Digital History, Class Assignment #1

Students in my History 250: Digital History have begun to work on their first larger assignment that is due in a few weeks. I have asked them to create an autobiographical account of some aspect of their life, primarily using Timeline JS. Students will be expected to embed the timeline on their personal Google Site, as well as embed different types of media into the timeline, such as a Google Map.

In addition, the assignment’s second goal is to help students to think through how a digital narrative might differ from a more traditional written text-only narrative.

I have included a description of the assignment below. It certainly can be improved, but I am hopeful that this proves a useful, introductory type assignment in the class — allowing students to build off of the basic digital skills we have been practicing while thinking a little bit about how we tell a historical (defined here through chronological and contextual lenses) story.

Assignment Text:

History 250: Timeline JS Assignment

Introduction: For your first major assignment for this class, you are being asked to create a timeline of your life using Timeline JS. The assignment will ask you to wed some of the technical skills we have been practicing with some of the questions we have been asking about how one can tell a historical story.

Goal: To create at least a 40-slide timeline using Timeline JS, including both text and some type of graphic on each slide (including photos, video, a Google Map, and others of your choosing), that tells a historical story about some key aspect of your life. The timeline should be embedded onto your website.

Learning Outcomes:

  1. To demonstrate proficiency in creating basic online materials (Google Sheets, Google Maps, Timeline JS, and others) and in linking these materials together through HTML embed codes
  2. To tell a historical story of your life that demonstrates a basic understanding of what historical chronology or contextualization might be.

Explanation: You will be developing a timeline using the Beta 3.0 version of Timeline JS, just as we practiced using in class. The timeline should choose some important theme in your in life (since you certainly will not be able to narrate your entire life in 40 slides) that will allow you to demonstrate an understanding of both chronological thinking and contextualization. This means that it will probably be inappropriate to choose just a single event from your life, as it will be difficult to establish the way chronology is important to the story. However, it will be equally difficult to tell the whole story of your life, as you will also have no time to develop slides that highlight the significant context that gives an event its meaning.

You will be graded on both the technical and the historical aspects of this assignment.

  1. You are required to produce at least 40 slides to narrate your story.
  2. As we saw, Timeline JS links text together with images, videos, audio files, and other types of media. This allows you much more flexibility in thinking about how to narrate a story then just with text.
  3. As we saw, media that is to be included in Timeline needs a stable URL to link to. The easiest solution for images you plan to use (that are already not on the web) is to create a small photo archive in Flickr.
  4. You will need to include at least one clip from Youtube, one Map from Google maps related to the story, and images you own or can link to related to your life. You are also free to use sites such as Wikipedia to link a reader to in the material. Use the web to help you tell your story.
  5. The timeline should ultimately appear on the Google Sites we are experimenting with as your homepage. Please have the timeline embedded onto the page by Tuesday, September 29 at the start of class.


Building a Digital Initiative at a Small, Liberal Arts College

Over the past few months, I have wondered what I might do with this blog. It began as a requirement as part of my NEH seminar on digital history, and for a while I thought it might be a platform for me to play around with different digital projects. It eventually may return to this purpose; however, given the regular commitments that have gotten in the way over the past year it does not seem like I will be able to accomplish this move soon. So, at the moment, to at least provide some content for the blog, I plan to focus it on two topics. The first, which I hope will appear regularly at the end of each week, will focus on my current Digital History class. These posts will explore what I may have learned while teaching the class during the previous week (in line with what I am asking my students in the class to do), as well as provide some notes on my syllabus and class design.

The second set of posts, which this post inaugurates, will recap how a number of my colleagues and I have initiated a digital pedagogical and research program at the college over the past year and a half. Maybe such a discussion might serve as some sort of a model (or very possibly an anti-model) of how others might proceed to build digital initiatives at SLACs.

It may be best to start at the beginning – why were any of us even interested in having a conversation about digital learning ? What did we identify as a potential (and achievable) outcome for our work? What barriers did we face?

In many ways, our work started in two disparate ways. The first, as probably happened and is happening across many different campuses, is that a variety of faculty members from different disciplines independently began to explore aspects of digital learning. For some, the motivation was on-line education (either in terms of what the possibilities were for higher ed or from a professional interest in teaching on-line classes). For others, it was an interest in incorporating digital applications and learning (what some in the field call “digitally inflected” assignments) into their work.

