An audience for my lesson.

For my proposed assignment, I wish my audience to be a beloved high school teacher. Rather than argue for a generic disinterested but engaged audience, I want my students to have a specific figure in mind. Most of my students did some high school in MN, so a focus on a high school figure will also help ensure a broad familiarity with MN history. A high school teacher is also college educated, so students can students can “write up” rather than “write sidewise” to a pear or “write to the mountain” of their professor.

Using digital to answer the question: why does Normandale’s changing student body matter?

How will digital media and/or digital tools be important to teaching my target audience one of the essential lessons I’ll be focusing on in my project? What, specifically, about the digital environment will influence what you do and why?

There are a variety of digital history projects that focus on the ethnic and racial diversity of Minnesota. For example, a History Harvest projects focuses on a African American community called Rondo that was displaced during a highway construction Similarly, an the Minnesota Immigration History Research Center is generating video interviews of immigrants, which are then published to the web. These projects are robustly resourced, and well-supported by their colleges. I look to these projects as examples for focusing on local history.

Right now I’m imagining a lesson that captures a bit of history of Normandale Community College, which was founded in 1968. Coincidentally, Minnesota started to experience major inflows of immigrants in 1975 with the arrival of Hmong and the Koren people and the arrival of Somali peoples in 1991. Rather than duplicating other efforts to capture these people’s stories, I think it would be useful to work on how these immigrant populations changed our college.

There are a couple of clear challenges in this: one, many records at my college will be held only in paper forms. The easiest digital records will be recent, and may not reflect the types of questions my students want to ask of the past. Perhaps most importantly, I think we need to address why it matters that the school has evolved from an almost entirely white institution to an institution that serves 40% students of color? We may need to use local newspapers that have been digitized and I suspect I’ll spend as much time teaching on the tools of the project as I do on the argumentation necessary to present the past. My hope, however, is that by focusing tightly on a single subject, say the role of college to first-generation college students, we will avoid the scope-creep that can lead to great research that is unevenly presented.

External expectations of teaching and learning.

How have external expectations constrained teaching and learning in history, and how might the digital turn disrupt those constraints?

The digital turn has the potential to create a more durable, widening, and damaging gaps between those who create information and those consume information. When history consisted of writing papers, access to technology proved limiting, but could be mitigated with public goods. Students without typewriters or computers/printers could use school resources. A single textbook, for all its pedagogical flaws, is a 1000 year-old technology that offers access to all who have it in front of them. With the digital turn, the number of content areas to master before engaging the content of history and then creating history have expanded.

For example, students must secure regular and speedy access to the internet for my course. Students must be able to navigate between multiple browsers and security settings to access articles I’ve posted. And students need private viewing space and fast internet to view videos that have been posted. And that’s before we get to making, mining, marking, and mashing.

Let’s say there were seven types of social capital a student needed to possess to write a paper in the pre-digital era. For example, locating and reading a textbook, taking notes, understanding genre expectations for historical writing, locating and using a device that prints, incorporating feedback into writing, and writing to meet assignment guidelines. Today, a student might have 25 to 40 types of social capital needed to produce the same paper, including how to locate and use suitable hardware, software, websites, printing technologies (why won’t my student ID print from this station?!!!), navigating Content Management Systems, and using email– to name but a few categories.

As teachers of history, we must be attentive to the challenges of the digital turn that go beyond mere access to content or production. I had a student who had an iPad for her only computer, only to discover the file system of iPads wasn’t recognized by our LMS, so we had to create a back door for her to submit her assignments. Access matters, but clearing a trail once does not make a clear path to success.

As teachers, we face multiple stakeholders, such as parents, legislators, accrediting bodies, and disciplinary organizations, that have uneven understanding of the increased burdens the digital turn creates for students. People remember their history course, and imagine today’s history is analogous, but “with computers.” Yet it’s not. Our challenge as educators is to provide the support students need to succeed with the digital tools while at the same time advocating to our stakeholders for recognition of the work we are doing. We teach history to students and then pivot to teach the value of historical methods to the wider world.

Brainstorming final project- Norton

I’m not sure the scope of my final project for this course, but I’d like to focus on Minnesota history for my project. MN history is my least pedagogically integrated course and suffers a bit of Franken-course syndrome, with assignments bolted on to suit particular interests or needs. I also think my MN history course is the least attentive to the threshold concepts that students need to work productively with evidence.

