Re-crafting Crafting Digital History

My Crafting Digital History course runs this summer. The reason for that is, I’m obliged (because of funding) to run it every calendar year, but of course, calendar years != academic years. I last ran it in the winter of 2016, and then promptly went on sabbatical. To make the calendar year square with the academic year, my only option then is to run it again in the summer term immediately after finishing my sabbatical.

All of this is to say, I find myself having to compress the course from 13 weeks down to 6 weeks. It was a pretty damned ambitious course for 13 weeks, designed to encourage students to learn a lot, to push a lot, to explore a lot, and to find value in the fail that will dog them. Unfortunately, my institution has done a lot to convince students that online courses = talking heads & multiple choice questions, so my fail-in-public schtick was always going to be a hard sell. And I also overwhelmed students, paradoxically, with too much choice and too much guidance! My attrition rates were pretty bad. 60 started, 25 finished. 20 dropped the first week when it became apparent that it wasn’t a multiple choice course, and another ten the following week when they decided to check in and discovered the same. I wrote to students frequently, encouraging them to get cracking, I held video chats, I was present in Slack every minute of every day (well, nearly every evening), I stood on my head and whistled glory hallelujah, but some students (of those who ultimately dropped it) didn’t turn up until the 10th week. Those who completed the work did amazing stuff… but only one decided to keep her domain after the year’s worth of hosting I paid for expired.

So, mea culpa certainly in some regards, but there’s something about horses & water that’s germane here…

Anyway, I’m now rebuilding the course. I’ve been reading Andrew Goldstone’s thoughts on teaching DH and Lincoln Mullen’s reflections on the same and I think I agree. I’ve been too hung up on the tech, and dealing with the small-c conservatism of History students about what ‘History’ is supposed to be about (“There’s a lot of deprogramming I have to do”, I remarked to a colleague. He responded, “and for the students, too!”). This time around, I’m going to spend less time on actual tech and tools, and more on cultivating the habits of mind that will enable the student to seek out the appropriate tool for the question they have. How to ask questions of more technically-minded folks. Where to find answers. They’re still going to learn some basic data literacy skills, but I’m thinking that with careful use of I can make this online course of some 50 (and climbing) students feel more like a seminar, more like a community, which I hope will alleviate some of the attrition rate. I’m privileged in that I’m now at a point in my career where attrition isn’t the awful will-I-lose-my-job bogeyman it was before. If this work, I’ll let y’all know so we can move forward together.

The other thing that the reworked class needs to do better is to narrow the universe of options. Before, I encouraged students to hunt datasets of interest down, or generate one themselves. Madness. This time around, we’ll work with one dataset and one dataset only: M.H. Beals’s ‘Scissors and Paste’ database of British newspapers from the 18th and 19th centuries.  The other thing I’ll be doing is weaving a continuing discussion around, as Lincoln puts it,

on how the historical sources of data that we are using were created and … how historians have used data analysis. That’s in addition to methodological readings which also deal with questions of historical thinking with data.

Here’s how I think it’ll go down:

  • domains of their own on which they’ll install WordPress and blog weekly about their fails, questions, and triumphs (a fail-blog, flog? see Mark Sample)
  • a github repo in which they’ll keep their actual notes working with their own machines. Copies of their terminal histories, that sort of thing.
  • hypothesis account with which they’ll annotate the readings, each other’s blogs, and notebooks
  • a final project visualizing some interesting pattern they’ve found in the database, which they’ll mount via their blog (or other tool courtesy of cpanel on their domain, if they’re feeling ambitious).
  • no more Slack. It worked great for some students, but for most, it was too far removed from what they were expecting. Pick your battles.

Tech topics for each week:

  1. How to read collaboratively. Setting up a domain of one’s own. Setting up a blog.
  2. Basic git. Setting up a research notebook repo (markdown). Newspaper database into CSVWTF. Data structures.
  3. Wget. Curl. Grabbing stuff from an API. TEI/XML.
  4. Regex. Networks.
  5. Voyant. Topic Model Gui Tool. Possibly simple webmapping by repurposing Matrix’s DAEA
  6. one week’s grace to recover. I’d love to teach them TWARC, twitter-bots, so many other things, so maybe I’ll do some small tutorials as time/interests permit.

As for readings, I’m putting that list together. But I’d be curious to hear what you recommend, or your thoughts on my plan.

What I did in the past, it was well thought out and well structured (ok, more or less) but it foundered on the rocks of experience. Or rather, it worked well for the 25 who got it, but it needs to be better to reach the other 35.

(By the way – I ran an open access version of the course last time, with its own Slack. That group of about a dozen interested individuals from around the world were great! So I’ll be doing that again as well. If you’re not at Carleton but are a student at an Ontarian university, you can also sign up for credit via eCampusOntario. If you’re not an Ontarian university but you’d still like to do this for credit, contact me right away and I think there are ways we can make that happen.)