history

Integrating Digital History into the Classroom, by Matthew Ferraro

As an aspiring social studies teacher, I recognize the importance of integrating digital history into the classroom. Students have grown up in the digital age, and, as such, consume a majority of their information online. Gone are the days of searching through a library for primary and secondary sources to support a historical argument or reading a newspaper to discover that day’s events. All this information, and more, can now be found online. This vast availability of information has greatly expanded the possibilities for studying history, which presents us, as educators, with a unique opportunity to integrate digital history into our classrooms. By doing so, we will enable students to utilize digital media to advance historical analysis and understanding. To do this, however, we must first provide students with models of digital history. What follows are several examples of digital history projects that could be used in classrooms (and beyond) to equip students with the skills required to contribute to our knowledge of world contexts in a digital way.

1) History Matters

HistoryMatters is a digital history project that resulted from collaboration between George Mason University and the City University of New York. The project began in 1998 with the intent of providing teachers and students with digital resources that could improve their instruction and understanding of United States history. It was funded by the Kellogg Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. There are over a thousand primary sources on a variety of topics that range from photographs to text documents to audio files, all of which can be used with students to help them construct a narrative of the past. What’s unique about this project is that it takes full advantage of the digital space by using audio files from everyday Americans to help participants co-construct the history of the United States as well as from scholars on how to teach major aspects of US history. In addition, since there are over a thousand primary sources available, there is a “full search” feature that was developed to assist in locating resources by time, topic, or keyword. With the large number of primary sources available, this digital history project would be an excellent resource for students to use for research papers. Students could use this project to develop a research question based on an area of inquiry, examine primary sources related to their topic, arrive at conclusions based on their research, and publish their findings in order to advance our understanding of history. Doing so would expose them to conducting research digitally while also developing their ability to think critically, evaluate evidence, and articulate their thoughts clearly.

2) Mapping Inequality  

Mapping Inequality is a digital history project that was created through the collaboration of three research teams from the University of Maryland, the University of Richmond, Virginia Tech, and Johns Hopkins University. This project showcases 150 maps that were drafted by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) from 1935 to 1940. These maps were color-coded to show the credit-worthiness of different neighborhoods in each town. Mortgage lenders then used these maps to determine whether someone would qualify for a loan. This project was developed to show that, when these maps are compared to the layout of neighborhoods in the United States today, it becomes apparent that many of the racial and class inequities that exist are a direct result of the HOLC’s maps. In fact, many of these maps were produced such that they were to codify racial segregation into real estate practice. This project could be used with students for multiple purposes. For example, when teaching about the New Deal, students could use the site to determine how the HOLC reflected a problematic legacy of the New Deal. Students could also be asked to cite specific examples from the map of how the HOLC’s practices led to the racial and class segregation that is seen today. For example, if they examined the areas around Hartford, Connecticut, they would observe that the HOLC deemed that West Hartford had the “best,” most credit worthy neighborhoods, whereas Hartford had the “hazardous,” least credit worthy neighborhoods. If this map is compared to today’s, it becomes evident that the HOLC’s maps led to racial and class segregation, with West Hartford and Hartford reflecting mostly unchanged neighborhoods. In addition, showcasing a digital history project of this nature in class would familiarize students with what digital history can look like. Through this project, teachers could expose students to some of the digital tools and resources—such as mapping software and online databases—that would be required to design it. This would create incentives to work collaboratively with other scholars—especially those who could provide the digital resources for projects like this.

3) The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War

The Valley of the Shadow is a digital history project constructed by the Virginia Center for DigitalHistory at the University of Virginia. This project narrates the countless stories of two different communities from the American Civil War—one from the North and one from the South—through letters, newspapers, diaries, speeches, and other primary sources. The project is organized through a series of image maps that direct the viewer to various search engines. This project functions similarly to the HistoryMatters project—they are both databases of primary sources that employ search engines to enable the viewer to locate information—but there is a key difference between the two worth mentioning: while HistoryMatters contains a large amount of primary source information on a wide variety of topics across United States history, this project only provides information that is relevant to a specific time and topic. The narrow focus is relevant to the work historians do on a daily basis, as most of a history scholar’s research explores questions in a specific niche of the past. As such, teachers could use this project to show students how they might approach a digital history research project. This would help transition students away from the traditional way of communicating their thoughts on history through a research paper and, instead, provide them with the opportunity to disseminate their ideas digitally. For example, rather than writing a paper about the significant World War II battles, students could create an online timeline that lays out those events chronologically while also providing descriptions of the significance of each battle. Exposing students to and allowing them to engage in this sort of work would enable them to practice the craft of a historian in a very familiar context and equip them with the skills to pose their own questions about a certain niche of the world.