Fortunately, MN history has the easiest to access sources of all my courses and there are known issues of historical contention that would allow me to assess if students can demonstrated historical thinking. For example, the 1862 Dakota – US Civil War has a decent source base, strong secondary sources, and at least one fictional account, all of which could be woven into projects. One issue I will face is what we call “Minnesota nice,” that is a cultural disposition away from open verbal conflict or explicit offense on the part of a privileged group. Only privileged groups practice MN nice, because only those with privilege can avoid the conflict of being out of step with culture.

As with any state history, I’ll need to confront the lionizing elements in the secondary literature and to help student problematize the whiggish historical narrative of most histories produced by our state historical society.

There are no good textbooks, so how do I supply sufficient background information to allow students to operate without imposing a master narrative on the whole course? How can I help students move beyond contemporary notions of race to engage conflicting notions of difference? Minnesota has been historically very white, but what it means to be white, to whom, and when is, as with all history, situational. Moreover, there is greater diversity to MN than has generally been acknowledged. I’d liked to foreground that diversity in some way. I admire the twitter feed medieval people of color for its work highlighting people of color in European art. I wonder if my class do something similar, but with data? That is, could we highlight in data the racial complexity of our state in ways that haven’t been before?

In all of this brainstorming, I want to keep in mind that there is no pre-requisite for MN history. Students can be in developmental reading and writing and thus I need to consider how to ensure there are helping way stations along the course for those who need prompt succor.

POSTSCRIPT: Week 3 History Curriculum Discussion

Kelly’s framing of doing history as making, mining, marking, and mashing echoes some elements of historical curriculum thought. For example, I see echoes of Becker’s notion of Everyman making history in Kelly’s call for students to make their own history, rather than receive it from experts. At the same time, there’s a participatory element, almost a participatory democratic pedagogy, that Kelly presents that past thinkers fail to address. Most of the readings for this week focus on what teachers write and say. Kelly’s notion places the practice of of history more in the hands of students.

Thinking about historical thinking post- Norton

The first two weeks of my course I conduct what I call “History Bootcamp.” Upon reflection, what I’m trying to do is locate the threshold concepts that students need, combined with digital literacy skill, akin to what Calder describes his first three sessions to be. So, my first question is: what threshold concepts do I cover well and what concepts need buttressing or building? Partly in response to Calder and Wineburg’s focus on procudure, I think I also want to ask myself how much time (in weeks) should we devote to history bootcamp?

Both Calder and Lévesque include lists of “moves” or questions they ask themselves and their students. A third question for me is: how are these questions relevant to my teaching today and what parts of them need to change?

Finally, and unrelated to what I’ve written thus far, I’m cognizant of the preponderance of male pedagogic theoretical frameworks in these articles, despite the long and equally valuable contributions of women scholars of teaching and learning. So, my final question is who aren’t I reading that I should when I frame my own threshold concept questions?

I can only begin to answer these questions. I know that my students struggle with the past as a stranger element of historical thinking, and that needs better incorporation into my History Bootcamp. Two weeks of actual working on threshold concepts might be necessary, which I do now, but I think I may need to acknowledge that the first week is for settling in and extend my Bootcamp to the first total of three weeks.

On the question of moves, I want to include at least two additional questions I ask students to wrestle with: what sort of digital literary is necessary to ask informed historical questions and how does the way we ask a question of the past inform our ability to recognize injustice? These are preliminary answers, but digital literacy and justice are questions I haven’t seen in our readings and I know I wish to cover.

As for more reading I might assign myself, I’ll likely start with Joan Scott and move forward chronologically. I’m especially interested to investigate if there are feminist cognitive learning scientists.

Intro to History 689 Classmates for Jack Norton

With this post I join a community of digital history teachers taking the course “Teaching History in the Digital Age” at George Mason University this summer. By way of introduction I teach at Normandale Community College and this course is part of my sabbatical plan. I did my PhD in history at the University of Minnesota, focussing on women’s lives in early modern Valladolid, Spain. For a couple years I worked as a corporate archivist and historian for a medical device company. I live in Minneapolis.

