History Spaces (II)

In my previous post in this series I argued that we need to think critically about the physical spaces that make up our departments as we look forward into the coming decade. One of the main reasons why I think it’s worth trying to do something about the shape and form of the typical history department is that our departmental spaces are one of the few spaces on campus that we have much to say about.

Sure, we are sometimes consulted about classroom design, or about “learning commons” spaces in the library. But those spaces belong to others. To the degree that our departmental spaces belong to us, we at least have the opportunity to reimagine how they might best serve our needs and the needs of our students going forward from where we are today.

The first possible reimagining of a departmental space I want to throw out there is one that addresses the growing importance of digital in the history curriculum, but also in the work we do as scholars. The standard history department space of the long hallway of professor offices in no way facilitates the kind of collaborative work that is at the heart of digital historical work (and the digital humanities in general). Although digital tools certainly make it possible to collaborate with colleagues across great distances, our experience at the Center for History and New Media, and the experience of colleagues at digital humanities centers around the world, is that there is no substitute for a team of scholars (or students) sitting around a table, throwing out ideas, working through difficult coding challenges, etc.

Therefore, if we are going to do digital right in our departments, we need to create collaborative spaces where the making of digital history can happen.

That making can take many forms. It could be a “maker space” like the ThinkLab at the University of Mary Washington, which is the kind of space where, to quote Audrey photo(1)Watters, the focus can be on “play and creativity and exploration.” In such a space, students and faculty can begin to play around with the basic assumptions of digital history, can hack things together or apart, and can begin to create new forms of knowledge representation that can be shared across a variety of media.

Another such space that can be a model for what we need in history departments is the Design Lab 1 space at the University of Michigan, where students and faculty are urged to “drop in, start something.” This space was designed by a small group of students and faculty members from several colleges who wanted to lure in fellow travelers and curious others to start making things. According to Matthew Barritt and Linda Knox, who have written about DL1 in Planning for Higher Education (42/1, October–December 2013), “Gradually, the room developed into a multifaceted learning environment with a distinctive cultural character representative of its members.”

Imagine what if would be like if, in a history department, we made a space that nurtured “a distinctive cultural character” that was representative of our discipline and its future potential in the digital age? Such a space would invite students and colleagues in, encourage them to work together, and would give them tools to play around with notions of how the past ought to be represented in media beyond the book and the academic journal.

But most importantly, and this is probably the biggest hurdle we’ll have to get over as historians used to doing our work the same way it’s been done for more than a century or two, it will have to be a space where research, learning, and and the production are understood to be a shared endeavor. The spaces we inhabit today reinforce the notion that these three central activities of any history department are top down endeavors, where experts transmit their knowledge to novices. To be successful in a world where digital matters, we’re going to have to accept that some, if not a good bit, of what we will be doing should be built on a different — a truly collaborative — notion of teaching, learning, and research.

Then we just have to build, or more likely retrofit, spaces where that collaboration can actually happen.


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