My adventures in digital history.

These are my remarks as written (if not exactly as delivered) in Paul Harvey’s history seminar at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs this morning:

I recently wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Confessions of an Ex-Lecturer.” Yet my appearance this class (well, the first part of this class anyway) is going to be a lecture. Yes, I’m going to lecture about why and how I stopped lecturing. To get past this enormous contradiction, let me make a distinction between conveying historical content and making a pedagogical argument. You have no reason to memorize anything I say today. There will be no quiz later. Instead, this lecture explains my thinking about teaching history to you and see if I can convince you I’m right. I’ve adopted a lecture format here because I have to tell the story of how my thinking has changed in order for you to follow along with my reasoning.

My opinions on this subject are not popular in historical circles. As one of my former graduate school acquaintances put it on Twitter the other day: “[T]hey will pry the lecture out of my cold, dead hands.” I sympathize. Old habits die hard. That’s the way I learned history when I was in college. Indeed, I never had a class of any kind in college that had fewer than thirty people in it and the vast majority of those class periods consisted of people lecturing at us. A lot of those professors were really good at what they did – although I did take a class from a political science professor who looked up at the ceiling as he talked, which drove me completely crazy….but that’s a story for another time. The reasons I’ve sworn off lecturing in my own classes are twofold.

First, there’s the advent of the cell phone. These small supercomputers have so permeated daily life that the average person – notice how I didn’t say average student – average person can’t go ten minutes without reaching for their phone at least once. Indeed, stick me in some meeting where someone starts lecturing about something that I’m not particularly interested in and I’ll reach for my phone far faster that. I could be the most interesting lecturer in the world (which I most certainly am not), and a good number of you would still reach for your phones at some point during the presentation.

Please understand that I’m not blaming millennials here. I’m blaming everybody. For so many of us, the temptations of the Internet is just to hard to resist. “When people say they’re addicted to their phones, they are not only saying that they want what their phones provide,” writes the MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, “they are also saying that they don’t want what their phones allow them to avoid.” If I’m talking at you in a classroom of any size, it is ridiculously easy for you to avoid me and I’m not going to be able to change that. Therefore, I have to talk at you I better make darn sure that I have something interesting to say.

So what if I give you the opportunity to do something rather than to passively absorb information? What the Internet take away, it also giveth. My interest in digital history comes from my interest in finding some alternative to lecturing about historical facts and then testing students on how many of those facts they’re retained. I know this is sacrilege in most historical circles, but I’m gonna say it anyways: You really can Google anything.

The Internet is well-developed enough that most of the time a discerning consumer of information can get reasonably reliable factual information very quickly with limited effort. But, and this is the second reason I’ve basically given up lecturing, with limited technical knowledge it is now possible for ordinary college students to make useful contributions to the great pool of historical information available online. Not only that, by doing so, they can pick up practical computer skills that will increase their employability upon graduation. With that kind of upside, taking some of the attention in class off of me seemed like a small price to pay.

One of the most interesting things about digital history is that this field lets you make professional use of skills that you probably picked up just by being an active digital citizen. For example, I started blogging right after I got tenure in 2003 because I was a lot less worried about someone threatening my employment because of my political opinions. Oddly enough, I devoted my entire blogging life to one subject: Walmart. I learned WordPress from a guy named Jeff Hess in Cleveland, Ohio via e-mail. Jeff was the administrator of our group anti-Walmart blog.

In 2007, when my department wrote and was awarded a teaching American History grant from the federal Department of Education, I used those skills in class for the first time. We were funded to take teachers to historic sites on the East Coast over the summer and this was a way that they could write easily from the road and that we could still follow them. So could their relatives friends and even students, which served as a nice side benefit – a benefit that applies to all sorts of history undertaken on the open web.

Another skill I already had which turns out to have enormous digital history ramifications is some proficiency in social media. Personally, I’m a stonecold Facebook hater, but Twitter has been a godsend to me with respect to digital history not so much in class but for keeping up with the field. Your professor, for example, (if you didn’t already know) is a prolific Tweeter, if mores on American religious history than digital history and things technological. More importantly, my students have used it to reach out to scholars in fields that they’re researching.

It’s also a great tool for publicizing the work you do online. I actually got a book contract thanks to Twitter (although not in history). If you’ve spent any time listening to the Canadian scholar Bon Stewart as I have, you’ll understand how social media in general and Twitter in particular is a great tool for building communities of interest – and I mean that both in terms of what you enjoy and as a way to fight for what you believe.

