Sunday, November 11, 2012

Goals for Teaching my Graduate Seminar in Digital History

Theresa Huston's Teaching What You Don't Know invites us to begin designing our courses by asking ourselves what it is we want the students to be able to do at the end of the class. She distinguishes figuring out what we want students to be able to do from what we want them to know. Once we know what we want them to be able to do, we can design the course backwards from that goal.

As I start my journey into teaching a graduate seminar in digital history, I have been able to identify four key things that I want my students to be able to do as result of the class.

1. To consume digital history intelligently, with the same kind of sophistication and critical analysis that they do other forms of historical knowledge. This feels to me like a natural extension of the teaching I already do, in which I guide students through careful reading of scholarly texts, primary sources, and primary source repositories. As I write this, I know that I should also be able to help students read museum exhibits critically, but thus far I have not structured my courses to include museums (because there are excellent public history and museum studies programs at my institution, I have left this task to my supremely talented colleagues, in whom I have enormous confidence).

2. To use digital tools to enhance their own research. This task in some sense feels the hardest to me. I was impressed, stunned, and a little overwhelmed at the American Historical Association's sessions on digital history at the 2012 conference in Chicago. Historians are already using all kinds of digital tools to re-see their evidence (possibly being reconceptualized as "data") in new ways. Visualizations, data mining, and mapping were the predominant general approaches that I can recall; all of them are basically new to me. Only mapping feels familiar enough for me to stretch towards, thanks largely to the four years I spent on staff at the Newberry Library and the 13 years I have spent at UWM, which happens to host the magnificent resources of the American Geographical Society Library.

I personally lack that basic drive of technical curiosity that impels other scholars to spend hours noodling around with new tools. I proved to myself for the purposes of a presentation last spring that I can figure out how to make a Wordle to include in my Powerpoint. But I recently loaded the FreeMind tool onto my laptop in hopes of making a simple three-dimensional axis for use in a conference response and gave up, feeling like I had wasted my time and not learned very much. When I attended a THATCamp session intended to teach me to make simple Google Fusion maps, I gave up in minutes and learned to Tweet instead. Figuring out how to help students figure out what the available digital tools are and how to use them will present enormous challenges for me.

3. To be able to participate in (or even lead) digital history projects. It seems to me that most of my graduate students, who are excited about history and want to share it with the public, will need to know how to take part productively in digital history projects if they take their careers forward in the historical field. I have been leading the project for the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee since 2008 and have a small network of people working on digital projects. I think that I will be able to harness these opportunities into a useful conversation about what the role of the historian in the digital history project should be. At this stage, one of my key questions is about how much a single person has to know about technological matters in order to be useful on a digital history project. As I am a project leader and don't know much myself, I suspect I will be arguing (at least implicitly) that the basic bar is low--as long as you have the resources to engage people with complementary skills in the project.

4. To continue to learn about digital history on their own. This is always a goal in my classes, although what I do about it varies from almost nothing to a lot. It seems to me that in this case, being a content novice will really help me achieve this goal. I simply cannot lecture to students about digital history tools and sites because I don't know most of them. Instead, to teach the students about digital history, I have to engage them in the process of figuring out what the resources are and reporting back to the rest of the class on them. Collectively, the students will have to teach me more than I can teach them. The research and presentation skills they will build up in the process of educating each other about digital history are naturally transferable in the future.

Today, those are my basic goals. It is entirely possible as I learn more about digital history, I will need to reshape those goals. I welcome your feedback about whether there is some big category of digital history learning that I am missing.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Jumping off the Cliff

When I was a graduate student in urban history at Northwestern University in the 1990s, I asked my advisor if I needed to learn SPSS so that I could do statistical analysis. Ever wise, he told me that when I needed it, I would learn it.

I never have learned stats (although with my current monographic research project on the history of block clubs in Chicago, I am edging closer and closer in that direction). But the time has come to learn digital history.

I know that it is time because although my department has no one deeply qualified in digital history, two of my colleagues and I independently came to the conclusion this fall that we have to start teaching it to our students. So I arm wrestled with one of my colleagues for the privilege; we ended up agreeing that I should teach the graduate version in a face-to-face format, and she would teach an online undergraduate course. A third colleague is planning a "digital class," in contrast to a "digital history class" and in contrast to an "online class." I am enough of a novice that I am not even sure what he means by that.

What makes me a "reluctant" digital historian?

I did not set out to be a digital historian, and I am still trying to figure out exactly what that means. When pressed on the topic, I tell people that I am a historian doing a digital project rather than a digital historian. I don't know the code. I am not fascinated by the technology. I am not entirely comfortable with the vocabulary of the digital environment. So far, I have managed to evade teaching online.

But I can see the trajectory of the historical profession. I can see that my students will need the skills that will enable them to operate in the digital world. More importantly, they want to take historical knowledge and ideas to the public through the digital media. Because I have done just enough work in digital history to know what questions to start asking, I have been pushing myself to step up to the plate. And I am excited about learning in this new area.

What are my meager qualifications in digital history?

The most important one is that I am the lead editor for a major online project being built at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history department: an Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. We expect that this project will appear in print and online in 2017.

Additionally, I wrote an essay for the Writing History in the Digital Age project, edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotski. My essay, "Teaching Wikipedia without Apologies" describes the section of my undergraduate history methods course in which I teach my students to think about the strengths and weaknesses of their favorite reference source.

I also attended the American Historical Association's sessions on Digital History at the 2012 conference in Chicago, the THATCamp associated with the 2012 meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Milwaukee, and have begun keeping my ear to the ground on these issues.

That is all.

Does it matter if I am not deeply qualified?

It was reading about Theresa Huston's Teaching What You Don't Know that really convinced me I should give this a try. Although I have been teaching at the college level since my second year in graduate school in 1993 and have been a regular faculty member at UWM since 1999 (as I like to say, in the last millennium), I have only once taught a course that is the equivalent of one I took (and that course was one that I was a TA for, not an enrolled student). Huston argues that "content novices" have certain pedagogical advantages over "content experts" and that teaching unfamiliar topics is an endemic but unaddressed phenomenon in the American academy. So far she has not addressed my lurking question about whether it is OK to teach graduate courses in fields you don't really know, but I am going to try anyway.

I started this blog to try to track my own learning about digital history in the 14 months before I will step into my own digital history classroom. I hope also that readers will help me along on this journey. And I may even find a way to bring it into the classroom itself, helping my students see that one of the most wondrous things about graduate study is learning how to tackle areas that you--and maybe no one--has explored before.

I may be jumping off the cliff today; but I might also be growing wings.