Prepping for the digital history class

This afternoon I’m teaching the first class on Digital History taught at Washington and Lee University. This is a one-credit class that is part of our DH Studio series, which is a set of one-credit lab courses for the humanities. I’m not a historian. I’m a librarian. I’m a technologist. And I’m fairly confident in saying that I know as much about Internet technologies as anyone. And what I don’t know off-hand, I know how to learn quickly. And that knowing how to learn technologies is one of the core concepts I’m emphasizing in the course.

History, the study of the past, is the context in this course through which we will study digital methodologies and tools. One could adapt this same course, with some variation, to the study of other disciplines: literature, journalism, sociology, anthropology, art history, politics, and so forth. The examples utilized would be different and certain approaches would vary. But a commonality exists among the ways that digital media facilitates discipline-specific inquiry. At the undergraduate teaching level it’s particularly important to emphasize that these digital approaches are not restricted to the academy. These skills transfer directly to a career in practically any industry and line of work, whether private or public.

I strongly feel that liberal arts students, particularly those studying the humanities, are in a very advantageous position to pursue technology-based careers. Without wanting to sound arrogant, I always cite myself as an example. As an English major at a small liberal arts college I avoided technology as much as possible. There wasn’t much of it around in the mid-1980s anyway. But when I got to graduate school, I was dragged kicking-and-screaming to the computer. I came to realize that technology was all about logical thinking. Learning a new technology was about breaking down complexity, identifying the logical components, and piecing together the structure. That’s the same process I had learned in studying literature, history, religion, and philosophy. I was very comfortable as a liberal arts student in dealing with ambiguity. But technology is not at all ambiguous.


The first day of class

As a one-credit course this class meets only once a week. We’re scheduled to meet for two hours every Thursday afternoon in the IQ Center, which is a great facility for collaborative learning. Students are expected to bring their laptops to class since there will be a lot of hands-on learning. The first hour of each class will be discussion. We’ll have a conversation about the resources, methodologies, and tools we’re examining. One of my goals for any undergraduate class is that I really want these college-age students to develop an ease in communicating and collaborating with someone who is thirty years older. That’s how life is in the workplace. You don’t just work with people your own age.

The second hour will be hands-on. And it’s likely that we won’t always meet for the full two hours, but I wanted to have the time blocked out so that the students could have time with me every week to work with the tools.

The class enrollment is small: only 2 students. Understanding why the course is so under enrolled is a post for another day, and a talk I’m giving at the upcoming DLF Forum. But, actually, it’s great just to have 2 students. And it’s especially great for them. Talk about the benefits of small class size! That’s why you go to a small liberal arts college: not to be stuck in an auditorium with dozens of other students.

The small class size means that attendance is really important. And the discussion should be a lot more engaging. Class participation 30% of the grade.


Course structure

This class could serve well as a companion to a regular history course. But there are a lot of logistical issues in scheduling a one-credit course as a co-requisite to a three-credit course. I needed to find some historical context in which to explore the digital methodologies and tools. I decided to focus on the history of Washington and Lee University (W&L). The namesakes of the university lend enough historical material, much of which is controversial (particularly with Lee). But the course is not primarily a history of W&L. The historical matter is simply a context. And that’s what makes this course different from a history course. Students will learn a lot about W&L history, but that’s not the primary goal of the course. My expectation is that this digital history course will continue year-after-year and the projects developed through this course will build on each other every year. Ultimately, through this course, we aim to develop a digital research environment for the study of W&L.


Case studies

To gain an informed understanding of digital history we will explore a few projects. A project we will examine closely is the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS). The legacy of slave ownership is relevant to the history of W&L. And from a digital perspective, the LBS site is an outstanding example of digital scholarship that also demonstrates the connection to print scholarship through the scholarly book that was produced by the project team.

Other projects we will examine include the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Visualizing Emancipation, and Photogrammar.


Course project

As a lab course, we need to centralize our work around a course project. Our starting point will be to learn about the shift in student demographics at W&L over time.  Some still think of W&L as a Southern institution, but any conversations with students on campus today quickly reveal that the student body includes many from New Jersey, Massachusetts, and other Northern states as well as the midwest. But how do we quantify and visualize that information?

And there’s the strong assumption that W&L students historically have been from the South. We will collect the data to show exactly where W&L students have come from over the years. We will develop an interactive map that visualizes the origins of W&L students from 1790 until 2015. In this Fall Term we will not complete every year of that data set, but we will establish the structural foundation and create version 1.0 of the interactive map.


It’s almost time for class. In another post I’ll review one of the methodologies (prosopography) that we will be exploring as well as a key tool (CartoDB).






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