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Episode 45: Jason Heppler Wants Tools That Fit His Questions

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For this episode, I interviewed historian and web developer Dr. Jason Heppler. I’ve been following Jason’s work and career path for some time now, and I was so excited to talk with him about his new book, Silicon Valley and the Environmental Inequalities of High-Tech Urbanism, which came out earlier this year. Jason is a developer-scholar at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. He has worked on a whole bunch of cool digital projects, which you can explore more on his website, as well as the co-editor of the book Digital Community Engagement: Partnering Communities with the Academy. We talked about the evolution of his work alongside his career, the digital tools he uses in his own projects, the relationship between coding and writing, and much more.

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Transcript:

Kate Carpenter:
Hello and welcome back to Drafting the Past. This is a show about the craft of writing history, and I’m your host, Kate Carpenter.
For this episode, I was excited to interview historian and web developer, Dr. Jason Heppler.

Jason Heppler:
Thanks, Kate. I’m glad to be here.

Kate Carpenter:
I’ve been following Jason’s work and career path for some time now, and I was so looking forward to talking to him about his new book, Silicon Valley and the Environmental Inequalities of High-Tech Urbanism, which came out earlier this year. Jason is a developer-scholar, which I think is an awesome job title, at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.
He has worked on a whole bunch of cool digital projects, which you can explore more on his website. He is also the co-editor of the book, Digital Community Engagement: Partnering Communities with the Academy. We talked about the evolution of his work alongside his career, the digital tools he uses in his own projects, the relationship between coding and writing and much more. Enjoy my conversation with Dr. Jason Heppler.

Jason Heppler:
I’ve always been interested in writing. It’s a thing I spent a lot of time, even as a kid. Just plugging away at a keyboard or writing in notebooks or whatever. But I would say things really started to take off probably even in college where I started doing a lot of I was blogging a lot, for example, and did a lot of writing as a blogger.
Then that shifted a little bit in graduate school. I remember we started to blog, me and my friend, Brent Rogers, had started a blog together where we were mostly writing about digital history things as they came up, and sharing things that we were writing for class and things like that. I would say in a way, the blog space became a really important way for us to think about ourselves as writers.
Then certainly, yeah, just thinking about the kinds of things that we were doing in graduate school, I really got interested in these ideas of how is it as historians, can we be engaging writers? How is it that we can help inform different publics with the things that we’re working on? How do we reach people?
I think a big challenge with even a book project is those books don’t always end up in people’s hands, so how do you find different audiences and where do you go to find those people? Some of this stuff I started to do with writing, I started to try to look at some of those venues. I found things like the conversation to be really helpful in thinking about the way that I could write for different kinds of publics.
And have a different outreach thing that happens than what you might get otherwise through academic writing or otherwise. The Washington Post for a while ran that Made by History Series, which I think has moved to another venue, which I’m blanking on at the moment.

Kate Carpenter:
Time, I think, yeah.

Jason Heppler:
Time, that’s right. Yeah. I did some writing for them and it was a nice way to think about writing styles that were different than academic writing. I haven’t published a whole lot of academic stuff, journal articles and things like that. In part, because I really did want to write for different audiences I was interested in.
Certainly, I enjoyed my conversations with my fellow historians, but I also wanted to just think about how it is we can present history to different audiences than just ourselves, I suppose. Then I wrote a book, I guess, and so that went great. It was fun to write. It took a little longer than I thought it would, but it was a good time.

Kate Carpenter:
Okay, excellent. Well, we’re going to get into a bunch of the things you just mentioned.
But first, I want to start with all of my practical questions, so where and when do you work?

Jason Heppler:
If I can help it, I try to write in the mornings. I just feel, I don’t know, like the things of the day just haven’t gotten to me yet. So there’s like this period of time I feel like in the mornings where it’s just a good time to write. I’m pretty lucky, I think, in my position at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.
Even though my day job is as a software developer, there is 20% of my time, which is set aside for the work I want to do. What that means in practice for me, is oftentimes I’ll take a Friday or part of a Friday as my writing day. I will spend that day either processing notes or reading, or actually hands on the keyboard trying to get writing done.
There is a kind of routine, I suppose, that goes with that. I’m lucky enough also to have my own office space and it’s actually separate from the house, which is nice. So there’s this mental separation, I suppose, that happens. I’ve got my coffee. It’s the whole I’ve got a coffee, I actually have a laptop that’s specifically just for writing.
It’s just like our personal laptop for around our household, but that laptop, for example, has no work stuff on it at all. There’s no Slack, there’s no software development stuff on it. It’s just the tools for writing, and it’s mostly stock applications that come with an Apple computer.
Having all of that, I think, is nice just to have, I don’t know, that like mental framing that I think goes into writing. I guess I found it to be pretty helpful for me.

Kate Carpenter:
How do you organize yourself? Do you have tools that you use to organize your sources and your writing?

