The Class

Scholars, journalists, politicians, and educators often talk about the way that digital technologies have transformed the way that we interact with each other in the present.  But these same technologies have also enabled us to engage in new ways with the past.  Historians, like other scholars in the humanities, have increasingly appropriated digital tools to reinvent the nature of historical scholarship.  These new tools help to reframe all aspects of the discipline, from research methods to scholarly communication to publication and public engagement.  From the comfort of our homes or libraries or offices, we use digital technologies to access large databases of primary sources and secondary sources and collaborate with colleagues around the world.  Many scholars have also used digital technologies to create new methods for publishing and disseminating historical scholarship.  In the process, many scholars have sought to democratize access to primary sources and historiographical material, involving the public in the production of history in new ways and creating opportunities for student research.  The democratization of history, however, also raises new challenges and questions about authorship, authority, expertise, and accuracy.

In this course, we will explore both the opportunities and the challenges of digital history.  Part of that exploration requires us to do the work of any good historian – we must understand the historiographical questions that drive current scholarship, analyze available primary sources, deploy research methodologies – in order to ask historical questions.  As we read and discuss collective readings, we will pay special attention to the way that scholars actively produce history:  what questions do they ask?  What sources do they use?  What kinds of research methodologies do their questions require?  What questions can their sources not answer and why?  What kind of contribution does their work make?

Digital history, however, requires an additional set of questions, skills, and tools.  Throughout the semester, we will work in groups to construct a digital project for the Reuther Archive.  Students will digitize sources and create content based on distinct parts of the Reuther’s collection.  Our end goal is a digital exhibit, which will both make these materials more accessible and help communicate their significance for the general public.  Based on experiences gained through that class project, students’ final projects will imagine and plan their own digital history project for their course final.

Students should have a working knowledge of computers and internet tools, but no background in programming is necessary.


Required Texts

Lynn Schler, Nation on Board:  Becoming Nigerian at Sea

Abosede George, Making Modern Girls

Michelle Moyd, Violent Intermediaries

Jennifer Hart, Ghana on the Go

These books should be available at the campus bookstore.  Students are welcome to purchase e-book versions of texts.  Other required texts are available online.  Students are expected to come to class with notes, prepared for discussion on all readings, including online texts.


Learning Outcomes

Students in this course will:

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of digital history projects.
  • Develop technical skills in the digital tool Omeka.
  • Analyze existing scholarship on a contested historical subject.
  • Construct historical questions based on primary sources.
  • Contextualize primary sources using existing secondary sources.
  • Apply digital tools to illustrate and analyze complex historical questions.
  • Communicate complex historical issues and questions to the public through a digital history project.
  • Manage a team-based digital humanities project.
  • Plan a unique digital project based on your experience with assigned group work.


What to Expect

This course may feel different from your usual courses in several respects. First, rather than simply learning course content, you will be asked to apply your knowledge to make new things. Not all of these new things will be determined on the first day of the course. Together with a large responsibility for the final product(s) of this course, you will have a large say in what we produce.

Second, to attain the technical skills necessary to make things, you may sometimes be asked to inform and educate yourself outside of class, using extracurricular resources. Be prepared for some DIY moments throughout the semester.

You should also expect to have help, however; you won’t be going it alone as you learn new technical and analytical skills. You will be working not just as an individual, but as a member of a team. Your classmates are not your competitors, but your collaborators. In that role they will sometimes be asked to help you figure out assignment-related problems, evaluate your work, and share workloads. As their collaborator, you should do the same in return.

Finally, much of your work for this course will be done “in public” on our course blog or websites like Twitter; while your grades are always private, some of your work will be shared with students elsewhere and with the public at large.

All of these aspects of this course are actually not that new or rare.  What may be unfamiliar to you is doing these things in a humanities course, where our emphasis is usually on individual and private reading, writing, and discussion. But whether they are unfamiliar or not, these aspects of the class mean that every student’s engagement and participation will be essential to its success. By the end you’ll have sharpened your skills as an historian while also acquiring digital, teamwork, and project management skills that will be useful even beyond the study of history.

Student progress in mastering these objectives will be measured through response papers, class discussion, group projects, essays, and other assignments.