Thursday, February 7, 2013

My experiment with digital history in the classroom

This semester, I am experimenting with digital history pedagogy. FWIS 167 - The Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery, a writing intensive course, uses tools in the digital humanities to explore the rise and fall of Atlantic slavery. You can access the course website at
Each week the students post brief blog entries on the readings and comment on at least two of their peers' posts. We have had occasional guest posters who also contribute to the discussion and react to student questions (we'd love to have any blog readers chime in, particularly those of you who specialize in the history of slavery). I am very pleased with how the blog posts have enhanced our in-class discussion. The students come to class with at least one clearly thought-out position on the readings, and through the student comments, we are able to pick up on conversations and debates that began online. While many of the posts are not as polished as I would have liked, the students are getting an opportunity to work on their writing (a stated goal of these writing-intensive seminars), they provide great teaching examples for our weekly writing exercises.  Thus far our workshops on grammar, concision, and the passive voice have begun with assessments of blog post entries.  
For the remainder of assignments, the students have selected their own subtopic under the umbrella of Atlantic slavery.  The student-selected sub-topics include economics, the Middle Passage, slave resistance, slave life, women and gender, and racial ideology.
The students have also begun constructing a timeline of major events in their subtopic. Using TimelineJS through VeriteCo, the students plug information into a google spreadsheet and then have it appear in a really lovely timeline. You can access our timeline here.  If you'd like to experiment making your own, you can start here.  We have had some technical difficulties with the timeline, but a few techie friends managed to solve our problem with relative ease (just don't ask me to explain how!).  
Using Tumblr, the students have also begun constructing their own primary source archive on their subtopic.  The students have found documents using a variety of online databases and then have written short summaries describing the content and importance of the document.  You can see the beginnings of their archives here.
Future assignments include a historiography paper on a Wikipedia page, a Prezi on modern slavery, and a final paper using the primary sources the students have found in their archives.  So far, I am pleased with the way the students have enthusiastically taken to these non-traditional assignments, and I'm excited to see how things develop.  Stay tuned for more updates.


  1. This sounds great! I am curious - how did you balance between informing your students about all of these technological pieces and overwhelming them with too many new things at once? I always struggle with this at the beginning of the semester. I'm using Zotero and Google Groups in a class now, and I think the explanation during the first week created anxiety even though they get it once they use the technology themselves.

    I hope your blogs go well - when I've had students to individual blogs, (as I wrote about here), students report that they enjoy the experience, and I think it contributes to class discussion since they refer to each other's posts. I'm using group blogs this semester in class of 20 students (4 per blog) which is also a nice way to create little discussion communities within the seminar.

    1. Thanks Gale. I was very worried about overwhelming the students with all of the technology, but fortunately, this wasn't a problem. I did the obvious things, like take the time to explain everything in great detail, ask for (and sometimes even demand) questions from the students on the course expectations. What probably worked more than anything was explaining to the students my own technophobia, which is acute. If your dummy professor can do it, so can you!

      I really like the idea of group blogs. I think that would be a great idea particularly as I scale up this course for larger class sizes.

      I'd love to hear more about your use of Google Groups. It seems like that could be a very cool tool.

  2. Great post, Ben. Upon reviewing the blog posts, let me just say that I hope you appreciate your students. Their writing and analytical skills are, across the board, quite strong (not surprising given your institution, I suppose).

    I wonder if this plays a factor in the effectiveness of this type of pedagogy?
    Unfortunately my students are not, on average, at the level of yours in terms of reading/analytical/writing skills, and so rather than online discussion forums, blogs, etc. being an extension of actual learning - in which students are "teaching one another", they have often been frustrating. Students resort to summary or unclear, confusing points in their posts (and yes, I provide them clear instructions and models).
    Your examples have encouraged me to keep considering these types of assignments, but the level of students' written communication does present obstacles to having real, advanced dialogue.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Aaron & Ben: The very real dynamics of the students' preparations must to be a part of this discussion. Still- Ben's work in a previous iteration of this class exposes students at any level to a way of historical thinking (i.e. the creation of historical narrative) that is quite exciting. I think much of this could translate downward (i.e. high school) very easily.

    The Wikipedia historiography is especially powerful, and I think the lesson would not be lost on the majority of college students regardless of their previous skill sets.

    I have had similar struggles as Aaron discusses- I am using Twitter for outside class learning (@drjosephmoore) and my students are struggling with it. I thought (naively) that Twitter would be the easiest tool to integrate since students use it in their daily and non-academic lives. The opposite has proven true: they area disoriented by trying to use something academically that they prefer to use socially.

    The great thing Ben is doing (and something I hope to imitate) is that his students are using these new tools as intellectual and academic tools first. He is staking out new academic territory in the digital world, rather than trying to "conquer" well established terrain.

    Bravo! great post & discussion!