Digital History — Spring 2010

March 31, 2010

Digital teaching, digital learning…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 6:28 am

I have to say, I really enjoyed the readings for this week — and I feel so privileged to have been able to explore Professor Pace and Professor Capshew’s course websites! Anyone who doubts that the web can be a powerful arena of pedagogy needs to check these resources out. (In fact, this feedback is so very late because I seriously underestimated the amount of time that it was going to take me to work through all the sites.)

I assume that you both will give us some background as to how you arrived at the point where you decided that your courses needed a significant digital element, but just in case — that’s something I’d really like to know more about! Had you taught these courses in a more traditional form, or were they “born digital,” as it were? If there was a transition involved, what factors really made you decide to embrace this technology? Were your projects developed “in isolation” (or with a co-teacher), or did you have significant support either from IU or colleagues at other institutions?

I’m also interested as to how/if the feedback from students has changed over time. The articles suggest that students generally appreciate the attempt to reach them in a format that is more “native” to many of them — but I’m wondering whether this willing adoption was always the case,  if it’ll continue to be so, and what the costs are of assuming that all students are prepared to work in this digital paradigm.  For instance, my initial impression of T. Mills Kelly’s article from 2000 was that it was dated — 40% of his kids don’t own their own computers?! …and then I thought more carefully about the assumptions of class and culture that were evident in that reaction. Still, obviously campuses have made enormous strides towards providing labs and rental equipment that close some of those gaps. (These days the great hardship seems to be intermittent wifi.) But I’d love to know if either of you have had any type of significant student resistance to this format or if you’ve found a learning curve that have changed how you approach digital pedagogy or the requirements of your courses.

Another question that these articles address (rather brilliantly, in some cases) is the problem of actually measuring whether digital pedagogy is more or less effective than traditional forms of teaching. Have either of you have experimented with these comparative methodologies? What means do you both rely on to gauge the effectiveness of new digital strategies and formats? And, while I realize that the plural of anecdote is not “data,” do you have any information about how students who are taught with these methods perform in their later history classes?

Finally, with continued reference to the larger collegial context: Professor Pace, in Amateurs in the Operating Room, you comment that one factor that may discourage adoption of the scholarship of teaching and learning is its incompatibility with pre-existing structures of faculty evaluation.  This question of how (or if) non-traditional forms of scholarship/research/service  “count” in the tenure process seems to be coming up again and again for me this semester, whether in your article, the other projects in the digital humanities that we’ve examined, or some of the “public intellectual” political/advocacy/activist work that I’ve been discussing in my AMST class. I wonder if you or Professor Capshew could provide some historical perspective on how institutional recognition of these very valuable types of work has changed or has changed since you wrote the article, or even since you’ve been teaching. Professor Capshew, using the model of your 2020 unit in the IU class, I’d also love to hear your predictions for how this might change in the future, as well. 😉

March 23, 2010

Questions for David Bodenhamer…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 7:09 pm

Dear Professor Bodenhamer,

Thanks for sharing the two chapters of your upcoming book — it was really fascinating not only to read about historians’ projects that merge GIS and humanist aims, but also to think through some of the philosophical implications of the GIS data project. I discovered that while I like to think of myself as a cultural historian and someone semi-hip to postmodernism, thinking spatially apparently stimulates the positivist in me: mound or mountain, you’re still going to burn more energy going over it or around it (or through it).

Nonetheless, I certainly recognize the imperative of maintaining a plurality of vision when it comes to mapping space and place. To those ends, we’ve been discussing crowd-sourcing on and off through this course, as well as Google, with all its benefits and drawbacks. I’m wondering if you had any thoughts about the individual mapping technology that Google provides — the power to label, annotate, demarcate — and share —  multiple maps of your own, based on their data. While it’s lacking some of the fluidity that we would ideally want for smooth historical simulation, this seems like it could be a good teaching tool for students starting to think about cultural fluidity of space and place, as well as a personal tool for historians trying to map changes in the landscape over time.

March 9, 2010

Final Project Prospectus — AKA TL;DR

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 6:10 pm

A definition of TL;DR — possibly also what my students will say in response to the whole website idea…

The project that I intend to attempt for this class is a course website for a syllabus I made last semester. American Thought in the Long Nineteenth Century is obviously an intellectual history course, but since I take a rather broad view of “intellectual history,” the assigned readings come from philosophers, political thinkers, public intellectuals, journalists, cultural luminaries, social scientists, reformers, etc.  Students taking the course thus must be able not only to parse nineteenth-century prose (something which often throws them), they must also be able to parse it as a historian would – i.e, with an awareness of pretext, context, subtext and retext that comes from a wider awareness of the social and intellectual milieu in which these people were operating.

This can be very difficult to accomplish in one semester – particularly if students are coming in with minimal background.

So, the point of creating a course website is to give my students an opportunity to rehearse these skills and gain some larger context in a way that I simply don’t have the time to execute in the classroom – even if I was able to discern absolutely what the majority of the class’s “needs” in that department seemed to be. In addition, it allows for some differentiation – students who need basic context can get it, while more advanced students can explore parallel and related content offered by other websites.  On a more basic level, it will give the class a sort of “virtual center,” an organized zone of community and intellectual interchange that is accessible 24/7. Shy students, or students who are not morning (or even afternoon) people may be able to use the project’s interactive features to shine outside the bounds of the 90 minute sessions twice a week.

I have big dreams for the website (obviously), but I also realize that I have limited skills and time within which to accomplish this project for evaluation in this class. I have included below a list of objectives for the actual site that I THINK I’ll be able to accomplish before May 4.

