Thoughts on teaching the introductory history course, digitally

Historians have a responsibility to keep abreast of recent research in human learning and effective teaching techniques, and the digital age has played a large role in inspiring studies of cognition and neurobiology that can help historians become better teachers. In the article “Towards Teaching the Introductory History Course, Digitally,” Thomas Harbison and Luke Waltzer make a lot of excellent points about the need for innovation and collaboration in developing more interactive, immersive survey history courses. The introductory history course is key to generating student interest in and understanding of the study of history, which is why I find the experimentation described in this article so relevant to discussions of history in the digital age. Harbison and Waltzer list four pedagogical processes that they utilized to shape the course they developed: Writing Across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines, the Visual Knowledge Project, the Open Educational Resources Movement, and networked learning theory.

Each of these processes emphasizes exploration, collaboration, and primary source research as a means not only to help students work through the information in the course, but to examine how they think about, work through, and learn from that material as well. It’s about process, not product, and this is central to any successful learning experience. While it’s true that these processes and the emphasis on process rather than product could be utilized in a “traditional” (i.e. non-digital) introductory history course, I agree with the authors’ assertions that the digital medium and digital technologies and resources present unique opportunities to both teachers and students.

For one, historian-teachers have access to resources that make it possible for them to observe and actively participate in their students’ attempts to navigate through the course material and develop critical analysis skills. This makes it far easier to intervene and redirect students when they are having difficulty grasping key ideas or concepts and has the added advantage of clarifying student thought processes. As a teaching assistant I have learned that it is nearly impossible to predict the ways students from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences will interact with a given text, lecture theme, or primary source. Thus far, speaking with students is the only way I have found that I can gain sufficient insight into how a student is interacting with the material to understand what a particular problem is and offer appropriate advice and direction for rethinking the problem. It seems that the digitally-taught history course offers another, potentially more effective approach: observing the learning process itself. This could make it possible to reach students before they journey too far down the wrong path or become discouraged and give up.

A second obvious advantage of teaching history digitally is that it gives historians a viable platform for showing students the need for and potential of history in the digital medium. The introductory history course taught digitally will, as the authors discuss, require the use of both digital tools and digitized sources. By showing their students what is currently available online, historians can also discuss what is currently not online—as well as what this means for the discipline of history. Examples of digital scholarship can inspire students to imagine new ways of doing history, ways that are probably quite different from how they are used to thinking about history (generally in terms of names, dates, and “dusty old books”).  Digitally-taught history courses also provide a means to increase media literacy, not just in the sense of increasing student knowledge and abilities with regard to digital technologies and tools—as Harbison and Waltzer point out—but also in the sense of showing students how to critically evaluate historical sources and arguments in the digital medium. If historians don’t assume an active role in educating students about how to determine good history from bad—both in print and online—who will? Wouldn’t we rather it be us (trained professionals) educating students in our history courses than some amateur or demagogue on the Web? Of course critical evaluation of sources and argument ought to be discussed in any introductory level history course, by does not the digitally-taught history course offer a unique opportunity to impact the primary way the digital generation encounters history: on the Web?

I am also particularly encouraged and intrigued by the authors’ experimentation with open platform publishing. First, this medium seems bound to generate “more rigorous examination of visual resources,” as the authors argue, and it enables both students and historian-teachers to take full advantage of a wide variety of source material. When students write and publish in the digital medium, they are able to utilize not just visual sources, but audio, video, and born-digital sources as well. This is sure to please students of the digital generation, who already tend to be well-versed in interaction with multiple forms of media, but it also promises a process and a product that will be more interdisciplinary in nature than the traditional class essay tends to be. “Media richness,” as Harbison and Waltzer term it, offers a new path to increased interdisciplinarity within the teaching, study, and profession of history. (Although of course interdisciplinary methods require their own introduction and discussion of best practices if students are to use multiple media effectively and critically.)

Open platform publishing also offers a means for historian-teachers to get their students to practice and develop their writing skills more. I have been a teaching assistant for a few professors who have attempted to utilize in-class “mini-essays” as a practical opportunity to enhance students’ basic skills in forming critical arguments supported by evidence. And by practical I mean that they are brief enough to evaluate quickly—something that is key in large classes—and consume very little class time. Mini-essays are a good enough technique to start with, but they aren’t particularly useful as the semester goes on and one works to see improvement over time.  Mini-essays, by their very nature, don’t allow for much in-depth analysis and thought. The “micro-monographs” Harbison and Waltzer refer to seem a much more useful tool in the effort to achieve the same end, and the fact that these micro-monographs are developed and presented in an open, digital platform makes them all the more useful to historian-teachers’ efforts to find more effective ways to educate students. Writing as an iterative process holds great promise in getting students to improve both their writing skills and competency in making a historical argument. Harbison and Waltzer discuss having students write and publish a brief piece on a focused theme, then garner feedback via peer review and instructor intervention, gather more evidence, and rewrite. They state that their students wrote “more frequently and voluminously” over the course of the semester than in most other courses they previously taught. These short bursts of writing seem ideal for many of the goals of an introductory course, and they enable the historian-teacher to engage with their students in a more thorough, meaningful way than a typical large survey course allows.

Overall, the experiences shared by Harbison and Waltzer in this article are a good illustration of the positive results that can be achieved when one is willing to experiment with the digital and find ways to utilize its advantages for the specific purposes of historians. And if more historians begin to think of what they would like to do with and within the digital medium, we can also begin to ask for (and create) the digital tools and resources we need to create the kinds of history courses we can currently only imagine.

*This essay was written as a reading reflection for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here. The article, “Towards Teaching the Introductory History Course, Digitally,” was published on the site Writing History in the Digital Age, a born-digital, open review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotski.