Interview with Matt Burton

When did you start your blog (career wise: as a grad student,  undergrad, etc)? Why did you decide to start blogging?

I started blogging early in graduate school. The blog started as a co-authored blog between my friend Brent Rogers and myself as a way for us to share our thoughts and ideas about digital history. We started the blog in the context of a course we were in together believing that it made more sense to write for both a public audience along with our professors. I don’t want to just write for other academics – I want what I write to be accessible and available to whoever is interested in what I have to say.

How do you host your blog? How did you learn to set it up? Can you expand upon the point you made about “owning your domain” in the Podcast?

The blog has gone through a couple of platform iterations. When Brent and I started we were hosting on WordPress’s free platform before I moved over to A few years ago I got caught up in the wave of sites moving over to static blogging and, since I was also a Ruby coder, I switched over to Jekyll (which the site continues to run on today).

Many of the things I’ve learned along the way have been self-taught. I have no formal experience in computer programming or design, but I did spent time on high school and college as a freelance web developer/designer which set me up with learning the language of the web. I took a deeper dive into computers early in graduate school when I started using Ubuntu Linux as my main operating system, which introduced me to Unix, setting up my own LAMP stack, and so on. So, installing and running WordPress (at the time, hosted with Bluehost) had become familiar to me. Since I had become so comfortable with the command line, Jekyll was a natural fit for me. Plus, for my needs I didn’t want the overhead of WordPress–maintaining the database, the constant security updates, controlling spam. Running a static blog simplified the entire process for me, and let me focus on my content more than the vagaries of maintaining a website.

For owning your domain: I believe you shouldn’t let third parties be your online identity. Facebook, Twitter, department websites,, and LinkedIn should be treated as gateways to your own domain. You don’t have as much control over how you are presented on the web through these services, and they can disappear or change drastically overnight. What I mean by owning a domain is you should have a URL of your own (your name if possible, and a .com if possible) and a corner of the web that you call your own. That corner could be a full-fledge blog, a “brochure” site that describes who you are and what you do, or a combination of the two.

People will go looking for you online; give them a place to find you.

What were the challenges associated with the blog (i.e. spam, finding topics, finding time, getting it counted as “work”, etc)?

One of the challenges is topics, and related to that is time. One way to get around the topic hold-up is to not pigeonhole your writing into one topic or theme, which I think I’ve managed to do. I write a lot about DH and about history, but I also veer into coffee, podcasts, music, and so on. Whenever the writing muse strikes on whatever topic, I want to be ready to write no matter the theme.

Having time available to write has gotten a little trickier. When I was still taking classes and writing for those venues, I often made the things I wrote for class available on my blog – things I wrote for class would be adapted to blog posts. Nowadays it’s a little tricky to find time to write for the blog between juggling a full-time job, finishing a dissertation, and the demands beyond professional life.

What topics did you normally write about? Did you try and keep it strictly about your work, or do you ever mix in other topics?

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I believe you should write about whatever motivates you to write. That’s what matters. Most of my writing revolves around digital history and my research, which is a broad enough organizing theme that it creates enough topics. Although I’ve tended to write about my work, I do sometimes venture into other topics and hobbies. I also started doing a John Gruber-style linkblog, which is still built into my blog but I don’t use as often as I did a few years ago.

What kinds of interactions (scholarly or otherwise) emerged out of your blogging practice?

I’d amend this to not just blogging, but Twitter also. I think the combination of the two is important: long form content appeared on the blog, but advertising the blog post and the discussions about the post took place on Twitter. Or sharing thoughts that don’t quite make the cut for long-form but work well in the short space Twitter gives.

I don’t know that I have any specific collaborations that emerged from the blog, but having an online presence that included Twitter and blogging has led to many different interactions. One has simply been networking, a function that conferences still fulfill, but I also feel Twitter has played a huge role in introducing me to a lot of people. I suppose that digital presence has helped me connect to a few projects that I’m affiliated with (The American Yawp, The Middle West Review) as well as a few forthcoming collaborations that I can’t share yet (watch for these soon!).

There are other things, too. I’ve been interviewed by a few different venues about digital humanities. I’ve been a writer for ProfHacker and GradHacker. I’ve had lots of conversations with people about scholarly Markdown. As I’ve shared my scholarly work online, I’ve connected with others doing similar things or reached a public audience interested in the work I’m doing. Some of the things I’ve written turn into conference presentations. All of these things are professionally and personally rewarding.

Do you find these interactions informative, useful, enlightening, tedious, frustrating, obligatory, etc?

