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.

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