Aha! moments at AHA #THATCamp


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AHA THATCamp 2013. New Orleans.

I have been going to the American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting for about five years.  I started midway through my PhD career, back when I still had access to grad student travel money (aka: the good old days).  I have presented at AHA and been interviewed for a job at AHA but mostly I go because I think it is important to know what is going on in the discipline at large and to learn how to teach more effectively.   It is much more difficult for me to go these days.  As an adjunct I have exactly zero access to travel funds from my institution (or the four departments I teach in) and it costs an arm and a leg to travel anywhere from Bangor, Maine.  Regardless of the financial issues it is well worth the exercise in creative year-end money management as I always find people/ideas/books/panels that remind me why it is I love history. It is easy to get discouraged up here in the frozen north but AHA gets me energized to face a new semester and whatever the year has in store.  This year’s AHA was no exception.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have declared January Digital Humanities Month here at Stillwater Historians. My bi-weekly posts this month will focus on all things digital so be sure to read along throughout the month. I am in the process of designing a graduate and an undergraduate course in digital humanities both of which will (hopefully) be offered in Fall 2013.  I am new to DH course design so I decided to spend the month of January planning my approach and immersed in all things digital.  My AHA starting point was THATCamp AHA as I figured it would be a great place to begin collecting ideas and resources.

This was my first time attending THATCamp.  I have read all about the unconference format and followed tweets from other THATCamps but still wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  I figured the introductions alone would take six hours (who knew historians could introduce themselves in three sentences or less)!  Once Dan Cohen hammered out the logistics and the day’s schedule was set I chose my sessions: Teaching Digital History Workshop & DH Course DesignClassrooms and Learning Spaces for the Future and Disruptive Pedagogy Workshop – Mills Kelly.  In this blog post I want to highlight a few important things I learned from these sessions that I think will be useful to others who are new to DH or are teaching DH classes for the first time.

Jeff McClurken of University of Mary Washington led the Teaching Digital History Workshop & DH Course Design workshop.  I won’t rehash the entire session as you can read through the Google doc I have linked in the previous sentence for a host of useful sites and resources Jeff highlighted.  A few pieces that are especially worth consideration:  There is a difference between “digitally inflected” and “digitally centered” classes.  This was a revelation for me and perhaps the first thing to consider when planning a DH class.  In fact, this cuts to the center of the design process. I have been thinking about the distinction and how it will relate to the classes I am designing.  The first is a 300 level undergraduate course designed for honors students, none of whom are likely to be history majors and few of whom will be humanities majors.  At this point I think the class will be “digitally centered.”  The students have all gone through a four semester great books sequence and I plan to introduce them to the possibilities of using digital tools to add to their understanding of the great books sequence they completed and transition them into reading more great books on their own.  My early thinking is that students in this class will learn about tool use by applying it to the texts they have already read.  The graduate class I am sketching out is a bit different and I haven’t decided yet if it will be “digitally inflected” or “digitally centered.”  At this point it seems like “digitally drive-by.” Because it is a special topics course in an interdisciplinary M.A. program I will have students with diverse backgrounds.  Unlike my honors students who, at the every least, have the great books curriculum in common, I’m not sure what these students will have in common.  I’m going to have to think on this one a bit longer.  

shiningSometimes up here I feel like a character in the Shining (buried under snow)…coming to THATCamp was a great way to plug into resources and access a community of potential DH mentors–things my own institution lacks. I need to do some thorough research on courses that have already been offered at other institutions.  My institution has not offered any “digitally centered” courses that I know of and very few “digitally inflected” courses.  Because I am not really part of the faculty it is virtually impossible to get a sense of what is going on up here (but I suspect it is very little) so I am simply going to skip my institution as a resource (because it isn’t one) and move on to the wider community of scholars.  I am going to start with this amazing collection of 100+ digital humanities syllabi (Jan. 2014 note: we’ve disabled the link to this collection because it’s moved and we can’t find it. If anyone can update us we will restore the link!). Basic primary source research, right?  I hadn’t seen this resource before and I can already tell it will be extremely valuable in my early thinking and planning.  Who knows, maybe this time next year I can add my own!