Matthew Ferraro is a masters’ student in the Neag School of Education’s Integrated Bachelors’ / Masters’ (I/BM) Program. He is currently interning at Conard High School, where his research interests include how to best integrate human rights education into social studies classrooms. He is studying to become a social studies teacher at the high school level. He can be reached at matthew.ferraro@uconn.edu.

Jennifer Terni, Associate Professor of French (Literatures, Cultures, and Languages)

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-1-20-12-pm1. What initially intrigued you about research/teaching in digital humanities or media studies?  

My interest in media studies is a longstanding one and is no doubt rooted in my inter-disciplinarity.   My MA in history was about the ideological valences of one of France’s most successful early pulp fiction writers, Eugène Sue.  Working on Sue forced me to consider the problem of distribution and audience. I realized from correspondence about him that different groups had very different investments in Sue’s work. Because of the difficulties of describing reception, the explanations of these differences were often uncomfortably reductive (class interest, commercial distraction for the masses, etc…).  As I developed a potential subject for my Ph.D., about the ways in which theater was rooted within Parisian cultural networks, I realized that what I was really after was to imagine new ways to account for and describe these differences.  This is how my Ph.D. project evolved into a much broader study of early mass culture.  The research has led me, over the years, to explore the countless ways that media in the 1830s, ’40s and ‘50s transformed how people were positioned—and positioned themselves—in terms of a reality that was increasingly defined by large numbers of other people. And though it is true that media could be a weapon, what we find when we look more closely was that it was more often—and very self-consciously—a resource that helped people to make sense of how they were being redefined as individuals and as collectives.  The active investments of individuals in media as well as in countless other practices that media helped support played a major role in propelling the rise of a culture increasingly defined by scale.

2. Has entering the DHMS realm changed your approach to research and teaching in general? If so, how?

This past semester I taught a new graduate course on 19th-century media.  It would have been impossible to give this course even a decade ago, since it was built on the shoulders of major digitized archives including Gallica at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Hathi Trust, and ARTFL, to name but a few.  To make use of them effectively, however, I had to build an extensive website as a platform from which to organize the many primary sources that we explored as a group as well as to give a picture of what 19th-century media would have looked like. What is more, I tried, as much as possible, to get the students to experience what it would have been like to consume media in the 19th century, for instance, by reading a pulp fiction novel in installments in a newspaper.  This experiment was more successful than I could have hoped.  What is more, occasionally I sent the students to the Dodd archive to encounter 19th-century artifacts more directly (illustrated newspapers, daguerreotype, stereoscopes, photographic technology).  The impact of those encounters was intense in large part because the students had been engaged with primary sources throughout the semester: they had seen the exploding variety of media forms in the 1800s, but also knew firsthand how even very disparate forms were interconnected. They had also read theoretical and historical articles that helped them think about what kinds of cultural work these different genres and platforms were performing.  Touching the actual artifact was meaningful because to them it was already embedded in a web of references and ways of thinking about media, but also because it contrasted with all of the digital content they had been using throughout the semester.  It was thus doubly a material encounter with material culture.

3. You have three (commitment-free) wishes to receive support for your research/teaching in DH or media studies: what are they?

  1. I would love to get support for teaching students how to conduct big-data research on historical sources and to also become critical about the strengths and limits of such research.
  2. I used a digital lab for this graduate class.  It was essential to the conduct of the course.  Each student was seated at a desktop computer.  We often looked at things together in class (illustrations, plays, newsprint, exhibition sites, audio and early film recordings) either as a group or did individual research on a question that was raised in class in real time (this is where the website I built was indispensable as all the resources we needed were centralized and accessible).  Making sure such classrooms are available was essential (and it was, it turns out, a struggle to find such space especially for a graduate class).
  3. I put in a good hundred hours building my website.  Some support for this would have been great too.

4. First struggles and successes: do you have any best-practice advice?

  1. Imagine your course as an overall process of active engagement and experimentation as opposed to being about a set of materials or themes.  Organize it it in terms of activities versus readings.
  2. Try to step out of your normal reflexes in designing your class.  As I got more deeply into the selection of my materials, I worried about the quality of individual samples — their canonicity in other words.  It finally dawned on me that this was exactly the wrong approach.  Letting the students be exposed to media more randomly and giving them tools for engaging with it meaningfully was far more useful pedagogically in terms of the development of their critical and interpretive skills.  They learned how to make fine distinctions between medium, platform, genre, device, formula, topos, so they actually learned to become better readers in a literary sense.  Even as they became increasingly fluent in these distinctions, they also became aware of how much, especially after the 1830s, the development of one genre and platform affected the development of others, even if they did not seem to share obvious affinities.
  3. Do not worry about the interest of any one artifact.  It turned out that the students were interested in everything, precisely because it fit into a whole web, both at the level of 19th-century media production, but also in the conversations we were having about it in class.

