“HISD18: Digital History” was a fourth-year undergraduate seminar/lab taught by Dr. E. Natalie Rothman at the University of Toronto Scarborough, January-April 2015. It was the first undergraduate course in Digital History at this institution. I was hired as a Research Assistant for the “Digital History Curricular Enhancement and Assessment” project (funded by a Centre for Teaching and Learning Teaching Assessment Grant, University of Toronto Scarborough) to assist in the establishment and evaluation of HISD18. The following is an excerpt from my final project report.
In HISD18: Digital History, twelve students researched and presented a seventeenth-century book using a number of digital tools and methodologies. Their object of study was Paul Rycaut’s History of the Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1668). In each module, students were asked to consider the traditional work of the historian and the new possibilities afforded by digital scholarship. The central aim of this course was to introduce students “to the variety of ways in which historians are grappling with digital methods and approaches to the study and representation of the past.” In this and in many other respects, this course was a great success. The work of the students in HISD18 has been archived on the class website, hosted by Serai, which features a public course showcase.
Most of the modules generated a lot of interest among the students. They especially enjoyed working with primary sources at the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, where they discussed remediation: what happens when a historical text becomes a digital object? What is gained and lost with these transformations? Students also found the introduction to Zotero and approaches to research management useful. There was a lot of interest in the tools for data visualization (timelines and networks), and many students commented that they would have liked more time to learn to use these tools and with them to develop their final projects.
The breadth of this course was both a strength and weakness. Students were introduced to a wide variety of digital tools and projects. They therefore learned about many approaches to digital history, but were not always given time to engage with these in depth. The mastery of some digital tools, such as TEI, requires time and instruction far beyond the purview of an introductory course. Students expressed (in class and in surveys) their desire for more class time working on large research projects using digital tools and methods; many reported that this class would work better as a full-year course, and most of the students said that they wished they had had more instruction in digital humanities throughout their studies. As such, I recommend the incorporation of digital scholarship education into all levels of the undergraduate curriculum. This was an introduction to digital humanities that would have better served students earlier in their university careers.
In fact, the other great success of this course was that it exposed a variety of shortcomings in the undergraduate curriculum. Throughout the semester, the teaching staff (historians, librarians, and digital scholars) identified gaps where the abilities and prior education of these bright, upper-year students failed to serve them in completing the tasks at hand. These include basic computing and online research. The constant immersion of young people in social media disguises their digital illiteracy. The current form of public education does not teach students what they need and want to know about becoming critical consumers and active producers of knowledge, much less in an increasingly digital world.
A class in digital history differs from a traditional history course because it forces us to include ourselves as modern scholars in our estimation of the past. The digital humanities ask us to really think about our research methods, our collaborations, and the transformations we bring about when we encounter the legacy of the past. In this course, we studied the historical context and the digital potential of an early modern text. The experience was fascinating and felt kind of revolutionary because it was about more than objects and events in the past; it became about access to knowledge, democratic collaboration, and a meeting of the modern and the premodern. The focus was on the learning space of the students into which they pulled early modern history and digital scholarship. The connections felt more fluid than I had anticipated. The digital humanities are inherently collaborative and interdisciplinary; the discussions, projects and modules in a class such as this stand to serve students well in their future studies and employment in this and other fields.
This semester was interrupted by the month-long strike of CUPE 3902 teaching assistants and course instructors. None of the teaching staff of HISD18 were union members, so this class could have continued as scheduled. However, Professor Rothman took the opportunity to use the strike as a teachable moment and to have the students of this course consider this event as “history in the making.” They applied their digital history skills to cover the strike and to create “digital strike companion kits.” This experience embodied one of Professor Rothman’s central lessons: how to harness the digital humanities to both critically engage with the past/present and to produce knowledge for our many publics.