Digital History: The Course That Never Ends

This is the third post in a multi-post series reflecting on the digital history course I taught this Semester at American University. For more on this you can read initial post about the course, the course syllabus, my first post in the series on the value of a group public blog and the second post on how technical to get in a digital history course.

92 blog posts,

195 comments,

20 projects.

This is the digital foot print of my digital history seminar.

I think we learned a lot this semester. My students reviewed and used a range of digital tools and engaged deeply with analyzing and interpreting a range of digital media. This was my first course. When I designed it I did what came naturally. I set up a public course blog. That blog served as our common place to publicly think aloud and work together. It served a valuable role in the face-to-face class. But I think it is going to serve an even more valuable role in the future.

Knowledge Base: Rethinking a course as knowledge production

I am not taking down the site. Like everything, there are varying degrees of quality to the content of the posts and the discussions, but there are some real jems in the posts. Tom Kenning’s reaction to YouTube time machine and the subsequent discussion is not only one of the only reviews of this project but it is also a great introduction to some of very interesting issues that emerge in the differences between academic and amateur (meant in the best possible way) approaches to history on the web. Similarly, Jordan Hillman’s post about the Euclid project started a great conversation about digital interfaces to cultural heritage. The content from this site will persist, and I imagine that in many cases some of this will end up as top hits for idiosyncratic Google searches and continue to provide fodder for conversation in the future.

Like a beaver dam the Dighist.org we built together will house the next generation

In Supersizing the Mind Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension philosopher Andy Clark talks about niche construction, a term he builds off of the evolutionary biology notion of environmental niche construction, as a way to think about how we make use of tools. Niche construction refers to “varying degrees, organisms chose their own habitats, mates, and resources and construct important components of their local environments such as nest, holes, burrows, paths, webs, dams, and chemical environments.” (2008, p.131) In each of these cases, animals behavior has altered their environment, and those alterations then become the basis for further adaptation. One of the primary examples of this is the spider’s web. “The existence of the web modifies the sources of natural selection within the spider’s selective niche, allowing subsequent selection for web-based forms of camouflage and communication.” (Clark, 2008, p.61) The spider’s web is interesting as an example of an individual organism and its tools, but beyond this the example of a beaver’s dam brings in far more complexity. Dams are created and inhabited by a collective group of individual beavers and further, are extended over time, outliving the lives of the individual beavers who occupy them. Further, beavers adapt to the niche which the beavers before them had created and the altered physical landscape which that dam has produced. What matters for Clark in this case is that “niche-construction activity leads to new feedback cycles.” (2008, p.62).

I intend dighist.org to be exactly this kind of beaver dam. While different students register and take the class at different times their thinking and work, as manifest in the structure of the content they have produced, will play an active role in future students that occupy the space.

In other words this course will never end…

Ok, fine. According to American University the course is over. End of semester. Students got their grades. Moving on. But frankly, grades are the least interesting part. Not only am I keeping the content up, I intend to use this same wordpress instance for future iterations of the course. Whoever joins future digital history courses I teach is going to register for this blog and start posting. I will move the current syllabus to an archived syllabus page, and post the next set of student projects right above the existing set.

Some of the particularly interesting reviews of tools and are going to become course content on future iterations of the syllabus. Some of the particularly interesting student web projects are going to become examples. Some of the particularly interesting student papers will become course readings. Students from this first session of the course will be welcome to continue posting if they like and further are invited to continue to comment on the course. When I created my course I said that the blog would be the course readings that we write ourselves. Now, even more, some of that content will become part of the readings for future iterations of the course.

2 thoughts on “Digital History: The Course That Never Ends

  1. Pingback: Debating the Digital Humanities Gets Real | Trevor Owens

  2. Pingback: Class Blogs – Options and Three Strategies « NspireD2: Learning Technology in Higher Ed.

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