A teaching philosophy in practice

My field nowadays is the digital humanities; I started my academic life as an archaeologist. In between, I’ve taught in continuing education, distance education, secondary education to troubled students, and started a business. My philosophy of teaching has evolved continually as a result of these disparate experiences.

I was attracted to archaeology by the hands-on nature of the field, by the materiality of it. I became interested in distance education and continuing education for how these two modes opened up academia to broader audiences than a standard undergraduate experience. Working with troubled teens (students whom the system had otherwise failed), I saw both of these strands come together in a program that offered a hands-on experience leading to a vocational diploma. Starting a business taught me that I had to relearn everything I thought I already knew. I recount these experiences to explain where I am coming from.

I first encountered the idea of ‘uncoverage’ in a blog post on Profhacker by Mark Sample. This phrase neatly encapsulates what I have come to believe. In Sample’s post, he defines ‘uncoverage’ by contrasting it with how we normally use the phrase in course syllabi: “…this course will cover the evolution of American public life from the publication of the Federalist Papers to…”. In the race to cover everything on the syllabus, we necessarily end up covering in the sense of ‘protect or conceal, to hide from view’ (Sample, citing Wiggins and McTighe 106). We do not teach understanding; rather we slip and slide over the top of the deeper issues that make these topics worth studying in the first place. For Sample, ‘uncoverage’ then is a kind of digging downwards, to reveal the assumptions and principles that we would normally cover. There is an obvious connection here with archaeology. In archaeology, one begins with the most recent layers and works backward, peeling away the events that form a site, understanding their associations and connections both in terms of breadth and depth. In the same way one would plan an archaeological excavation backwards from the idea ‘what do we wish to learn from this site?’ I implement backwards-design philosophies into my classes: in order to uncover that which is important, what must students understand as a result of having been in this course?

My ambition in every course is to teach for uncoverage. This has the effect of making my research and teaching two sides of the same craft. As a craftsman, I want my work to be visible, public and appreciated. My students therefore are both objects of my craft, and independent craftspeople in their own right. I seek out opportunities for my students’ work to become visible as together we work through the implications of digital media for historical understanding. Digital history is public history: therefore my students’ work is never conceived of as being done for an audience of one. As I tell my students, ‘we’re working without a net, folks: everything we do, we do in public’. I have published papers, articles, blogs and projects with students as a result.

I have blogged my own teaching and research for five years now. I am committed to open access, making not only my process but also my data available to the wider community. Not every experiment results in success; indeed, the failures are richer experiences because as academics we are loathe to say when something did not work – but how else will anybody know that a particular method, or approach, is flawed? This idea that it is ‘safe to fail’ at something, that sometimes what we try just might not work, is something that I try to foster in my classes. If we try something, it does not work, and we then critically analyze why that should be, we have in fact entered a circle of positive feedback. This perspective comes from my research into game based learning. A good game keeps the challenges just ahead of the player’s (student’s) ability, to create a state of flow. Too hard, and the player quits; too easy, and the player drops the controller in disgust. If we can design assessment exercises in a class that tap into this state of flow, then we can create the conditions for continual learning and growth (see for instance Kee, Graham, et al. 2009). What is more important is that these can be tailored to an individual student’s abilities. Why should assessment in a class begin at 100 points and then work downwards? Why not begin at zero and allow the student to rise?

My approach to teaching has changed over the years, and it will no doubt evolve in the future. What I hope to make a constant though is a commitment to celebrate in public the excellent work that my students do, whether that is sharing their blog posts on Twitter, to finding opportunities to publish with them, to finding collaborative projects with the wider community. By teaching for uncoverage, and by exploring the affordances of digital media for historical representation and analysis, I am able to marry the strands of my own evolution as a student, research and teacher, into the best opportunities for my students.

Putting the digital into my humanities


I teach one of the History Department’s core courses in historical method, HIST2809: The Historian’s Craft. This class has a large enrolment of typically 120 students. Instead of surveying the many different ways historians write history and do historical research, I focus instead on cultivating a deeper understanding of the reflexive nature of historical work, so that when students encounter a new possible method or approach they do so with a critical understanding of not just what the approach offers, but also how it delineates what it possible to say or uncover. I emphasize that historical work is not done in a vacuum, but is done within a community of practice.

