How to Teach Digital History for the First Time

So, you’ve been persuaded of the merits of teaching a class on digital history (or you’ve been wrangled into teaching one by your department), but how do you actually go about building a digital history class?

Here are some ideas and suggestions to get you started.

  1. Do some reading on the relationship between digital history and digital humanities, and on teaching public history to figure out whether you want to teach a digital history course, a digital humanities course, or a public history course with a digital focus. Alternatively, you might decide to teach a more traditional history course with several digital assignments before jumping into teaching a strictly digital history course, and this checklist will help you integrate digital history and/or digital humanities into your course.
  2. Survey a range of digital history syllabi. You may want to teach a course on historical sources, extending from manuscripts to digital databases, in line with this syllabus, which utilizes University of Virginia library and local resources and offers instructors and students a more traditional approach to digital history. Or perhaps you want to teach a digital history class with an emphasis on skills, labs, and projects, like this Digital History class at York University. For a hybrid of these two approaches, see our Introduction to Digital History syllabus available here and in our “Teaching” section. Another option is to create a digital history course based on your location, like this New York City-based course offered at NYU. For a graduate-level course, you might explore this syllabus for Digital History and New Media at Auburn University.
  3. If possible, consider teaching your digital history course online. The fact that students have chosen to enroll in an online course will help reinforce, for them, the importance of learning to utilize digital media and digital sources.
  4. Even if you are teaching the course in a brick-and-mortar setting, you might consider moving the discussion and assignments online. Online discussion on learning and management systems like Blackboard will acquaint students with one another in a digital setting and make them more comfortable with commenting on each other’s assignments later in the course.
  5. Similarly, digital assignments — that are visible to all users — will allow students to learn from their peers. For instance, Student A, whose first assignment post included no images and no spaces between paragraphs, has an opportunity to learn from Student B, who included images, centered them, used captions, and appropriately spaced their paragraphs. This type of peer modeling can be more effective than instructor feedback in getting students to create, in this case, a more reader-friendly blog post. Another benefit of digital assignments, including those posted to Blackboard, is that they allow students without advanced levels of digital literacy to practice basic digital skills, like taking and posting screenshots, centering images, and using hyperlinks.
  6. You might ask students to post at least one assignment to a course website on the web (as opposed to a closed course website like Blackboard). Students will likely relish the opportunity to publicly showcase their work, and will understand (having grasped the open-access virtues of digital history) that such an assignment is in the spirit of the class. If students are hesitant to post on the web, you can allow them to post on Blackboard but encourage the majority of students to post to the web, or you can offer students the option of using a pseudonym for their public posts.
  7. On days that assignments are due, consider basing student participation grades on the questions they pose on each other’s posts. This will ensure that students are reading (and learning from) each other’s work, and it will help facilitate a sense of community online that can compensate for the less-personal aspects of online learning.
  8. The web offers infinite choice and opportunity for individual initiative, so give students choice in their assignments. You may discover, through them, online databases and sources that you were previously unaware of!
  9. Regardless of the emphasis of your digital history course, you probably want to include a mix of theoretical and historical readings as well as how-to articles or videos, like this page on How to Cite an Image in Chicago Style and this video that discusses fair use. Striking a balance between academic and “how-to” content allows students to see the big picture (why the class and their work in it is important) and to gain skills and digital literacy that will benefit them in other classes and in their professional lives.
  10. Consider allowing students to tailor projects to their interests. A student who plans to become a middle-school teacher, for example, may want to take on a different digital history project than a student who wants to work in a museum, or a student who is majoring in computer science.

Above all, expect your digital history class to be different from other history classes you have taught. You may opt not to lecture or give tests. You may not be able to get Gen Ed designations for your class because it is not content-based. And you may find that you have to tweak your syllabus as you go, as you learn more about digital history.

You should also expect a range of digital skill-sets from your students. And that’s OK! When I pioneered a digital history class at Binghamton University, I had one student who took weeks to use the hyperlink function, and another student who had TA’d computer science (CS) classes. The CS expert produced a final project for which he wrote a program to graph tweets, whereas other students incorporated more conventional media in their final projects. Ultimately, each student demonstrated growth in the class by learning how to effectively present historical material online.

Finally, embrace the relative newness of digital history. There is no one way to teach a digital history class, and part of the experience should be growing your own digital skill set and your understanding of digital history as a sub-field. And, like a good digital historian, post your materials online for the benefit of other instructors!

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