Like some of you, I stumbled into digital humanities in the course of teaching. I hope to refine my pedagogy to better reflect the scholarship of teaching and learning as it relates to history. Of particular interest is how to teach with the evolving tools of digital history to large numbers of students, with highly differentiated preparations, and many of whom are poor. There’s nothing new about community colleges addressing this student population, but digital history frequently brings a new set of challenges to the fore. For example, many dh tools are online and free, but websites become unresponsive when faced with 40 or more interrogations of their data. I feel confident that I will be able to find technical solutions to problems, yet I hope this course can help me sift better from best of the tested methods for teaching digital history.

I am convinced that the tools, skills, and information-sorting mindset of digital history deserves to be taught at the survey level as it is there is where it can provide the greatest good. My commitment to teaching digital history springs culturally from geekdom and social justice. I hope that this course in, in its readings and learning from others, will help me refine my surveys to better serve my students.

Digital Humanties at Scale.

No, this is not about big data, at least not the sexy kind of big-data that makes venture capitalists and ed-tech analytics companies sit tall. Rather, I write to bemoan the challenges of teaching Digital History in the world of the cloud. Before the play begins, please note I write not to criticize the folks who create the DH tools mentioned below. Rather, I write to note there is an epistemological predisposition towards solo work in DH that makes teaching it at community colleges challenging.

Act one: GIS. Omeka is a content management system that I teach to my students as it helps them understand the need for standardized metadata when it comes to history presentations. It also helps them learn how historians always weigh what to put in and what to leave out when explaining the past. A stupendous plugin called Neatline lets students plot points and shapes on a world map and associate a variety of metadata, including dates, explanatory text, and html links to the original sources. I host my Omeka install with Reclaim Hosting, the best server option I’ve encountered and with banging customer service.

When all 45 of my students start inputing data into the same map, Omeka bogs down. I’ve checked my usage stats on Reclaim, and it’s not their servers, it’s just how the Omeka software processes changes. Truth in advertising, I know just enough code to know I don’t know diddly about coding, so I can’t say why Omeka slows with lots of folks using it. More challenging for me, when I go review the maps my students have made, every changed focus takes 5-12 seconds of “loading” time. Grading 80 GIS points requires I click, wait. . . . not long enough to do something else. . . wait. . . and read. Then I input the rubric in the learning management system, click in Omeka and wait. . . . .

To be clear, Omeka is by far the best teaching tool I’ve found for digital history, replacing four separate other tools. And there’s a new beta version of the software that appears to be more attuned to group usage, called Omeka S. That said, to teach my student now (and I’ve been doing this for a couple years) I have to counsel a great bit of patience with tools that were never designed for a standard undergraduate class. To be sure, Omeka is open source, so I could teach myself how to self-host an instance of it on a local college server, and that may be what I need to do, but again, it doesn’t look like my server is being overwhelmed with bandwidth issues, just too much data moving in an out of Omeka.

Act 2: Distant reading. Voyant Tools allow students to do distant reading in a fantastically-well-designed user interface. Like Omeka, you can download a local instance of it and install it on your local computer or on a server. In this instance, it my college’s IT rules that prove a challenge. Running Voyant locally requires Java, which my college’s IT no longer supports due to security issues. So, the obvious fix to overwhelming the free service the Voyant team provides through their web-version of Voyant won’t work right now. I may try to find a way to load a Java Runtime Environment, browser, and Voyant on a flash drive and then copy that package 45 times for a DH on a stick option. Again, brilliant tool, wonderfully executed, frustratingly slow when used in a 45, person classroom.

Act 3: As part of an introduction to how historical GIS can help us ask different questions I have the students use the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World. I ask students to calculate distances and speeds from different cities in the Roman world and then to explain why historical actors may have chosen to act is certain ways. The map is in it’s 2.0 version and, by and large, works flawlessly, even with 45 students using it at once. Until it stops working. To be fair, I can get it to do some things, but not others. Right now I need it to calculate distances and times between cities so I can double-check my students’ answers. Stanford will probably get back to me in a reasonable amount of time and it is entirely possible (probable?) that my user error is causing the problems. Still, I can’t grade right now and anything that slows down grading for a community college professor is the root of all evil. UPDATE: I DM’d Jason Heppler at Stanford (he taught the intro to R course I took this summer) and he waved a magic wand. ORBIS is back up. Which reminds me that making great stuff is important, and having responsive support is equally important. Noting my gratitude for both the tool and the support.