To support this teaching, I created a WordPress powered website that I extended with the Buddypress plugin. Buddypress allows for the customized creation of a social network platform – a HIST2809 Facebook, if you will. Then, I ‘gamified’ this space by creating ‘achievements’ that students could work towards, with their progress being visible to other members of the classroom. This approach was written about by Nick Ward in This Week in FASS:

‘I wanted students to have more opportunities to practice the ‘craft’ of being an historian, beyond the formal assessments in the class. Obviously, I could’ve assigned weekly exercises, but that would’ve gone against some of the spirit of what I was trying to inculcate in my students-that being an historian is about being part of a community, that there is joy and surprise and discipline in being an historian, and that most of all, one has to want to do these things – to that end, the achievements system was entirely voluntary (but with a healthy dose of competition).’

In this gamified approach, the students started at zero and tried to collect as many points as possible.  All participants would get a small bonus to their participation grade, proportional to the number of points they’d collected. Some of the game challenges included transcribing lines of ancient papyrus, learning the rhetorics embedded in computer code, completing tutorials on logical fallacies, learning some Latin, and participating in online crowdsourcing history projects (including HeritageCrowd.org, Graham’s own experiment in crowdsourcing local cultural heritage knowledge).”

As a result of including participation in the running of some of my own research projects into the achievements system, some of my students became involved in community digital history projects. One student is now a lead author on the writing of a regimental history for one of Ottawa’s military units. Another student became a co-author with me on a case study of the project to crowd-source local history.

An ancillary use of technology in this class is my virtual excavation project in the Carleton Virtual Campus. This excavation is designed to make ‘real’ the metaphors of archaeology. Through interaction with this virtual excavation – where it is safe to make mistakes – students get the chance to explore how archaeological knowledge is created. This excavation is still in a prototype phase, and so it hasn’t been fully incorporated into this course yet. It represents another facet though of how the careful use of game-based elements can enhance one’s teaching and learning in class.

(I also presented my approach to gamification to my colleagues at an EDC brown-bag lunch. As a side note, I used ‘Prezi’, a piece of online presentation software that uses as its dominant metaphor the idea of ‘zooming’ into data. This is in stark contrast to Powerpoint, whose dominant metaphor is the 35 mm slide. I use both pieces of software in my classes to highlight the ways the media we use structure the stories we are able to tell. There is no ‘right’ way to interact with digital 1s and 0s. In a way, we are all disabled in this regard.)



FYSM1405a Digital Antiquity

I have been teaching a first year seminar for two years. In the first iteration of the course, which was then subtitled ‘digital history’, I sought to explore a variety of digital media with my students to explore how these media structure our understandings of history. As part of that course, I partnered with the Council of Heritage Organizations of Ottawa to use their Ottawagraphy website to tell stories about Ottawa’s history. One of these students later became a co-author with me on the case study on crowd-sourcing local history. Another student is now a co-editor with me on a project to crowdsource the illicit trade in antiquities, heritage.crowdmap.com.

In the second iteration of this course, subtitled ‘Digital Ancients, Digital Moderns’, we focused more on ancient history and archaeology, and how both digital media and ‘traditional’ media create ways of understanding and patterns of power. One of the semester long assignments in this class was to write the Wikipedia. We looked at how Wikipedia articles are subject to a channelization effect, where the earliest structure of an article sets the stage for all subsequent alterations. My students selected an article related to ancient history consisting of only a single paragraph, and then set out to improve it. One such page is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mycenaean_pottery . Wikipedia pages now come with ratings, and as of March 2012, the consensus view of this page is that it is ‘well-written’ (in Wikipedia’s page rating shema). That first year students can be responsible for setting what is the de-facto Western memory bank for everything is a shocking experience for these students!