5. How would you like to challenge yourself in DH or media studies? Or what is a project you most seek to realize?

To learn about a new media form as a tool for teaching, but even more as a subject for research.  This applies as much to 19th-century media as to the latest platforms.  I am most invested in considering the problems media raises and solves in terms of communication, cognition, socialization, cultural impacts.  I am always interested in mastering new digital tools to be able to create new learning environments (while noting that in many of my classes I have a “no computer/phone” policy).  Ideally, I’d love to happen upon a question in my research that might lead, organically, to being able to develop a meaningful crowd-based research project. qa

A Crash Course on Digital Mapping for the Moderately Technologically Savvy, by Nathan Braccio

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-4-09-50-pmFor scholars in the humanities interested in making maps there is a wide range of available tools. At least half-a-dozen programs exist that allow a scholar to upload data, visualize it, analyze it, and then share it with colleagues and the public. These tools provide the enterprising scholar the ability to augment their arguments with exciting visual components or to reveal new questions or patterns that can provide strong evidence or push research in new directions.

In this blog post I will discuss some of the options available, focusing on how each tool matches with different kinds of projects and skill levels. While not an expert in GIS or mapping, I have been working on a mapping project on 17th-century New England that has plunged me into an overwhelming array of websites and software. I made the time-consuming mistake of experimenting with each new software I came across, but hopefully after reading this post others can avoid this quagmire and get to making exciting and fun maps.

Before continuing a little should be said about the different uses for maps (from my perspective as a history PhD candidate). Maps make a striking visual argument that can both stand on its own when crafted well or can complement a text or webpage. For example, while I can point out that dozens of towns in New England were destroyed during King Philip’s War, actually mapping this destruction with intensity bubbles across the region makes a powerful statement. As an analytical tool, maps allow scholars to repurpose heavily used sources in order to find new patterns or to compile relatively insignificant data from ignored sources into more useful aggregated forms. Continuing with examples I know, by plotting something as mundane as the dates of town settlement throughout New England, the chronology of English settlers breaking away from their coastal and riverine settlements becomes clear. Simply reading dates and locations would not have yielded this conclusion. Richard White has presented a particular strong argument for spatial history.

 

Getting Started

Before you actually start to use any mapping programs, you will need a few things, including something to map! You will also need to know your goal. There are three types of things you can do with mapping software: you can make cool visualizations or tell stories, you can plot and analyze vector data, or you can overlay historical maps on contemporary maps (and even plot your vector data on them or extract data from them). Vector data is usually stored in a spreadsheet, although most programs also allow you to add data points internally in a time consuming process. With your goal in mind, gather your vector data, an image of a historical map, or information/a story you want to visualize.

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If you are using vector data, you probably already have a location associated with what you want to plot. If your location is expressed in lat/lon numbers you are ready. If it is a town name or street address, you will want to convert it to lat/lon coordinates unless you are using Google Maps or Carto (they can do it automatically). A simple google search will yield some websites that will convert your locational data, but they are somewhat clunky. A better method is to upload your spreadsheet into Google Sheets (Google’s version of excel) and to create a macro. While that may sound intimidating, it really only involves copy and pasting a line of code that can be found here.

Google Maps

For the digital neophyte looking to either visualize or begin an analytical project, the best place to start is Google Maps. While you may be familiar with using Google Maps to get directions or look at a street view of your house, it also has the ability to plot vector data, or become a complex map imbedded in a website. For the purposes of the only moderately technologically savvy, this is best done through “My Maps.” My Maps has built in georeferencing and is linked to Google Sheets, so it is easy to transfer vector data over with basic locational information and have it quickly plotted through a series of intuitive commands. Your data can be classified by Google Maps in a few basic ways including simple color coding. You can also upload customized images to act as icons for your data in addition to Google’s icon library. You are able to easily manipulate your data in the program, change how it is classified or displayed, and isolate specific ranges of data with a few simple clicks.