A reasonably well-designed home page for the site. One of Professor Sword’s mandatory items, this home page will establish the “tone” of the site, and will force me to think about overall organization and navigation. These sorts of spatial and design considerations will also clarify the raison d’etre of the site – just like in a colloquium paper, I’ll need to “signpost” the parts of the site that most directly accomplish the goals of the project! While I know that I can figure out the actual plumbing of the web coding (thank you Dreamweaver), I *am* concerned about stuff like graphic design, etc. I’m nobody’s artist, especially not in the medium of pixels, and I’d like this to look decent.

Pages devoted to individual lesson days for at least one of the three “arcs” of the class. While I want to make sure that students can still rely on my printed syllabus, the online “syllabus” with pages of origin for each lesson will allow students both to focus on the themes of that individual day or week, and to connect those themes with previous material, and material outside my own site. Obviously something like this will be a work in progress throughout my teaching career, as links die, new content is generated, and as I re-organize the class according to what worked and what didn’t.  But these lesson pages should provide some of the basic context and advanced connection to which I referred earlier.

An interactive repository of most class readings for at least one of the three “arcs” of the class. Since one of my main goals for the class is helping students learn to read a text like historians do, I want them to be able to participate “publicly” in the digital annotation and interrogation of important texts.  I’ve been experimenting with different formats that might allow me to do this – Digress.It  is one option, as is something called SharedBook. I’m hoping that my classmates will join me in taking these for a test run, and will give me some feedback as to the benefits and drawbacks of both projects. (If you email me, I’ll invite you to the SharedBook text I have so far!) I’m probably going to have some trouble integrating these applications into my actual site, so they may be sort of an independent paratext to the website – mandatory linkage for the students on each lesson page.

I see these interactive texts as functional in four ways:

Elucidatory: On the most basic level, this should help kids who maybe just don’t GET what the passage is saying, or who don’t understand specific words in their archaic context. The ability to explain this stuff outside of class, complete with OED or even (gasp!) Wikipedia linkage will hopefully encourage students to ask questions that will enable them to get beyond wrestling with the text as “big words”, and to let them see what it’s actually doing rhetorically and argumentatively, and what those ideas mean for trajectories of American thought.

Didactic: Since I plan to sprinkle some of these with my own thoughts, this can help kids see how trained historians approach a text that they’re unfamiliar with, connecting it to their own research and what they already know. The process of making connections across different genres and periods should be helpful for the exams and for conceptualizing the larger arcs of change over time.  

Collaborative: Since students can respond to each other’s comments, the marginalia function should hopefully allow for some co-teaching that isn’t as intrusive (or as chaotic) as in-class group work can be. Ideally, I hope that students will answer each other’s questions, pose new ones, and debate points in the margins – just like in old colonial newspapers.

Evaluative: I’d need to think further about how I wanted to assess students’ participation in these discussions – personally, I hate the “comment at least twice on the class blog” type assignments, because you tend to get crap from students. This might shift from year to year, depending upon students’ level of skill and engagement.  However, you should be able to trace at least a bit from this online activity which students are really getting it, and which need a little more help.

A formal project proposal will also accompany these digital offerings. I envision the proposal as expanding upon the background, scope and rationale for the project that is offered here, as well as offering a comparative dimension provided by my analysis of other course websites.  I am, however, somewhat concerned about my ability to gain access to other course websites, particularly beyond the scope of IU. Most professors understandably try to keep their course sites within the circle of the class, both for issues of copyright and student privacy. I have already arranged to interview Professor David Pace, who has expended a great deal of time over the years in compiling his course websites. I’m hoping that he can both give me some perspective on the creation process and also maybe point me to some other quality examples! Still, the question of access to source material may limit my ability to do as exhaustive a comparison as I would like.

While I know we’ll be doing a poster presentation on April 16th, I’m hoping to incorporate feedback from my fellow students into the process in these early design stages. I mean this particularly on the interactive features, but I would also appreciate any “design for dummies” suggestions you might have – or even challenges to the merit/purpose of the project. Does the marginalia idea sound gimmicky, rather than helpful? Do you have other sites or applets you’d like to suggest , or websites about the nineteenth century that you think my site should link to? Finally, I’ll email my syllabus and rationale from last semester out so that people can have some context for this whole thing!

March 4, 2010

Questions for Professor Gould…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ths117 @ 8:47 pm

Dear Professor Gould,

It’s nice to see that the Oral History Association’s General Principles and Best Practices for Oral History recommend a “lead” that would address some of the questions about metadata ( location, date, “publisher”, etc) that we’ve been talking about with reference to more conventional texts. However, I’m curious about the challenges of recording what you might consider the non-textual metadata particular to oral history — things like posture, fidgeting, gaze, emotion, expression, eye contact — in short, body language rather than just spoken words. This is particularly interesting to me in terms of indexing and searchability of non-textual elements. I have a friend who’s in a class about the politics of emotion right now, and I would imagine that a search function that enabled him to search for tears or laughter in a repository of oral histories would be tremendously useful!

Of course, I can also see some  issues arising from the attempt to index this sort of data — the role of the interviewer in interpreting/codifying the source’s body language, particularly through the filter of age, physical debility, or cultural difference, could get very subjective or judgmental. Nonetheless, it seems like an important aspect to consider when thinking about making these texts available! Anyway, I would be very curious to hear your thoughts about the usefulness of this type of data: how you’ve interpreted it sensitively within the context of your own work, and/or how you envision the interaction of digital access and oral history.

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