The second way our work began was with an email that queried faculty about the types of digital work that they might be doing in isolation (as well as asking more broadly if the term “digital anything” meant something to people). The email asked colleagues to share their thoughts and their projects with me, and from these conversations, I asked three different faculty members (from very different departments and who had very different interests in how they wanted to explore digital learning) to help me write a very modest internal grant ($1000).

During that first conversation, the four of us (Thomas Brown [Sociology/Criminal Justice], Paul Ewell {Business], Kellie Holzer [English], and myself [History]) spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it is we wanted to do. We knew that we worked at a college that had very limited financial resources to spend on new technologies or extensive professional development. We also knew that if a digital initiative was to work at a small college like ours, we needed to focus our initial attention explicitly on classroom-based learning so that we could draw participants from across the school into our conversation. Thus what we were developing had to be be broad enough to involve a multiplicity of people but not so broad as to be completely superficial. Finally, we wanted to put together a project that would allow for colleagues to start digging in right away and see what it is that they could do.

Structuring Goals >>> Next Post

Teaching Digital History, First Weeks

During this current semester, I am teaching a new introductory course history course, History 250: Digital History. The idea for the course, as well as much of its content, was a result of my participation last summer in the Doing Digital History NEH-sponsored seminar.

I have written about some of my ideas for the course last summer on this blog; however, now that the course is a reality, it seems useful to document my experiences in designing and teaching it. Moreover, as my students are required to update their own blogs each week to reflect on what it is they learned in the class, turnabout is only fair play. Since I am already a week behind them — slacker that I am — I promised my post would be lengthier than what I am asking of them. Posts can be found at #vwcdh250.

As I would suspect is true of most people first entering in the world of digital history, History 250’s design has been heavily influenced by Jeff McClurken‘s thoughts on “digitally inflected” versus “digital” assignments/courses.  The goal for my course was to think about what an introductory level digital course could and should do for non-majors. What types of digital learning should such a course promote? What types of digital (historically-focused) applications should students be exposed to? What type of digital projects might both capture their attention and prove possible for them to complete given that the course could not draw upon prerequisites either from within or outside the History major?

Right now, at the end of the third week of class, we are in the process of creating the toolbox, though unlike more advanced courses in DH, the toolbox is focusing upon some more rudimentary level technical skills (such as linking, page anchoring, using embed codes, even what is the Internet) than it might otherwise before we turn our attention in October to actually examining historical web sites and more advanced applications. Students’ abilities and their general level of comfort with technology certainly varies widely in class (unsurprising, both in terms of the all-too-common, but problematic, associations one might make with the phrase “digital native” and the range of skills often present in any undergraduate class).  Consequently, we have been spending a bit more time than I originally had planned walking through some of these tools. This is certainly okay, as I tended to assign more activities for each class than I might need to ensure we do not run out of things to do. However, when I keep skipping over discussions of material in favor of the very hands-on approach to tech support, I feel a bit unsure where the class will be in a month.

I will talk more about projects I have designed for the course in a later post (though here is a quick pass through one). At this point, I feel like I have learned at least two additional lessons from the course so far.

The first came as a bit of a shock. Remembering names is harder for me than normal. I realize I have created a nice system I use during more traditional class discussions to reinforce the learning of names. Typically, class discussions gives me repeated instances to link names to faces (asking a student a question, asking a student to comment on a different student’s comment, or asking a student to summarize a previous class all give me the opportunity to say each student’s name over and over again). However, as I am now spending a considerable amount of class time just jumping from computer to computer, checking work and suggesting small adjustments, I do not have the chance to practice name dropping as frequently as I normally do (and I have gotten a few names embarrassingly wrong). This type of teaching clearly needs a new technique.

Second, I realized quite early on that I have not spent nearly enough time helping students to understand where it is we are going. Sadly, since this is the first iteration of the class, I do not have previous student projects to showcase (though as I teach the class more regularly [I hope], this problem should be remedied). However, I think I need to do a better job at demonstrating analogous final projects created by other undergraduate classes to help build the trust that we all may know where this class is going.

Text Mining “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History”

One of the reading  assignments participants read during the Doing Digital History Institute was the 2008 JAH article, “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The “Interchange” sought to explore the burgeoning field of digital history, tackling questions of definition, pedagogy, forms of institutional support, possible effects on the meaning and process of historical research, and the resonance digital history might have with various publics who might encounter it.