The second session I attended was Classrooms and Learning Spaces for the Future led by Mills Kelly who writes a great blog that you can read here. Kelly is part of a committee trying to decide what classroom space should look like in some new buildings going up at George Mason University.  When faculty at that institution were polled to see what they envisioned in the classroom of the future only a handful responded and, not surprisingly, suggested configurations that already exist someplace else on campus. Surveyed students wanted more outlets and more breathing room…more room to think physically and virtually.  It was really hard to come up with suggestions and I’m not sure that any of us assembled gave Mills much to go on but the conversation got me thinking about the spaces in which I might like to teach my DH classes in the fall and, more broadly, what are the basic requirements necessary for a DH learning space.

I can’t learn if my ass is asleep! Outlets and breathing space are key but so too are comfortable chairs and movable desks.  I envision both my classes as being student centered and I want them working together on projects and sharing work.  I’m going to have to take a walk around campus and see what some classrooms outside my own regular rotation look like.  The honors students generally have classes in small rooms some of which have a large table around which we all sit.  Another room I have taught in is actually some sort of lounge complete with coffee table and wing back chairs.  It might look nice in the brochures but it doesn’t exactly encourage note taking or writing as there are no desks.  The conference room style is a bit better but crowded as the room is quite small.  In both cases the rooms are devoid of screens, computers etc. so they just will not work.  Whatever I find for the undergrad class will likely work for the graduate class too (I think).

The last panel of the day was Disruptive Pedagogy Workshop also led by Mills Kelly.  Mills told us about his course, Lying About the Past and the tale of how his undergraduate students created a historical hoax that infuriated some but clearly captured the historical imagination of the undergraduates involved.  I won’t rehash the details here but I encourage you to read a bit about the course and the hoax on his blog,  also here, in the Atlantic, on  the CBC and in numerous other places around the web.  The story of the hoax and the press coverage it received is fascinating but to me there were two really important points that brought THATCamp full circle.

Skating on thin ice is something we should do more often. I don’t even know how to skate but getting out of my comfort zone and taking big risks is really the way to go.  It is also something I want to model for my students who live in fear of being wrong, being different and taking risks.  Graduate students may be more fearful in this realm.  They don’t want to take intellectual risks (and truth be told I probably didn’t want to either at that point in my life) but risk is what life is all about.  Kelly designed his class because he observed that his students didn’t have fun studying history and they were not very critical of the information that bombarded them.  To combat these interconnected states he designed a class that got students interested to the point that much of the content and the actual amount of work undertaken seems to have been in large part student generated.  From what I gathered they went above and beyond in their careful research and innovative ideas.  It sounds like they did more work in that one class than I did in grad school and I don’t think a single one of them complained because they were generating and negotiating the structure as they went. While I don’t think I will be doing history hoaxes in my classes next fall I do plan to give some serious thought to negotiating the content of the courses and figuring out how to create an environment where failure is expected, embraced, and overcome in public.  I want my classes to be spaces for creativity but I want to make sure that my students experience some degree of discomfort…that is when the learning happens.

WikipediaEverything I need to know/teach is on Wikipedia. Well, maybe not everything…but I have underutilized Wikipedia as a teaching tool.  Mills’ story got me thinking that the entire episode would make a great lesson for students.  First of all, it’s just a good story and who doesn’t like an engaging story that illustrates the pitfalls of complacency, the staggering creativity of students and the power of a simple idea.  I think that a discussion of Mills’ class and a careful analysis of the Wikipedia site and the edits history will be eye opening for students. To see how knowledge is constructed and to remind them how easy it is to fall prey to flashy DH is a central lesson I want to teach.

Thus my single day at THATCamp got me thinking in some new directions about digital humanities and what I hope to accomplish in my classes.  At the very least, it narrowed my focus a bit.  The classes I am hopefully teaching are not simply Intro to DH classes…far from it.  Both will have additional components and requirements that need to shoehorned in.  As the process of getting these classes approved and my own thinking progresses this month I will be writing more.  Stay tuned for my next post which will highlight some new additions to your Digital History Tool Box (Winter Edition).

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5 thoughts on “Aha! moments at AHA #THATCamp

  1. Pingback: Aha! moments at AHA #THATCamp | Digital Humanities Tool Box | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: Editors’ Choice: #AHA2013 and #MLA13 Roundup : Digital Humanities Now

  3. Pingback: Add some #digitalhistory to your class | Stillwater Historians

  4. Pingback: Aha! moments at AHA #THATCamp | Digital and History | Scoop.it

  5. Pingback: Digital History Notebook | Stillwater Historians

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