Digital History, Also Too: Student Impact

A word on teaching and ways to alter the classroom experience from my grant application.

I see a series of interwoven expected impacts on student learning:

1. A genuine investment in creativity & knowledge communication:

In general, the current approach to undergraduate assignments looks something like this. The instructor requires some form of written essay. The student works feverishly to meet the course expectations, mimicking (but not fully understanding) the complex and rigid rules of expository writing. The instructor grades the essay, providing comments on style and content. The student looks briefly at the instructor’s response before burying the paper in filing cabinet. The essay never sees the light of day again. This is unsatisfying.

Exploring data visualization and working with students to share their results more broadly encourages students to become more aware of potential audiences for their research (and not limiting their thought process to what they think the instructor wants to see). This invites students to take greater ownership over their work, and in my experience students have engaged much more willingly in more and better work habits as a result. I firmly believe that this approach treats students like emerging scholars and they are more likely to realize their potential because of that greater deal of respect.

2. A community of makers:

Building on that first point, I am intrinsically committed to the idea that the learning experience is enhanced when students become knowledge producers instead of just knowledge consumers. By turning students into makers of knowledge, it is possible to create the context in which active, self-directed inquiry and learning become the keystone of the educational experience. Through developing data sets and then critically analyzing them, students are creating the information they need. In producing visual representations of that information—through word clouds and flowcharts and infographics—they are also more involved in how their findings will be interpreted.

I see this as the fundamental characteristic of the Humanities in the 21st century: Whereas previously, research consisted of excavating—digging deeper and deeper into archives—today creating intelligent content is a constructive exercise. The data is available and constitutes a series of building blocks. The researcher and the collaborative teams of researchers get to build rather than burrow. The new, interactive classroom will encourage teamwork, experimentation, and inventive balancing acts to see what the data will and won’t yield.

3. A more holistic approach to problem solving:

I want to encourage Humanities students to learn at the bench, to use a concept taken from how the sciences are taught. In effect, the humanists’ digital lab is the new bench, a place where learning comes from doing, where students are encouraged to experiment and innovate. This environment invites students to get their hands dirty and to let the past (in the case of historical research and analysis) capture their imagination.

Thanks to Web 2.0, students have access to infinite amounts of information on their laptops and in their smartphones. The new intellectual challenge involves thinking critically about these new technological research tools and what the technology allows us to do. In many respects, our students are better prepared to ask and answer these questions than faculty. That constitutes an exciting teaching dynamic, where the instructor might adopt the business adage of being in command but out of control—allowing the students to “find” learning for themselves within the confines of a pre-arranged rubric. The danger endures, however, that these digital technologies threaten to make us the tools of our tools, to use Henry David Thoreau’s old phrase, but the central challenge to students is to break free from their tools—retain that capacity for traditional critical thought—and solve intellectual and technological problems in tandem. From the thought processes involved in coding and computational thinking, students will engage in more vigorous forms of problem solving, not just in their research and analysis, but also in the manner in which they communicate their findings.

I appreciate the irony in stressing the instruction of a number of quantitative research methods, but accepting that effectively evaluating the project’s results poses a bit of a qualitative quandary. In many respects, this project involves putting a teaching philosophy into practice. Similarly, gauging student success will need to be structured, on the one hand, quantitatively on their comprehension of the digital techniques, and qualitatively through the creative expression of their research communication and dissemination on the other. Whether or not this proves successful on a broader basis will be determined both by student enrolment and retention over a longer period of time and by evaluating the quality and quantity of the research data on the history of public health.

Earlier posts on DH are here and here.

Reflections on a Mentor

Scholars accumulate a lot of intellectual debt. Every project receives inspiration or direction or modification from any number of colleagues near and far. But another form of intellectual debt runs a lot deeper. Young academics cutting their teeth are frequently a composite of numerous professors they have had in the past, whose styles in the classroom or on the written page they try to adopt or mimic (having witnessed TAs cultivate some of my own mannerisms, I take this as a form of flattery). In the classroom, I remain—many years later—a mixture of several instructors whose teaching style I admired.

Foremost among those was Michael Fellman’s. He passed away earlier this week. Which gave me pause to think about a number of people who had influenced my approach to teaching. Fellman taught US history at Simon Fraser; his History 213, US history since 1877, was one of the first undergraduate courses I took that completely absorbed me (I had the privilege to teach this course twice at SFU, on consecutive summers while I worked on my dissertation). He was wildly charismatic in the lecture hall and in the seminar room, and found ways to make US history come to life. He was interesting. That might sound mildly reserved, but I don’t think enough of us think carefully about our undergraduate audiences and how best to reach them—not just on content and course requirements, but in actually engaging their imaginations. Fellman mastered that. I remember spending more hours on a research paper on medicine shows for his US cultural history seminar than on any other paper during my undergraduate career. And I also recall sitting in for a second time (when I wasn’t even registered in his course) on his lecture on the 1980s, which he themed around Michael Douglas’s famous “greed is good” monologue in Wall Street (I subsequently “borrowed” this lecture—or arranged some fairly decent imitation of it—the numerous times I taught US history).

In the classroom, he also spoke quite candidly about the craft of teaching and researching. “I make my money with this,” he would say, pointing to his tongue. His pen was an extension of his spoken word. I still regret not having been able to take his Civil War seminar (which I also got to teach) or his US history seminar based on fiction. I was not a terribly good undergraduate student. I think I was a combination of lazy, distracted, and busy with extra-curricular activities. As a result, my transcripts might not indicate how much I enjoyed his courses. But I never missed a class.

As a doctoral student at Washington State University, I organized a Canadian Studies speakers’ series with funds from the Canadian Consulate in Seattle. One of the first people I invited down was Michael Fellman, who was born in the United States but spent his career in Canada. He had written in a popular outlet about the experience of being an American in Canada, and the WSU series gave me an opportunity to reconnect with him. He gave a great talk, which is probably still archived in some archaic video format (VHS, if memory serves) at Holland Library. I remember his poise in juxtaposition with my rather jumpy-looking introduction when I viewed the tape. He clearly knew how to speak in front of a camera. Me: not so much. We had breakfast the following morning before his departure. During my time at SFU, he (very justifiably) had his doubts about my potential as a scholar, but something shifted during his visit in Pullman, and he became much warmer about my work. He gave great guidance, and we stayed in touch as the dissertation finished up and went out to press. We also talked about his work-in-progress, which became In the Name of God and Country: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History. I seem to recall that his working title at the time was the provocative “Twisting the Cross.” His epilogue poignantly described the Bush-Cheney administration’s use of terrorism in the so-called war on terror. This was early 2004. It was an important—albeit indirect—lesson that history could and should be relevant to contemporary audiences. And that it could be politically engaging.

I doubt that I’m alone as a former student who found Fellman’s mentoring both compelling but also worth imitating. I suspect much of his approach lives on among students who went on to graduate studies and then stumbled into the academy. A couple of years ago, he contacted me with a draft of a review for The Tyee, which was subsequently published. I was one of his anonymous examples (it’s not hard to work out which one). I don’t remember my response to his initial query, although I did spend a bit of time writing a reply. More than anything else I learned from him, I have adhered to the notion of facilitating more than creating as a teacher. I don’t think this was solely his invention or influence—actually, I know it wasn’t—but reflecting back on news of his passing, I am reminded of this.