Designing a Digital History Course: Part 1

This spring I will be teaching a graduate seminar for American University’s history program titled History in the Digital Age. I have been thinking a lot about how I can get the practices of the course to model some of the emerging practices in digital history. As part of that process I have narrowed the course goals down to the list of 4 below.  In keeping with the spirit of collaboration and open communication I hope to make a core part of the course. I thought I would also blog the process of creating the syllabus to refine these ideas in public. I hope to generate some conversation here and use that to refine the course.

Course goals

After the course students will be able to:

  1. Independently discover, evaluate, and implement novel digital tools and resources to support traditional scholarship, public projects, teaching and scholarly communications.
  2. Develop proposals for digital history resources with detailed plans for  project management, design, outreach, and evaluation.
  3. Synthesize analysis of born digital and digitized materials, (datasets, algorithms, spreadsheets, maps, video games, web sites, social networks, text corpora, etc.) with existing approaches to analysis of traditional primary and secondary source material to develop novel historical narratives.
  4. Thoughtfully and purposefully engage in dialog about history on the public web with a range of stakeholders in digital history; historians, archivists, museum professionals, educators, and armatures, etc.

To get at the first goal I intend to have students demo tools to the class and make case for what a given tool, for example voyer, could do for research, teaching, outreach, etc. The second two goals are going to be covered by writing short proposals (one for a paper and one for a digital tool or resource) and then following through on one of those proposals. I am still working on the details of those assignments, which I will share later, but I am on my way to articulating the assignment that gets at the last goal, students participation in a public course blog.

Here is how I am framing this assignment:

The course blog: Engaging in online public discourse about digital history

We are not simply going to learn about digital history in this course, we are also going to do digital history. That means we need to engage with the public web. To this end part of our course communication is going to happen in a public course blog.

On the first day of class I will show you how to use the blog. You are expected to post a minimum of two times, once about one of the readings and once about one of the digital tools or resources. We will sign up for who writes about what on the first day of class. These are blog posts, and as such they should not written like term papers. Part of the goal of this assignment is to become familiar with the genera and format of discourse on thoughtful blogs.  You need to get in, say something interesting, and get out. Ideally telling us what the thing is, why it is, what is particularly interesting here, and ending with an invitation to discussion. You should think of your posts as mixing the features of a well composed academic book review and the well conceived blog post (Do read those links). Posts for a given week must be on the web the Sunday before class (yes, if you want you can post it at 11:59 on Sunday).

Do not assume your reader has detailed knowledge of the thing you are writing about. One of the goals of the blog is to invite interested third parties into a conversation with our course. If we are doing this right you can expect comments and dialog with historians, humanists, librarians, archivists, curators, and bloggers who are not participating in the course as students but who are participating in the public conversation we initiate through the blog.

First decision: Your identity and the blog

This is public so one of our first considerations is going to be personal identity. While this is a practical matter it is also, very directly, part of the subject matter of the course. I would encourage you to blog with your real name, it is a good idea for you to start building a web presence for yourself. It has even been suggested that in this field you can either “be online or be irrelevant.”  With that said, if there is any reason that you are uncomfortable with sharing your name publicly, you should feel free to use a pseudonym.  If there is a reason that you do not want to share your work on the web please send me an email or meet with me after class. I feel that this public dialog is an important course goal, but I will of course understand and accommodate anyone that needs a different arrangement. If at the end of the course you would like to continue blogging I will be happy to show you how we can pull all your posts out and into a new blog of your own. We will talk about this identity decision on the first class day.

Keep the conversation going

Posting is not the end of the assignment. After posting you need to foster the discussion you are initiating. When people comment you need to give substantive responses. Try to engage everyone who comments in some fashion and try to use the comments to sustain a conversation you began at the end of your post.

Commenting is also an assignment

Beyond posting you are expected to contribute substantive comments to a minimum of six of your peers posts. Your comments should extend and contribute to the conversation. Good comments are an a important format unto themselves. Read profhacker’s guidelines for comments for a sense of the kind of comment ecosystem we are trying to produce here and then read how to write a great blog comment for some suggestions on the format for comments. Comment early so that others have a chance to read them (your comments need to be up before midnight on Monday).

The course blog is the required reading we write ourselves

Beyond posting and commenting everyone needs to read everything on the blog before class each week. This is the part of the course readings that we write ourselves and in all honesty this is the most important springboard for our in-class discussions.

Review of linked readings:

David Parry. 2010. Be Online or Be Irrelevant – academhack – Thoughts on Emerging Media and Higher Education. academhack. January 11.

Grammar Girl. 2009. How to Write a Great Blog Comment. March 20.

Patel, Neil. 2009. How To Write A Blog Post. July 21.

Profhacker People. n.d. About ProfHacker – Commenting and Community Guidelines.

Scheinfeldt, Tom. 2009. Brand Name Scholar. Found History. February 26.

Schrag, Zachary. 2003. How to Write a Review. September.