Module 9: DH and Pedagogy

Education is very near and dear to my heart. Obviously I have dedicated my life to learning, having earned two degrees and starting a third. I am engaged to a teacher, my mom is a professor, various other family members are in education, and I started my undergraduate degree in education. I have always been interested in educational theory and pedagogy, even as I left the field for history, so I have become very interested in history pedagogy. I am enamored by Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom, and intend to read it fully through. But with what I have read so far, I can’t help but keep coming back to the arguments against implementing digital history skills.

I think overall I have come to operate under the assumption that history courses should not be about the content, but about the historical skills. This may seem obvious, but then why are so many of our history courses centered around geography and content? Especially intro level seminars in history, whose titles imply learning an incredibly broad scope of historical fact. I suppose we can’t include the various historical skills in every seminar title, but I think it then falls on us as educators to set the tone of a course to not be simply about content.

As Claire Battershill and Shawna Ross point out in their first chapter, there are many oppositions to specifically digital history being implemented in classrooms. On a personal level, educator’s may believe “There’s not enough room in the syllabus to teach new skills” (25). Battershill and Ross point out that this argument falls flat when you consider that the alternative — teaching hundreds of years of history in a single class — is also unrealistic, and instead offer that the small amount of content sacrificed in favor of learning DH skills would be beneficial. I have to agree with the authors on this point. If history is about teaching skills like critical thinking and encouraging students to draw patterns between events rather than just memorizing dates, then why should digital history be excluded from that skill set? Instead, content should be the framework within which we teach these skills, rather than being the learning objective in and of itself. Start with the skills you want to teach, then move towards how you can utilize the content to encourage those skills. It may seem backwards, but I think it will be ultimately more beneficial for students.

Under the next section about faculty arguments against DH skills, Battershill and Ross say “we have enough trouble teaching our own curriculum as it is” is a common pushback (27). The authors make the argument that this is a prime time to consider the broader objectives of the entire curriculum, which I think aligns with my broader point as well. What is the point of earning a degree in history? Is it learning historical facts, or learning to critically think? Even if students don’t learn historical content, they will be learning important skills necessary for any field: literacy, critical thinking, basic technological competence. If a department is struggling with its curriculum, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the purpose of the curriculum and redesign it to benefit students and instructors alike.

From a student perspective, I can understand why introducing digital history skills may seem irrelevant; many students don’t consider the ways that a class is designed from the other side, they only consider the workload they have. In a class that introduces multiple digital history skills that require work to learn, rather than simple content regurgitation, I think Battershill and Ross’ assertion of “I wanted a normal class. What does this have to do with what I signed up for?” is a common one (28). We can rectify that by being transparent with students about the skills and how they can be relevant. Again, we can consider the historical facts to be a framework rather than the end goal; they are a conduit to learn the skills through. But memorizing dates is not the important part. Learning how to find sources, compare and contrast arguments, critically think, and utilize technology as a tool are all lessons that go beyond history and will be relevant in many different settings. If we tell the students this, they likely will still not want to do work; but they will understand that there is a purpose behind what we have them do rather than it just being mindless work. I think that is one of the hardest parts of education, is helping students to see the purpose of what they are doing. This is why I love Shannon Kelley’s description of student responses to her course in “Getting on the Map”: the students clearly state that they loved seeing their work live on past the semester they were in class and that the assignment didn’t just end at the professors desk. Collaborative work with lasting meaning inspires more motivation in students than one-off assignments or essays that have no deeper meaning.

I know that we covered a lot more this week, and I’ve talked more about the technical exercises in Slack, but I really got caught up with justifying the need for DH skills in classes. Teaching is not just about transferring information. For a better education, we need to be focusing on providing lasting skills and knowledge that extend beyond the classroom and semester, and the best way to do that is to create work that matters to students and exists beyond those boundaries.

Battershill, Claire and Shawna Ross. Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom : A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers, and Students. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017.

Kelley, Shannon. “Getting on the Map: A Case Study in Digital Pedagogy and Undergraduate Crowdsourcing.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 11, no. 3 (2017).

4 Replies to “Module 9: DH and Pedagogy”

  1. Robert,
    You raise an interesting question that many teachers grapple with: how to balance content and skills. I agree that there should be more focus on skills. I wish more in education would frame it that teaching skills is teaching the content. The skill development has to include content, otherwise whether it’s a DH project or a straightforward paper, what is the topic?

  2. I agree that including Digital Humanities skills in a history course is helpful. Not only are you able to see how different types of research would be used, but you also get an idea of how you do them and how you would be able to incorporate this type of learning in the future. It was interesting to see the reservations both the faculty and the students would have about this type of implementation and how it can be combatted!

  3. You presented a teaching methodology that I had not yet thought about — determining the skills and letting the tools guide the subject. From the museum programming/education world, it is usually the opposite — assess what makes your institution unique and use new skills as appropriate for the sources. I think you are so right that teaching history should center around analytical skills — and I think museums should as well. I am all for a history course wholly dedicated to teaching digital skills and for content courses incorporating more public (including digital) history projects.

  4. “What is the point of earning a degree in history? Is it learning historical facts, or learning to critically think?”

    This is such a great question, and one I’ve been considering following this week’s readings. One of the authors (maybe Battershill?) raised an interesting counterpoint — that having a body of content knowledge to draw upon is a form of intellectual self-sufficiency — but even with that, the ability to critically engage with information remains a primary concern.

    You might enjoy this: one of our internal library “teaching discussion” groups just read this article: “Maps, Mapmaking, and Critical Pedagogy”: It’s a few years old now, but the article spends a fair amount of time discussing critical and problem-posing approaches to teaching and working with maps. Similar to what you discuss, the content and data that underpin the maps are important in this instructional situation, but they’re a means to a larger pedagogical imperative and teaching of critical analysis methods.

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