Digital history for undergraduates….without the coding

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Slippery Rock University students selecting images for History Pin at the Lawrence County Historical Society. Photo courtesy Aaron Cowan.

Slippery Rock University students selecting images for HistoryPin at the Lawrence County Historical Society. Photo credit: Aaron Cowan.

The digital humanities are rapidly transforming both the discipline of history and the pedagogy of public history.  When I taught my first Introduction to Public History course six years ago, my course schedule had two weeks devoted to digital history; today it occupies more than half of the semester.

Digital history presents several obstacles for introductory-level students, though.  For all the claims about the millennial generation’s tech literacy, they are more adept as consumers than creators.  This is perhaps even more true at institutions like my own – a mid-size state university with a student body drawn largely from the suburban and rural counties in a 100-mile radius.  More than half of them are first-generation college students.  These supposed “digital natives” use smartphones and Twitter with relative ease but rarely have had access to the educational enrichment programs or expensive technology that might give them familiarity with computer programming.  Within the confines of a 15-week academic term, learning the intricacies of Javascript or Google Earth databases from scratch AND deploying those for a digital history project seemed unrealistic.

And yet, just telling students about all the possibilities of digital history and demonstrating some tools on a classroom screen seemed flat and sterile.  I wanted more experiential learning and some way to allow undergraduates to understand the potential of digital history and create a presentable public history project, without the technical skills proving an insurmountable barrier.

I found a workable solution via the site  HistoryPin is operated by a nonprofit organization, We Are What We Do, and the site enables users to “pin” historical images to their original geographic locations via Google Maps and then add historical information to those images.  Visitors to the site can participate by making comments, suggesting more accurate historical information, and pinning their own images.  HistoryPin also has mobile apps for most platforms.

My Introduction to Public History undergraduate course partnered with the Lawrence County Historical Society in nearby New Castle, Pennsylvania, to select, research, and upload historical images to HistoryPin.  Lawrence County Historical Society, like most of the public history institutions in our area, is understaffed and underfunded even though their historical resources are amazing.  They need to create greater community investment and engagement and to connect with younger audiences.  Students worked in groups of three, divided by subject areas (Immigration, Sports, Labor & Industry, etc.) with each group member performing specific roles – as editors, digital technicians, and community liaisons. After selecting images from the society’s digitized collections, students researched the event or place in each photograph, wrote 150-200 word “exhibit labels” for each image, and then uploaded the photos to the proper location in HistoryPin.[*]

HIstory Pin screenshot. Image courtesy Aaron Cowan.

HistoryPin screenshot, taken by Aaron Cowan.

The project was great for teaching students research skills.  Even some of our History majors found local history research to be a new challenge – rather different from writing a standard term paper where they could pull together some books and journal articles from the library and synthesize those into an essay. One advantage we had is that the city’s main newspaper has been digitized and available through NewspaperArchive.  Keyword searching is a wonderful thing!  Still, the challenges were also instructive.  After one student’s attempts at researching a 1930s photo of the town’s police officers ran into a dead end, he visited the police station and found a wealth of institutional knowledge in the long-time members of the staff. As he later commented in class, “I learned the value of getting away from my computer and talking to people.”

History Pin screenshot. Image courtesy Aaron Cowan.

HistoryPin screenshot, taken by Aaron Cowan.

Beyond the digital aspect, students were also practicing core skills of public historians.  Selecting the images became a basic practice in curation.  The Sports group, for example, was adamant about showing the local high school’s sports teams across a wide range of decades because the group wanted to demonstrate the gradual integration of African Americans as teammates.   In addition, students had to tailor their image labels to a public audience.  Finally, they had to consider how to handle sensitive and potentially controversial subjects.  What to do, for example, with the 1927 image titled “Darktown Minstrels in Blackface” or another, also from the 1920s, of a Ku Klux Klan picnic in the town park? It was rewarding to see students debate this and make decisions that we too often only discuss in the abstract.  Furthermore, HistoryPin is interactive, allowing viewers to comment, suggest more correct information, or post their own pictures and interpretive information, which provides a model for how interactive media allows for conversations, debate, and shared authority. Reflecting on the project at semester’s end, one student commented that

the HistoryPin project was my favorite project I’ve completed in college because it showed me just how much work a public historian truly does. Public historians conduct a great deal of research, which is not always easy. Sometimes, they must do some digging to find that missing element that brings the whole project together…the experience also showed our group just how much collaboration needs to be done for the end result to be successful.

In large measure, students took ownership of the project.  They were very enthusiastic about the fact that their research was going to be publicly presented, not simply submitted to the professor at the end of the term and never seen again. As another student reflected, “For the first time in my four years as a history major, I felt like a historian and not just a history student.”

History Pin screenshot. Photo courtesy Aaron Cowan.

HistoryPin screenshot, taken by Aaron Cowan.

Of course, there are limits to conceptualizing such a project as “digital history.”  Students aren’t learning much about the technical infrastructure behind a site like HistoryPin, and, because the format and structure are predetermined by HistoryPin, the use of the site narrows the options for students to consider entirely different interpretive methods.  Still, for introductory students, I’m satisfied that most came away with a much clearer grasp of how geospatial technology, digitized collections, and good historical research can be combined to present local history in new and engaging ways.

~ Aaron Cowan is Assistant Professor of History at Slippery Rock University. His research interests focus on modern US history, urban history, and public history.  In addition to his teaching duties, Dr. Cowan also serves as curator of the Old Stone House, a reconstructed 1822 stagecoach tavern museum owned by Slippery Rock University.







[*] As with any class project involving group work and community involvement, clear guidelines and expectations were essential. I’d be happy to share the assignment in detail – anyone interested can email me at [email protected]


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