Spring 2017 – Matthew Unangst Why Digital History?

Why Digital History?

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This project seeks to engage first-year undergraduate students in the burgeoning field of digital humanities, a pedagogical and methodological approach to historical analysis and public history that the historical profession on the whole has been slow to recognize as a viable, standard measure of student learning and scholarly productivity and achievement. In recent years, this trend has begun to change. As historians Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas argued in their 2009 Perspectives on History article, the primary goal of digital history is “to create a framework through the technology for people to experience, read, and follow an argument about a major historical problem.” In short, digital history has the potential to create greater access to serious historical questions and concerns, and this grant project seeks to put WSU undergraduates at the center of creating that open and public access.

Larger intellectual and public institutions have and continue to use digital media to represent the past and to ask historical questions. For examples, see the Library of Congress’ American Memory Project or the University of Virginia’s Race and Place: An African American Community in the Jim Crow South. Northwestern University’s Digital Humanities Laboratory provides interdisciplinary space for faculty, graduate students, librarians and technologists to experiment with, workshop, critique, and discuss the use of digital media technology in the humanities.

Yet despite the sometimes over-digitized nature of the millennial generation’s lives, the translation from the approaches of these much larger projects to the undergraduate classroom has been somewhat slower. Moreover, first-year undergraduate history courses tend to maintain a primary focus on historical content, with less time devoted to historical thinking and historical research, particularly through the creation of digital history projects. The content-driven essay or research paper, while immensely important in terms of communication, critical thinking, and information literacy skills, still reign supreme in the undergraduate history classroom, often crowding out other communication forms, like digital media.

The Roots of Contemporary Issues program has, since its inception, sought a greater balance between content- and skills-based learning. This project seeks to further the goal of skills-based learning by giving first-year students first-hand experience using new digital media to conduct research and to render, both in written and visual form, key elements of historical inquiry. Students who are able to couple the critical thinking and communication skills required for historical research with the technical and communicative skills required to create a useful digital space will in essence combine two essential skills for a wide range of workplaces in the twenty-first century market.

Despite a lukewarm embrace of digital scholarship by the historical profession as a whole, several college and university initiatives have proven that digital humanities projects are equally if not more successful in providing undergraduate students with a space to hone problem-solving skills, technical and information literacy, written and visual communication skills, and creative and critical thinking. At Haverford College, the Digital Haverford collaborative endeavor assists undergraduate students in creating digital online exhibits in several fields within the humanities, including history. The University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab offers ways for undergraduate students to both collaborate and work independently on digital scholarship projects, including these student-driven WordPress projects, “Literary New Orleans” and “Americans in Paris.” In each of these projects, students created and used digital mapping tools to visually represent their arguments. The RCI digital history project will employ these and other examples as models for students working in WordPress to create, organize, and employ digital content for the purposes of answering historically driven questions.