Today, Fred Gibbs introduced us to the concepts of data and text mining, and so I decided to see if I could apply what I learned to the JAH article. Would interesting patterns emerge from the various interviews that appeared? My initial work focused on converting the article into a plain text (.txt) file. I then divided it into a variety of smaller files: the questions posed by the JAH editor, all of the responses offered by each individual participant, and each question accompanied by its related set of answers (and here do I wish I knew how to automate this process instead of cutting and pasting for an hour). In the end, I had one large question file, eight participant files, and nine individual question files, as well as the original .txt file. Different computations were run through Voyant Tools.

Caveat: it is important to note that I have no idea how this interview was edited. I am assuming that the final printed comments reflected the overall contributions of each of the interviewees, but I most certainly cannot be sure.

Overall, one can see the general emphasis of the article through a simple word cloud:

The cloud specifically excludes common English words, as well as  other common, but probably less helpful, words: digital, history, historians, historical, each of the author’s names (which were used to signal the start of each of their contributions in the article), and the word “JAH”, which was used before each question. We are left with the following twenty most frequently used words:

Certainly a couple of themes begin to emerge from this basic analysis. First, the emphasis digital historians placed on the field being “new” is clearly apparent, especially as “new” is frequently followed by “media” or “digital technology” in the article. Given the article’s goal of identifying and describing digital history as a new enterprise historians were embarking upon, this may not be surprising; however, the strong use of the word does supply evidence for Fred Gibbs’ point today of the somewhat overstated dichotomy between “traditional” (textually-based) history and “new” (digitally-based) history.

The interviewees also signaled a strong interest in thinking about “research” and “scholarship,” both of which appear more frequently than the word “student.” What might be even more interesting is the way that “research” and “scholarship” appear throughout the article, whereas “student” is mainly concentrated in the early questions on pedagogy:

Yet, despite the importance of words like “new”, “research”, and “scholarship” in the printed discussion, it is also worth noting how similarly the remaining words appear in frequency. In fact, 86% of the most frequently used fifty words in the article fall within one standard deviation of the mean usage of those fifty words (85% if the top three results are excluded). Thus participants appear to have been equally interested in most of the topics covered in the article.

If we examine the responses by interviewee, though, we do see some interesting differences begin to emerge. First, it is worth noting that each interviewee is not represented equally in the interview:

43% of all the text is supplied by two individuals. Consequently, if might be useful to see if Cohen and Thomas had a particular effect on the overall pattern of words in the article.

A graph of the seven most common words broken down by interviewee reveals some important trends:

First, Cohen’s responses overwhelmingly focused on “research”, “new”, “web”, “scholarship,” and “work.” Given his position as Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at the time of the interview, this is probably not very surprising. “Medium” and “scholarship” also appear quite frequently in Thomas’ interview, which given his role in the Valley of the Shadow project should also not be too surprising.

Fewer clear trends appear when these seven highly ranked words are analyzed by question:

In the end, this post is mainly an experiment to see if I could use the tools we were taught, but the data does allow for some broad conclusions to be drawn. Overall, it seems that the interview and interviewees were mainly concerned with thinking about the “newness” of digital history in 2008 – figuring out what it might mean particularly for scholarship, though with a reasonably strong emphasis on pedagogy. It is worth noting that certain topics that have dominated the 2014 Institute discussion, such as the place of public history and museums within and around digital history, are present, but are much lower in the list of frequently used 2008 words. Moreover, “questions”, “methods”, and “process” are also quite low in the list, possibly indicating a certain uncertainty about these topics six years ago.

For simple comparison, one can find a Wordle compiled by Spencer Roberts of participants’ blog posts,and one can see a much stronger emphasis placed on “students”, “project,” “comments”, and “sources.” Whether this change is signaling a shift in DH conversation, is resulting from who the participants of the Institute are (mainly from Master’s-granting degree programs, instead of larger research universities), or is arising from the structure of the Institute is beyond the goals of this overly long post.


Scalar and Hawaiian History

As I mentioned in my inaugural blog post, I have been experimenting with two different digital history projects. The first, a pedagogical exercise in how I might offer an introductory digital history class that foregrounds foundational historical thinking skills instead of a more focused, “disruptive” approach that highlights digital history as an alternative to “traditional” historical goals, I will return to soon. However, here I want to offer some basic reflections on how Scalar could be the tool I need.

