Digital History — Spring 2010

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!

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