Reflecting on Critical Making in Digital History: The #hist3812 Experience, Part One

Editors Note: This is the first post in a two-part post exploring a digital history course taught at Carleton University in Winter 2018.  

Anderson, E., Bitar, M., Burgstaller, M., Ellerington, S., Grunksy, K., Lee, J., Mawko, A., Petrie, E., Rashid, A., Saravia, K. A., Weymann, R., and Graham, S.

What happens to history as it gets digitized? That is, what does history look like, what happens to our materials, and the stories we tell or the questions we ask, as we abstract further and further away from ‘In Real Life’? What does ‘digital history’ really mean?

These were the questions with which HIST3812/DIGH3812 began. This class was a cross-listed History and Digital Humanities course at Carleton University in the Winter 2018 term. The course website may be found at https://shawngraham.github.io/hist3812w18/ and the course FAQ at https://github.com/shawngraham/hist3812w18/wiki/FAQ .

The question is: was it successful? What were its productive failures, its glorious accidents? Did we actually learn anything, and if so, what? Finally, are there lessons for other instructors in our experience?

The connective tissue in the course was a series of modules that built on the previous module; each module was built around a further abstraction of digitized data from the real world.

  • Module 1 was built around ‘scanning’ a physical object and constructing a 3d model from it.
  • Module 2 involved remixing that digital data with other kinds of digital data.
  • Module 3 translated the digital artefact into an immersive environment.
  • Module 4 returned the digital artefact to the real world via 3d printing or augmented reality.

Often in digital history classes we deal with self-evidently digitized historical materials: OCR’d newspapers and old photographs for instance. Graham sought to make the digital unfamiliar so that when the process or software or digital artefact broke, the breakages would reveal assumptions about working with digitized materials (see Croxall and Warnick in ‘Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities’ on a ‘failure as epistemology‘)

Each week was divided into two sessions, which were sometimes supplemented by ad-hoc tutorials on technical matters relating to various software packages. In the first session, Graham would provide an overview of the broader issues or technologies or use-cases in a particular module. In the second session, Graham instructed students to copy out onto a cue card a quotation from the readings that struck them in some way; these were called ‘entry tickets’ (a modification of ‘exit tickets’ as discussed by Davidson, 2017: 267). Students were instructed to read their quotation to another student, and then listen quietly as that student read their ticket. Then they were invited to discuss why they selected these particular quotes, and to tie this discussion back to the lecture the previous session. Graham would also prepare hands-on activities with various technologies for these sessions, drawing from a frequently updated ‘FAQ’ that Graham maintained in the course repository. Initially this FAQ was sparse, but as students asked questions, Graham would update and modify it accordingly.

Graham writes:

‘From my perspective, this was one of the most successful classes I have taught. The quality of the discussions, and the insights so derived, felt much more in-depth and considered. I wanted to create an atmosphere where there was critical self-reflection in the public space of our classroom. To that end, I pushed the use of the Hypothesis web annotation tool as a critical platform for collaborative reading of the assigned texts. I wanted the students to see what was drawing the attention of their peers, and to reflect on the lacunae so revealed. I also pushed students to keep process notes and paradata in open Github repositories.

Whether or not the digital thing succeeded was never of much concern: but when it broke…that was the interesting bit. The process notes were not formal pieces of writing. Instead, I encouraged students to jot down bullets, add screenshots, or whatever other scraps of digital ephemera that documented what they were doing. “The Gold Standard is that someone else – or your future self – could use these notes to understand and replicate what you’ve done” was my frequent instruction. Because these notes were made on the open web, I also encouraged students to examine each other’s notebooks, and use Hypothesis to help each other.

Interestingly, this latter use of Hypothesis was never taken on board by the students. I think this largely stems from how we’ve disciplined undergraduate students to not collaborate, to not peek under the hood of others’ methods. When I allowed the students who desired it to generate their own rubrics – to set the grounds on which this novel and unfamiliar work would be graded – I saw a marked improvement in those students’ work. This perhaps is an indication that Jesse Stommel is right when he writes: 


In Part Two we will lay out the students’ perspective on the experiment that was #hist3812.

This post is part of the ongoing Beyond the Lecture: Innovations in Teaching Canadian History series edited by Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken. Inquiries, proposals, and submissions can be sent to the editors via unwrittenhistories [at]gmail[dot]com.

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4 thoughts on “Reflecting on Critical Making in Digital History: The #hist3812 Experience, Part One

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