Graduate Student Reflections: Brandan P. Buck

My name is Brandan P. Buck, and I am currently in my fifth year as a Ph.D. candidate in history at George Mason University and graduate research assistant at Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM), where I have spent four of the last five years of my Ph.D. program with Mason. In this, my final semester with the RRCHM, I thought I would share how my work here and the skills learned in the history department’s “Cilo wired” series of digital history courses have afforded me invaluable skills for public-facing scholarship. Through this combination of experiences, I have learned how to work with and clean “messy” data, analyze it using computational and spatial methods, and present it to audiences through crisp and efficient visualizations. The skills gleaned here at RRCHMN, whether banal or advanced, have aided my dissertation project and helped me turn some of its findings into a portfolio of public-facing work for popular and scholarly audiences through my blog, opinion pieces, and several podcast appearances.

One of my first projects here at RRCHM was The American Religious Ecologies Project, for whom, in addition to some digitization work, I compiled the project’s spatial database of American city-data. Compiling the dataset took the laborious effort of deconflicting two different datasets that contained different spellings and formatting (St. Louis v. St Louis, etc.). To deconflict the datasets, I used a tool I learned about in Cilo Wired, Open Refine, and another in Cilo II, RStudio. The data management and cleaning skills learned through that experience have benefited me daily in my dissertation research and, specifically, a recent side project in which I had to deconflict multiple placename databases related to American combat fatalities throughout the 20th century.

While at the center, I also became adept at using QGIS, an open-source geospatial analysis program. While I came to the program with a background in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) learned through a brief career in the intelligence community, my time here at the center and in the program helped me to translate those skills into use as a historian. Specifically, this came in the form of a QGIS tutorial I wrote for the Mapping Early American Elections project. There is a surprising dearth of applied QGIS how-tos available online that teach people skills in a context beyond mere abstracts. Building on my experience with Mapping Early American Elections and motivated by a desire to contribute to the solution, I wrote my own sizeable QGIS how-to, built around a group project completed in Cilo I, Unrestricted: The Campaign to Sink the Japanese Merchant Fleet During World War II. The tutorial teaches basic skills from map georectification to digitization, all for a digital historian, in a context meant to impart said skills outside mere abstractions.

Combining the skills I learned in RStudio and QGIS, I produced static and dynamic maps for the Appalachian Trail Histories and Virginia’s Lost AT projects, which convey the changing footprint of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Similarly, I am working on similar products for an upcoming RRCHNM project, Mapping Violence. As with other work at RRCHNM, I rolled those skills into my public-facing work, specifically creating a dynamic map, Unrestricted: Interactive Map Exhibit, a piece of digital scholarship that some of my colleagues have used to teach undergraduates about the Second World War in the Pacific.

My work at RRCHNM and the skills gained through the history department’s Cilo course series have taught me how to conduct data analysis and create data visualizations, specifically using the R programming language and RStudio. These skills, coupled with dissertation research, have contributed to the op-eds I have written for The Libertarian Institute and, as well as an active blog where I make data-driven arguments about the history of American foreign policy and its influence on American domestic politics. Furthermore, the historical knowledge I’ve drawn from these digital methods has proved invaluable to the arguments made in my dissertation and contributed to my burgeoning role as a public-facing historian where I speak on American foreign policy and its implications on domestic life and politics, on podcastsmedia appearances, via op-eds, and on Twit…excuse me, X.

My experiences at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and the George Mason University History and Art History Ph.D. program have been central to my development as a historian, provided skills, and generated valuable knowledge for public writing, all of which have significantly aided my growth as a public-facing scholar. As I approach the end of my time here at RRCHM and get closer to defending my dissertation, I am poised for a career as a public historian or research fellow at a foreign policy-focused think-tank, which is my ultimate career goal. So, thank you all at RRCHM; I couldn’t have done it without you all.


the center today.
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