Teaching Digital Humanities

This week’s readings on teaching digital history discussed many important themes. Two themes stood out particularly and go hand-in-hand: navigating the different technology backgrounds of today’s supposed “digital natives” and designing college and graduate-level courses that utilize digital media effectively to teach the content, the process of “doing history,” and the technology itself.

Ryan Cordell’s piece, “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities,” is a how-to guide for digital humanities courses, offering dos and don’ts for professors and institutions wanting to add digital humanities to the curriculum. In addition to suggesting that these courses should start small with one digital methodology or subject theme and should take advantage of local resources, he cautions instructors against assuming that their students are “digital natives.” He states that professors wishing to bring digital media to the classroom should be aware that students are still “technologically skeptical,” though they live in a world in which digital media is prevalent. This is an excellent point, because though students may interact with Facebook on a daily basis or are adept Googlers, they may not understand how that technology really works or how they can harness a digital tool for school projects and even build upon it.

Mills Kelly argues in his book, Teaching History in the Digital Age, that in order to incorporate the digital into the classroom successfully, the instructor must meet the student in that digital world that fosters active content creation and social networking. The instructor and the students must converge and work together within that digital world to learn the history itself, historical thinking skills, and the technology. By meeting the students in the digital world in which they already interact, such as Twitter, Wikipedia, or blogging platforms, the instructor can diminish that “technological skepticism” and then introduce more technology, such as Omeka. The students can engage with the history as they create digital content and learn about the historical process and technology along the way.

The “Lying About the Past” course that Kelly discusses in his work, though controversial in theory, did introduce digital media and the historical process to the students. They had to create a hoax, research real primary and secondary sources for context, write blog posts and Facebook posts about the topic and research process, and learn how to critically assess sources, especially those sources on the internet. The students directly engaged with Wikipedia, a source they undoubtedly consulted before at one time or another, and learned about crowdsourced history in addition to the evaluation of content that others have created. That course seems to be a good balance of introducing students to the process of history, how digital media interacts with that history, and the history itself. One key theme for teaching the digital humanities is balance. The instructor must balance the sophisticated technology and methodologies with the digital media that the students already use, and the course must balance the history itself, the content, with the process of making history and the active use of historical thinking skills.