Jason Heppler:
Oh boy, I could go on for a long time probably about tools. I do, yeah. For the book, I would say the primary tools that I used for that are Zotero certainly for tracking secondary sources. For the book, I also used a tool called DEVONthink for a while. If your listeners haven’t heard of DEVONthink, it’s like a database tool that you can throw basically anything into.
It’s got tagging systems, it’s got search, it’s got OCR built into it. It’s really good, I think, for that kind of stuff. I have moved away from that, not for any serious reasons. It just wasn’t the tool that fit the way I was starting to work. Most of the writing actually happens in Scrivener, which I like quite a lot. I think it’s just good for organizing. I like the outline view that you can get with it.
I like the ability to have chunks of text to work on rather than one big document, which I think can be a bit daunting or bewildering at times. But I also find that chunking text that way in Scrivener is nice, because if I want to move something someplace else, I don’t have to worry so much about did I delete the thing I copied and pasted someplace else?

Kate Carpenter:
Sure.

Jason Heppler:
I’m just trying to keep everything organized has been really nice. I would say the tools for me have shifted a bit more recently. For my next project, for example, I’ve been using a combination of Scrivener and still using that for the actual writing, but my research tools I think have changed a little bit. One of those is Tropy, which we developed at the center, which is a tool really designed for tracking primary sources.
If you’re a historian and you go to the archives, you come home with, we’ve all had this experience. You come home with thousands of photos that you need to organize. Tropy really makes it easy to just dump all those photos in, organize them as I need them. I can track what the source is, where it came from. My light notes typically for me about what is important about that source.
But really the notes that I really use as research and then as writing end up in Obsidian, which is a plain text writing software. I think the real power of Obsidian is things like you can link notes together really easily. You can build outlines and have those notes that are linked together. You can tag things within it.
There’s a lot of really good plugins for Obsidian, so I can do different data views and get all this information organized in a way that works, I think, really well for me. The notes can be messy as a way to start, but Obsidian, I feel like Obsidian helps me get those things structured in a more useful way.
I’ve done a little bit of writing in Obsidian, but I still think Scrivener is just a nice space to do that kind of work. So I still keep Scrivener around for the writing for the most part.

Kate Carpenter:
Then where in your research and thinking process do you start drafting?

Jason Heppler:
I think there’s a moment that happens as a researcher and a writer where you start to feel like the sources maybe aren’t telling you anything new necessarily. Or the things the story starts to make some shape or outline, I think, in your head. If I think back to the way that this book came together, I feel like the outlining started to happen when I started to know what the chapters were going to be titled.
In a way, it was almost like a reverse outline. I had a sense of where the story should go and the story I wanted to tell with the sources that I had. I had this sense of, “Okay. This chapter needs to set this up so I can explain the things in this other chapter.” It’s like this unfolding that happened for me when I started to do that writing. I think that’s true even for whatever becomes project two, I imagine will unfold in that same way.
That book too, I started writing it in the middle, so I think I started with the middle chapter and then filled out from there, which I guess maybe says something too about how the writing process unfolded. It was like there were things happening in that chapter, that I felt like were both bringing threads together that were happening earlier in the history. And then blowing apart also in different ways as the book proceeded on in time.
I feel like there’s a way too where, I don’t know, you are getting this stuff down on paper and you’re trying to think about… Well, not paper, but digital files you’re getting things down. There’s a way in which I think I just feel like the chapters start to make sense in my head. I can start to see, “Okay. These sources speak to this area over here, or they speak to these themes that are in this chapter.”
Things just proceeded, I guess, from there. I do tend to do a bit of outlining. I think in outlines, I guess. It is nice to have too, just a guide of where the writing will go and how I might proceed with it.

Kate Carpenter:
Then how do you approach revision? I’m in the midst of dissertation revisions right now, so I’m especially obsessed with learning how other people tackle this problem.

Jason Heppler:
Yeah, it’s a challenge. In part, because of course, I’m like my own worst editor. I tear my own writing apart when I start to really think about it. When I start to edit things, I try not to edit on the fly as I’m writing. I know that’s a really strong temptation for writers, including me. I’ve done it. But I really feel like when you’re drafting something, you really just need to get the stuff in your brain down on your screen.
You have to get it out of your head, even if that first run is really bad, and they are. It’s just like I have piles of stuff that never made it into the book because it was just really bad. But there is a way I think in which writing, it’s a way of helping you think. Typically, when I’m revising and editing things, things get down on paper. When I feel like things are ready for editing, I do tend to print those off.
I don’t know what it is. I’ve tried to figure this out for years. There’s a way in which having things on paper and being able to, I don’t know, move a pen on a page, just does something different to the way that I think, in a way that I’ve just never been able to really replicate in a digital space. I’ve tried, I have an iPad here with the pencil. I’ve tried to do the whole like, “I’ll export this as a PDF and just treat it as paper,” but I just can’t do it.
I don’t know what it is about that revision process, but there is just a sense of I have to print it off. Then, of course, as you’re reading, I’m like scratching things out or making notes, or trying to move paragraphs or take away whole sections, whatever that looks like. I’ve rewritten whole paragraphs on the back of a page because I was like, “I don’t like this,” and I’ll just rewrite it.
But I don’t know, there’s something like I don’t know if it’s just the feeling of a pen on paper that does it or what it is exactly. But there is a sense of having it in front of me as a thing, as a material thing really, I think, just changes the way I think about how revisions work. I don’t know, it’s just my brain, I guess, works a little better when it comes to having the thing right in front of me.

