Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Resolutions for Teaching Digital History

If all goes as planned, the Messiah College History Department will offer a course in digital history next Spring.  It will be our first venture into the world of digital humanities and we are excited about the possibilities.  My colleague David Pettegrew is putting together a syllabus for the class as I type.

To help us along the way, I have sent David a link to Caleb McDaniel's talk on teaching digital history, presented last weekend at the annual meeting of the American historical association in  New Orleans.  The talk was part of panel on teaching digital history methods to history graduate students, but I think many of his suggestions are relevant for undergraduate courses as well.

Here is a taste:

Instead of expertise, what I want to offer—in the spirit of the New Year—are several resolutions I’ve made about teaching digital history with some thoughts-in-progress about how it’s gone so far.

My first resolution: I resolve to share with students my own reasons for interest in digital history. My masterclass began, as many classes do, with my asking students why they were taking the class; but it also started with my telling them why I was teaching it. In my case, I started to become interested in digital history when I realized that I was already a digital historian whether I wanted to be or not—that is, when I realized that I rely heavily for my work on digital databases and digital tools whose workings I needed to better understand. In your case, you may feel a professional obligation to talk about digital skills given that an increasing number of job ads mention them and an increasing number of careers require them. But whatever your reasons for being here might be, you can resolve to be open with students about them. I’ve found that this simple step is not a bad way to get quickly into some of the debates at the center of the digital humanities.

My second resolution: I resolve to encourage students to build an online presence. In both of my graduate seminars, students create blogs in which they write about course readings and projects, and many students also join Twitter. This has two important effects. First, it extends our classroom by connecting students with practicing digital historians at other institutions who are more expert than I. Second, the practice of running a simple blog or website and playing around with it—changing themes, installing Wordpress plugins, tweaking CSS and HTML—can be a good preparation for learning about more complex digital history tools and encourage more reflective use of things like search engines and databases.

Third, I resolve to assign some digital history projects and articles as part of the reading for my courses. Even if students in a particular course do not make a digital project, they can learn how to examine and evaluate articles and websites that do make extensive use of digital methods. So, for example, in my methods in social and cultural history course, placing a couple of articles that do rudimentary text mining on the syllabus exposes students to such work and again encourages reflection on the way they themselves use keyword searching or databases like Google Books.

My fourth resolution: I resolve to learn from graduate students and colleagues from outside my department. I have to say that I’ve learned a ton just from reading the tutorials and blogs of graduate students in classes like the one Fred Gibbs teaches at George Mason. I consider blogging graduate students like Cameron Blevins, Jeri Wieringa, and Benjamin Schmidt my digital hisory teachers. And at my own institution, many students and staff members have more expertise on GIS software or web server administration than I. Training others in these methods requires being trained, and a willingness—as Stephen Ramsay once put it—to sometimes be “the dumbest person in the room.”

And finally, I resolve to be open with students about my own research and learning process. If students are often reluctant to try new things and fail, who can blame them if we are too? That’s why, when I recently used part of a leave to learn some computer programming skills, I blogged about the experience for my masterclass. It’s also why, in my methods course, I shared with students the history of my first article, from outline to seminar paper to publication. I not only gave them access to every rough draft of the paper that I wrote, but also showed them reader’s reports (both from the first, rejected submission and the second, accepted one) and the methods I used to keep my research notes along the way. This meant, of course, talking with them about dead ends, false starts, and things I wish I had known then about organizing notes or keeping citations.

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