My goal has been to design the first digital humanities course for the History program, and I am teaching that course this semester. The course is titled HIS 309 Digital Local History, and in it, students learn about an aspect of local history, study some of the primary opportunities and challenges of using digital media to analyze and interpret histories, and then use available primary and secondary sources to create an online local history exhibit.
Digital Humanities has recently become an important subfield in multiple disciplines, including history. It encompasses using digital technologies in research as well as presentation of findings. In the field of history, scholars are increasingly relying on digitized texts and images in their research. More and more archivists are using optical character recognition software to translate typewritten documents of the past into searchable text for current researchers. And finally, historians and curators are creating online exhibits with the goal of stretching beyond the written word or the museum wall to online media that not only make their work more accessible to a broader audience but also incorporate new ways to visualize information and allow more user interaction.
All of this means that it is important for Chatham history students to learn about these developments, learn some of the techniques of digital humanities, and to use new skills on projects of their own. Furthermore, this is another opportunity for students to make the transition from being consumers of information to historians in their own right. Finally, this course incorporates project based learning that is typical in many museums, archives, and historical societies doing the work of digital humanities.
In the summer and fall of 2016 as part of the Tech Fellows program, I researched digital technologies that students might use to create an online exhibit. Lauren Panton recommended Timeline JS by Knight Lab of Northwestern University as the umbrella tool for bringing various elements of the project together. Timeline can display photographs, images, infographics, and maps as well as play audio clips. Becky Borrello recommended a variety of platforms for the website including WordPress, Weebly.com, and Wix.com as well as a storyboarding technique for web design.
I chose an online textbook by Daniel Cohen and Roy Rozenzweig titled Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web for the students to read to learn about the challenges and opportunities of digital history as well as some of the basics of planning on online exhibit and questions historians must ask themselves http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/
I also am having students read articles on local African American history as well as selections from David Kyvig’s Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You. These additional readings should help to ground students in the secondary literature and give them ideas for finding primary sources.
Finally, I modeled the course schedule on a similar class being taught by one of my colleagues at Shawnee State University. Dr. Andrew Feight has been teaching a digital history course where students add to a growing digital archive of local records and photographs as well as a smartphone app that helps people explore local history. Feight uses project-based learning to encourage students to identify goals and learn the skills needed to meet the goal. The students also identify roles for themselves within the group and recognize the need for different people to have different and complementary strengths.
The course started in January 2016 and the students spent the early weeks reading local history, learning about potential primary sources in nearby archives (including our own), and discussing their own project. This project will focus on the history of Westinghouse High School and will incorporate the school’s “Wall of Fame”—itself an effort to preserve the school’s history—as well as oral history interviews that past Chatham students have collected.
The students only recently began the process of designing the website and gathering materials. They identified roles for themselves. To start, they all decided to explore individual topics: music, sports, women, civil rights, WHS in Homewood history, and education.
At the beginning of the process, I asked students to identify values for the group from then on. They identified values such as respect for participants, respect for the past, positive stories, and commitment to the project.
I also asked the students to imagine a process to hold one another accountable and to be the basis of grades. One student recommended progress reports, and I suggested they be biweekly. Another student suggested the final project be graded on three C’s: creativity, content, and citations.
During the project gathering phase, the only grade they receive is on their biweekly reports, but they get feedback from the group on their contributions and informal presentations.
Sam Houston State University’s Center for Project Based Learning recently identified common elements of all project based learning:
- There must be the presence of a driving question or central concept.
- Students must learn through investigation of defined goals and should be constructive and knowledge building.
- Projects are student-centered with teacher facilitation or guidance.
- Projects are real-world and have significance to the student.
- There is a task, a process, a product and a reflection.
Digital Local History uses all six of these elements.
In Digital Local History, there are three assessments of the project based learning.
The first is the feedback and grades I give on the biweekly progress reports. So far, I have based these grades on the level of effort and introspection on the reports. Students who have spent times crafting the reports, detailing significant efforts, and contemplating their results in the context of the larger project have received A’s. Students whose reports show evidence of sloppiness and superficial thought and a lack of significant efforts to gather materials have, so far, received C’s and encouragement to rediscover their passion for their topic and to fall back on skills they have read about in class.
The second feedback will be from community partners. This is a common practice in PBL, and we are scheduled to present a nearly finished product to community partners near the end of the semester. This will be an opportunity for them to comment on the project’s accuracy, creativity, and its spirit—does it capture the history of Westinghouse High School as the community understands it?
Finally, I will give the project an overall grade based on criteria suggested by a student and agreed to by the others: creativity, content, and citations.
Successes and Challenges
One of the successes has been getting the students out of the classroom and into the local archives and brining community partners to the classroom. This has made the project all the more real for the students. Students have seemed to value their interactions with people who experienced the history they are discovering. And getting in the van to take a short trip has injected some feeling of going into “the real world” to explore history.
One of the challenges has been that this particular group of students is not particularly talkative, especially not the students who are most prepared for class. This has led to stilted conversations instead of exciting brainstorming sessions.
Furthermore, one of the essential elements of PBL is to have students develop their own goals and then learn skills along the way to achieving those goals. It has been hard to get student to visualize a “desired outcome” that encourages them to learn new skills. Instead, students want me as the instructor to tell them what to do, and they want me to show them templates for them to fill in. This undermines one of the elements of PBL, but given that the students are unaccustomed to PBL and are afraid to fail, this is one of the concessions I am making.
Reflections and Next Steps
Ultimately one of the biggest challenges for me is relying on the students to deliver a finished product for community partners to see and evaluate. Like most instructors, when I am in control of the content of the course and structure the class to ensure certain outcomes, I am in my comfort zone. This course has forced me to leave the comfort zone and entrust the students with more control and has forced me to have faith that they will deliver.
Over the next month, the students will bring together their text, images, and audio, assemble them into timelines and webpages, present them to community members, and make some revisions based on community feedback.