The project I have been imagining is, at its core, very messy. Like earlier, I am not going to attempt to summarize the history of Hawaiian annexation (or colonization) here, for two reasons. First, it is far too complicated for a blog post, and second, there is some exceptionally good scholarship that focuses on various aspects of this history that is worth reading. The crux of the annexation is both and legal and a cultural question – specifically in the way that the constitutional history of the Hawaiian islands did or did not give the monarchy the right to alter the constitution, how the manipulation of a constitution (often at the barrel of a gun) could be used to cement or challenge economic power, and whether the “support” that supposedly existed among the complex ethnic make-up of the islands (which included native Hawaiians, descendents of American immigrants, recent American arrivals, Portuguese, Chinese, and Japanese workers, as well as a smattering of a few other nationalities) meant anything at all. Such concerns were not lost on American politicians in 1892, when the American-descendent led coup ousted Queen Liliuokalani and applied to the United States to be annexed. Yet, that application was denied, upon the advice of Commissioner James Blount, sent to the islands to investigate the problematic overthrow. Blount concluded:

The undoubted sentiment of the people is for the Queen, against the Provisional Government and against annexation. A majority of the whites, especially Americans, are for annexation. (Report of U.S. Special Commissioner James H. Blount to U.S. Secretary of State Walter Q. Gresham) (pdf)

Blount’s report led President Cleveland to work against annexation, and it was not until a significant change in the U.S. political leadership, as well as an altered foreign affairs context, that the U.S. agreed to the annexation request of the Republic of Hawaii in 1898.

So, messy, right? In thinking through how to tell this story using digital tools, I am faced with some key problems. The first is a strong desire to preserve and amplify the many competing voices and positions that took part in this debate. Official documentation, local petitions, propagandistic narratives, and speeches delivered before governmental and non-governmental bodies all showcase the heavily contested nature of this annexation. Doing justice to both sides of this debate demands building a site that pays equal and careful attention to contrasting narratives, evidence, and understandings of their own historical past. Narratives would need to lead to evidence, and that evidence would need to lead readers to different interpretations of it.

The second problem I faced, though, is the daunting challenge of making this narrative make sense. While one could argue that a curated exhibit of primary documents related to the 1898 annexation would and could be helpful for readers to explore Hawai’i’s contested colonial past, I worry that this story is so complex and multivalent if it lacked any direction, it would be pointless. One possibility would certainly to be to build an exhibit through Omeka (or multiple exhibits to capture the contrast), but the project, in the end, seems to rest more on historical story than on preserving the archive. Hence – Scalar?

The next step, though, seems to be to start doodling – figuring out where moments intersect, converge, and diverge. Suggestions and pointers on how to do something like this without leading myself so far down the rabbit hole that, in the end, I decide a better use of my time would be to hang out with the Caterpillar are always appreciated.

Some Basic Visualizations of Institute Participants

I decided to mess around with some very basic visualizations of the Institute participants. The first graph compares the gender of the Institute’s participants to the 2004 survey of practicing historians to see if women are over-, under-, or equally represented to the field as a whole. 2004 is the last survey I know of tracking these figures.

The second graph examines the Institute’s participants based upon the Carnegie classification of their associated college or university, compared to the breakdown of all History departments by Carnegie classification. Again, the point was to see if the three levels were roughly in line with the national pattern.

Finally, I tried to see if I could get a Google map to load noting where we are all from. Not sure how to figure out if this pattern accords with the distribution of colleges and universities across the country.




Planning for my Digital History Course

One of the projects I have spent my time at the Doing Digital History Institute thinking about is how I might teach my proposed introductory digital history course during Fall 2015. As I noted earlier, teaching this course at the introductory level was not necessarily my first choice., as I remained unsure how to teach students about the benefits, modes, and methodologies of digital history without having the benefit of earlier course-based knowledge.

Why might I have this concern? First, having surveyed current digital history courses being taught throughout the country, I continuously encountered courses that were aimed at upper-level students. I appeared to me that many of these courses sought to do two things: to disrupt and challenge students understanding of traditional historical methodology while also providing these students with advanced research and interrogatory skills similar to those we typically teach in upper-level research seminars. These courses clearly assumed students would enter the course with certain investigatory and analytical skills already in place (i.e., the ability to read and unpack a primary source), freeing the students to focus their attention on the new digital methodologies being explored in the class.

Second, though, I am wondering if part of the reason I keep finding digital history courses placed at the upper-level of an undergraduate curriculum has to do with the way that we, as instructors, are coming to digital history (or at least why my first inclination was certainly to situate the course at that level). For most of us, digital history is new, complicated, and even (at least for me) a little bit intimidating. It requires us to learn a whole new set of methodologies, approaches to material, and technical skills. Digital history, rightly or wrongly, has the ability to conjure up images of the technologically deterministic, scaled-up, and boiled-down digital threats leveled at humanities education, specifically, and general education, broadly, today.  Moreover, arguably this is how we always have taught new material. Upper-level classes exist for us to explore complex subject matters deemed too advanced for introductory undergraduate audiences, all the while honing our own understanding of the material in order to determine how to simplify it for introductory undergraduate consumption.

