Learning to Craft History for the Digital Age
The innovations in my classroom are founded in my research questions in public history and higher education practice. As a digital humanist, I am interested in questions such as, how do we widen the perception of what academic work can be, in history and the humanities? What is the role of the digital in all of this? My teaching innovations circle around the question of, how can we make it ‘safe’ to expand the range of what we do, in terms of formal assessment? As Mark Sample (2009) argues,
Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning “that which is woven,” strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.
In which case, ‘weaving’ is a guiding metaphor for my teaching.
A teaching philosophy for the digital humanities
Given the arc of my career, my philosophy of teaching has evolved continually as I teach at different levels, in different contexts, to different kinds of learners. 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 as a high school teacher (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. These experiences have pushed me towards the idea of ‘uncoverage’ and transparency in my teaching practice.
I first encountered the idea of ‘uncoverage’ in a blog post on Profhacker by Mark Sample. Sample 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 2011, 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, to show students how to weave. 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. I regard digital history as a kind of public history: therefore my students’ work is never conceived of as being done for an audience of one (cf Sample, 2012: 404-5). I have published papers, articles, blogs and projects with students as a result (e.g., Graham, Massie, and Feuerherm 2012, dossier 6c), and have had students blog in public their learning journey (see for instance http://3812.graeworks.net).
I have blogged my own teaching and research for six 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. This is in part the motivation for my Future Funder campaign to establish an undergraduate research fellowship in digital history. By teaching for uncoverage, and by exploring the affordances of digital media for historical representation and analysis, I am able to weave the strands of my own evolution as a student, researcher and teacher, into the best opportunities for my students.
Putting the digital into my humanities – my teaching innovations
My teaching philosophy directly informs my teaching practice. In the sections below I detail how this works for several of my classes.