Tona Hangen

Digital History in My Classrooms

On October 17, 2009 I presented a paper at the New England Historical Association conference in Burlington, Vermont: “Creating Digital History as a Teaching Tool.” While much of the presentation considered my experiences creating the DigitalWorcester archive and developing inventive skill-building assignments around it, I also wanted to create an annotated list of some other ways I employ digital history in my teaching.

First, I assign students to use digital history resources online – which may seem self-evident, but for me it was the starting point for my interest in digital resources and I hope to awaken similar enthusiasm in my students. We discuss which are reliable, how to navigate and search within databases and virtual archives, and students learn how to correctly cite such sources in their writing. A list of my favorite online caches of primary sources is here. After using these resources, students begin to appreciate the accessibility and searchability that digital history makes possible (though not necessarily intuitive).

Second, I put my course material onto publicly available, open-source blog platforms in addition to the college’s Blackboard system. This has the advantage of having key course assignments and documents in two places should one server be down, but it also provides an easy way to give students a place to publish their best work. In Spring 2009, for example, students took turns documenting one or two days of President Obama’s first hundred days in office in my “US Since 1945” survey class, which were published as blog posts and opened for peer commenting. In Fall 2009, the students in my “American West: Myth and Reality” course wrote short scholarly blog posts playing “mythbuster” to a Western myth or legend. In my “Roadside America” first-year seminar, freshmenpeople in the Commonwealth Honors program crafted 4-5 minute podcasts describing notable or unusual tourist attractions in one US state. Having a course blog gives a built-in place to celebrate (and encourage) student excellence, and to have them create small digital history projects that collectively generate a new online resource.

And third, I sometimes use Google maps as a way to quickly show collaborative information in a vivid visual way. For “Roadside America,” I mapped part of the route of Dr. Alexander Hamilton’s 1744 “Itinerarium” roadtrip which was an assigned reading for the class, and was rather stunned and pleased to discover that it almost exactly mapped the route of today’s I-95 up and down the eastern seaboard. Later in the semester, the students mapped John Steinbeck’s 1960 road trip Travels with Charley in Search of America. When I queried students in my American West course about where they thought “the West” began, mapping their responses yielded some interesting crowd-sourced clusters to jump-start class discussion. While rather small in scope, using Google maps like these in class and making them public also contributes to digital history on the web.

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Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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