I’ve had an absolutely terrible semester. The reason was/still is for one more week my fourth class. Like one of those self-destructive overworked academics who my friend Kate describes so movingly here, I’ve been trying to do everything I usually do this fall despite having about 33% more teaching on my plate than usual. Almost at the end now, I recognize that the only casualties of all this extra work have been blogging and sleep so I know that things could have gone much worse. I also take my hat off to everyone out there who has to do even more teaching than this to make a remotely decent living every semester. Nevertheless, it has been quite difficult trying to keep up to my usual high standards for everything.
That’s why it’s nice when your students can bail you out and my digital history class has done precisely that. Faced with so much more class time, I really didn’t want to teach a course just like every other one, so I put many of the things I learned about at the RRCHNM at George Mason last summer into practice for the first time. Actually, the first lesson I learned is that you can’t throw students too much at once or they’ll shut down. That’s why I let them gravitate towards the programs they like. I can now definitively state that the results have been spectacular.
As I mentioned before, I threw out the syllabus mid-semester because the students wanted to focus on Scalar. What’s funny about this is that I didn’t think I’d be using that one all that much when I first heard about it in Virginia. It just seemed so over my head. I knew I wanted them to do exhibits, but I was trying to get them to use either WordPress (which I know well) or Omeka (which still doesn’t make much sense to me, but then again I’m not a museum professional) as a platform. It turns out that Scalar is not just a fantastic publishing platform, but a great exhibit platform too.
However, what’s more important to me is that this kind of class causes so much less wear-and-tear on the professor, even when I’m not familiar with everything that I’m teaching. For example, I could give students a program and go tell them to go georectify a map, and it would actually be done. Then they’d come back and show me how to do. Video was actually their idea. Their Scalar skills are now better than mine, but I’ll catch up by the time next semester rolls around. Following a cue from John Randolph at UIUC, I’ll be creating at least one Scalar syllabus and getting students to write web and traditional research papers in my senior seminar class at the same time.
I’m also planning a much bigger Scalar project now with the Steelworks Center of the West here in Pueblo, which owns the Colorado Fuel and Iron Archives, the source for all the wonderful pictures and maps in these student-created books. Since I know the archives better than just about anybody with the possible exception of the archivist, I’m an essential consultant on every student project.
Speaking of the students, the most surprising and gratifying thing about this whole effort has been their reactions. I’ve heard similar sentiments to this one expressed many times over the last few weeks:
“I honestly have never done anything like this project before. I have never gone to a museum, pulled out some documents, maps, and pictures from over a hundred years ago and then analyzed them. Usually, I got them off of the internet. It was fascinating to pull out those old mine maps and look at all of the detail that went in to constructing it. I had a lot of fun working with those maps. I also learned how to go about looking at archival information…
Overall, I learned a lot in this class. I spent more hours working on this class than all of my other classes but I also feel like I gained many more useful tools out of it. The history and technology lessons that I learned from this class could never be undervalued.”
Yeah, I know this is old hat to some of you who’ve been doing this for years now. I also know that some of you traditionalists out there are wondering why any historian wastes his time teaching computer skills, but it’s fun (and comparatively relaxing) to do things completely different every once in a while. No, I’m not planning to do this sort of thing in every class I teach going forward, but how could you possibly argue against doing this at least some of the time with this kind of success?