By Shawn Graham, Associate Professor, Department of History

I’m the digital humanities guy in the history department. But, I don’t know what these things – “digital history” or “digital humanities” – are, what they look like, what they could be.

That’s the line with which I start almost every course I teach around here. After all, I trained in Roman archaeology (if you need a specialist in Roman ceramic building material, a.k.a. bricks, I’m your man). What’s exciting for me is that when I admit this to my students, it suddenly makes for a whole lot more engagement. Granted, there’s a lot of panic, too. Who knows where we’ll end up? In this post, I want to share with you where we went, as an example of what experiential learning can be. And it mostly depends on the instructor letting go. As Jesse Stommel says,

Start by trusting students. #4wordpedagogy

— Jesse Stommel, Twitter (@Jessifer) April 30, 2016

Therefore, I spend a lot of time gaining my students’ trust first, and trusting that it will be reciprocated.

“You want us to what?” they say.

“Fail gloriously. Swing for the bleachers. Do something you haven’t done before. Go big or stay home,” I say. “After all, if I don’t know what DH is, then maybe we can figure it out together.”

In my recent iteration of HIST 3812: Digital History, I decided to take this in a new direction. The focus would be on making. Critical making, if you will. Students were immediately concerned: “What if it doesn’t work?”

An entirely reasonable question. After all, we’ve done a good job of disciplining students, of getting them to swallow unquestioningly the conventional markers of what counts as “scholarship.” It has to be perfect; only the prof (if then) will see it. Essays? Yes. Failed 3D prints? Not so much. In public? Are you mad?!

But in digital work – as in archaeology – it’s when things break that we see the fabric within, the stages, steps and assumptions that came together in a certain time and space, an assemblage of social, economic, cultural and technical factors (see Croxall & Warnick on “Failure”). Teasing these out can only be done through destruction (archaeology destroys what it studies, often). And it takes a lot of eyes and a lot of collaboration. Digital history, like archaeology, is a team sport.

The idea then, in HIST 3812, was to explore what the digital turn in historical scholarship did to how we see/craft/consume the past. We achieved this through a series of modules. The first one began with physically scanning some kind of historical artifact into a 3D model. Each module afterwards progressively abstracted that data in new ways, culminating in a final return to the “real world.” You can watch a video teaser of what the course is about, or check out the course website and the course FAQ (which evolved over the term).

This course blended face-to-face meetings with public-facing digital work. In particular, I required students to keep “fail logs” of everything they tried and all of the digital bric-a-brac they created while working through these experiments in public Github repositories (with due processes in place for privacy and security concerns).

Each week, students were required to annotate readings using the Hypothesis web annotation tool. This allowed threaded conversations at the level of individual words or concepts on the page itself, whether PDF or HTML. In the second meeting of the week, students would arrive with “entry tickets,” or the most compelling thing they’d annotated, written down on good ol’ 3 x 5 index cards. These would become the basis for a student-directed in-class discussion or lab session. The students would share what they found compelling with someone they didn’t know, reading the card to them. Then each pair would explain this to another pair. Then these small groups would explain to the rest of the class. The quality of these discussions was the best I’ve observed yet as a prof.

With time, the students saw – and led each other to see – that it was this process that mattered most, rather than the finished product. The process showed them what assumptions, what flaws, what biases are built into digital work. The process showed them that doing academic work was not a zero-sum game, but a real dialogue. But what finished products! Some created 3D print mashups of commemorative statues in Ottawa, reflecting on how memory changes; others focused on our relationship between what is real and what is fake. For an example of a final project by one student, please see Alexis Mawko’s Lessons from Wharhol (posted with permission). This video shows her completed hologram projector (!) in action.

What I found most rewarding happened at the end of the course. The students knew that the final day would involve an “exit ticket,” an elaboration of the familiar entry tickets. I asked them as a group to figure out what they learned in this course, and to tell me. I then sat back and let them figure it out. In 1.5 hours, they ended up writing a 4,000 word essay using Google docs. I tweeted about it. The editors of Active History (an important voice in Canadian digital history) saw the tweet, and two weeks later, the exit ticket was published in their Beyond the Lecture: Innovations in Teaching Canadian History series:

Start by trusting students. Tell them things are going to break, that they’re not going to work, and that that’s ok: that that is indeed the point. If experiential learning means anything, it’s that it is the process – and sharing that process – that matters. Share your own epic fails, your iterative approach. Roll with it. Throw it all out and start over if need be. Workshop an essay, rather than assign an essay as the end-all-be-all. Ctrl+alt+delete. But come back and tell us what happened and why.