My adventures teaching digital history.

Curtain 2I’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.

Here are some screenshots from the three group projects:

Screenshot 2014-12-07 18.55.23 (1)

Screenshot 2014-12-07 18.56.34

Screenshot 2014-12-07 18.57.35For one thing, they all look fantastic (and they have a few more days to finish editing so they’re just going to look better soon).

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?

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Historiann

    Jonathan, thanks for this final report! The Scalar websites look very good. (The first link you provided is to a live web page, but the others were screen shots.) However, I’m not clear as to what Scalar offers that WP doesn’t–can you give us the quick & dirty on this? (I’m not skeptical or a WP fangirl, just wondering.)

    1. Jonathan Rees


      Oh Lordy, that’s what I get for blogging late at night. I’ve fixed those links now.

      On WordPress vs. Scalar, with respect to WordPress, you run up against ads and capacity limits if you don’t self-host. I quickly realized that if you pass that cost onto students (even at just $25/year at Reclaim Hosting) there’s an issue with site sustainability. Scalars are all hosted at USC so the archives can just link out to them indefinitely.

      There’s also the question of paths. This is kind of a meta- issue, but I think it’s really interesting. Scalar is designed to let you bring viewers through your site in different ways. Thinking about different ways to view historical information is not something you can do in a uni-directional narrative. That actually gets to the thing I like most about teaching digital history, it allows you to ask and get answers to very interesting, but entirely different kinds of questions like that one.

  2. Contingent Cassandra

    The Scalar sites do, indeed, look great, and I appreciate the opportunity to see them, since this is not old hat to me. I’ve taught one Omeka-based DH-infused lit class (at the 200 level, which is by no means ideal, but, given the nature of my job and our shrinking number of majors, that’s my only real opportunity to teach anything but comp.), and, like you, am not entirely sure that Omeka is ideally suited for general undergrad work (or perhaps non-museum work at all, though I do like the fact that it forces students to document where their documents are coming from. Still, I’m not sure that I, especially, should be spending quite as much time as is necessary w/ Omeka on that). I’m teaching the same class again this spring, but as more of a DH sampler (perhaps still with an Omeka core, but, if so, we’ll probably do one fairly simple display, perhaps a timeline, rather than having students build full exhibits of their own). I’m not sure I’ll get a chance to experiment with Scalar in that class, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind.

    Also — everything you say about the burdens of teaching more rings true to me. It’s not that a 4/4 load is impossible, by any means; it’s just that it leaves considerably less energy to deal with unexpected events (which happen every semester), or pedagogical experiments, or anything other than simply making it through the semester. In short, over time, it has a way of stifling innovation (and then, of course, the people demanding a 4/4 load, and paying a salary that requires summer teaching to boot, get to point out that we’re stale, not very imaginative, etc., etc. )

  3. Ellen Litwicki

    These projects look great. I haven’t tried using Scalar yet, but after looking at your student projects, I think I may try it next semester. It looks to have some advantages over WordPress for writing and web publishing a seminar paper. I’m using WP to do that in my senior research seminar this semester. It’s working reasonably well, but I’ll have to do a comparison of the two.

    I didn’t introduce Scalar to my Digital History class, and the students chose to do their projects using Omeka instead of WordPress. But you now have me thinking I should look more seriously at Scalar. In my free time, haha.

    Thanks for sharing.

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