Kate Carpenter:
I want to talk a little bit about how your book, Silicon Valley and the Environmental Inequalities of High-Tech Urbanism came to be. Because this is a book, as you mentioned, you’ve been working on for a while.
It started as a dissertation and then has followed you through multiple career changes. How did that affect the book that you ended up writing?

Jason Heppler:
Yeah. There’s a sense I feel like in which this book grew up within four different academic communities. There was certainly, of course, my time in grad school at the University of Nebraska where this whole thing started, but I think that a transformational thing happened to that project. When I moved to California in 2012, I was hired actually at Stanford.
I went to Stanford to do digital history. I was primarily working at a place called the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis. Actually, when I went to California, when this thing was just like a baby dissertation proposal and didn’t have a lot of form yet, it actually wasn’t what the book became. I actually wasn’t even really thinking about environmental history all that much when it came to Silicon Valley.
The original idea is that I was thinking about this comparative urban history of what I thought it was like high-tech centers in the American West and Stanford being one of them. But when I moved to California, I’ve told this story at other places too, but when I moved to California, I remember we were out on a hike one day.
We were up above the city of Los Gatos, and I remember looking down from the hillside and seeing this reservoir down below me, the Lexington Reservoir. I was like, “Huh, I wonder why that’s there? What was it like before the reservoir was there?” The whole project changed that day. I started thinking a lot more about what are the environmental things that happen when the valley becomes what it becomes?
I think too, so one, living in the space and working in the space that I wrote about, I think really shifted just how I was thinking about this project as a whole. Two, I think being around CESTA was in a way also very transformative. These were people who were thinking a lot about space and place, which was a big part of my book project, even from the beginning of how it is that people come to define a place.
Who gets to be part of that conversation or who gets ignored in those conversations, just having that thinking happening around you was interesting. The conversations I had and the things that I taught, and the projects I was working on, it was all in a way just mind-expanding in the way that I thought about this place and thought about the work I was trying to do.
After that, I was a librarian for a short while at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. We left California and I would say it was there where a lot of the revisions happened. I defended my dissertation in 2016. We moved back to Nebraska right about that time as well. That space, I think, was really good because we had, my colleagues all ran a writer’s group every Friday.
I think having that consistency where we all got together, we all had our tea and our coffee. We had a space we went to. We left our offices, we went somewhere different with the express purpose of for the next two hours, we’re just going to work. I think that was a really good thing. If you’re not part of a writing group, I actually think you should be.
There’s something really nice about that community and breaking out of your own routines, I think, can actually be very good for the creative work that you need to do as a writer. Sharing drafts with people and just talking through like, “Here’s the thing I’m trying to wrestle with. What do you think about it?” Just getting that feedback almost real time was really nice and trying to get that stuff worked through.
About the time I left UNO was also about the time that I think the book was sent off to the press for its actual peer review and everything. It was also about that time that I joined George Mason University in the Center for History and New Media. At the center too, that community also cares a whole lot about the scholarship that we’re all doing. As I mentioned, I have built in time to do the work I want to do, which is really nice.
Just like again, being around a group of people that care a whole lot about writing and the craft of writing and creativity was really nice. Even though I work remotely for the center, there is this sense of we’re all comrades and we’re all trying to do interesting things with the scholarship that we’re producing. Yeah. I think the book proceeded in those interesting ways of like it started as an idea here in grad school.
It grew up in interesting ways at Stanford. It met its first serious revision at UNO, and then came together finally here at George Mason. Yeah, and I think just having those different communities of people was really helpful too. Just like everybody has different ideas about the craft of writing, or the purpose of a book, or the things I was trying to do with this book.
I think all of that together was interesting. I think it helped the book become a much stronger thing than it was as a dissertation, for sure.

Kate Carpenter:
I do want to ask about the series that it’s part of. It’s published with the University of Oklahoma Press, but as part of one of the specific series that they publish.
This is something that feels to me very opaque about academic publishing, in particular. I’m curious, what is that like? Because I know that means that there’s both series editors, but then there are press editors too. How do you work with all those different people?

