HIST5706 Fall 2019: Guerilla Digital Public History

I had to cook up a course description. Coming at you Fall 2019…. Guerilla Digital Public History!

HIST 5706: Digital History – Guerrilla Public Digital History
Fall 2019


The sources for the history of our times are fragile. Joe Ricketts, the billionaire owner of DNAInfo and Gothamist, shut the local news publications down rather than tolerate a unionized workforce. For 11 minutes, Trump was kicked off Twitter. Ian Bogost sees in both episodes a symptom of a deeper problem:

> both are pulling on the same brittle levers that have made the contemporary social, economic, and political environment so lawless.

As public historians, what are we to do about this? There are a lot of issues highlighted here, but let’s start at the most basic. It takes nothing to delete the record. The fragility of materials online is both a danger, and an opportunity, for us. Some scholars have “gone rogue” in trying to deal with this problem. That is to say, they neither sought nor obtained permission. They just scoped out a process, and did it.

I initially called this class ‘guerrilla public digital history’ partly tongue in cheek. I imagined us doing some augmented reality type projects in public spaces. Re-programming those public spaces. Using digital techs to surface hidden histories, and insert them into spaces where they didn’t ‘belong’. Counterprogramming. That was the ‘guerilla’ bit.

I still want to do all that. But I think we’re going to have to do a bit more. Digital Public Historians have a role to play I suspect in countering the information power asymmetry. These ways are impromptu, without authorization. Rogue. Improvised. And yet, they have to remain ethical. What are the ethics here?

What is a ‘guerilla digital public history’? What are the stories in Ottawa that require a guerilla digital public history? What do you need to know in order to tell such a story?

I don’t know. But we’re going to find out.

Examples of previous student work in this class may be found at http://picturinglebretonflats.ca/ and https://nathpicard.github.io/Old-Chinatown-Ottawa/ . Both of these pieces were award-winning.

Class Format:

We meet once per week in a three-hour block, a kind of collaborative studio-based approach. It involves a whole lot of experimentation and making. Things will break, and will go in directions that you didn’t expect.

Aims and Goals:

Digital history is a collaborative endeavour. I want you to learn how to identify, learn, and deploy the relevant technologies suitable to the story you wish to tell; I want you to learn that different technologies promote different kinds of telling, and envision different kinds of humans who are permitted to do the telling.

Part of the learning will involve documenting your practice. I will get you started with three expressive digital media that you can use to explore what it means to do guerilla digital history in the nation’s capital. You will leave this course with an actual ‘thing’ you’ve created and deployed, and a toolkit of your own. We will do a mixture of activities, readings, and discussions to enable you to ground your guerilla digital history toolkit in the scholarship. You will build this toolkit as you put in train your own act of guerilla digital history.

This can be disappointing if you are expecting a more traditional arrangement. If you want to learn how to do computational analysis of historical texts, I’d suggest the self-directed, non-credit version of HIST3814o Crafting Digital History (http://craftingdigitalhistory.ca) would be more appropriate for you, and you can explore that on your own (but I’d be happy to talk you through it). But in this class, we’re doing something very different.

The logic of a guerrilla digital history sees:

• digital history is about making things
• the point of making is about discovery, not justification
• through making we come to understand the issue deeply, differently, divergently
• that the digital world overlays and intertwines the physical world and so we can’t leave it to the tech folks alone: we must engage
• that because this engagement can involve using digital tools, platforms, and data against the ways that the hegemons desire, it is political
• that because it is political, it involves an element of danger (for whom is undefined) and so the weapons of geurilla digital history might be truth and beauty bombs


• 4 Oral Reports – 25% total
• 10 Devlogs – 25% total – to be kept in a timely fashion over the duration of the course
• Project – 50% total – due the last day of term
–> Paradata: 20%
–> the Thing itself: 30%

(Thus, 70% of the grade is on your process and reflection).


There is no text to purchase. Readings will be open-access on the web; links to specific texts will be on the course website.

featured image simson petrol on unsplash.com

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