Yesterday I started a new thread on the undergraduate history curriculum. In the first post of this thread I posed a question about requirements in the major and what those requirements ought to look like. I also suggested that history majors themselves ought to have some input into the design of the major, given that it has a much greater influence on their lives than on ours.
Today I want to raise another important issue about the undergraduate history curriculum. One thing we know for sure about our undergraduate students is that they already live in a world pervaded by digital media. We also know from our own experiences that more and more historical content, historical analysis, and popular uses of history are appearing online. At some point, in the not too distant future (once Google has been scanning books for a few more years), there will be more historical information online than in even the Library of Congress.
So I asked myself, what are history departments around the country doing to teach their majors digital skills?
Alas, the answer is apparently “nothing.”
To be sure, many faculty members around the country incorporate digital skills (all of my courses require students to blog and use wikis, for instance) into their courses, and so when I say “nothing”, what I really mean is that I could not find any evidence that history departments around the English-speaking world are requiring these skills. I searched the Internet using both Google and our own Syllabus Finder (a database of just under 915,000 syllabi in all disciplines that have been posted online), and here’s what I found.
Not even George Mason, where we mandate the learning of these skills in our PhD program, has an undergraduate digital media course in its catalog. My colleague Paula Petrik has offered a couple of sections of such a course under one of our course numbers that allows faculty wide latitude in the scope and content of the course, but we do not include a digital history course as either a requirement or a numbered course in the catalog. With all the digital historians here at the Center for History and New Media, if we aren’t doing it, I suppose it is no surprise that no one else is either.
To be fair, I did find two courses that would qualify as the kind of digital media history course that I am talking about. But I would submit that two courses (Representing the Real: Documenting U.S. History and History and Digital Media ) is a pretty pitiful return from an hour’s worth of searching. I’m sure there are others out there. They just seem to be fairly well-hidden.
Where do we go from here? Given how important digital skills will be to our majors–whether they become historians, attorneys, school teachers, or anything else–and how central the digital world is becoming to the discipline of history–it is time for us to take a step back and examine our undergraduate curricula with these issues in mind. How do the learning objectives in our courses lead to our majors developing some reasonable set of digital skills? Who in our departments can teach a course in digital history, and if the answer is no one, who can we support in a quest to develop that expertise? How should digital experience play a role in our hiring of new faculty? All of these are important questions that I hope will become part of the discussion of undergraduate history education at the place where the rubber meets the road–in our decisions about which courses make it into the catalog and which don’t.