Throw John Smith Off Ship

Spring is in the air in Southern California! Well, to be fair, this isn’t usual: it always smells like flowers in Los Angeles (when it doesn’t smell like poisonous smog or wildfire smoke), but recent much needed rain has definitely made the city seem more verdant. My students are sunken-eyed and groggy from midterms, but spring break is just around the corner. What better time to take stock of how a new course is going?

This semester I’m teaching colonial North American history for the first time. There are many ways teaching assignments are made, and I believe mine is enviable: as an ACLS New Faculty Fellow I teach a 1-2 load, and since I am an interdisciplinary scholar I divide my time between the history and musicology departments at the University of Southern California.[1] I am given free rein in terms of course content. When I asked if I could teach about colonial America, the obvious thing to do would be to make it a course about music in colonial America. Instead I decided to use this as an opportunity to branch out a bit. I have a strong interest in Native American history and I wanted to deepen my understanding of the role religious beliefs played in  intercultural encounters. This course seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. And since that aspect of the course is going swimmingly, I’m not actually going to write about it any more in this post!

Instead I want to discuss the secondary goal of the course: exploring digital history resources. Are you wondering what the connection between colonial America and digital history is? The honest answer is that there isn’t a particularly strong one, besides my desire to explore digital history. I decided to embrace the fact that this could be one of the few times in my career (at least, in my early career) when I get to do whatever I want. I’ve been poking my head into the world of digital humanities, and coincidentally USC has just launched a major initiative. After taking the Rare Book School’s “Digitizing the Historical Record” course last summer as part of their Mellon Fellows program, I continued to think about how digitization affects our scholarship and teaching. The fact that I was reading T. Mills Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age and co-organizing a digital humanities colloquium series at USC through the Early Modern Studies Institute’s Music Series (shameless plug! If you’re in SoCal, join us March 27 and April 24) when I was writing the syllabus also had something to do with my decision to orient part of the class towards digital questions.

Since I am only in the most infant stages of developing a DH project, these activities left me with the feeling that I was all talk and no action. The only way to figure out what I could learn from and contribute to digital history was to start doing it. Inspired by the Junto’s regular features on the digital history and digital humanities, and by previous posts on incorporating online exhibits and archives into teaching, I decided to just jump in.

It was a leap of faith. Fortunately, my students have rose to the challenge of figuring out what we can learn from digital history, although we are still working towards a cogent definition of what digital history is. In practical terms, once or twice a week I incorporate some sort of digital history exercise into my lesson plan. The digital history exercises all pertain to the day’s topic. For instance, I sent them to do investigations about Jamestown using the dated but nevertheless impressive Virtual Jamestown website, or the Newberry Library’s take on the fur trade.

In these exercises I have asked them to consider what the aims of the websites are, and what interpretations of history they are presenting. I have also sent them to hunt down specific primary sources that are available online, such as the 1590 edition of Thomas Harriot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia so they can think about how digitization affects how we take in the sources visually. This was especially effective when I had them look at various images from the Codex Mendoza online. Not every image reproduces color vividly, which changed their interpretations of the source’s meaning.

Incorporating digital history exercises in this way works well when the class is small and everyone has a laptop, which means it requires considerable resources. Still, it seems worth trying, especially with game students–or even with students who are at first reluctant to try a new mode of participation. I’m fortunate with my students: they engage merrily with the tasks, and like discussing what they find. They also end up collaborating with and helping each other, which is always nice to see.[2] The class size and collaborative spirit allows me to keep the class relatively informal. Regular small writing assignments keep them on track with the work, although next year I plan to convert these to blogging assignments.

The best part about teaching this class has been that it allows me to learn from the students about what seems to work well and what doesn’t work when trying to explore digital history. The verdict so far seems to be that interactive maps and participatory games are most popular–no surprises there. But it’s also striking how unaware they–we–are of how flow of the sites we use direct our attention. Trying to use a website in ways it didn’t intend can be a fun but at times frustrating experience, and deserves further thought as a new way of reading against the grain.

Would I organize this class differently in the future, knowing how much I want to prioritize digital history? Yes, of course I would. But as years of practicing the viola taught me, the only way to get better at something is to keep doing it. [3] And the only way to start something new that is a little crazy–like teaching a new course outside of your discipline and somewhat impulsively tacking on an unwieldy but exciting secondary focus–is to be willing to jettison what isn’t working along the way and make copious notes for how to make the classes better next time. As one of my students wrote in the midterm (in which they were asked to imagine a conversation between Cabaza de Vaca, Samuel de Champlain, and John Smith about strategies for dealing with Native Americans — a tip I picked up from Rachel’s interview with James Merrell), just “throw John Smith off ship” and keep on going.

[1] This is a not inconsiderable teaching load for a postdoc, but the ACLS NFF specifically aims to facilitate the transition into a faculty position (at the host institution or elsewhere) by encouraging its fellows to act more like faculty members than postdocs.
[2] Amazingly, they also don’t seem to be using their computers for non-course browsing. This might be because I pace slowly back and forth behind them in the classroom–in a non-ominous way, of course.
[3] Here’s where someone usually asks about viola jokes, so let’s just get this out of the way: A violinist noticed at the end of each rehearsal break, the principal violist would look at the inside flap of his jacket before he sat down to resume rehearsal. This continued for several decades, and the violinist became quite curious about it. One day, during hot weather, the violist took off his jacket and went off on break. The violinist waited until everyone was off the platform, looked around, and sneaked over to the jacket. She pulled back the flap and saw a little note pinned on the inside. It read: “viola left hand, bow right.”

4 responses

  1. This is a cool way to use of DH resources and, it seems to me, helps them serve one of their primary functions: reaching an audience that extends beyond scholars in the discipline. Taking stock of “what’s out there” while prepping for a course will inevitably include more engagement with DH. And it’s even better if we can help students benefit from these sites. Great write-up!

    • Thanks for the comment, Doug. I think your take on why DH resources are useful is a good one. Additionally, one of the unexpected results of having the students find and use online sources is that it brings questions of reliability and trustworthiness front and center in a productive way.

  2. Oh, well done Glenda! This post enthuses me; a real flare of creativity – and academic ‘courage’ in a panorama often timid, slogging or just diligent . You make me feel good about thirty years in academe ( and I bet Merrell would feel the same. The critical awareness, reading counter to a site’s assumptions, is a fundamental tool for using the resources of internet rather than being shaped by them) Please give us more blogs on the course. You are so right to see it as a huge opportunity.

    • Thanks so much, Loretta! It is heartening to know that others share my interest in approaching teaching as one big experiment. I will certainly try to do some sort of follow-up post at the end of the semester.


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