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.

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