By and large I find it useful and informative. The interactions have led me to new ideas, introduced me to new people, and built up a professional reputation that I think has been important not only for carving out my niche in the field of history but also allowed me to, in a way, advertise myself to potential employers. Networking is an important skill in the academy, and I think having an online presence can go a long way in helping you cultivate a network of people across institutions.

Such interactions are also exciting because they’re giving me a chance to engage in new collaborations (like the one’s I can’t mention yet…) that I likely wouldn’t have a chance to engage with otherwise. Blogging gave me an avenue not only to work through ideas, but also allowed the discovery by others to the sort of things I do and the interests that I have.

How do you think digital humanities blogging is different from more traditional forms of academic writing and reading?

In my own experience I feel that much of digital humanities blogging tends to focus more heavily on methodology rather than the narrative and analytical pieces you’d find in most academic journals and books. For example, Cameron Blevins’ post on topic modeling Martha Ballard is quite popular because of its methodological underpinnings. The entire post is mostly a methodological piece about topic modeling, and as Cameron noted at his AHA conference presentation in January 2015, the piece didn’t uncover anything necessarily new or surprising: it conformed conclusions already made by Laural Thatcher Ulrich. But we have a lot of methodological pieces – Blevins, Underwood, Schmidt, Mullen, McDaniel, myself – that probably wouldn’t find a home in most of our traditional writing venues.

I find that form of writing incredibly useful. We are, by and large, a pretty open community willing to share methods and ideas that we’ve experimented with. Given the rapid pace of change and new methodological approaches, such writing also helps me keep up with what’s going on generally in digital humanities.

How would you characterize the relationship between blogging and the digital humanities (however broadly conceived)?

Similar to the above, I feel that much of the writing in digital humanities blogging tends to focus on methodology. Such writing tends to prompt me to think about methodologies I can start to apply to my own work, or methods that I could share with others in regard to their work. DH blogging also tends to riff off one another more than traditional writing, which shows the different ways that similar methodologies are applied to different research questions (see, for example, Ben Schmidt’s latest posts on story arcs and their similar application by David Mimno, Matt Jockers, and Ted Underwood).

What DH blogs/bloggers do you read and why do you read them? What do you like about them?

There are many! That’s the thing with this community–many maintain a blog. I’d have to say the bloggers I’ve been reading the longest are Dan Cohen and Caleb McDaniel. I learned about Dan years ago when I started graduate school as I was introduced to the great work going on at RRCHNM. Reading Dan’s posts gave me a great window into what DH could be. I started reading Caleb’s blog for a different reason. He was still writing on his previous blog Mode for Caleb and, if I recall correctly, wasn’t doing much with DH at the time. The blog was his space away from his dissertation to write about whatever struck him. The pieces I recall the most are those about jazz music, an interest him and I share. In addition to Dan and Caleb, Lincoln Mullen, Chuck Rybak, Bethany Nowviskie, several of my grad school friends (Robert Jordan, Andy Wilson, Brian Sarnacki, Michelle Tiedje), Ben Schmidt, Ted Underwood, and Matt Jockers, are all regulars in my RSS reader. The list goes on and on. I value their ideas and the energy they bring to their work. I learn something new every time one of them posts something.

And thanks to Twitter I’m exposed to many, many more posts written by people doing DH.

I also enjoy the posts at BlogWest, where a group of my friends and colleagues write about my field of western American history.

What was your most popular blog post? Why do you think it was so popular?

I’d say the most popular had to be the Rubyist Historian series that I wrote for introducing humanities scholars to the Ruby programming language. It’s the only post, for example, that found it’s way onto DHNow.

I haven’t thought much about what made the series so popular. I was inspired by both the class it was based on (Prof. Steve Ramsay’s Electronic Texts at UNL) and the Programming Historian. There’s an interest among some humanities scholars to learn how to program, and any time a new language is taught and examples are provided for how that language can be used for humanities research I think there’s a hunger for that information. The Programming Historian for Python, the Rubyist Historian for Ruby, Lincoln Mullen’s in-progress book on R methods in digital history, Matt Jockers’ work on R, and Elijah Meeks’ book on D3.js all speak, I think, to the desire for people to make programming part of their normal work.

Anything else you think is important you’d want to mention about your blog?

Is this where I apologize for not writing so much recently?

About Jason

I am a digital historian at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a scholar of the twentieth-century United States. I often write here about the history of the North American West, technology, the environment, politics, culture, and coffee. You can follow me on Twitter, or learn more about me.

This was written on January 10, 2015 | 8 minute read | 1,996 Words
Filed under: digital-humanities

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