media sharing engines and so forth. I put a high value on simplicity, but it’s probably not wise to be simple just for simplicity’s sake.

Ideally, I think, a history website will have a simple to use front end that is uncluttered and visually attractive. Behind the front end, though, it will have a lot of content areas that can be valuable to people who want to go into greater depth. It should be respectable from a scholarly point of view without being inaccessible to beginners or outsiders.

For this review I sketched quickly in pencil a map of both sites.  I have seen “site maps” on some websites (PBS sites often have them) but these were both so simple that there would not be much point.  I do like the fact that with the 50states site, no matter where you go you always have the boxes to the side to click back into, so you always know where you are.  The History channel site kept its boxes at the top at all times  Other than that, there seemed to be nothing notable about how these sites were organized.

Comparative Website Mapping in Pencil_Page_1 Comparative Website Mapping in Pencil_Page_2



At the heart of the classical Socratic tradition of inquiry is the question “what is ____?”  Socrates gained fame two-and-a-half millennia ago by confronting high-prestige individuals before an audience and making them display their wisdom or lack of wisdom.  To a magistrate, he might ask “what is justice?” or to a military officer, “what is bravery?”  He was not satisfied with simplistic answers, and would continue to interrogate the responses until the subject’s true level of understanding became evident.

The question “what is digital history” is interesting from a socratic perspective because the terms “digital” and “history” have multiple levels of meaning.  “Digital” as discussed in a recent class meeting means at the most basic level that information is stored and manipulated by technology that operates on the basis of ones and zeroes that can be manipulated to produce potentially infinitely malleable variations of image and sound.  The Greek presocratics who gave us the concept that “all is numbers” and those who described the universe as comprised of indivisibly small bits of substance called “atoms” would probably marvel at our present situation: we are using tools that will record sensory data (mostly light and sound waves) and allow us to recreate and refashion this data in ways that to previous eras could only be understood as magic.

I think that this power to recreate and refashion sensory experience requires a commensurate level of humility.  The most important part of the Greek classical tradition took very seriously the phrase “what is?” as described above, and believed that genuine answers existed, even if those answers weren’t at all obvious.  In philosopher-talk this is known as “ontology” and it means simply that there exists, somewhere down below the appearances (or up above, in Plato’s case), some sort of stable reality that lends shape and meaning to the atoms of experience.  Humility is necessary because this reality, though conceived of in different ways, was believed to be elusive.  Simple rhetoric did not reveal its true meaning, thus Socrates’ ongoing battle with the sophists, and his ongoing habit of embarrassing high-prestige individuals with public displays of their ignorance.  It’s not that Socrates was proud.  He was humble enough to admit, first, that he did not know, and second, that he must bow before genuine knowledge, where it revealed itself though rational dialectical process.

Why discuss philosophy in discussing digital history?  Because today’s digital tools give us unprecedented power to recreate and refashion the past, and that power should be used carefully and wisely.  Plato asked his readers in _The Republic_ to imagine a cave whose inhabitants were bound psychologically to images cast up on the wall by a class of image-makers in service of a ruling caste.  The story of the cave has stood ever since as a metaphor for bondage to false images and false ideals.  It has also spoken to the immense social power of propaganda.  The tools used in the cave–fire and smoke and shadow puppetry–were primitive compared to the most basic of 20th and 21st century tools.

I will return to a direct discussion of the potential philosophical and moral implications of our technology in a later post.  For now, I want to answer another question posed in the first session of our digital history class: “What is your favorite documentary or movie?”  My immediate answer was _Asoka_, a Bollywood movie imagining the life, love and warfare of the Mauryan emperor who violently united much of the Indian continent in the second century B.C., and later adopted nonviolence and devoted his rule to spreading Buddhism.  That movie, I noted, had numerous lively and colorful intervals of song-and-dance, typical of the Bollywood genre.  The movie was never intended as a strictly historical account.  And yet it is, to my knowledge, the only feature-length film about this immensely important historical figure.  It deals successfully, I think, with the question of why this man of violence became a man of peace.  It is a relatively low-budget production.  It relies on quite a few low-tech visual gimmicks where a high-budget Hollywood production would use far more sophisticated, higher-tech methods.  And it works.

Further pondering the question of my favorite documentary or movie, I recalled one I came across by accident nearly 25 years ago, entitled “The Amish: Not to Be Modern.”  This 54-minute film consists almost entirely of scenes of Amish people and activities, paired with their own narration.  I recall vividly showing this video to an American history class.  I wondered how the film’s very slow pace and seemingly dry narration would go with these twenty or so high school juniors.  To my amazement, they seemed spellbound.  They made many positive comments on it.  So I showed the film again the next few years, and when I began teaching college sociology, I repeated it nearly every year for twelve years.  Students seemed to really like it, and it produced fodder for conversation for weeks after viewing it.

Why the appeal of such a simple film?  I think it used methods very well suited to its subject matter.  It was low tech, and as I said, slow moving.  Like the Amish themselves.  Perhaps more than any documentary or movie that I can think of, it conveyed the “what is” of Amish life in an understandable, understated way.

I will give a preliminary answer to the question I set out to address in this essay, “what is digital history?” by saying that, if it is genuine–if it succeeds to some degree in getting to the stable essence of its subject matter–then it qualifies as “history.”  The amazing variety of digital tools and techniques we now possess could potentially lead us astray, lead us to portray or imagine a subject more according to the demands of those tools and less according to the underlying nature of the subject itself.  On the other hand, having the ability to use a wide variety of tools, and use them flexibly and creatively, might actually help us (and more importantly, our audience) to understand a subject accurately and honestly.

Ken Smith

August 30 2015