Tag Archives: International Conversations

The History Curriculum in 2023 (Mining)

When I was a freshman in college one of the first history classes I took included a tour of the university’s main library and an introduction to its vast card catalog, the like of which none of us had ever seen. Our professor patiently explained the arcana of the Library of Congress subject heading system, showed us how a work might turn up in the catalog either by title, author, or subject heading, and then sent us off on a scavenger hunt through the thousands of little file drawers. By the end of our class period, each of us had the beginnings of a bibliography on the subject of our course.

That first foray into the world of real historical research was fun, overwhelming, and educational all at the same time. But it was also limited to secondary sources and was entirely limited to those works available in the university library.

How the history student’s world has changed.

Today our students are face to face with access to primary and secondary sources beyond count–quite literally tens of millions of primary sources and an equally large and growing corpus of scanned secondary works. My professors taught me in a pedagogical world based on scarcity. Today we teach in a world dominated by abundance.

Big data” is one of the “big ideas” of the current decade across many sectors of the information economy and historians and other humanists have already begun working on exciting projects [see also and also] that are helping us find ways to mine emerging super massive datasets of historical information. One maturing example is the Criminal Intent project funded by the NEH’s Digging into Data program (my colleagues Fred Gibbs and Dan Cohen are central players in this project).

As exciting as the Criminal Intent project and other similar data mining efforts are, they are currently operating at a level a bit to complex for the average undergraduate. Simpler data mining tools like Google’s NGram viewer offer a more frictionless introduction to data mining concepts. For instance, I’ve written about how undergraduates might use the NGram viewer to mine millions of words from the Google book database and begin to think about what sorts of historian’s questions might then come out of such a mining exercise.

Right now, today, getting much beyond these basic sorts of exercises with undergraduates will be difficult. But it is useful to remember that ten years ago it was not so easy to make a web page. Before too much longer the user interfaces for mining massive data sets of historical information — especially texts and images — will be appropriate for the undergraduate curriculum. That means it is already past time for historians to be thinking about how we can incorporate data mining into the undergraduate curriculum. Some interesting graduate syllabi have begun to appear, but data mining, whether text or image mining, seems to be largely absent from the undergraduate history curriculum.

Imagine, for instance, a course that begins with the simplest tools, such as Many Eyes or the NGram viewer, helping history students to see both the strengths and weaknesses of these tools. From there the course could move on to increasingly complex forays into data mining, letting the students range further and further afield as their skills grow. Our colleagues in computer science have already developed such courses, but such courses would need to be adapted heavily for them to work with history students who (mostly) lack the background in programming.

In my previous post I pointed out that incorporating “making” into the history curriculum gives us opportunities to build connections to other academic disciplines (art, engineering, graphic design). Data mining offers us similar opportunities (computer science, library science, computational sciences). The more creative we can be about building such linkages, the richer our curriculum can be and the better prepared our students will be for the world they’ll face when they graduate.

But just as important, we’ll be training a new generation of historians to work with the unimaginable wealth of historical information that a decade’s worth of scanning and marking up of texts, images, video, and sound files, has made available to us all.

[Next post in this series]

The History Curriculum in 2023 (Making)

When my sons were young I spent a fair amount of time in their elementary school helping with this and that. More than once I wondered why it was that an elementary school had a science lab, but not a “history lab”? When I watched the children in the science lab what I saw was engagement, enthusiasm, and excitement. How many of us see that in our history classrooms today?

One reason that we see far less engagement, enthusiasm, and excitement in our own classrooms is that, by and large, history education remains a passive learning experience for students. To be sure, many creative history teachers at the high school and college level design interesting opportunities for their students to be more engaged. But the vast majority of history classes still rely on the (mostly) one way transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the student. And even when more creative teaching strategies are employed, they rarely tap into the creative energies of the students. Instead, those strategies (mostly) ask students to complete tasks designed by the teacher.

And that’s too bad.

I’ve spent most of the past decade looking carefully at the ways that history is taught in the English speaking world and one of the things that struck me over and over was how history education negates the creative potential of students. Other than asking them to think creatively about the arguments they might devise from the sources they’ve found and analyzed, we just don’t give our students much room to exercise the creative parts of their brains. Is it a wonder, then, that history classrooms (as compared to elementary school science labs) are pretty quiet places?

With each passing year our devotion to this style of teaching will be more and more problematic, because our mostly one way style of instruction runs counter to the ways that young people use digital media. While those over 30 tend to see the Internet as a zone of extraction–a place to find information or purchase goods–a significant and growing share of those under 30 also see the Internet as a zone of creation–a place to create and remix content and express themselves. A recent report from the Pew Internet Project and a book by Mizuko Ito are well worth reading for more insight into this shift in use of the Internet among teens and younger adults.

Because increasing numbers of our students are using the digital realm as a creative space, and because there is no likelihood that they are going to spend less time on their computers any time soon, we need to change our teaching to meet our students where they live. Otherwise they are likely to see history as a discipline increasingly irrelevant to their lives.

Fortunately, the way forward is already marked out for us.

