A Digitally-Inflected Historical Methods Course

Yesterday was the first day since the seminar began that I didn’t post anything to my blog — but I will make up for it today with a long one. Last summer, I worked with a group of three colleagues to revamp our undergraduate methods course (and even spent about 90 minutes on the phone with Jeff McClurken to hear about the decisions UMW’s History Department had made when doing the same thing the previous year). I remember saying at the time that we should include some digital history, but since I didn’t have any good ideas about how we might do that, neither of my colleagues were willing to jump on my bandwagon. But I will be teaching the course in Spring 2015, and now I have some tools and concepts to incorporate.

All History and Social Studies Education students take this course, ideally in the second semester of their sophomore years or first semester of their junior years. The goal is to serve as a pivot from introductory courses to more advanced ones, giving students tools they can use in all their upper-level history courses. That goal is a key factor, for me, in which Digital History tools I want to emphasize (as well as which assignments I absolutely cannot change). We have broken down the course objectives into their constituent parts, and created a shell of five modules that will emphasize specific skills and ideas, regardless of which person teaches the course and what its content focus is at any point in time. The whole thing is still very much a work in progress, which means it’s a great time to incorporate new methods.

So here are some thoughts I had, broken down by course objective.

HST 3000: Historical Practice and Theory (Spring 2015)

Description & Goals: This three credit hour course is an introduction to key concepts and skills essential to the work of professional historians. This includes the following topics: the nature and types of history; the critical reading and analysis of primary and secondary sources; efficient and ethical research practices; writing skills; documentation style; and presentation and public speaking skills. The course is required for history majors, and it should be taken at the end of the sophomore or beginning of the junior year. This course is designed to prepare students for success in all upper level History courses. This course also fulfills the Writing in the Discipline (WD) requirement.

Communication skills (writing and speaking/presentation)

  • Use Blackboard internal wiki to do initial drafting/commenting/revision workshop (and then repeat at least once with the drafting/peer review/revision process for another assignment)—I have a feeling students wouldn’t want to make this experience public
  • WordPress blog with weekly posts (instead of weekly Blackboard journals or internal Blackboard blog)
  • Use Animoto to make a movie version of their project proposal, instead of giving an in-class presentation (keep other presentations)

Critical reading and analysis of primary and secondary sources

  • first step here is in-class modeling of how we analyze a primary source, next is to send students out to find new sources—different types—and practice that analysis: one example is to use ThingLink to annotate an image they’ve found (as their blog post/journal entry for the week)
  • I liked Diane’s post about text-mining runaway slave ads—use those or Documenting the American South slave narratives as the basis for a text-mining assignment and blog post or journal
  • transcription & metadata for one primary source item—I want them to understand what goes into creating the primary sources they find online (and then write blog post or journal entry about the experience)
  • use wikis to do parts of historiography jigsaw assignment (each student in a group contributes information about an important question/theme in that group’s subfield, based on book reviews and/or journal articles, some of which I select for them) outside of class
  • Write History Engine episode? (I don’t know if there’s time for this in the existing structure—it requires a lot of revision. But it fits with the goals of the course [one of which is to ingrain the habit of revising all written work], so I’ll see how the calendar works out.)

Efficient and ethical research practices

  • Use Bookworm (Chronicling America option) to identify appropriate keywords for searching other databases (esp. primary sources)
  • Work in Zotero: selecting and monitoring appropriate citation formats based on document type, organizing materials, taking notes, exporting into footnotes/bibliography/annotated bibliography

*The course overall builds to final paper of about 3000 words—that needs to remain because it’s a departmental priority. The standard book review also needs to remain, as do at least some of the in-class presentations. Since one of the course goals is to practice skills students will use in all upper-level courses, the assignments need to line up with what they are likely to see elsewhere. I also still need to use Blackboard on occasion (our Writing Across the Curriculum QEP requires that we submit and grade one assignment using a common Waypoint Rubric, and Blackboard is our route into that).

Source: A Digitally-Inflected Historical Methods Course

History, Memory, and Reclaiming Space

I spent a few hours Saturday wandering around Old Town Alexandria, which was a part of the DC Metro area I’d never visited before. I studiously avoided King Street (is it just me, or do all of the “one-of-a-kind” stores in historic-touristy areas sell the exact same stuff?) and instead checked out two colonial-era churches and meandered down side streets. The architecture was charming and had a comforting familiarity — the historic section of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, my birthplace, is from the same period and has a similar look. But I was especially interested to see the building that once housed one of the largest slave markets in North America.

Price Birch & Co., 1862 (Library of Congress)
the same space, 150 years later
the same space, 150 years later

The slave-trading firm Franklin & Armfield purchased property on Duke Street in Alexandria in 1835, using the space to collect large numbers of slaves purchased in Virginia and Maryland before sending enslaved men and women via ship to their complementary auction house in New Orleans. A different partnership (Price Birch & Co.) owned the business when the Civil War began, and many Union soldiers gleefully reported the immediate demise of that business when they occupied Alexandria in the first months of the war. (This was one of those moments where Union soldiers, though generally not abolitionists, demonstrated a clear sense that slavery was bad for the country and had caused the war, and thus should be destroyed.)

