In the spring of 2012 I taught a graduate seminar in our public history program on digital history. The entire course was 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 were 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 made for an incredibly rich seminar. Some students are used interactive fiction platforms (Inform7); others used text-analysis (Voyant Tools) or topic modeling (Mallet) software; some created 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.