With respect to digital history in particular, the turning point for me in particular was the summer of 2014 when I attended an NEH Institute at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Virginia. Me and a bunch of other folks who never studied this stuff in Grad School got a very intensive tour of what’s on the web, web tools and how we might want to integrate them into our classes. Some of it was old hat for me. Unlike a lot of my fellow professors, I had already heard of two-factor authentication and Password protection programs.

However, when it came to history-specific web tools almost everything they touched on was brand new to me. One I was already using, but learned to use better is Zotero, which actual began at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and really ought to be on every historian’s must-use list. Zotero is a notes program that lets you gain intellectual control of your research by allowing you to search it at the word level. That includes content inside digital copies of things that you’ve scanned and uploaded. As someone who wrote his dissertation on 4×6 notecards I can tell you I am never, ever going backwards on this. That’s why I’m now requiring all my students doing research papers to use it. My students constantly tell me how grateful they are to know about Zotero, and how they wish they knew about it two or three years earlier.

A jaw-dropping research tool for digital historians that I first learned about in Virginia is Camscanner. Camscanner is an app that turns your cell phone scanner into a document scanner. If I could show you the huge pile of Xerox copies I made for my dissertation at 25 cents, 50 cents…even a dollar a pop, you’d know why this is so amazing. Having access to free copies of documents from archive make sit easier to acquire information over what is often very limited research time. I had some experience with researching this way when the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress installed the greatest book scanners that I had ever seen in order to preserve the physical well-being of their collections (since bending things back for ordinary copying does so much damage). Now I’m swimming in information – information that’s searchable using Zotero. The same is true for my students as I have them working with local archives in my digital history classes.

The program I settled on for them to use is Scalar, which comes out of the University of Southern California. It’s actually designed as a book publishing program, something that allows books to appear on the web with digital media embedded into them. I’ve been using it in class for web exhibits. Study after study has shown that putting resources up on the web drive traffic to physical archives and libraries rather than take it away, so I’ve had my student create Scalar projects using local resources and putting them up on the web. Here’s a recent example from the Steelworks Center for the West that I liked a lot. Here’s another about a place I think that everyone in this class ought to know well.

Why Scalar? You don’t have to know how to program in order to make it look good. Indeed, as the experience of countless of my students has more than proven, you can learn how to use it within just an hour or two of starting to play with it. Indeed, I have plenty of students who can Scalar far better than I can because they’ve had far more reason to use more features than I have since I simply use it to put up a few syllabi (although I have trained to do more now).

Another reason I like Scalar is that students and faculty who use it can host their own Scalars if they go through Reclaim Hosting. This is not the place to argue why faculty and students should take back the web from university administrators and private companies (although I did co-author a book that fits in well with that argument), but one of the best things about the Reclaim-related “Domain of One’s Own” project is that it allows students to keep access to their digital work even after they’ve graduated. Scalars students create through Reclaim therefore can serve as evidence to potential employers that they can do something other than just historicize things. Not that there’s anything wrong with the ability to historicize things, but in this manner digital history might actually be the answer to the age-old question, “What can you actually do with a history degree (besides teach)?”

On personal level, my digital history experiments has proved much more interesting than standing up and lecturing to disinterested students about the same old things that I had always been lecturing about. In the future, I’m dying to get into digital mapping, as the Steelworks Center of the West has an absolutely astounding collection of mine maps that cover both towns and mines. I imagine a digital project that traces the physical impact of mining on Southern Colorado’s landscape as soon as I have enough theoretical background to pitch it to some funding agency. What’s really great is that thanks to my changes in pedagogy I’ll be able to get my students to pitch in.

When I was at the American Historical Association meeting in Denver a few weeks ago, I attended almost nothing but digital history sessions. I was really struck by all the people at those sessions by how willing everyone was to admit that they have no idea what they’re doing – that the whole field of digital history is kind of a running experiment. To paraphrase one scholar I heard at the meeting, digital history blurs the line between research, teaching and service. In my case, I’m having students do historical research and putting on the web for the benefit of local historical non-profits. I think the benefits of doing this far outweigh whatever harm that gets done to my ego if I’m no longer the center of attention in class anymore.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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