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.

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