Notes from the week after Spring Break, or, Challenges of a Digital Humanities History Classroom 

We’re half way through our shared project of transcribing newspaper articles from the revolutionary era so we can analyze them for what they tell us about religion and the revolution. The results are very promising – the decrease in anti-popery, rising fears of irreligion and deism, the hollowness of a slave society talking about slavery and liberty without acknowledging the very real slaves in its midst, and Benedict Arnold as the devil. And that’s just naming a few of a top flight stack of projects. In short, we’ve got some fantastic studies that touch on the main themes of the era in a complex way. Every one of them is teaching us more than if I’d put together a list of articles on the subject.

But today, in the doldrums of the spring semester, I’m struck by the way that doing a DH project in the classroom is fundamentally different from traditional history teaching. Instead of having a syllabus that proceeds chronologically through a series of primary and secondary sources, we’re taking a third of the semester to dig deeply into particular topics through this framework. The work is not more time consuming, but it is a different kind of work.

The upside of this is that the students are “doing history.” They’re producing something that has, as far as I know, never been done before. We have lots of studies of religion, and lots of studies of the revolution, but none I’ve found that look specifically at what people in read and wrote in the newspaper about religion at this time. It’s not a comprehensive study by any means, but they’ve already found some really interesting things.

On the other hand, we’ve also had some challenges. The biggest one of these, I think, is workload. In short, I don’t think my students were prepared for the grunt work and group work that’s involved in doing a DH project (despite my warnings!).  This is valuable grunt work. When you process your sources to render them digital—transcribing, carefully tagging, retagging, mapping, organizing—you know them intimately. You know them a thousand times better than when a stack of pdfs is printed off a database to be read at some later moment.  It may present a challenge to students when it comes to time management, but it’s also an intellectual boon.

Perhaps it’s also a surprise, and so far this is the biggest challenge of teaching through DH for me.  We all know that sometimes (often) students skim what we assign to read, or skip it all together and hope that no questions appear on the final. That’s how you cut corners in history. That kind of short-changing just can’t be done in a project like this. Every student has to pull his/her weight during the course of the semester, and one doesn’t, it’s readily apparent to all, and to the professor.  Instead of shaking my head over a research paper with a fraction of the required primary sources during finals period, the process has to be completed, now.

Nonetheless, I remain impressed with the intellectual capacities of my students, with the diversity of their projects, and with the kinds of questions they ask.  And that’s not blowing smoke – I think they and I have learned more than when I taught this class in the traditional way.  But maybe in the future I’ll put in some trigger warnings on the syllabus: High quality DH requires a lot of time, and some of that time will be boring data entry!


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