Teaching Digital History: Beyond Tech Support

I taught my first “digital humanities” course in the spring of 1998 when I was a visiting assistant professor at Grinnell College. My students created a “virtual archive” of primary sources, building a website that made it easy (in 1998 terms) to access the sources they placed in the archive. They wrestled with such things as metadata, whether or not to post the sources in both English and the original language, user interface, and website design issues. While they liked the class, that group of pioneering students found their lack of technical knowledge – when it came to such things as website design and information architecture – to be very frustrating and inhibiting.

Fifteen years later, not much has changed.

Sure, the technology has changed a lot, and there are many tools that have lowered the bar of entry for students to start building digital humanities projects. But the challenges I faced in 1998 are, in many ways, the same challenges I face today. Every course I teach that has a digital humanities component requires me to spend a significant amount of time getting the class up to speed with the technologies they need to use so they can create whatever it is that either I’ve assigned or they’ve determined they ought to create.

I find that I am doing just as much tech support in 2013 as I did in 1998, and all that time devoted to tech support detracts substantially from the final results my students achieve. We just don’t get to spend enough time on the important and interesting historical and humanities issues that are central to the course. And my students are often just as frustrated, if not more frustrated, as I am by this problem.

There are plenty of reasons why many undergraduate students come into our digital humanities classes ill prepared to do the work we expect. Despite their facility with the technology when it comes to making connections with others, locating that video/song/story/picture/meme they are interested in, they are often very inexperienced with digital work beyond the creation of a slideware presentation.

One solution would be to urge our colleagues to add a digital “making” course to the general education curriculum. But doing that means either adding one more course to often overly burdensome general education requirements, or deleting some other course, with all the controversy such a change to the general education requirements can cause on our campuses.

Another possible solution, and the one I plan to start advocating, is to try to break free from the 14 week semester or 10 week quarter when we teach the digital humanities. The semester/quarter, it turns out, is just not enough time to do sophisticated work in this emerging field. My proposed solution is a new digital history “course” that will extend over multiple semesters, giving students the opportunity to enroll for one, two, three, or even four semesters, as they work together to realize a much larger and more sophisticated group project than is possible in just 14 weeks.

The idea I have in mind lives somewhere between a standard course and an internship and so for lack of a better term, I’m calling it a workshop. We have no such name or classification in our catalog, so I’ll end up having to call it a course, unless I can get away with calling it a lab, which is actually much closer to the reality of what I have in mind. Because I’m also very interested in learning spaces, I’m planning to use this “course” or “lab” or whatever as a way of experimenting with the intersection between public digital history and making space on a college campus.

Right now I have a draft proposal just starting to float around campus. My hope is that by the end of the summer I’ll have something acceptable enough that I can start it through the necessary approvals that will then lead to a roll out of the course in the fall of 2014. Once I get some feedback on version 0.1, I’ll post it here for further public comment. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from people who have been teaching digital humanities to undergraduates – what has worked, what hasn’t?

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2 Responses to Teaching Digital History: Beyond Tech Support

  1. I think one of the keys for my student projects has been small classes, group work, semester-long projects, basic introductions to the technologies, and some expectation that students will teach themselves (and each other) more advanced skills in particular areas of interest/need.

    That being said, I do think about how students might be able to work on projects that spanned multiple semester and more extensive development of more advanced skills. However, I’ve been stumped by the logistical realities of coordinating such projects, of narrow understandings of curriculum at institutional and accrediting levels, of the tyranny of the notion of “department” and “course” as concepts, and finally by my desire to provide students both the freedom to be creative and support to not fail (at least not more than necessary). Still, as we start up a digital studies minor at UMW, this may be our best chance to challenge some of those structural issues.

    So, I’m keenly interested in hearing more about your plans.

  2. Mills says:

    Hi Jeff: By all means, challenge those tyrannical notions now while you are in start up mode on the minor. As you well know, once something is in the catalog and the registrar has approved it, we’re largely stuck with it as is. The internship course may be one of our best models for how to proceed, because, at least here, it is a variable credit course, ranging from 1-9 credits depending on the number of hours the student works at the internship site. We allow students to repeat the course for credit up to 9 total, so in theory they could take such a course three times at 3 credits each time. My point is that we already permit them to take the same course multiple times for credit, so my idea of a workshop taken over several semesters is not without precedent.

    In my ideal version of this concept, students who were in their second or third semester in the workshop would devote at least some of their time to mentoring newbies coming to the work for the first time. I am especially interested in having them learn to work in teams, given how many employer surveys emphasize this kind of experience as desirable. And, as we know, good digital work is almost always collaborative, so working in teams also helps them gain a greater appreciation for the kind of digital scholarship we are creating ourselves.

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