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.

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