Digital Pedagogy Roundtable, Part 2: Pitching Courses for Non-Majors

This week, The Junto features a roundtable on digital pedagogy, in which we discuss our different approaches to using digital sources in the classroom. Today, Joseph Adelman talks about working with students on technical knowledge. You can also read Part 1 by Rachel Herrmann on source accesibility, and Part 3 by Joseph Adelman on the role of technical knowledge in digital pedagogy.

morIn her kick off of this week’s roundtable on Digital Pedagogy, Rachel talked about the shades of Digital History, noting Lincoln Mullen’s 2010 post “Digital Humanities Spectrum;  or, We’re all Digital Humanists Now.” I have written on spatial humanities approaches to religious history, and I do have some experience with text mining and coding. (XML, CSS, as well as some rudimentary Perl and Python.) By virtue of my library science background, I also have some training and experience in digitization, metadata, and digital stewardship. I am not a coder in the sense that true digital scholars like Mullen are, but I can speak techie and navigate that world with relative ease.

Like most historians, my approach to teaching digital history is a function of the university and student population I teach. My university is small, STEM-centered, and opportunities for cross-registration are encouraged. We try to make lower and mid-level courses accessible to majors whenever possible. The university has recently undergone an external evaluation that has also encouraged opportunities for experiential learning. In addition to teaching as an adjunct, I also work part time for the university as a coordinator for a new minor we are creating in public history. I have taught digital history as a special topic on a few separate occasions. As part of this curriculum development, we are aiming to create a digital humanities course that is more permanent part of the curriculum. The course is presently taught as a mid-level course with no pre-requisites, and is open to all majors. While approximately half of my enrollees tend to be either History or Humanities majors, we have also seen a number of enrollees from Computer Science, Communication Arts, and Business. At least some of them will have taken one of our survey courses, but they may not have much History background beyond high school.

My approach to my Digital History course is threefold. Firstly, I want my students to understand the vocabulary, i.e. What are data life cycles? What do people mean by “spatial humanities?” What is a Text Encoding Initiative (or TEI)? What is metadata?  Most students have tagged something on Facebook or a blog post without knowing that they are creating metadata (if one that lacks a controlled vocabulary), so this tends to be a really easy concept for them. They may not know how to produce metadata in Dublin Core or the OAIS reference model, but they understand that there are different types of metadata that serve slightly different functions.

More than empty buzzwords, I want students to understand exactly what these terms mean. If they remain primarily on the history side, I still want them to be able to communicate clearly with the technology side of the house. For example, in a digital stewardship environment “file” may not mean the same thing to the archivist, programmer, or data analyst. “Data” might not mean the same thing to a scientist and an information professional. Similarly, if their networking guru starts talking to them about Virtual Desk Interfaces (VDI) or adjacency, I want them to understand what it means. Having the right vocabulary is critical to avoiding misunderstandings.[1]

My second goal is to get students to consider the way that technology affects the way information is organized, and more specifically, how it affects our understanding of history. I begin class with a discussion of the Bert is Evil phenomenon. Back in 1997, a web designer named Dino Ignacio began to manipulate images from children’s shows. The website lasted for a few years, and following the attacks on September 11, 2001, Ignacio released a manipulated image of Bert alongside Osama bin Laden. The image, known as “Bert is Evil,” became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon.[2] What this lesson does, is to provide students with a powerful (and tongue-in-cheek) way of looking at the transmission and manipulation of information via technology. It gets them thinking about digital literacy, which is a critical piece to any digital humanities project, as well as a life skill.

A third goal of the class is to expose students to different types of digital humanities projects. We look at Twitter, geospatial projects, 3D modeling, digital archives, digital stewardship, TEI, and crowd sourcing initiatives. I will often offer a very brief lecture to provide context, but then we spend much of our time looking at case studies, analyzing them, and dissecting them. I want students to understand what sorts of technologies are out there and how they can be applied to help disseminate historical knowledge. I also have students write weekly case studies – they find an example and write a short paper, using the evaluative techniques they learn in class to discuss the technology. Fortunately, there are a number of great initiatives out there, such as UVA’s Digital Curation Services, joint British Library-UCL crowdsourcing initiatives, Transcribe Bentham, Stanford’s Spatial History Center, and Boston College’s Digital Dubliners.

And finally, I have students create small projects on their own. This allows students to begin getting their feet wet, and to think about how they could use technology to tell stories, but in a way that should not overwhelm students who are less technologically inclined. One of these projects requires them to create their own website, using freeware like Weebly. Another project involves geocoding their own map, using Google Maps. As we build more infrastructure for the Public History minor, and develop partnerships with some of the other departments, the projects may well expand or change.[3]

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[1] James O’Toole, “On the Idea of Uniqueness,” American Archivist 57, no. 4 (Fall 2004): 632-58.

[2] Credit for this lesson goes to historian Larry Cebula. As they say, the best scholarship is original, but the best teaching is often plagiarized. While I show the image in class, I will refrain from posting the image on The Junto because Children’s Television Workshop has raised objections – both copyright and philosophical.

[3] Inspirations include Ella Howard’s digital history blog at Armstrong Atlantic, or Larry Cebula’s Spokane Historical,

3 comments on “Digital Pedagogy Roundtable, Part 2: Pitching Courses for Non-Majors

  1. […] on technical knowledge. You can also read Part 1 by Rachel Herrmann on source accesibility, and Part 2 by Jessica Parr on teaching digital history to […]

  2. […] media for public history uses. You can also read Part 1 by Rachel Herrmann on source accesibility, Part 2 by Jessica Parr on teaching digital history to non-majors, and Part 3 by Joseph Adelman about […]

  3. […] the last week, Joseph Adelman, Ken Owen, Jessica Parr, and I have compiled a four part series of posts describing our attempts to incorporate digital methods into our early American […]

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