Re-purposing the space began almost immediately — the U.S. Army turned the building and its accompanying grounds into a prison for Confederate soldiers. Most of these men were imprisoned in 1861 and 1862, while the prisoner-exchange system was still under way, and so did not spend much time in the prison, but imprisoning white southerners in a slave pen must have provoked outrage at many levels. [Interesting side note: 34 of the men died while in prison and were buried in a section of the city’s cemetery, just a few blocks away, along with Union dead from area hospitals, in what is now known as the Alexandria National Cemetery. In 1879, the Alexandria LMA disinterred the 34 bodies and buried them in a mounded grave in the yard of Christ Church.]

Alexandria National Cemetery
Alexandria National Cemetery
marker in Christ Church yard

By 1863, the building and its grounds had become a hospital and barracks for local “contrabands” (runaway slaves) and black Union soldiers. It seems an insensitive move on the part of the US government — but someone (who?) named the barracks in honor of Toussaint L’Ouverture. The same year, a new African American congregation emerged in the city and built its first worship space — Shiloh Baptist Church — across the street. It looks like the formerly enslaved men and women who flocked to Alexandria during the war were determined to claim this space, once associated with deep suffering, and turn it into something much more positive.

The slave pens were torn down after the war, their place eventually filled by a nondescript brick municipal building, and the block’s tragic history slowly forgotten. For a town that can’t shut up about George Washington and its historic attractions, there is a great deal of willful forgetting at play. But the Northern Virginia Urban League purchased the building in 1996, christened it Freedom House, and are using it as offices and a museum (sadly, one geared toward school groups and closed on weekends). A state historic marker was placed outside in 2005. And the woman I spoke with at the Old Town Visitors’ Center was very eager to tell me about the restoration work underway at the Freedmen’s Cemetery on the south end of town (unfortunately out of walking distance) — so signs of progress abound in Alexandria’s interpretation of its past.


I am very interested in the process by which a community reclaims a space and, without forgetting or minimizing negative associations, strives to create something more affirming there. Who gets to control those commemorations? What happens to dissenting voices? (Was there anyone in the Northern Virginia Urban League, for example, who objected to working in a former slave trader’s office?) It seems like an approach that could work for student projects in various types of classes — local history, public history, history and memory, etc. I’m also curious about the black communities that emerged in Alexandria during the Civil War. There’s been some great work done on political activism in contraband/refugee camps (Kate Masur’s An Example for All the Land, Patricia Click’s Time Full of Trial, and David Cecelski’s The Fire of Freedom spring to mind), so the specific story of Alexandria probably fits into established historiographic patterns and arguments. It strikes me that what happened in these spaces goes far beyond a “rehearsal” for Reconstruction, and I wonder if some comparative studies might be the logical next step.

Christ Church gate & steeple--just because I think it's pretty
Christ Church gate & steeple–just because I think it’s pretty



Source: History, Memory, and Reclaiming Space



I really do like the idea of visualizing data, but I have to admit I’ve typically used it to illustrate a point I’m making in the text rather than as a research tool. And my charts have always been fairly simple (like this one I made in Excel, based on hospital records listing impressed slaves treated in Richmond, Virginia, in the second half of 1862). Ironically, when I tried to use the data underlying this very simple graph in ViewShare, I couldn’t get it to work — the program kept unlinking information I needed to remain together. I suppose I would need to format the source table differently.

Rather than spending a lot of time redoing something that’s already done and published, I figured I would look at something new. So I extracted all of the records listing individual slaveholders from the 1850 census spreadsheet I have for Wilmington, North Carolina, and then created a scatter plot that compares real estate holdings with slave holdings in the city. Click on “scatterplot” below to show the chart. If you hover over each square, you’ll see the specific numbers it represents. Click on the square, and you’ll get information about the slaveholder — name, age, occupation, etc. I’m not sure what this shows me yet, but it might be a way to start locating trends, especially if I do the same thing with the 1860 census.

Test post from ViewShare:



Source: Visualizations

Non-Text Sources and Teaching Ideas

So there was some cool stuff at Doing Digital History today, but unless I move in the direction of Civil War memory, video and audio sources probably aren’t going to be a huge part of my researching life. Photographs and other images may, of course, and lots of people with the appropriate training do cool things with material culture. I definitely hope to include mapping, but I’ll leave a discussion of that for when we actually get to it in the seminar. (Is it a seminar or an institute? I’m never sure how the NEH classifies things.)

I am excited about some options we’ve seen for having students work with nontextual sources. I’m hoping to find two or three good tools to incorporate into the Historical Methods class, and I definitely plan to use ThingLink. We already include a series of assignments in which students locate and analyze one primary source at a time and then explain how that single source connects to larger themes, and images should obviously be part of that process. I’ll have to think about ways that annotating the image in ThingLink promotes historical thinking differently from simply writing about it, but it’s definitely a little more fun — and sometimes that’s enough to make something worth doing. We all need some fun built into the semester.

I had students use iMovie/Moviemaker for two assignments last semester, and that worked fairly well, but I think Animoto would be great too. What I like about Animoto is the limitations it places on the amount of text students can use. It prevents them from making the kinds of text-heavy products they sometimes create when asked to give class presentations or share various types of visual aids. I have a wonderful colleague who regularly asks students in the methods course to write their papers on a Post-It note — the idea being that if you can’t explain your argument in that amount of space (at least in the context of a semester-long essay of about 10 pages), you probably don’t have one yet. Making an Animoto movie would serve the same purpose, forcing students to zero in on what they thought was really important.

Source: Non-Text Sources and Teaching Ideas