It’s the first week the semester up here in the snowy north and classes are underway. I’m teaching four this semester: two are small, great books courses in the Honors College and two are larger, focused on the state and cover a range of topics. This week I talked about the Aeneid, Nietzsche’s “Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” and Maine’s open land tradition and it’s only Thursday! Next week it will be Zimbardo, Weber, more Aeneid, and Maine geology. The diversity is fun, the reading is time consuming but the great students I see every day make it all worthwhile. I bring bits and pieces of one class to the next and I use examples from one discipline to make points in another.
I use lots of examples and show students lots of visuals in my History, Sociology, Honors and Maine Studies courses and I am always on the lookout for interesting ideas and new ways to present information. I think there is something really powerful about sitting down with students and going through a complex text or set of documents and then taking a look at some of the ways others have analyzed that same text or document set. Take the Aeneid for example. The text is fascinating and we could spend an entire semester going through it. But equally fascinating is the life the Aeneid has had over the centuries. Take for example Aeneas’ Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci or “Dido’s Lament” sung by Soprano Jessye Norman which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Anneke van Giersbergen does a version that is equally haunting. Then there’s that scene in Troy where Orlando Bloom gives Aeneas the sword or the part in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the Trojan rabbit. There are hundreds more but these all crossed my mind this first week as I sought ways to make an ancient text come to life and to remind my students that they are not the first ones to enter a dialogue with this text. For centuries creative people have been using new tools to understand the Aeneid and to add layers to its history.
I really like having students think through the use of “tools.” By “tools” I simply mean things that help us accomplish tasks. Tools could be theoretical frameworks employed to analyze an issue, casting Orlando Bloom as Paris because he is kinda dreamy and his face fills theater seats, close reading of the opening stanza of the Aeneid and comparing it to the opening stanza of the Odyssey to see if there are differences. Tools help us know additional things and we have to decide if what we learn augments our understanding. The key with students I think is to point out the tool, talk about the tool, historicize the tool and point out other tools that produce different results. I have used images, maps and audio video clips since I taught my first class way back in 2003 but over the past few semesters I have integrated more examples of digital history–examples that go beyond the tried and true image/video/audio and allow me to talk a bit more about how historians do their work. Whenever I can find examples of scholars using new tools I try to keep a list. Those bits and pieces can fit so nicely into a lecture or discussion just like a painting or a piece of music or a YouTube mashup.
In honor of January being Digital Humanities Month here at Stillwater Historians I thought I would share a few examples of digital work that I introduce my students to and find particularly useful in a range of classes. There are quite a few ways you can integrate these pieces into your class to augment discussion. These examples are very basic and don’t require you to have any advanced technical skill to use. Your own content expertise and a little research on the tool and creator is really all you need to creatively add these, or similar pieces, to your course.
If you are interested in some very basic tools that will get you started in the world of digital history you can read about six easy to use tools that will form the basis of any digital history toolbox at Summer Project: Start a Digital History Toolbox . You can also read a little about my recent trip to THATCamp AHA 2013 here and follow along with me over the next several months as I begin to think through my courses for fall. I would love to hear about examples you use that work in your courses. Please feel free to add links and ideas to the comments section.
Many interesting digital projects use historical data sets to visually communicate change over time and place. These visualizations can be more effective than static images or even videos in communicating scale to your students. In addition, these kinds of visualizations allow you to talk about the sorts of information sets historians use and what they (and we) can learn from manipulating data. Visualizations also offer a great way to start a conversation about the limits of data manipulation. I think students enjoy these kinds of conversations and learn quite a bit while becoming more digitally literate.
1. Westward Expansion: A really nice example of a historical visualization in Derek Watkins’s Visualizing US Expansion Through Post Offices. Watkins explains on his blog that he: “scraped post office location information from the USPS Postmaster Finder, and then extracted lat/long coordinates by correlating place names to the USGS GNIS.” The result is a dynamic map that my students really like. I have used this with undergrads and graduate students successfully. Undergraduate students at UMaine are fascinated not so much by westward expansion but by what they called “northern expansion.” Not surprisingly, many were more focused on the number of post offices opening in Maine than in the mid-west. They did try to follow the post offices as they opened along the transcontinental railroad and were surprised by how many post offices opened on the west coast when there were relatively few in the mountain west. Watkins provides a bit of information about the limitations of his data on his blog and provides quite a bit more information in the comments section underneath the post.
2. Drop the Bomb(s): One of my favorites is the Nuclear Detonation Timeline. It runs about ten minutes and comes complete with creepy sound effects. Pop it up on the screen in your US II class and let it run in the background while you talk about nuclear testing. The Timeline shows over 2,000 nuclear tests between 1945 and 1998, a staggering number of which take place in the American Southwest. The volume of tests and explosions is sobering and I think will raise lots of questions in your class. I also like this visualization because the map the creators use places the Pacific Ocean and not the US in the center, something that students don’t often see.
3. Spatial History: You can find a nice set of projects at Stanford’s Spatial History Project. I particularly like the Chinese Canadian Stories project which is a collaborative endeavor that is designed to be “a one-stop web portal dedicated to collecting, digital archiving, accessing, and distributing information about Chinese Canadian history.” In an immigration history class or even a survey this type of information is a great way to talk about movement…that is the physical space migrants cross. I also like to use this example as it allows me to talk about Canada and the US in comparative fashion, something I think is essential when discussing immigration.
Again, these sources (like all sources) have limitations and talking about those shortcomings with students is very useful. We all want to help our students be critical consumers of information and this is a good place to start. Get them talking historically and encourage them to consider sources, perspectives and presentation of data.