While a more skilled user may be able to use the Google Map API coupled with coding skill and a web page to do some fancy things, for the normal user Google Maps has several limitations. Without using the API along with your own website, Google Maps has limited customizability. There is limited styling, no ability to apply JavaScript (like you can with the API), and no ability to make a customizable interface. You are also limited to using one of Google’s nine base-maps. While the base-maps can look nice, they often contain contemporary information or labels that may be anachronistic.

 

Carto

Using Carto will avoid several of these problems while requiring some additional technical skill. In general Carto is similar to Google Maps My Maps. It is good for plotting and visualizing vector data and you can modify uploaded spreadsheets within the webpage. screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-4-08-16-pmWhile at times a little less user friendly, it is also enables you to use custom base-maps and to apply limited coding to change the style and interface of your maps. Like Google Maps, it is extremely easy to share on social media or embedded in your own webpage. Overlaying images, while possible, is still a difficult task in this program. Additionally, it only has a limited ability to create a fully customized interface.

 

Arc/QGIS

Perhaps the strongest tools for analysis, although not visualization, are ArcGIS and QGIS. While very similar, QGIS is open source and free, but ArcGIS is proprietary and very expensive for those without access through their institution. These programs provide powerful sandboxes for mapping and uploading data, but are relatively difficult to use. When you open these programs, you are presented with a blank canvas.

It is up to you to upload base maps and data, or plot data in the program. Because you have a blank canvas, anything you upload needs to be georeferenced. If you are uploading a spreadsheet this means lat/long geographical coordinates, although some formats can be georeferenced within the program. The spreadsheet to be uploaded needs to first be converted into a .csv format, which can be done from excel or Google Sheets using “save as.”

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Additionally, all layers of data need to have a consistent CRS (Coordinate Reference System) value applied to them.

Once uploaded, you can add to your data, categorize it in several ways, and style it with great freedom. Historical maps and images can easily be uploaded to your project and stretched and overlaid wherever and however you want. These programs are not ideal for creating visually polished maps for internet distribution (frequently people augment them with photoshop or illustrator for this purpose). Despite stylistic limitations, the Arc/QGIS alone are fine for making the mind of maps that can be included in printed publications. QGIS, which I have more experience with, also allows you to make maps into a format that you can integrate into a webpage through one of its many useful plugins. If you are interested in learning how to actually use GIS, the Programming Historian has a few useful tutorials.

 

Neatline

For mapping more focused on an extremely customizable visualization, the choices are limited unless you know JavaScript. Neatline (via Omeka) is one of the only exceptions, and as a tradeoff it has some issues uploading spreadsheets of vector data. Instead, Neatline is extremely good at creating a dynamic and interactive exhibit/story, in which the data and objects are created within Neatline. Installing Neatline is relatively simple, although it is important to know that you cannot do it on the Omeka hosted Omeka.net, but only through an Omeka platform hosted elsewhere (not a free wordpress either, meaning you would have to pay for hosting). I will not go into detail on how to install Omeka on your website here, as it is well documented here and here.

Once installed Neatline has several plugins of its own that allow you to add timelines to your map, create an interactive text in which words are linked to points on the map, and for you to upload images to overlay on the map, or even a custom background. These demos really show its power. Its greatest strength is its friendly interface and plentiful documentation. Oddly enough, some of its issues emerge when doing things that one would imagine would be relatively simple for it, like trying to batch transfer items with lat/lon associated from an Omeka database (luckily there is a helpful internet community for both Neatline and Omeka).

 

Summing Up

While I will not explore it fully here, if you have some experience with Javascript and want to work on embedding an interactive map into your webpage, there are a few different places you can start. Leaflet (QGIS compatibility with QGIS Web App), Openlayers, Google Maps API, and Timemap are all worth looking into. In fact, you will probably use some combination of these programs if you are trying to make an interactive map. As you can see, this blog post just scratches the surface of the programs available. If you are interested in analyzing old maps, take a look at MapAnalyst. If you want to make an atlas of maps you have or want to overlay multiple historic maps onto a contemporary map, check out Map Scholar made by historians. The Library of Congress made Viewshare for mapping out a digital collection on a map and storymap has a self-explanatory name.

Hopefully, this post has given those of you interested in mapping a guide on where you might want to start your project. Personally, I find myself using a combination of Google Maps, QGIS, and Neatline for different aspects of my project, with the intention of eventually taking advantage of the Google Maps API and Leaflet to bring my project online. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions.

Nathan Braccio is a Ph.D candidate in the UCONN History Department. He received his B.A. and M.A. in history from American University. His research focuses on the conflux of geography and identity in 17th and 18th century New England. More information on mapping and his research can be found on his webpage nathanbraccio.com. Contact him at nathan.braccio@uconn.edu.