Tona Hangen

How to Succeed with Digital History for Undergrads (#aha2014)

I had the chance to be part of a lively panel at the American Historical Association in Washington DC on January 4th, 2014, on the subject of doing digital history with undergraduates. Since it was a roundtable, the presentations from each of us were necessarily brief – so here are some of my thoughts in longer form, with additional comments based on the discussion from the audience. My fellow panelists were: Sharon Leon (RRCHNM, George Mason, panel chair); Jeffrey McClurken (U of Mary Washington); Michelle Moravec (Rosemont College); and Thomas Harbison (Baruch College CUNY, who was also representing his colleague Luke Waltzer, who couldn’t be there but with whom he’s team-taught a digital history course).

With the exception of myself, everyone else on the panel has taught some version of a digital history course (I know, I need to get cracking on developing one for Worcester State, but that’s another post) – so my suggestions and experiences may be modest by comparison, but even these baby steps have made a very big difference in my teaching. They may be small-scale, but nonetheless I remain a big advocate of digital humanities “makerpedagogy” as not just accessory but essential to history teaching and learning in the twenty-first century. I cannot say this strongly enough: to ignore these developments or to declare these tools luxuries or (worse!) set them off-limits does our students the ultimate disservice.

First: let’s get this out of the way – our students are often described as “digital natives” but this is really misleading. Begin with an environmental scan of your own skills and those of your students. I find, for example, that mine are often adept tool-users but need help interrogating and navigating virtual built environments and thinking critically about the interweb’s values, logic and infrastructure. As I have described elsewhere, the main goal of my teaching — even at the survey level — is to make the process of doing history legible – to help students grasp not just how to read and write history, but to denaturalize the way history is constructed; my working metaphor remains the beautiful Pompidou Center in Paris with all its “innards” on the outside of the building.

To that end, I’ve developed some assignments that aim to develop critical information literacy, most notably the Wikipedia dissection exercise I do first thing with my honors first-year seminar students each fall. In fact, each of my fall FYS is built around a series of scaffolded projects, increasing in complexity, almost all using online resources or drawing upon digital repositories, paired with some attention-grabbing pop-culture topic to provide a content hook. We progress from How to Read a Wikipedia Entry to How to Read a Primary Source… a Scholarly Article… a Novel… a Film. The topics rotate from year to year but the underlying course structure is identical and has worked really well so far for me and my students. And I remain amazed anew each fall at how little they know about Wikipedia’s basic design and back-end stuff (having been, mainly, ineffectually warned away from it during high school).

Second: one way I’ve pushed incorporating some kind of digital work into the history curriculum is by having our sophomore/junior methods course students craft their own student blog/eportfolios using WordPress (and then extend this as seniors in the senior capstone research seminar). This requires both training and carefully-worded justification. And I’ve experimented with bringing some digital tools into the classroom during the methods course, mainly in low-stakes playful “workshop” or “sandbox” mode rather than as part of graded assignments, including: text mining and manipulation like Google N-gram, Wordle, the Popular Science Archive Explorer; geospatial analysis like Google Earth, Welikia Project, HistoryPin and hopefully soon network mapping like Gephi.

I’ve also given my methods and capstone students lots of opportunities to perform digital versions of archival research: practice with manuscript finding aids, transcribing handwritten documents, digitally manipulating or searching within electronic versions of physical archival sources, retrieving from born-digital archives. Although we have great local partner institutions, our university does not have a special collections or archive of its own, which makes this kind of analog research hard to practice on campus. One main takeaway for students is that these kind of web materials are only found on the “specialized” web – even if they are free and open-source, that does not mean they will show up with a simple Google search, so you may have to use Boolean searching, understand metadata, or learn something about knowledge ontologies like LOC Subject Headings.

Finally: another way I’ve employed digital work in my teaching is to have students create simple web-based documents to collate, curate, discuss, and manage group work. These include Wikis (Wikispaces is free & easy) and Google Maps or Google Docs/Spreadsheets, though I’ve also had them create podcasts using Audacity and I also heard good things at AHA about making comics using Pixton, or making simple videos using Xtranormal (now defunct) or maybe Wideo.

So those are some successes. Next up: failures, crashes, and stuff I had to chalk up to learning experiences. Because… there’s that, too.

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Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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