Readings Course in Digital History | DH Fellow’s blogpost

Ben Hurwitz (2nd year Digital History Fellow)

Since its inception, the George Mason history PhD program has emphasized exposure to the Digital Humanities (DH). The program requires completion of two courses that introduce students to digital tools and developments in the DH community. In addition to these courses and others, the department also allows students to pursue a minor field in Digital History.

This summer, seven graduate students, including four graduate research assistants at RRCHNM, participated in a readings course to complete the Digital History minor. Working with Dr. Kelly Schrum, our class explored creative uses for social media, games, digital maps, and data visualizations. This readings course was atypical in that the students were expected to demonstrate mastery through frequent creative assignments in addition to discussing influential publications and debates within the field.

The products of these assignments demonstrate the wide-ranging applications of digital technology for teaching, learning, research, and presentation of scholarship. For example, in one assignment I used Google Art Project to create a gallery of artwork depicting sheep and shepherds. Using this gallery, I showed that sheep are often associated with specific concepts, such as solitude, religious devotion, or an idyllic landscape. Within minutes, I was able to gather and organize sources in order to visually support an argument about popular perceptions of sheep farming (you can see the gallery and a fuller explanation here). Here we had an exercise that was quick and low-tech, yet could create a meaningful product. It was easy to see how this same exercise could be formatted into a valuable learning assignment for history students.

At the other end of the spectrum, David Mackenzie’s interactive map, Santa Anna Goes to Washington, resulted from very detailed original research. The map retraces Santa Anna’s 1836 journey, providing precise locations where the general’s party is known to have stopped. These locations are annotated with valuable primary and secondary source material. David’s project provides the user with a rich understanding of a strange and fascinating journey. Furthermore, the process of compiling the map was in itself a fruitful exercise that furthered his understanding of Santa Anna and his research more broadly.

That leads me to the most important lesson learned in this course – that people learn more by doing, by interacting, and by creating. This simple rule applies equally to students in a classroom, to visitors in a museum, and to readers of scholarship. The Internet has made a vast amount of historical source material available to a wide audience, but it has also opened the door for greater engagement with that same material. As teachers, we have the opportunity to create more interactive classrooms where students are able to explore sources and create products independently. As scholars, we have the opportunity to improve our research while drawing our audience toward a closer reading of our work.

It is lamentable that in many ways our discipline is dominated by final products, from the way students are graded to the way academic scholarship is judged. In this course, we privileged process over product; methodologies were always shared and creative failures were accepted, even celebrated. If we can imagine for one minute that the Internet had never existed, it would still be in our interest, from a pedagogical perspective, to place more emphasis on the process of doing history. Given the reality of our digital environment, more interactive forms of teaching and scholarship are steadily gaining appeal. This course, and the minor field more generally, have helped me to anticipate changes in a field where students and other audience members will be increasingly involved in the process.