Teaching Digital History

The readings for this week dealt with teaching digital history. In particular, the emphasis was that digital history/humanities need to be taught. The assumptions that teenagers and incoming university students are part of a generation of digital natives fails to stand up to even moderate skepticism. Danah Boyd brings up a great point that great inequality exists in access to the skills of using digital media as well as access to the media itself (192-95). This is particularly apparent in my household since my wife teaches third grade. At the beginning of every school year she asks her students if they have a computer at home. Without fail, there is always at least one student who raises his or her hand. This year there is one student. Last year, when she taught in Carrollton, GA, there were two students. When she taught in Griffin, GA (a significantly less prosperous area) there were consistently five to eight students who did not have computers at home each year, and this was out of  around twenty-two students. One might say that they can gain access at school, but my wife’s classroom only has two computers other than hers. In Carrollton, it was the same way. The schools have a computer lab, but access is limited. So to  Boyd’s point, one can only expect that those students with a computer at home will be much more adept at using the internet and all the features that it brings.

Nevertheless, even if students are adept at using Facebook and other social networking sites, it does not mean that students are willing or excited about using digital tools in traditional classrooms. As Allison Marsh and Adam Robinowitz indicate, some of their students were disinterested in the digital tools that they were confronted with using.  To be honest, I was equally disinterested in digital history at the outset of this course, but I have since been converted to the possibilities that digital tools allow. I am currently using network analysis in the final project for this course, and I fully plan on using it throughout my research. I already have plans to expand my network analysis of the letters (and topics in those letters) to the French Kings as well as Catherine de Medici for future projects, including my dissertation. I think my experience is exemplary of why we need to teach digital methods more in the academy.

To do so means thinking outside of the box in the assignments that we give. While Mills Kelly had a novel idea that certainly seems to have energized his students, perhaps he took it a little too far in constructing a historical hoax for the class project. I think the spirit of his course is interesting and can be replicated in a less dramatic fashion. In the past, for a World Civilizations course I thought at the University of West Georgia, I assigned a paper in which I gave them a series of notable, yet outdated, theses on various historical events, and their assignment was to chose one,  dispute it, and provide an alternative thesis that better explains the event.  The goal like Mills Kelly’s was to get them to think like a historian, and most importantly to understand that our understanding of history is not stagnant, but dynamic. I think this assignment can adopt some of Mills Kelly’s approaches as well, albeit in a slightly different way. The students can blog about the research process and seek out Wikipedia and other online sources to understand how pervasive some of the theses remain (one might consider Max Weber’s outdated Protestant ethic thesis, for instance). In addition, perhaps after writing their paper, they could write a review in their blog of Wikipedia’s entry on the topic.

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