Teaching History in a Digital Age

Digital transformations in society and culture have fundamentally changed the historian’s relationship with the past.  So how do we incorporate this into our teaching? In this post for Historical Transactions, Dr Sharon Webb and Dr James Baker, winners of the 2019 RHS Prize for Innovation in Teaching discuss their approach to teaching digital history.

Historians once relied primarily on professional archivists, librarian, or museum curator to select, arrange, and make available traces from the past. Today, historians are confronted with digital primary sources often selected for digitisation by technology companies, arranged by algorithms, prioritised by funding bodies and governments, and made available by a wide spectrum of actors: publishers, community groups, philanthropic entities, and technology companies have joined archives, libraries, and museums in mediating traces from the past.

Historians today enjoy unprecedented access to a range of primary sources, some freely available, many paywalled, all with a systemic bias towards the textual production of the Global North. With these digital materials, the historian can assemble unexpected corpora, examine large volumes of material for subtle linguistic patterns, and produce performative visualisations that cut through complexity, demanding our critical attention. 

Professional historians have learnt from practice how to navigate this fragmentation of authority. But for those new to the profession the landscape must seem bewildering, and is undoubtedly a prominent cause of the common mistakes students make when using primary sources: reading them through a secondary source, citing only the webpage on which a digitised primary source is found, failing to account for the difference between a digitised copy and an original.

These circumstances frame the development of the digital history curriculum at the University of Sussex. Since September 2015 we have delivered weekly hour-long sessions to all Year 1 History students across the academic year. These classes are designed to give students the critical skills to deal with the fracturing of archival authority and to exploit the opportunities available for corpus-based analyses of the past.

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Image 1: Some results of the digitisation session (March 2019). Students took images of The Illustrated London News and then wrote some metadata. We also asked them to document why certain fields were important.

As we’ve refined our approach, we’ve settled on taking students on a journey from mastering how to *do history in the digital age* to *doing digital history*.

Reading, writing, referencing, and searching form the bulk of the sessions during the Autumn term. Each session is delivered in a lecture theatre but, being based on feedback from students, is inherently practical and inflected by discussions about what is particular to doing these things as historians today. In the Spring term we move to multi-week topics that challenge students to use primary sources to make and critique datasets and visualisations, explore the history of digitisation and the pasts it has produced, and consider what types of digitised and born digital primary sources get preserved and why. Across the academic year, these session are tied to core modules on historical topics – the Early Modern World in the Autumn term, and Making of the Modern World in the Spring term – enabling students see the connections between learning about the past and the present condition of the sources through which historian make sense of that past.

Developing these curricula has been a challenge. School leavers have expectations about what a History degree entails. Being asked from week 1 of their degree to think critically about the conditions in which we make history and computational approaches to the past likely fall outside those expectations. But like us, the Department of History is committed to delivering a history curriculum that addresses the challenges of our time. And by making this commitment, we are starting to see students who’ve taken the seed sown in Year 1, and have pulled that through their degree programme.

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Image 2: Students were presented with this image, reused in a blog without any attribution or detail,  and were asked to find out its origins using image search and reverse image retrieval. Through these methods they pieced together a history of the image. (Source:Internet Archive [Public domain])
We believe our students are making more considered use of primary material found online, are taking a greater interest in the production of the past by archives, libraries, and museums, and are more willing to take risks, to make ambitious attempts to arrange, analyse, and present datasets based on traces from the past.

These attributes will not only make our students better historians but also better citizens who are more able to challenge disinformation, critique techno-solutionism, and marshall data for good, all vital aspects of truth making in a world of born digital sources, hyper connectivity, and the internet of things.

And so we are honoured that the Royal Historical Society recognised these efforts with their 2019 Innovation in Teaching Prize. We dedicate that award to our colleagues at Sussex for making space in our curriculum for this work to happen and for supporting its delivery (notable mentions go to Tim Hitchcock, Claire Langhamer, Lucy Robinson, Chris Warne, Laura Kounine, Joanne Paul, and Jim Endersby). If colleagues in the wider profession are interested in learning more about our work, we’d be delighted to field questions or queries via all the usual channels.

Further Reading

Higher Education Academy, ‘History, Classics and Archaeology: Inclusive Curriculum Design in Higher Education’ (Higher Education Academy, 2011)

Biographies

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James Baker (left) and Sharon Webb (right) with Tim Hitchcock at the RHS Awards, 5 July 2019.
Dr James Baker is Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities -Digital History/Archives (History) at the University of Sussex and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is an expert in the authority of the digital record, the history of knowledge organisation, historical interactions with information technologies, and the history of the printed image. He can be followed on Twitter @j_w_baker

Dr Sharon Webb is Lecturer in Digital Humanities – Digital History/Archives (History) at the University of Sussex. She is a historian of Irish associational culture and nationalism and a digital humanities practitioner. Sharon’s current research interests include community archives and identity, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ archives, social network analysis (method and theory), and research data management. She can be followed on Twitter @wsharon145