Jason Heppler:
I’ll say, I think for the University of Oklahoma Press to their great benefit, I felt like they tried really hard to make sure that you’re not feeling overwhelmed, the people that you work with. What I mean by that is I really only had, I guess, I had two point people, let’s say, at the press. I worked very closely with Joe Schiller, who’s the main editor there.
Joe is great, by the way, so if anybody’s looking to publish something, you should go to Oklahoma. Joe really helped push some of my thinking on some of this, especially in the introduction of the book, which I am eternally grateful for, which was really helpful. I think too though, my other point person was Mike Childers. Mike was one of the series editors for this series.
Mike would call me or text me about every month to ask where the book was at, in a good way. He was trying to get this thing done, and I’m good friends with Mike, so he’s allowed to do that too. But Mike, for the most part was always, in a way, I feel like Mike was the person trying to really push this thing to get done. Also, just checking in like, “How are things going? Well, how’s the writing going?”
But Mike also gave me feedback on some early chapters and things like that. But I do think at one point, or at some point I should say, most of that shifted over to Joe and so most of the time, I was talking with Joe about things. When, for example, the peer reviews came back, it was Joe primarily that I was talking to about, “How should I proceed with some of this?”
What are the things that they really thought were important for me to address? What are the things that I wanted to push back against and not address? Most of that was happening through primarily one person, which I think was really nice. Because I didn’t have to then, yeah, I wasn’t trying to have two or three or five different conversations with people about where the book was at, or how I was responding to feedback or things like that.
I can’t speak to that’s always the case across presses. I don’t know, I guess, how other series editors work. But I think for Oklahoma, it really did fall to one or two people, and I think that worked wonderfully well in my case.

Kate Carpenter:
To look a little more closely at the book that resulted from that process, I asked Jason to read to us a bit from his new book.
Here’s Jason Heppler reading from Silicon Valley and the Environmental Inequalities of High-Tech Urbanism.

Jason Heppler:
If you traveled north along Highway 101 up the middle of the valley from San Jose to Palo Alto in 1956, you would’ve seen a rapidly expanding and bustling set of cities. Along the route, the western areas of Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Jose were awash in new subdivisions, home construction and business parks, nestled among and often displacing the fruit orchards.
Throughout the valley, housing developers and industrial recruiters sold buyers on a countryside landscape. The land politics of the late 1940s and early 1950s led to a set of ideas becoming part of this imagined landscape. Clean industry, countrysides, wildflowers and orchards, and rolling hills. This was, as well as Stegner recalled, as nearest to Eden as one could find on earth.
Cities in the Santa Clara Valley never erased nature, quite the opposite. The natural world mattered a great deal to the newcomers, who sought out ways to incorporate nature into their lives. City and nature are never distinguished entities but overlap. Part of the process of this urban reconfiguration was an emerging understanding of the environment’s role in providing newcomers the kind of lifestyle they had come to California to enjoy.
For thousands of middle-class families, a life from the countryside or what could amount to a countryside, represented an ideal location for families. Advertisers and real estate developers often highlighted the markers of the countryside, proximity to orchards, locations at the rural fringes of poor leisure and recreation, space to call a piece of land one’s own.
Yet all within range of urban amenities and infrastructure that gave new homeowners a sense of being separate from an urban core while still benefiting from it. But not every arrival in the valley could expect access to such a landscape. That landscape was tightly controlled and defined. For other sections of the city, who could access the suburban countryside and for what purposes depended on race and class.
From her vantage point in Eastern San Jose, Mabel Mosley saw a very different landscape. In her neighborhood and those that surrounded it, the lack of paved streets, of street lighting and storm drains was a symptom of a larger issue. That the suburban vision driving not just San Jose’s expansion, but expansion throughout the valley, excluded working class, Latinx residents and shouldered them with the brunt of the city’s development consequence.

Kate Carpenter:
What goes into writing a passage like this?

