Category Archives: Teaching and Learning

The Power of Play

During our digital pedagogy session at the Doing Digital History summer institute, Jeff McClurken made an important distinction between digitally centered history courses and digitally inflected history courses. The former are courses dedicated to training students in  tools, methods, content management, and means of communication that digital history enables. The latter are courses that invite students to play and to expand their understanding of the discipline.

Since then, I’ve taken to calling myself a digitally-inflected public historian. I may yet graduate to full-fledged digital public historian. For now, I am empowered by the idea that I do not HAVE to utterly transform my practice. I am in a period of play and exploration, and it will last as long as it will last.

The distinction McClurken foregrounded has also helped me reconsider my own sense of what it means to teach public history. While I do think it’s important for public history educators to have a strong sense of the history, methods, tools, and values of our field, I can see the value of encouraging colleagues to introduce public history opportunities into their “traditional” courses. In other words, we can offer both public history centered courses and publicly-inflected history courses. In the former, students ideas about what it means to be a historian are destabilized and re-framed. Service moves to the center of historical practice, determining the form and function of scholarship and the opportunities for learning. However, there is no reason students in other history courses could not play around, too. In a publicly-inflected history course,  students have an opportunity to explore what it means to produce scholarship for a variety of audiences and to make decisions about what methods of communication might be more effective for particular groups at particular times.

Not every historian MUST become a public historian.

Not every historian MUST become a digital historian.

Yet, if we are willing to provide opportunities for our students –and ourselves– to play with digital tools and to communicate in and with a variety of public(s), we will have a powerful, positive impact on our profession.

Digital Inflection and History 319: The Rise of Modern America

In the fall, I am teaching two courses. One, a public history practicum course, will include significant play with digital tools. This seems natural to me because I have long required blogging and content development for digital environments in my public history courses. I have a clear vision of what I want the class to accomplish, which digital tools might be helpful, and how I can integrate both teaching and experimentation into the course.

I have found it much more difficult, in my nine years as a professor, to integrate digital tools, or public oriented projects into my more traditional courses.  I’ve spent some time these past two weeks thinking about just that. I think the key issues are class size (45 students), class composition (this is a mid-level course that fulfills general education requirements, so not all students are history majors), and the necessity of meeting University and Department defined undergraduate learning objectives.

After spending two weeks in Doing Digital History, however, I feel empowered to make some small changes. I’m convinced that creating a digitally inflected learning environment will enhance student learning, particularly in the realm of critical thinking and historical writing.

For my first foray into this realm, I am going use History Engine to modify the traditional, semester-long research project. History Engine is, essentially, an encyclopedia of local history narratives produced by students. Unlike Wikipedia assignments (which I also considered), History Engine allows students and professors to exert a bit  more control over the final product, posting them to the public site only after they are complete. Further, while site users can rate posts, they are not subject to an open,communal editing process.

As I do in my graduate public history courses, I have divided the History Engine Assignment into a series of steps. Students will generate a short annotated bibliography and a review essay before writing the final, more informal, narrative for History Engine. This process will allow them to think about issues of audience for various forms of historical production.


Distant Reading

During the two weeks of Doing Digital History, I have found some concepts more or less easy to assimilate into my work as a public historian and public history educator. I felt competent and confident when establishing a domain, playing with WordPress, experimenting with Omeka, dabbling with some tools for annotating images, and animating brief stories. I am less comfortable with mapping. In my effort to experiment with Map Warper, a tool that allows users to overlay old maps over recent maps, thereby observing changes in the landscape and re-discovering “lost” neighborhoods or features, I  discovered –much to my dismay– that I am a terrible map reader. I found it difficult to identify and mark similar sites on each map, a necessary step that allows the tool to overlay them correctly. That admitted, I am interested in beginning with some simple tools that will allow me and my students to situate historical narratives in both place and time. Starting with a relatively simple –and easier to use– tool like Story Map will serve as a point of entry, and allow me to work my way toward more complex mapping projects.

I more tentative about text mining and distant reading.  I’m still not sure I recognize its potential for my own research, and I suspect this is the digital realm I am least likely to put to use in the immediate future.

That said, I may play with Voyant in my fall public history practicum course. After playing with the technology a bit, I understand that text mining can help my students identify interpretive pathways for a public digital project about slavery and freedom on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. Mapping patterns of word use and syntax will encourage students to think more critically about the different uses of words in private contexts and in legal contexts, about the ways in which word use and meanings changed across state boundaries, and about the words chosen by free people to describe the experience of freedom in and near a border state. Encouraging my students to play will, I think, help me understand text mining and its value for research and analysis.

Data, Inquiry, and Squirrels

The dog and I were having a philosophical conversation about data on our walk this morning. (I do tend to bounce ideas off of her while we are staring at squirrels.)

During our first week of Doing Digital History, I have been a bit uncomfortable about the relationship between data and research. Talking it over with the beagle, I came to understand why that is. My research process is not terribly systematic. I begin with a general question. In my case, that is often framed as something I want to understand. For example:  I want to understand what it means to practice history as a form of public service. Next, I make decisions about where I might begin to approach that understanding. So:  Federal workers are “civil servants;” how have historians in the federal service conceptualize their work? Finally, I go to primary sources. I allow those sources to re-frame my questions, to open up new questions, and to shape my understanding in ways I did not predict.

