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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.