Jason Heppler:
There’s a lot of things. There’s a lot of things, I think, that go into writing this. To start, I will say I think one thing that this book benefits from, or at least I hope it benefits from, is that I, again, was a person living in the place I wrote about. I think there’s a way in which the valley has its urban pattern set by the mid-1950s.
And to such a degree that if you visit today, you can imagine yourself back in 1956. I think there’s a way in which if I took somebody from Palo Alto today and took them back in time to 1956, I think there’s a way you would feel very familiar with the things that you’re looking at around you. Certainly, urban development would look a little bit different.
The buildings might look a little bit different. Not to sound too presentist, but there’s I think a way in which this place still feels like it’s from the ’50s and ’60s. I think there’s a way that when you spend time there, you can see that landscape. So that’s one, I would say, just being there and being in that space, and thinking about it as a historical artifact I think was helpful.
Two, there’s a whole lot of sources I think that go into trying to think about how to describe this place. And so if I’m trying to think about this landscape in 1956, there is I think several things that I was trying to do, even just to write these couple of paragraphs. One would be government documents, of which I used a whole lot of them, to try to think about how government and political entities try to describe this space.
Those entities are also often recording how others are thinking about that space, whether that’s residents or industry or something else. There’s a lot of sourcing that I think can go into just how do people describe the space? Can I use some of that to then rebuild this as a way to talk about it here? There’s a whole lot of photographs that go into thinking about this.
There’s a photograph collection actually at San Jose State University that’s really good, all taken in between 1955 and 1957, let’s say. They do a really good job both of aerial photographs, so I can get a sense of, “Okay. If I’m literally driving up the highway in 1956, here’s how the landscape looks.” I can get a really good sense of that.
But also really good photographs on the ground, like standing in front of a tech company and getting a sense of how well it’s landscaped. How well it’s the markers of manufacturing are hidden. You can’t really see it. You get a really good sense, I think, of all of that also through photographs. Advertisements are a big part of this too, thinking about newspapers in particular and the way that developers often would market stuff to people.
I think too, there’s some oral histories in here. Certainly, getting Mabel Mosley’s story is part of a product of oral history, but also a product of archival sourcing of there are people that are just not here. They’re not photographed, they’re not in the sources, they’re not in the newspapers. If they’re talked about in the newspapers, they’re in a different part of the city.
That kind of sourcing too is, again, thinking about newspapers, thinking about the kinds of things that people are reporting about the space that they are living in and working in. Trying to think about there is, I think, in this sense, two suburban visions or maybe not suburban visions. But two, I guess, suburban experiences in Silicon Valley, where one is this in a way, the stereotypical Leave it to Beaver environment of the white picket fences and everything.
And others who want that experience too but don’t have that because the city hasn’t paved the streets, or it doesn’t have consistent electrical infrastructure, or sewers or things like that. Yeah. I think trying to, with this set of passages, I think especially is trying to think about how it is I can capture that sense of place. I think the sourcing that went into that, again, is like it’s a lot of things to try to think about.
What would someone driving along the highway in the mid-1950s, what would that experience be like? What would you see?

Kate Carpenter:
You mentioned government documents, which was another question that I had for you here. Which is just that government documents, for anyone who’s spent any time reading them, are usually pretty dull, archival sources.
Yet, you do a really good job here of not just recounting that dullness for the reader, but finding those details and weaving them in in a way that makes a narrative. Do you have strategies for doing that, for leaving the dull behind, while pulling that kind of information out?

Jason Heppler:
I’m glad to hear my writing isn’t dull, so that’s good. Yeah. I would agree, government documents are sometimes, I think, pretty tricky to work with. There’s a lot of technical jargon. They are, in fact, quite dry most of the time. Sometimes I feel the charts and maps and stuff, which really takes some thought about what they’re trying to sell you.
Yeah. I think for me, I think there’s a way in which you can read government documents very closely to try and think about different ways you might read against those documents. Whether that’s reading between the lines or taking sourcing from something else and trying to think about, “Okay, this source says this about this area, but the government documents say this about it.
“What is that actually trying to tell us within these documents? Or even what kind of argument is this document trying to make?” I think one of the documents I work with quite a lot that, I think, illustrates this pretty well. Is in 1958, San Jose releases a master plan for the city, which is meant to guide land use and urban development over the next two or three decades.
It’s the first master plan the city’s produced, even though they were supposed to be doing this much earlier. But that document, I think, is interesting in the way for me, was interesting in the way that it spoke about, in particular, what I knew were Latinx neighborhoods in the city. Some of that was some of the maps they produced where they were trying to track things like blight.
And most of that mapped onto communities of color throughout the valley. But even the way that they would sometimes write about things would just like yeah, it’d be very technical and dry. But it had this way, I think, of illuminating for me about how the city saw this landscape. I knew what those people were going through as the city made these decisions, and I think trying to think about that really helped.
What are the neighborhoods that they’re talking about? What are the neighborhoods they’re not talking about? Even though you might expect them to, which is always interesting to think about. What are the ways that their figures and charts might illuminate the way that you can think about a space? I think all of that’s pretty hard to do I think at times.
But there are ways, I think, even in the charts and the jargon, you can find ways to pull out stories and if you can, reword those. Try to think of a way that is a little more interesting, but still gets the same thing across that they’re trying to say, but do so in a different way. I would say the other thing too, that helped me in thinking about these government documents is I did do some digital history stuff with them.
In my case, for example, I was doing a lot of OCR of these documents, so I just had text to work with, just plain text, which was nice. But I have a few computer scripts or computer programs I wrote, that were designed to help me look for words or phrases across all of these documents. If they were talking about streets, my program would say.
Okay. I would say, “Give me anything that talks about streets or give it this set of words that indicated something about streets.” My script would then return back every mention of that these things were happening across all of these different documents that I was using. There’s also this way in which I felt like I could pinpoint where I was spending my time in these documents, which I think was a good thing overall.
I feel like I was able to more efficiently spend time with those things in a way. Because again at some point, your eyes start to glaze over as you’re reading these things. But I think if you’re able to pinpoint some of the stuff you’re looking for, I don’t know, I feel like I was able to dive into things a little deeper with them.
Or find things that maybe I would’ve overlooked trying to read this at night with coffee or whatever. Just trying to pull some of that together, it was also I think really helpful because then you’re also taking not just one government document. But you’re thinking about how do these 10 documents over the course of the 1950s, mention streets or talk about the infrastructure of sewage or something like that?
Just trying to think differently about how I access those sources, which I think also helps reframe how I write about them. I have just this better sense of how these things are sometimes in communication with one another. And just trying to take that stuff, even if it is super jargon heavy and reframe that in a way that I think is I hope more interesting to read than staring at a planning document.

