Colourful images flash across the screen. Upbeat music plays in the background. Towards the end of the clip, the words, “Crafting Digital History: Exploring the Future of the Past” appear on the screen, before the music fades and the screen cuts to black.
In less than 30 seconds, the introductory video for professor Shawn Graham’s new course, “Crafting Digital History,” perfectly captures the essence of the class: Futuristic, unique, and a refreshing departure from traditional textbook learning.
Graham, a professor at Carleton University, says the course is a means of “training undergraduate historians in digital methods and in the critical theoretical perspectives that this … intersects with.” At its core, the course is about writing history in digital media. Graham gives students the tools and knowledge they need to gain control over their “digital identities” as historians. In explaining the purpose of the course, Graham recalls the words of digital historian Adam Crymble.
“With millions of dollars spent on digitizing historical resources, as Adam Crymble points out, shouldn’t we figure out what to do with them?”
“Crafting Digital History” is running in the Early Summer 2019 term, under the course code HIST 3814. Graham, who designed and teaches the course, reflects on how it was born. The idea first arose while Graham was teaching a second year history course that explored the many ways historians worked with and wrote digital history.
“I saw a need for a deeper engagement with digital methods,” says Graham.
Once Graham had decided to teach something along these lines, he began working on a face-to-face version of “Crafting Digital History” with eight undergraduates. In its present form, the course can be explored through an online website (craftingdigitalhistory.ca), where students can easily navigate between course elements such as the syllabus and a 30,000-word course workbook (all written by Graham).
Graham already teaches a course on the representation of history through digital media (HIST3812), so when designing “Crafting Digital History,” he sought a different approach.
“This course is on the doing of history,” Graham explains. “The caveats, the gotchas, guarding against the ways in which digital tools can be used to fudge things, online scholarly identity, open access publishing, radical transparency.”
One of the challenges of the course is the fact that “nothing ever sits still,” Graham says.
“This is a hard one for students – folks often want a kind of recipe, ‘Click here, then click this.’ ” In a course that intersects with the ever-evolving digital world, Graham highlights the need for students to learn to grasp principles, rather than follow simple tutorials.
Students enrolled in “Crafting Digital History” have the opportunity to design their own digital spaces. Each student has hosting control over their own webspace, which becomes their “digital history laboratory.” A web space students can design and customize is an important aspect of the course, which follows what he describes as the “indie (ed-_) web ethos,” which seeks to place the individual in control of his or her content.
Graham will be using parts of the computational notebooks from his award-winning digital archaeology textbook, ‘The Open Digital Archaeology Textbook Environment’ (ODATE) this spring as an experiment in crossing disciplinary boundaries. ODATE is available at o-date.github.io.
Graham expresses his excitement at the prospect of continuing to teach the course.
“As always, it’ll be an adventure,” Graham says. “It’d be disappointing if I didn’t learn something from all these students!”
reprinted article by Maha Ansari, BJ 2016 (Carleton)
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