Resolutions for Teaching Digital History

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on January 6, 2013

These are the comments I prepared for a roundtable session on Teaching Digital History Methods for History Graduate Students at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the AHA in New Orleans.

Last semester, I received some funding from my campus’s Humanities Research Center to run what the center calls a Masterclass—a year-long, one-credit special topics course in which both undergraduates and graduates can enroll. My masterclass course is on digital history, but in my case “masterclass” is a bit of a misnomer. I am far from having “mastered” digital history, and have not yet made serious use of digital history methods in my own research. My institution has no center in digital history, and my department has no cluster of self-identifying digital historians. The “masterclass” so far has basically been a lecture series in which I have invited digital historians from off-campus to speak about their methods and lead practical workshops and discussions with my students.

I say all this to make clear that my experience in training graduate students in digital history methods—the topic of this roundtable—is limited. Other than the so-called “masterclass,” my experience amounts to having grafted some discussions of digital history projects and digital tools into my existing, otherwise conventional methods seminar. On some aspects of digital history, I have students who know far more than I do.

These confessions may make you wonder why I’m even on this panel. I wondered too when Sharon Leon asked me to join. I think I’m here, however, because my situation is probably fairly typical. Many of us find ourselves wanting to know more about digital history, or at least feeling like our students should know more about it, but we lack institutional precedent, resources, individual experience, or even all three. That’s the situation I want to speak to today: how do you teach methods that you are just learning about yourself?

Now, to put the question that way shows that this conversation about digital history education immediately raises larger questions about training graduate students in general. Let me lay my cards on the table by saying that my own teaching philosophy doesn’t regard my own areas of ignorance as problems so much as opportunities. Often, my role as a graduate instructor is to model informed befuddlement about history, to be actively not-knowing in front of students and then to demonstrate how I learn and think about something new to me.

Indeed, that’s what I want to do in this roundtable: to think out loud about teaching methods that are still new to me. Instead of expertise, what I want to offer—in the spirit of the New Year—are several resolutions I’ve made about teaching digital history with some thoughts-in-progress about how it’s gone so far.

My first resolution: I resolve to share with students my own reasons for interest in digital history. My masterclass began, as many classes do, with my asking students why they were taking the class; but it also started with my telling them why I was teaching it. In my case, I started to become interested in digital history when I realized that I was already a digital historian whether I wanted to be or not—that is, when I realized that I rely heavily for my work on digital databases and digital tools whose workings I needed to better understand. In your case, you may feel a professional obligation to talk about digital skills given that an increasing number of job ads mention them and an increasing number of careers require them. But whatever your reasons for being here might be, you can resolve to be open with students about them. I’ve found that this simple step is not a bad way to get quickly into some of the debates at the center of the digital humanities.

My second resolution: I resolve to encourage students to build an online presence. In both of my graduate seminars, students create blogs in which they write about course readings and projects, and many students also join Twitter. This has two important effects. First, it extends our classroom by connecting students with practicing digital historians at other institutions who are more expert than I. Second, the practice of running a simple blog or website and playing around with it—changing themes, installing Wordpress plugins, tweaking CSS and HTML—can be a good preparation for learning about more complex digital history tools and encourage more reflective use of things like search engines and databases.1

Third, I resolve to assign some digital history projects and articles as part of the reading for my courses. Even if students in a particular course do not make a digital project, they can learn how to examine and evaluate articles and websites that do make extensive use of digital methods. So, for example, in my methods in social and cultural history course, placing a couple of articles that do rudimentary text mining on the syllabus exposes students to such work and again encourages reflection on the way they themselves use keyword searching or databases like Google Books.

My fourth resolution: I resolve to learn from graduate students and colleagues from outside my department. I have to say that I’ve learned a ton just from reading the tutorials and blogs of graduate students in classes like the one Fred Gibbs teaches at George Mason. I consider blogging graduate students like Cameron Blevins, Jeri Wieringa, and Benjamin Schmidt my digital hisory teachers. And at my own institution, many students and staff members have more expertise on GIS software or web server administration than I. Training others in these methods requires being trained, and a willingness—as Stephen Ramsay once put it—to sometimes be “the dumbest person in the room.”

And finally, I resolve to be open with students about my own research and learning process. If students are often reluctant to try new things and fail, who can blame them if we are too? That’s why, when I recently used part of a leave to learn some computer programming skills, I blogged about the experience for my masterclass. It’s also why, in my methods course, I shared with students the history of my first article, from outline to seminar paper to publication. I not only gave them access to every rough draft of the paper that I wrote, but also showed them reader’s reports (both from the first, rejected submission and the second, accepted one) and the methods I used to keep my research notes along the way. This meant, of course, talking with them about dead ends, false starts, and things I wish I had known then about organizing notes or keeping citations.

My goal here was both to demystify the publishing process for them and to demonstrate that it’s OK—and inevitable—to feel lost at certain points along the way. Perhaps that does not seem immediately relevant to teaching digital history, but I’ve found, as Ramsay has also said, that learning about computers and digital methods requires not so much special expertise or experience as it does a willingness to fail in public, an ability to endure error messages and push through frustrating problems. To the extent that I can make myself and my graduate students less paralyzed by the new and more comfortable with the struggle, I can begin to train them in digital history.

  1. This, at least, has been my own experience: starting my own blog as a graduate student made me roughly familiar with things like HTML and Javascript; like a tumbleweed, I picked up bits and pieces of knowledge along the way that have accumulated into the skill set I now have.