Kate Carpenter:
Well, was the substantial part of your organizing and working with your archival sources then data cleanup too?
Maybe I’m using bad OCR tools, but I feel like mine miss a lot, especially in those ’50s pronounced that are questionable.

Jason Heppler:
Yeah, that’s a great question. In some ways, I think as a 20th century historian, I’m fortunate because I don’t have to deal with, say, handwriting from the 19th century, which is awful.

Kate Carpenter:
Sure.

Jason Heppler:
No shade on my 19th century historians. I’ve been there too. I would say yes, there was a decent amount of data cleanup that had to happen.
OCR, as you know and I’m sure many of us know, is not great most of the time.

Kate Carpenter:
Just pausing for a moment here in case you have no idea what we’re talking about, OCR stands for optical character recognition.
And it’s technology that allows a computer to read an image of words in a photograph or a PDF and convert that to searchable machine text.

Jason Heppler:
Yeah. There was, I think, a decent amount of time that I spent just cleaning up what that OCR looked like, if only in some ways to help. Well, one, I guess supposed to help my own digital history work to think about the things I was doing with those documents. But even for me as a reader, trying to think about how do I transcribe this thing in a way that would be useful for me?
Because again, I guess I didn’t mention this at the top, but I do spend a lot of time also transcribing OCR in documents, again, for these keyword searching and other things that I might do with that material. So having a clean document to work from it does get pretty important. I would hate to miss something or misread something if the OCR was bad. I feel like things are a little better today.
I’ve been shocked at how well my iPhone can actually do OCR documents I use. It’s even recognizing columns and stuff now, which just blows my mind because that’s not a thing I could have done even probably five years ago, very well anyway. Yeah. I would say yes, the short answer is yes. I spend a lot of time doing data cleanup, for sure.

Kate Carpenter:
Well, this actually leads really well into another thing I’m really eager to talk to you about, because in addition to being really interested in this book and your writing of it. I’m really interested in how your work as a web developer is another form of writing and how they go together.
I’m curious, we’ve seen an example of just practical ways that your digital work might help your writing. But how do you think about that relationship between coding and writing in that work?

Jason Heppler:
Yeah. I do think there is a way in which writing code exercises the same part of your brain, I suppose. There is a sense I feel like in times where writing code in some ways does often feel like a sense of a lot like writing prose actually, where you have all this stuff in your brain that you’re trying to translate into something understandable.
I guess with code in this case, you’re trying to make it understandable to a computer, but you are trying to do this like, “I have all this stuff I’m trying to do. I have some output that I’m looking to do. How do I get there?” I think writing code in one sense, is a lot like that where there’s a set of things that have to happen.
They have to happen and usually in a particular order. They have to make sense to you when you come back to it months from now, so you have to remember what you did. You’re leaving yourself comments and other things like that so you know. Also, too actually, there’s a lot of going back in a way, going back to sources and references.
Like you’re reading up on documentation or you’re reading up on your own notes that you took about how you did something with the code. Yeah. There is this, I think in an interesting way, they mirror each other in some ways. The outputs are different, of course, and I think the intention perhaps behind each is a little different certainly.
But yeah, I think there is this way in which writing code in a way feels at times like writing prose, for sure.

Kate Carpenter:
Do you find do your think your coding affects your writing?

Jason Heppler:
Ooh, that’s an interesting question.

Kate Carpenter:
The answer could be no, I’m just curious.

