March 6, 2013

Case Statement: “Teaching Digital History and New Media”

NCPH 2013 in Ottawa, CA

The following is a case statement written for the “Teaching Digital History and New Media” working group, which took place on Friday, April 19 at the 2013 National Council on Public History Conference in Ottawa, Canada:

Greetings fellow working-group participants, my name is Will Tchakirides. I am an Urban History Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee exploring race, crime, and the origins of America’s carceral state at the community level. In 2011, I earned a Public History M.A. from American University. There, I received instruction in digital history methods and completed a variety of web-based projects for DC area museums that utilize content management systems like WordPress and Omeka to catalog, organize, and display historical information and promote user engagement. As a result of these experiences, I am one of the few history graduate students at UWM trained to think and act digitally when approaching their craft.

To help integrate digital history methods and practices into its graduate and undergraduate curricula, UWM’s history department hired me in 2011 as a consultant for its “Digital Futures” initiative. Next year, UWM will offer two “digital history and new media” courses designed to train graduate and undergraduate students to research, collaborate, and create in digital spaces. Therefore, my interest in this working group is twofold: to report back to my department the best practices gleaned from our discussion on teaching digital history, but also to better prepare myself as an educator eager to raise the digital literacy of future history students.

To begin, training in digital history varies from institution-to-institution based on the expertise of instructors, specific departmental objectives, and the availability of mew media resources. Still, I believe the main goal of any digital history teacher should be to encourage students to think critically about how historical scholarship is produced online and to furnish them with the tools and theoretical training necessary to complete quality work in a digital environment. However, determining broader learning goals and outcomes might include asking the following set of “who, what, where, when, why” questions: Who is producing and consuming digital history content? What types of web projects, forms, and genres constitute digital history? Where are these approaches taking place? When did historians start thinking seriously about doing history digitally? Why is it important for historians, and public historians in particular, to develop well-rounded digital history skill-sets?

First, educators need to clarify for students that any scholar can become a digital historian with a little patience, effort, and humility. This includes those with limited technological skill-sets (like myself) who may serve more as project managers that utilize the talents of other tech-professionals, such as graphic designers and web developers, to complete their work. By nature, digital history is collaborative, interdisciplinary, and relies on shared authority to succeed. Therefore, history departments located outside of “digital-rich” campuses, like George Mason or CUNY, should encourage students to partner with other programs tracking similar digital outcomes. Moreover, educators must communicate the significance of “knowing one’s audience” before assigning projects that incorporate multiple stages of production. Like most public history endeavors, one’s target audience will determine the size, shape, and scope of their work.

Second, educators ought to convey what actually constitutes digital historical work. This includes everything from the building of electronic databases and online museum exhibitions to the creation of open-source web applications used by historians and other scholars to research or visualize information, such as the open-source research tool, Zotero, or the “geo-temporal exhibit builder,” Neatline. Third, students should get a sense of both where historians produce digital content and where scholars engage with each other and their work online. Digital scholarship is created in museums and archives; digital humanities centers, like The Center for History and New Media, The Scholars’ Lab, or The Center for Public History and Digital Humanities; public and private libraries; and everyday history classrooms. Discussions surrounding digital history largely take place in the blogosphere, on Twitter, and in web-based journals, like American History Now, The Journal of Digital Humanities, and Global Perspectives on Digital History.

Fourth, educators must, to some extent, trace the development of digital history as a field, methodology, and/or approach. For example, how have historians moved from visualizing content through Web 1.0 interfaces, like the esteemed Valley of the Shadows project, to developing IOS and Android applications that allow scholars to curate the physical landscape using location-based technologies, such as Mobile Historical? This not only instills a sense of how doing history online has changed over time, but also how the open web and new media tools have evolved as research, writing, and interpretive resources. Educators should also promote web-based services and applications as significant tools/modes of research, production, and community engagement that enhance traditional scholarly practices.

Finally, today’s uncertain job market requires new historians to remain at the forefront of the digital turn in academia and public history venues. Educators should have a frank discussion with students about the types of technical skills museums, archives, and history departments are looking for when interviewing job candidates. Furthermore, teachers must ensure that their students acquire as much, what Mills Kelly terms, “procedural knowledge” as they do “content knowledge.” In other words, we should cultivate engaging and lively classroom experiences that advance new forms of digital content production, new modes of data/text mining, some introduction to coding, and new ways of “mashing up” and presenting historical evidence, whether audio, video, images, maps, or text. As Kelly argues in his recent series of blog posts, “There is more to success in the economy our students will live in than being able to write a really good five-page paper based on primary sources.”

Although most history courses follow a traditional lecture, seminar, or colloquium format, digital history courses need to be hands-on, collaborative, and simultaneously blend theory with practice. I believe the latter point represents one of the biggest challenges facing instructors, especially when a steep learning curve exists between students and professors in less technologically adept history departments. One method of putting digital history into practice is assigning final group projects that teach students how to perform as a team, draw on each other’s unique skill-sets, and manage time more effectively. This process should mirror real-life challenges posed by digital history projects at museums, universities, government institutions, and DH centers. For instance, the assignment might involve some exercise in grant writing, emphasizing the role of funding organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities and its Digital Humanities Start-Up and Implementation Grants in realizing large-scale works of digital history.

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By Will Tchakirides | RSS | © 2012 under a CC BY 3.0 license


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