A few enterprising historians have already begun to ask what the maker movement might offer us when it comes to pedagogical innovation. For example, Bill Turkel teaches a public history course called Designing Interactive Exhibits in which students “learn how to embed their interpretations in interactive, ambient and tangible forms that can be recreated in many different settings.” In other words, they learn to take advantage of innovations in physical computing and desktop fabrication (among others) to create new interactive historical exhibits that will engage the public in new and exciting ways.

I am increasingly impressed with the possibilities of desktop fabrication, especially 3-D printing, for unleashing the creative potential of our students. Rather than simply asking our students to write about the past, we can now ask them to recreate complex objects from the past such as this scale model of segments of the Berlin Wall. I chose this particular example because in 2009 we set up a segment of our own Berlin Wall here on campus and then invited students to tag it as they saw fit. For the next several hours dozens and dozens of Mason students exercised their creativity on that wall, so many in fact that we had to run back to the hardware store twice to buy more spray paint. Then we invited them to demolish the wall, a task they took to with equal gusto. These students were engaged with the past in very interesting ways. Building such a wall in the middle of campus every semester is impractical. But using a MakerBot to recreate a model of the wall which is then painted according to the students’ sensibilities is quite practical.

For such things to be practical, we’d need to build one (or more) “makerspaces” for our students to work in. Given that interest in the maker movement crosses disciplinary boundaries, I think it’s a safe bet that we’d find some allies on campus in other departments who might also be interested in seeing such a learning environment created for students to think and play in. Working with colleagues in other disciplines interested in “making” (art, graphic design, engineering) will also give us new opportunities to explore interdisciplinary work–something historians just don’t do enough of–and we certainly don’t create incentives for our students to do.

Desktop fabrication is but one way that we can give our students new and interesting opportunities to “make history.” Digital storytelling has been around for more than a decade and offers a mature model of another way to let our students play with the past in creative ways. Our students also need the opportunity to make history in other ways — mobile apps, historical games, and other interfaces that connect learners to historical evidence and interpretation that we haven’t even thought of yet (but our students may have).

If we put our minds to it, there is no reason why we can’t come up with many ways to create the same level of engagement, excitement, and enthusiasm I used to see in that elementary school science lab. We just have to be willing to be different. And we have to be willing to turn out students loose, let them exercise their creative potential. If we do, they are very likely to surprise us in ways they never will with a carefully crafted essay.

[Next post in this series]

THATCamp (Day 2c)

In the first afternoon session I sat in on “Technology and International Scholarly Partnerships Across the Digital Divide” [facilitator: Peter Alegi]. I am interested in this topic, both because I am one of the founding editors of Global Perspectives on Digital History and because I am a trustee of the Romanian-American Foundation, which is spending a lot of money to promote the transformation of education and research in Romania (but in a more connected, more global context).

Topics discussed: “digital imperialism” by the global north at the global south; dealing with chaotic situations at the other end (Tunisia); how underrepresented groups are connecting to digital resources; how to fund these sorts of collaboration, especially since so much of the money is locally designated — our citizens only; should projects include a for pay version/service to help sustain it; how to make sure funds, if available to local partners, are actually spent on what they were assigned to; using projects such as these to help build local capacity to apply for funds; how local partners get “credit” for doing digital work in their local contexts (complicated enough in the US as it is).


Global Perspectives on Digital History

Today, my colleagues Peter Haber, Jan Hodel, and I (along with the indispensable help of Dan Ludington) are pleased to announce the launch of Global Perspectives on Digital History, the latest of the PressForward publications from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

Like Digital Humanities Now, Global Perspectives on Digital History aggregates and selects material from our Compendium of the Global Perspectives, drawing from hundreds of venues where high-quality scholarship is likely to appear, including the personal websites of scholars, institutional sites, blogs, and other feeds. It also seeks to discover new material by monitoring Twitter (someone else is going to have to do that for me given my aversion to the whole Twitterverse) and other social media for stories discussed by the community, and by continuously scanning the broader web through generalized and specialized search engines.

Unlike Digital Humanities Now, Global Perspectives on Digital History is focused more on history, rather than on digital humanities in general. This is not to say we won’t be bringing in content from other digital humanities disciplines that seems relevant to our readers’ interests in digital history. But, as much as possible, we will remain more tightly focused on a single discipline. The other big difference in approach with the first of the PressForward publications is that Global Perspectives on Digital History is a multi-lingual publication. Our initial languages are English, German, and French, but we expect to expand soon into other languages. The only thing holding us back at present is a lack of editors to help with the scanning of content in those other languages.

At present we are using the GoogleTranslate plug in for translation. If you have any experience with this plug in you know it is wholly insufficient for what we are about. Over the coming year, we will be exploring other options for machine translation of our content and hope to learn some things worth knowing through that exploration.

Like Digital Humanities Now, we will also be moving toward some traditional publication of content that appears on our site. Whether we use the model currently in use at Digital Humanities Now or something else, still remains to be seen. We are going to watch the development of the open peer review process carefully before deciding on our approach.

At present, we are splitting our coverage of digital history from around the globe between longer “think pieces” that we are tagging as “editor’s choice” content, and briefer entries we are tagging as “short takes.” We suspect we will expand into reviews and other content from around the globe that examines digital history sometime in the near future.

For now, please visit the site and be sure to let us know what you think.