Yet, for better or worse, I am teaching the course at the introductory undergraduate level. Consequentially, it needs to introduce students both to digital history and methods and to “traditional” ones as well. Part of the reason why I am here is to figure out how this melding could work.

So far, I have two possible ways to permit the class to (hopefully) accomplish its goal. First, I absolutely need to give the class some content to anchor the analysis we might do. Contextual thinking is a key component to our early historical scaffolding, and I am wondering if the appropriate content might help to allow us to approach the tools themselves as primary sources. Specifically, I am interested in adding a “History of the Digital” component to the class that explores the development of information technology, the rise of digital modes of communication and analysis, and the place of history in this analysis (in essence expanding the analysis done by Cohen and Rosenzweig here).

In addition, I have begun to believe that I need to be careful and enthusiastic in my choice to pick tools that use content. A key bedrock of digital history classes seems to be to “build” (which is something I need to return to), but it seems useful that having students practice reading and interpreting developed digital sites (both as digital content and as history) could be useful. Here I worry about not providing the proper historical context for students to interpret the evidence on these sites appropriately. But that is a problem for the coming days.

Project Ideas for Doing Digital History

As part of my application for the Doing Digital History seminar, I suggested two possible projects:

  • An introductory, undergraduate course in digital history
  • A digital experience exploring the rich and contrasting perspectives related to the annexation of Hawai’i in 1898.

In thinking about how to teach digital things to undergraduates, I have been guided by Jeff McClurken’s distinction between “digitally inflected” versus “digitally centered” courses. In the past, I have experimented with various inflections, allowing students to complete a digital assignment, but I had never tried creating a course that placed digital historical learning at the center of what we were doing. Last year, almost on a lark, I suggested to members of my department that we should really take digital history more seriously. Somehow,  this conversation ended with me agreeing to propose a true digital history course.

Yet, teaching digital history to freshmen and sophomores was not my first choice. I had originally thought to offer the course as an upper-level major elective. I assumed that students would need an exposure to thinking historically through more traditional non-digital assignments to understand how to apply this thinking to the digital world.  I have come to wonder, though, if this thinking is flawed.  First, I have been influenced by T. Mills Kelly’s contention that students, living in what he terms a “remix culture”, might be perfectly primed to engage simultaneously with historical thinking and the digital world.
Second, I have also begun to wonder if students encounter the digital world more directly and explicitly early in their career then there might be less need to convince students of the myriad ways that they could “use” their historical education in future career pursuits – simply because they would already have taken part in an exercise that demonstrates this to them.

The second project I have been thinking about is an exploration of the extraordinarily contested annexation of Hawai’i in 1898. For three years, I have been teaching a History of Hawai’i course, the creation of which was supported by the Tocqueville Summer Institute hosted by the University of Richmond. Undoubtedly, the most popular week of the course has been the debate on Hawaiian annexation, during which students read, engaged with, and role-played arguments put forth by different opposing historical parties. The complicated history of the islands that immediately preceded the annexation, including a forced constitution, an armed coup, and a tense public debate, is a history that illuminates questions of imperial power, colonization, indigenous resistance, and the gendered construction of American identity, to name just a few. Moreover, given the current, but often unheard, demands of the Hawaiian Sovereignty Movement, there remain contemporary ramifications of this debate for Americans who all too often think of Hawai’i simply as our own national Eden.

My initial thought for the site was to use James Blount, the historical commissioner sent to Hawai’i following the 1892 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy to determine the legality and viability of annexation. Blount spent a considerable amount of time interviewing numerous participants in the events of the day, and in the end returned to the U.S. and filed a massive report suggesting numerous improprieties with the overthrow. Blount, I have wondered, might serve as a useful narrational tool that could give the site some structure, focusing the various primary materials around the types of questions Blount might have pursued. However, while I think Blount could work well as a lens for an American audience engaged with the question of annexation, I am worried about the way the choice could potentially silence, or at least deaden, many of the voices and assumptions made by those who opposed annexation. My choice of Blount too easily privileges the right of the US to choose annexation or non-annexation, as opposed to questioning the right of the very choice to begin with.  Consequently, I am particularly interested in exploring ways that multiple perspectives can be fairly explored in a digital environment, without necessarily losing the narrative and interpretive focus we all felt were crucial threshold concepts to historical thinking.