Now, the field would not exist in its present state but for the hard-working humanists, coders, and other digital workers that created many of these tools. So, complaining that tools don’t work well for lots of people seems a bit akin to a restaurant review claiming “such poor food, and so little of it.” With that, however, I want to note that almost all of the tools I encounter that are easy to use, are not easy to teach to large groups. Those DH tools that are easy to teach to large groups (say Markdown) are not easy to use in a robust way. No, I can’t ask my students to install MALLET to avoid a web-interface: many of my students only have the computer I place in front of them. Yes, I could use other services that disaggregate work on a single server, reducing bandwidth issues. For example, I taught historical GIS using Web ArcGIS. But that requires a separate login and is not well-connected with the other more historically-minded work that we do in Omeka.

Perhaps this is just where we are as a field, with mostly 2.0 tools that are good, but not enterprise ready. Perhaps I’m asking too much of 1st-year students when it comes to doing DH work. And perhaps we, in DH, need to start thinking big when we create tools, so that the tool works well with 50-100 first, before we add new features.

How to build history and social justice into life.

This past weekend I visited St. Francisville, Louisiana for a family wedding. The wedding was held in a church built in 1860 and re-built in 1880 after shelling by Union troops. Later, the wedding reception was held at Greenwood Plantation. I asked my sister-in-law: “Hey, did you see the plaques commemorating the slaves who built the church and the plantation?”*

Her: “No, I didn’t”

Me: “Yeah, I didn’t see them either.”

As you’ll see from the links above, there’s loads of information about the botanical, architectural, and white familial history of these places, but, as far as I saw, no physical acknowledgement of the black Americans (slaves) who created the gardens. There are places in Louisiana that address slavery head on. Still, walking around St. Francisville, a town of fantastic architectural heritage largely built by slaves of wealthy slaveowners, I didn’t see any public displays recognizing slaves. Buildings were “Built by wealthy planter X in 1834.” To be fair, the failure to mention the workers who actually constructed buildings isn’t southern or even racist, but part of larger erasure of working people’s contributions to our country.

Still, focusing on the beauty of the architecture without acknowledging the horrific violence that created it seemed like a pact of forgetting, akin to the Spaniards not talking about the Franco period after the transition to democracy in 1976-1978. Walking around everyone commented on the beauty of landscape, which to me felt akin to commenting on the beauty of the forests around Buchenwald.

So I came back to Normandale, and I had a Muslim student chat with me about the difficulties of navigating the holiday of Eid al-Adha. Eid isn’t a holiday that my school has off, so she’s faced with observing it and asking professors for the day off, or only partially observing it and coming to school. We talked a bit about how employers frequently had floating holidays that let people of multiple faiths take time away. I let him know the minor accommodations I made to facilitate religious holidays that weren’t on the calendar, such as the High Holidays for Jews or Eid al-Fitr. Still, we wondered together about how culture builds in acknowledgement of some people and asks others to do more work to have their culture acknowledged.

The two experiences coming hard upon each encourage me to think about how I build in acknowledgement of certain groups into my assignments and why that matters.

* As a matter of historical accuracy, at least one source I read indicated the current Greenwood Plantation main house was rebuilt in the 20th century after a major fire.

Safe home.



Not sure where I’m going with this. . .

I’ve concluded, as so many others have, that the Learning Management System at my school does more harm than good to student learning. Not that the LMS is useless: I like the centralized grading, quizzing, and file system- all nicely FERPA compliant. But that’s it. For everything else, I want to use the public web, if possible.

So, imitating much smarter people, I’m putting my course on the open web. I don’t have the time to teach myself how to create static pages using jekyll and github, so I’m just going to run two installations of a wordpress on my own server. I’m toying with just linking to github pages for all the assignments and readings, gathering than posting them as HTML in wordpress, but that feels like I’m asking a bit much of my students, to learn to navigate two new interfaces.