Jason Heppler:
I’ve never thought about this. I don’t think so. I would probably say it goes the other way. If I’m trying to solve like if I’m trying to write about something, and let’s say for example, if I could reference another side project I have that I’m trying to work on. I’m interested, for example, in how a group called Earth First, which is this radical, environmental group in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s.
I have their set of newsletters that I’m working with and I’m interested, for example, in the way that they talk about capitalism. There might be a way in which I’m trying to write about that, where perhaps I have a data visualization or I have a tool I’m trying to build. That’s trying to help me answer that question or think maybe a little bit differently about that question or that topic.
I would say it would more likely be the case that I need the code to respond to the way I want to write. In that way, and I harp on this all the time of when it comes to digital history, I want tools that fit the questions I have to ask. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s easier, I suppose, to just use an off-the-shelf tool to do that kind of thing.
There is a lot of expertise and thought that has to go into a piece of software that maybe fits what I want to do, rather than something that just can build a map for me or something. Yeah. I would say it actually goes the other way of how is it with the thing I’m trying to answer or the thing I’m trying to write, what does the code need to do to help me get there?
I think there’s a way in which that code can unfold almost as a way of scholarship in and of itself. There’s a way in which the code contains its own argument, I suppose you might say, and it’s trying to help answer a question. For me, it’s just another method. It’s part of the toolbox of being a historian of what are the things I can create as a software developer, that can help me as a writer?
You know what I mean? Trying to think about the things that I can do here computationally, that then influence the questions I can answer or the kind of writing that I’m able to do.

Kate Carpenter:
This may be related, but I noticed as I was preparing for this interview and looking through your works, that you do a lot of co-authorship, both on writing and on other projects.
Which as you know and probably lots of listeners know, is not that common for historians who like to work on their own often, or at least think they like to work on their own. So what makes co-writing work for you?

Jason Heppler:
Yeah. I really enjoy collaborating with others on writing, and I think part of that is a reflection of the kind of work I’ve done in digital history for most of my career. It is the case that, I think, almost all digital history is collaborative in some way. No one person can do it all. Most of it requires specialization and expertise in ways that no one person can hold everything.
I think there’s a way in which even starting grad school where I was doing a lot of collaborative work anyway as a digital historian. I guess in a way that bled over into actual writing, it seems like, I guess. If I think about the stuff I’ve written with Doug Seefeldt and Alex Galarza, or my book I did with Rebecca and Paul, I think there’s a way in which you and your co-authors can really bring a lot of interesting ideas together.
I like the experience that we’re all working on this even separately if we’re working on similar things, there’s an interesting way I think in which you can bring those ideas together. I think that’s exciting. I loved producing the Digital Community Engagement book. I thought even co-writing the introduction with Rebecca and Paul was a really good experience for helping, I think, all of us think about what is this book really trying to do?
And by extension, what is it that we are really trying to do? I think that was a good thing for all of us. We’d just hash things out over Google Docs and then get on Zoom and chat over things and whatever. Then, of course, the real trick I think in co-authorship, is how do you get that thing to sound more or less like one voice, which just takes time with a lot of work?
I think too, there’s a way in which collaborative writing, different people bring different things that they’re motivated about or interested in, that I think can make a piece of writing just really interesting and in a way, even more capacious than what it might’ve been if it had been a solo author. I have certain interests that I don’t share with Lincoln Mullen or something like that.
But there’s a way in which the two of us could come together and do an interesting book or article together, where each of us are motivated by different things. We might be motivated even by some shared things, but we have different experiences or ideas that we can bring together, and I just find that great. I really enjoy that process and I would urge folks to do more of it, actually.
It’s always been a bit strange to me that as historians, we don’t do more of this, because I think there’s ways in which a lot of us share topics or even if we don’t share arguments about that topic, but I don’t know. I think there’s interesting ways that we can bring that kind of thinking together into one piece of writing. There’s plenty of books in the world, to be frank, including my own.
But I think there’s a way in which you can bring some of that thinking together, which I don’t know, I feel like just can make a piece of writing stronger and really interesting.

Kate Carpenter:
Well, as we wrap here, I want to ask a couple of questions about influence. The first is what’s the most influential writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

Jason Heppler:
I would say this is probably lame, but I would say it really is to write every day. Even in my job now, even with my 20% time, I think there is a way in which the work like the day-to-day work, can often push that aside. Not by any decision that my colleagues have made, but because I’m working on something.
And so I may not remember to take that time to write every week or even every month sometimes, but I think there really is a way in which writing is a kind of exercise for your brain. There’s a way in which I think you actually do lose or atrophy the way that you can write if you’re not doing it all the time.
I would say you have to, even if it’s a half hour, if that’s all you got in the morning or whatever. I think doing some kind of writing, literally fingers on the keyboard moving. Not just thinking about writing, not taking notes about sources, but literally trying to synthesize something that you’re working on. I think you have to get that stuff down on paper and do it every day if you can.

Kate Carpenter:
Who are the other writers or maybe other forms of media that you turn to for inspiration?

