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Final Thoughts (Final Exam)

Final Reflections: Revolution and Evolution

Back in January, I wrote a blog post detailing what I believed to be the primary aspects of digital history, which I termed digital pedagogy, research, and history. [1] Now, at the end of the semester, coming back to that post, the class has both not covered what I would term digital history as a school of history, and covered things that I would not have thought of fitting, such as establishing a digital identity. Now, while I still believe that the school approach to digital history is an interesting idea, and worth of significant further study, it is also outside of the scope of the class, and instead I will focus on the former two ideas, pedagogy and research, although I will be approaching them in the opposite order this time.

In my personal experience, digital history research both makes things far easier, and simultaneously does not go nearly far enough. In my research for an eventual thesis on the Spanish American War, I have used, and attempted to use, quite a number of digital tools. In some cases, such as digital archives these have been incredibly valuable. For example, DigitalNC has offered up a large slice of the newspapers published at the time in an easy to search and easily readable format. [2] Furthermore, in this age of COVID-19, these digital archives are literal lifesavers, on top of being figurative ones the rest of the time due to presenting large numbers of digitized primary sources for use in papers and research projects. On the other hand, other tools are either too specialized such as Transkribus, or simply hard to get working properly, such as many of the OCR tools that I have tried to use. [3] However this is not intended as an indictment of the state of Transkribus, or of OCR. My use case is a particularly challenging one. Transkribus for example is intended to use a large selection of a single person’s writing to create a recognition frame in order to transcribe it into print text. I wanted a system that would allow me to take a bare handful of letters and make them easier to read, which is a much more challenging problem, because most of my writers only sent maybe half a dozen letters, if that, during their service in the Spanish American War.

To discuss more generally however, digital research offers up new ways to access, interpret, and share information. With access, while digitization is highly expensive both in immediate and ongoing costs, it makes preserving documents easier, and makes them far more accessible. This is not only because I can connect to them anywhere that I have an internet connection, but also because the process of preparing the documents for digitization often makes the materials themselves more readable. [4] With interpretation, the first and last gate has always been the historian. While new tools can offer new insights, they cannot replace good judgement. For example, in the case of Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross, they used large selections of data and computer modeling to attempt to divine the real experience of slavery. While they made some interesting points on the economic viability of slavery, they utterly misrepresented and mangled their interpretation of the slave experience. [5] At the same time, this is not a problem of digital modeling, and digital interpretation, but of the historians doing the work. Tools like Voyant create opportunities to examine language in a more fine toothed manner, and offer new ways to engage with well trodden fields. [6] Finally, sharing information is really the most revolutionary aspect. While some historians are too enthusiastic about its revolutionary potential, the ability to share a work in progress means that the time for peer review does not begin during the publication cycle, but long before it. [6] However, at the same time, traditional books and journals offer fixed points in time to maintain a historiography, rather than simply changing the pieces that don’t fit in the interpretation any more.

The other half of the digital history question is pedagogy. This is again a number of parallel paths, effectively, teaching history directly with digital technology, teaching how to do history with digital technology, and finally distance teaching.
In teaching history directly with digital technology, much like the rest of teaching history, there is no substitute for a dedicated, interested, and engaged teacher. In the Tecumseh Lies Here ARG for example, no amount of packaging and preparation was able to capture the impact that a small team, acting and reacting based on live information was able to create. [7] Games in various forms have long been a part of teaching, and offer significant advantages, primarily by being able to simulate and approach complicated topics by baking those ideas into the game design, and stimulating the competitiveness inherent in play to master those topics. [8] Beyond teaching with technology, teaching how to use technology is likely even more important. At its most basic, history in the modern day is not about knowing facts and figures. That Christopher Colombus set out across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492 is really an irrelevant factoid. Modern history, especially with Google and other search engines, is more a process. Inquiry, research, and verification are the tools that the modern history classroom needs to leave the student with, not the stale and well trodden facts and figures. Most modern students have access to research tools in the classroom, and have the ability to begin to put it together. [9] Similarly, teaching students to build and maintain their own websites is a key life skill that falls relatively neatly into the goals of the humanities. [10] This teaching how to do history can also put student historians into practice, for example the University of Edinburgh’s Wikipedia editathons. [11]
Finally, there is distance learning. Especially in this age of COVID, distance learning is the key challenge for educators, and something that this class has leaned into. While programs like Zoom, Skype or Discord can help, fundamentally, learning at a distance requires a reorganization of how teaching works, and must include trusting students to do projects independently.

Overall, I see digital history as more evolutionary than revolutionary. While digital histories offer new tools for nearly every aspect of the profession, and ones that I fully intend to make use of, the tools do not change the underlying discipline as a whole. In this class, I have used the same skills and approaches as I have in any other, but have added new tools and understandings of how I can use those tools to an already existing toolbox.

[1] Chamberlain Silkenat, “Start of Semester Understandings” Digital History, Jan 28. https://digitalhistory.rwanysibaja.com/publishing/start-of-semester-understandings/

[2] “North Carolina Newspapers.” DigitalNC. North Carolina Digital Heritage Center http://www.digitalnc.org/collections/newspapers/.

[3] “Transcribe. Collaborate. Share…” Transkribus. https://transkribus.eu/Transkribus/; “Download OCR Software.” SimpleOCR, January 29, 2020. https://www.simpleocr.com/download/.

[4] Emma Skinner, “Letters of Note: Preparing the Prize Papers for Digitisation,” UK National Archives, April 30, 2020. https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/letters-of-note-preparing-the-prize-papers-for-digitisation/; Archives @ PAMA, Region of Peel. “Why Don’t Archivists Digitize Everything?” Archives @ PAMA, June 1, 2017. https://peelarchivesblog.com/2017/05/31/why-dont-archivists-digitize-everything/.

[5]Robert William, Fogel, and Stanley L.. Engerman. Time on the Cross: the Economics of American Negro Slavery (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995).

[6] Stephen, Sinclair, and Geoffrey Rockwell. “Voyant Tools.” Voyant Tools. https://voyant-tools.org/.

[7] Timothy Compeau, and Robert MacDougall. “Tecumseh Returns: A History Game in Alternate Reality, Augmented Reality, and Reality.” In Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History, edited by Kevin Kee and Timothy Compeau, Online., Chapter 10. Digital Humanities: Digital Culture Books. Ann Abor: University of Michigan Press, 2019. https://www.fulcrum.org/epubs/5q47rq179?locale=en#/6/34[Kee-0017]!/4/2[ch10]/2/2[p176]/1:0

[8] Jorit Wintjes,“‘Not an Ordinary Game, But a School of War’ Notes on the Early History of the Prusso-German Kriegsspiel,” Vulcan: Journal of the Social History of Military Technology 4, no. 1 (January 2016): 52–75.

[9] Joseph D. Galanek, Dana C. Gierdowski, and D. Christopher Brooks. “Experiences with Instructors and Technology,” Educause, 2018. https://www.educause.edu/ecar/research-publications/ecar-study-of-undergraduate-students-and-information-technology/2018/experiences-with-instructors-and-technology

[10] Sara Grossman, “Web-Hosting Project Hopes to Help Students Reclaim Digital Destinies.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs: Wired Campus (blog), July 25, 2013. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/web-hosting-project-hopes-to-help-students-reclaim-their-digital-destinies/45035

[11] Martha Saxton, “Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience.” In Writing History in the Digital Age, ed. Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, 86–94. (Digital Humanities: Digital Culture Books. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013) https://muse.jhu.edu/chapter/1030707

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