In the second part of this year’s course, I have partnered with the Museum of Civilization on a project to make ‘the Hidden Museum’ accessible to the public via augmented reality. As a result of some postings on my research blog, curators at the Museum contacted me to see if there was a possibility to partner. They opened up their storerooms to my students, and we began a project to create three-dimensional models of artefacts, using free software. The students ended up selecting a series of models related to Mesoamerica. The students then used Lulu, a print on demand service, to create a book which they are in the process of augmenting with smart-phone based augmented reality software (Junaio.com). In this way, they provide a ‘magic-eye’ like experience or pop-up book experience and liberate these museum pieces from the storerooms, providing a new way for the public to interact with them. The students also considered the ethical implications of displaying museum artefacts this way. This experience will be recounted at this spring’s Canadian Archaeological Association conference in Montreal as a case study. The museum curators and I have written a SSHRC application for a much larger study built on some of the themes related to this student work. Should we be successful in winning the grant, I intend to provide opportunities for these students to continue participating in the project.

Our work in this class was written up in the Charlatan Newspaper, Carleton’s Student newspaper, in January 2012.



This year I have been teaching a graduate seminar in our public history program on digital history. http://dhcworks.carleton.ca/history5702/ The entire course is designed around the exploration of the historiographical issues implicit in digital history and the use of digital tools for historical research (the two are not necessarily the same thing). There was a wide range of ability and affinities for digital media amongst the students enrolled in the course. A significant worry for the students from day one was, ‘what if the project/tool x doesn’t work?’ For these students, my concern with making a project ‘safe to fail’ was paramount. I wanted to demonstrate to them that digital history, as public history, is as much about knowing what doesn’t work (and why) as it is with achieving any set result.

The course also was funded by the NiCHE, the Network for Environmental History. They wanted to know whether or not augmented reality was a feasible approach for telling environmental history in Canada. They provided funds allowing us to purchase some smart-phones and data-plans. In conjunction with an exhibit on the urban forest of Ottawa at the Bytown Museum, the students began exploring the ways history could be told in-place using geo-location and augmented reality. I had them chronicle their journey from being digital neophytes to the completion of the project (April 3rd). They did this on a group blog hosted by the Digital History at Carleton platform (a web-space for digital research and collaboration). Each time they posted, I have retweeted to my followers the location of their posts (~ 700 digital humanists, archaeologists, and online education professionals). As a result, important connections have been made between individual students and practitioners in the field, opening up new research avenues.

I encouraged each student to develop an individual project that would further their major research essays. The resulting panoply of projects and the discussion surrounding their implementation and implications, has made for an incredibly rich seminar. Some students are using interactive fiction platforms (Inform7); others using text-analysis (Voyant Tools) or topic modeling (Mallet) software; some are creating 3d models of artefacts from a museum perspective while others are using data mining of Youtube and Twitter. For me to support these projects has necessarily meant working hard to understand how they work, their possibilities and their perils.

I also hosted a Google+ hangout with PhD students and faculty in digital history and archaeology from the UK and the United States. I wanted the students to experience first-hand one of the hallmarks of the digital humanities, its ‘big-tent’ philosophy and its philosophy of ‘hacking as a way of knowing’. The openness of that experience was something commented on by everyone that week in their blog posts.

Independent studies

I am a thesis advisor for a student interested in exploring issues of power and identity in the Greek Bronze Age. We developed a methodology for him to study these power relationships through social network analysis using the open-source platform Gephi (http://gephi.org). He has been blogging his research approach ( http://zackbatist.com/ ) and has made very important connections with practitioners in the field, which he has been able to draw upon as he applies to graduate school. I’ve taken him to a digital humanities ‘unconference’, and he is helping in the planning of an unconference to take place at Carleton next fall.

I am also a collaborator on Jennifer Evans’ ‘Hate 2.0’ project that looks at online hate. I have been training a student funded by the I-Cureus programme in data mining and analysis to support this project. ( http://dhcworks.carleton.ca/onlinehate/ ).

So why are you sharing this?

Well, lord knows I’m not the best teacher out there – but I want to be better. How are you using tech in your classroom, to support your digital humanistic mission? Where are the flaws in my approach? Where are the strengths?


Kevin Kee, Shawn Graham, Pat Dunae, John Lutz, Andrew Large, Michel Blondeau, Mike Clare. ‘Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming’ Canadian Historical Review 90.2 (June 2009). Pp.303-326.

Mark Sample. ‘Teaching for Uncoverage’ August 23, 2011 http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/teaching-for-uncoverage-rather-than-coverage/35459

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. (Prentice Hall, New Jersey: 2005).

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21 thoughts on “A teaching philosophy in practice

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