Jason Heppler:
I would say I do a lot of reading of both fiction and nonfiction, or at least I try to. But I think fiction can also just bring an interesting way to think about writing, of course, and think about the world and even think about the things that we do as historians. I would say, I guess lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with both Wallace Stegner, who shows up in my book, but also I like him as a writer.
I’m reading Angle of Repose right now, which is actually my first time reading it, and it’s fantastic if you haven’t read it. I’m almost done. I’ll probably finish this weekend. I’ve also been spending a lot of time lately with Wendell Berry. Both the poetry that he does, which I think is just outstanding, but also some of the nonfiction work that he’s done.
I think there’s a way in which I hate to reduce them to nature writers, but I think there’s a way in which they write about environments and the way that they write about the world that I think is just interesting. The terms of phrase that they use or the way that they craft their arguments about things.
Berry, for example, is just he’s been on this in a way on this same idea since the mid-1970s about the loss of farmland and how terrible that is for communities. But I feel like every time he brings that argument back up, even in his most recent book, it still feels fresh and new. I think that’s interesting and I’m always like, “How do you do that?”
That’s amazing. Not that I’m going to spend the next 30 years writing about Silicon Valley. I really don’t want to do that, but I do think there’s an interesting way in which I’m just curious about how these authors do this work. I would say too like podcasts, I’m actually really interested, especially in narrative podcasts. Not to keep plugging the Roy Rosenzweig Center, but we have a studio that does narrative podcasts.

Kate Carpenter:
They’re so good.

Jason Heppler:
Well, thank you. I find that kind of writing just very different certainly than the kind of writing you do in a book. I’ve even tried to do it, and there is a way I think in which if you try to write two different things. If you’re trying to write a piece of a chapter and you’re trying to then translate that chapter into a script, I think there’s a way in which that the mode of writing can actually improve the chapter.
You know what I mean? There’s a way in which you think about communication differently, perhaps more concisely, which is probably a good thing. Shorter books are good, by the way, but I think there’s a mode of writing that happens as a podcast. I don’t know. Again, it unlocks a thing in my brain about how we write these things for people and how do you keep it engaging? How do you keep it interesting? How do you keep it active?
There’s a way, I think, especially in narrative podcasts where you have to keep it moving. I’ve listened to plenty of really dull interview podcasts or other things that just don’t work as well. I think narrative podcasts are really an interesting way in which you can unfold the history for people and just engage audiences in different ways. Yeah, that’s where things are at right now, a mix of fiction, nonfiction, podcast.

Kate Carpenter:
Before I let you go, you’ve given a couple hints during this conversation, but are you up for talking about what you’re working on these days?

Jason Heppler:
Sure, I can do that. I have a few different ideas of things that I want to work on. Well, so I can start certainly by just saying there’s, of course, a lot of things going on around the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. We have lots of projects that are going on. I won’t single any out right here, but just to say we’ve got a lot of cool stuff coming, so I hope you’ll watch.
And by the way, we have a newsletter, so if you haven’t subscribed, you should. In my own research though, where I’m spending my time lately is I’m coming back to some research I did years ago in graduate school. I wrote this paper for John Wonder who just passed away here recently, but in John’s seminar, I wrote this paper about the Sagebrush Rebellion.
If listeners don’t know, this is a movement that springs up in the late 1970s, primarily among ranchers in the West and primarily among ranchers in the Great Basin area to transfer federal lands to the states. The states would then manage those federal lands. The idea being that they could then discharge those lands to ranchers or energy interests or whatever.
For John though, I wrote this paper about the rebellion in South Dakota, and I always thought this was peculiar. South Dakota has, I don’t know, it’s like 10% of its land is federal land. Most of that’s in the Black Hills, so you can’t really ranch it anyway. So I always thought it was interesting that there was this movement to transfer these lands to the state.
I look at that versus Nevada, which is almost 90% of that land is owned by the federal government. In a way, I suppose you could say, “Well, that makes sense for this movement to start there and persist there,” but it doesn’t really in South Dakota. If you reduce it down to control of land kind of thing, which to me says, “Okay. Well, there must be something else here that’s motivating this.”
For me, it really does come down to this political ideology, I guess, of like land use, anti-government impulses that are in the West. I’m returning to some of that work and thinking a little bit about the Sagebrush Rebellion in the Northern Plains. There are these other flashpoints in the plains where this happens. In a way, I want to decenter the geography of how we talk about the Sagebrush Rebellion.
There is a digital history project that’s spinning up out of this. I’m going to keep that detail hidden for just a moment, but if anybody else is working on this, I’d love to hear from you. Yeah, and just trying to think about this project a little bit. I’ll be out doing some archival research probably this summer, and revisiting some of the stuff I have around here that I collected years ago in grad school.
Just trying to think about what was I doing then, and how can I bring that back and think about what’s next for that stuff?

Kate Carpenter:
Awesome, I can’t wait to hear more about that. Well, Dr. Jason Heppler, thanks so much for joining me on Drafting the Past and talking more about your writing process with me.

Jason Heppler:
Thanks, Kate. This was great.

Kate Carpenter:
Thanks again to Dr. Jason Heppler for joining me for this episode of Drafting the Past. You can find links to Jason’s projects, his new book, and the other things we talked about in the show notes at draftingthepast.com.
Thanks for listening and thanks for sharing the show with a friend. After all, friends don’t let friends write boring history.

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