I have no idea if this process is an adequate reproduction of “the historical method,” and I’m not sure that really  matters to me. I suspect it is a method that marks me as an interdisciplinary humanist. It probably also figures in my own sense of what it means to define myself as a public historian.

In any case, the beagle and I are discussing these questions of identity and process because I am framing a student-driven research project. I can see that it will be useful for them to assemble data in a tidy fashion so that we can create digital environments for study and interpretation. At the same time, planning for students to mine data  leads me to at least three anxieties:  1. Is it possible, on the cusp of a new research project, to create a data spread sheet that will actually work; that will represent what I want students to find AND will actually predict accurately what they can find.  2. To what extent will framing a data spread sheet in advance limit what students actually DO find? Will the tyranny of the spread sheet encourage students to disregard or simply fail to recognize the value of sources that don’t fit our data parameters? 3. Is there a difference between approaching sources as producers of “data” and approaching sources as windows to understanding?  

The beagle wasn’t sure…. SQUIRREL!

Wordle Visualization of Chapter One: Museums, Monuments, and National Parks

Wordle: Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, Chapter One

Perhaps it was a bit of a “cheat” to use my own book chapter to experiment with Wordle, but it did help me understand the potential educational value of the word cloud. More than simply an attractive display of textual elements, the cloud helps draw attention to major themes. The first chapter of my book traces the development of federal collections of material culture and the gradual acceptance of scientific research as relevant in the public sector. For first time readers, then, noting the dominance of words like “collections” and “research” alongside “federal government” in the first chapter could help clarify the main argument and enable a more efficient reading strategy.

Non-Textual Sources

As a public historian and an American Studies PhD (and BA for that matter), I have long worked with non-textual sources:  material artifacts, photographs, oral histories, folkways, etc.

Nonetheless, today’s conversation in Doing Digital History pushed me a bit outside my comfort zone by pressing me to think about what it means to approach all sources as “data.” Our lively and fascinating guest instructor, Mike O’Malley, asked us to consider landscapes of sound and to examine the ways in which they have been re-configured over time. Sound Studies, as O’Malley explained them, have raised some interesting questions:  when does sound become noise? how has the experience of listening to music changed over time? Yet, much of the work seems overly focused on technical evidence. Digital environments allow scholars to graph and map sound as form and to focus on its mechanical production. Yet, it seems that sometimes the function, creation, use, context, and reception –all elements of the human experience– are irretrevable. While it is clear that technical data charting changes in sound have interpretive value, the approach felt –for me– too detached from questions of human value and meaning-making.

During discussion, O’Malley offered a critique of historical reenactors as an analogy. He argued that their effort to understand the meaning of the past is misleading because it is attached to microscopic detail; reenactors focus is so much on the trees, that they miss out on a approaching a deeper understanding of the forest. Yet, some sound scholars’ focus on sound charts, combined with a reluctance to think about sound as only a small part of a much larger and more dynamic cultural environment seems potentially to have the same shortcoming. Can we really understand a sound landscape without considering all of its elements:  human as well as mechanical?

My focus was a bit skewed during class. I was so interested in learning about Sound Studies as a body of scholarship, that I wasn’t terribly successful in thinking about how this might relate to to my foray into digital history. Nonetheless, I was interested in the examples that O’Malley provided about how non-text based productions can be used in a digital environment for teaching, learning, and research. I can imagine value in producing short digital stories or podcasts for students or other learning communities.  I’m not yet sure how –or if– my current projects are appropriate for experimenting with sound or video, but I am certain that digitization will provide me with a venue for associating various kinds of data:  textual, visual, audio, and material. I’m also starting to wonder how reducing evidence to “data” will impact my interest in remaining focused on the inconsistent, stubborn, difficult-to-categorize human dimension of social and cultural life.

Student Driven Research and Digital History

James O. Horton was my mentor, and I was his graduate research assistant when he began work on the book Slavery and Public History. That book identified some of the specific ways that the history of slavery remains a “problem” in public discourse, at historic sites, in preservation, and elsewhere. I assign the book regularly. The recent creation of Harriet Tubman National Historic Site presents an opportunity for us to re-think the public history of slavery, to create new modes of story telling, to identify new questions that will feel relevant to site visitors, and to use new methods for engaging audiences in the interpretation of a difficult past. This fall, I will be partnering with the Maryland State Archives Legacy of Slavery project on a public history practicum class. Students will identify the problem that slavery has posed in the realm of public history. They will conduct research to find compelling stories that demonstrate why it matters when different states have different laws governing freedom, different definitions of migration, and different attitudes toward “catching” and “kidnapping.” They will work with specialists from the UMBC New Media Studio to develop digital stories. In the meantime, during our two week workshop, I am also looking for ideas about how best to collect, map, present, and preserve this work so that the project can be ongoing.