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

Editors Note: This is the second post in a two-part post exploring a digital history course taught at Carleton University in Winter 2018. Part one explains the premise behind #hist3812.

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.

In part one, Graham explained the rationale and unfurling of HIST3812, Critical Making in Digital History. At the end of the course, he invited the students to craft a collaboratively written ‘exit ticket’ that explored their understanding of what the course accomplished. This exit ticket was not graded, although the students could incorporate it into their end-of-term portfolio of work.

The exit ticket was written on the final day of class (a 1.5 hr block of time) through a student-directed discussion and division of labour on an open Google document. Graham prepared the shell of the document before hand with suggested headers (which the students left largely intact). Graham observed the discussion, but periodically left the classroom, so that the students could discuss issues openly without him. 

The Exit Ticket

What We Were Supposed to Learn

The first thing that we were supposed to learn in the course was how the medium being changed can alter someone’s perception of history and alter how artefacts are thought about. 

The second facet of the course was on the contextualization of history. This means that understanding how historical narratives can present different meanings, and the need to question the impact of changing things from physical to digital.

The third thing we were supposed to learn was how to recognize when an artefact is changed or remixed, either intentionally or accidentally, to fit narratives.  Lastly, we were also supposed to learn how authority of original objects can change, as they change from physical to digital and vice versa.  

What we Actually Learned

We learned about the concept of “productive failure”, the way in which we could draw lessons for future projects out of the failures of the present one. We used new technologies to construct different historical perspectives and engage the historical perspectives of others. In this, we gained a better understanding of working in groups towards specific goals, sharing knowledge and specific technical information.

We learned to critically interrogate our own historical perspectives – to ask ourselves what is and what isn’t being said in our projects. We had the opportunity to closely inspect our work methods and outcomes. Not only did we learn to make use of new digital technologies to explore history, we also learned about methods of investigating the digital as historical – such as examining digital preservation from a historical perspective, noting when things break or become “obsolete” and why.

Through the method of pacing, we slowly plotted out our ideas, building our capacity for patience when working with complex projects. We also learned how to use pacing collectively for the benefit of others in a group, such as those who might have less experience with a particular aspect of a project. We learned to be conscious of the audience and to consider what frameworks and approaches might suit particular groups. 

In our collaborative processes, we found it was helpful to make our work methods as open and as clear as possible, keeping logs of our “process notes” for others to observe and learn from. Finally, we learned about the contingency of the existence of objects – something could be preserved “well” in digital formats, but this is still dependent on the existence of technologies that recognize those formats. The “permanent” preservation of history is no easy task and digital objects “decay” like any others, albeit in different ways; in fact, even the narratives we construct have the potential to be lost or distorted if they are not cared for.

Teaching That Went Right

Throughout this course, we have discovered that interactive collaboration with our classmates and practical learning opportunities within the class encouraged and facilitated our learning process. Specifically, interactive experiences and practical opportunities fostered a stress-free learning environment in which the concept of “productive failure” was encouraged.

The class was created and conducted in such a way that encouraged discussions and problem-solving over the memorizing of facts and theories. Using Hypothesis allowed for interaction between students outside of class. Students could write anything from a deeply analytical perspective on a paper, to a “wow, that’s so cool” on a particular anecdote or photo. Both were encouraged.

This informality was continued in the “un-conference” which was staged in one of the classes. Themes of the course were brainstormed and voted on, determining which we felt were most interesting or important, and then groups split off to discuss each of them. This much larger and inclusive way of choosing work which interests students was one of the most universally enjoyed parts of the course. 

Collaborative work, both in class and online (facilitated by Hypothesis) helped us consolidate our thoughts, gain new perspectives, and learn new skills. One of the most successful in-class collaborative projects that we participated in was the “1-Hour Museum Challenge” in which we were tasked to create a fake museum with an online presence on GitHub and Twitter. A programmed Twitter bot was required to establish our fake online museum. For many of us, this was our first experience in coding and developing a twitter bot, therefore collaboration and experimentation was essential.

Our various skills, knowledge, and backgrounds were brought together in this challenge, and we had the opportunity to learn from each other. One of the main reasons why many appreciated this activity was the fact that it encouraged experimentation, and the activity was not for marks, which relieved significant stress.  By relieving this stress, it allowed us to learn organically and permitted us to experiment with ideas and technology, further encouraging the notion of productive failure. It allowed us to focus on what we were producing and why, rather than worrying about making a perfect product.

The class had effectively become a community, through collaboration, discussion, and shared stress and failures. Via twitter and other social media, it was an exciting way to see how we could make a difference and connect with other like-minded individuals and share passions and ideas. It was humbling to see how large the community truly was, and how much more there was out there to explore.

Teaching with what went wrong

One of the central themes of this course has been productive failure. To productively fail is to learn from one’s mistakes. When discussing what went wrong in HIST 3812 , we do not mean to say that we did not learn from these experiences and failures.

One of the greatest obstacles that the class faced was the rubric. The rubric and the instructions were vague. They were structured this way to give students a chance to explore and to experiment with their projects. However, it made it difficult to understand what was asked of us. Each module was marked out of twenty, in which five points were allocated to four categories: collaborative readings and annotations; class participation; physical or digital product created in each module and the paradata; and the “complete and truthful logging of the process”. How one earned a point or lost a point in these categories was unclear. The instructions and rubrics were written in a way that they could be adapted to each module, but that did not make them easier to understand.

Furthermore, many of us did not understand the definition of paradata and how it differed from process notes. Combined, paradata and process notes explain what, why and how we completed each module and include a reflection on that module in relation to the core concepts of the course and the artefacts we produced. However, delineating one from another was difficult, despite explanations of each that we were given.

The course description was also misleading in the sense that while it said that no coding experience was necessary, those with no coding experience found it difficult to complete some of the modules. We were provided tutorials and instructions but those were not always clear. Furthermore, Professor Graham did not always have the experience or knowledge to respond to our questions about some of the new tools and programs we were using. Both Professor Graham and students without a background in coding underwent a steep learning curve to complete these modules.

We also found that we missed some opportunities to collaborate and discuss our modules with our peers. When we brought up the desire to have discussed our modules among ourselves, Professor Graham said that that was what was for. However, the instructions for our annotations did not make it clear that this was a space in which we could discuss more than just the readings. We would have benefited from a better description or another place to allow further collaboration.

What Dr. Graham Should Do For Next Time

Of the suggestions for how to improve the course for next time, the two suggestions that would lead to the largest improvement for students’ experience are to provide more time for reflection on the how-to-x in-class work. The integration of ‘exit tickets’ as Davidson formulates them might be a good way to bridge from the end of one week to the beginning of the next week.

The other change should be to progressively build more student input into the rubric design and use over the duration of the course. The first module would be an entirely professor-designed rubric, but by the fourth module, the rubrics would be each individualized to the student’s progress.

Finally, continual emphasis on what Hypothesis can do and how we might use it productively in all aspects of our work should be given, every week. The hardest part of the course is understanding that we are not alone, that digital history is a team sport and the role of the professor is that of a coach.

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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