Notes on the Future of Virginia: An Experiment in Visualized Discourse Analysis

Saturday, January 7, 2012
Sheraton Ballroom II (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Scot A. French, University of Central Florida
Bill Ferster, University of Virginia
Notes on the Future of Virginia: Visualizing Historical Discourse

This poster presentation will address pressures within the academy to build scholarly analysis into digital history projects, and the design challenges involved in supplementing “visual arguments” with the authorial voice.  The presentation will focus on the efforts of University of Virginia historian Scot French and technology specialist Bill Ferster to build historiography and sustained historical analysis into their “visualization” of historical discourse while preserving elements of unguided exploration and discovery for end-users within and beyond the academy.

“Notes on the Future of Virginia: The Jefferson-Short Papers, 1787-1826" is an experiment in visualized discourse analysis (with reference points on both sides of the Atlantic) using a subset of about 50 letters from the published correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and William Short. Between 1785, when the first authorized English-language edition of his Notes on the State of Virginia was published in London, and January 1826, shortly before he died at his Monticello home, Jefferson engaged in a remarkable long-distance conversation with his Virginia-born friend and "adoptive son," William Short.  From their respective posts in Europe and United States, they discussed issues of race, slavery, and emancipation, agricultural reform, and alternative labor systems based on European models (villeinage/serfdom and metayage/sharecropping). Both men observed the condition of Europe's laboring poor while serving there as diplomats in the 1780s; both recognized the dangers posed by slavery in the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s and Gabriel's Rebellion of 1800; and both expressed a desire to experiment with new labor systems that could provide a way out of slavery while preserving the agricultural basis of Virginian and American society. Yet they differed quite pointedly on the racial destiny of African Americans and the best path to a post-emancipation society in Virginia. Short directly challenged Jefferson's views on black inferiority and questioned his continuing support for the colonization/expatriation/expopulation of blacks as the only acceptable alternative to slavery. An early and ardent advocate of black citizenship, Short pushed Jefferson to consider the transformation of slaves into serfs or sharescroppers (metayers) on the European model as part of a larger societal transition to a more advanced state of freedom and civilization. 

Much of the two men’s correspondence over a 20-year span focused on a local property not far from Jefferson’s Monticello.  In 1795, hoping to entice Short to give up his cosmopolitan life in France and settle among an elite circle of friends in Albemarle County, Jefferson arranged for Short's purchase of a 1334-acre tract called Indian Camp. The property served, in effect, as a canvas on which the two men sketched their competing visions of Virginia's post-emancipation future. 

French and Ferster have employed a dynamic web-authoring tool (VisualEyes -- and various design strategies to visualize, contextualize, and analyze the discourse between Short and Jefferson at the local, regional, and global levels.  This poster session will explore the tensions and challenges involved in the design process and, hopefully, spark conversation on the future of digital scholarship both within and beyond the academy.

See more of: Poster Session, Part 1
See more of: AHA Sessions