One of my frustrations is that I have few to no resources at my school to help me work through these issues. IT and our instructional technologist are great, but with skills very different than what I’m working on right now. Plenty of historians around the country teach on the open web, and many post their syllabi and assignments to github for others to use. I met some of these amazing folks at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute , but their new colleagues, not the kind you can ding with newbie questions on workflow.

Curiously, for all the tech getting-up-to-speed I’ve been doing, the mindlessness of it has allowed me to reconsider more teacherly aspects of my courses, such as assignment design and how to promote historical thinking in a scaffolded way. I want my assignments to ask more open-ended questions that inspire curiosity, rather than settle for mastery of a timeline.

If you think this post is wandering, I did warn you in the title. . .

Safe home.

What do you value?- [Updated post] #budsc15

What do you value? [

I’ve had an itch all weekend long I couldn’t scratch until this morning. Session after digital humanities session highlighted the possibilities offered by new (mostly software) tools for understanding our world. Questions that might once have been improbably hard to answer (how often does a historical figure mention the ten cities closest to her home city in a work of 10,000 words) can no be dispatched with the flick of mouse. Particularly impressive have been the the two ends of the spectrum, field defining scholarship and more limited yet nonetheless fascinating undergraduate projects.

Yet, for all the brilliance of the technology, methodology, and–at times–andragogy of the presentations, I missed something. Rather, I saw it in asides, tangents, dry humor, and apologetic caveats: why does DH matter? I heard about the ability to access knowledge in new ways (digital vs analog, dynamic vs. static), new ways of analyzing established sources (distant reading, GIS, computer mediated transcription), and new ways of displaying existing information (student exhibits, DH research websites), but I didn’t hear a lot of why are we doing this.

Yes, we can. We can plot locations, parse data, and generally code the sum of human of existence into submission, making it bow to our technological prowess. Should we, and if so how should we? What do we value, as individuals, as educators, as scholars, as community members? One participant asked why I taught DH at the survey level and I said to get my students jobs. And while that was honest, I didn’t highlight the value behind that answer, that skilled paid work gives students options for a better life. Like you, I want to improve my students’ lives. And I don’t want to hide that, nor should you.

If you teach DH because you want to make the world a better place, say just that. If you don’t care about the world and just want to advance your career, say that. If you’re a nihilist who believes DH is just as useless as any other pursuit so why not do it rather than bake bagels, say that.

My point isn’t to superimpose my values on other’s andragogy, only to call for greater attention to the values embedded, explicitly and implicitly, in our DH work. As Vance Ricks, a philosophy professor at Guilford College, noted to me during a coffee break, if we fail to articulate our own values, the values of our work will be shaped by others. Knowledge creation is not neutral, even if combinations of 0 and 1s appear so.

To give relief to these general musings, consider the use of GIS to chart the ancient world. Some of the most prominent projects take well-know texts and geolocate references in the texts. In short, take famous text (Herodutus) add GIS and stir. It’s fantastic, truly. At the same time, historians have worked for half a century to expand what we know about the past beyond the elites that created most of our primary sources. For example, understanding women in ancient Greece requires reading “across the grain,” looking for the gender dynamics of ancient Greece in close readings of texts that are references against scant other sources, such as art, poetry or financial records. In short, our source record speaks directly to the immediate experience of maybe 5% of the ancient Greek world and historians have found creative ways to learn more about the other 95%.

If we go back and simply apply DH tools to existing sources, we risk reproducing the blindspots of historians 50 years ago. Or worse, we risk re-articulating the value that only the elite males of the past made history worth studying. As I reconsider my thoughts, I think it important to distinguish between undergraduate projects–which should be first to teach and second to advance scholarship–and more advanced work–which should know better.

I also want to acknowledge the folks I saw who presented work that both “liberates data” and “liberates people.” Matthew Cisk is working on mapping the South Bend community so that the city and the community can improve their neighborhoods. Sabina Deitrick and Abigael Wolensky went into Homestead and West Homestead and worked to make digital technology serve the people of those communities. And many people shared stories with me about how important using DH to improve society was to them. Miriam Neptune noted that technology can separate or unite students of color with their classmates, depending on how its deployed. I am hopeful these efforts continue, even flourish.

That’s a lot of words for this idea: why do you do DH?