The Projector

Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski

Teaching Digital History: A Review

Teaching History in the Digital Age.

By T. Mills Kelly. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2013. 184 pp. HC $70.00;


kelly_Teaching History

This year, nearly three thousand new books were published in English with “digital” in its title.  Only forty-seven of these titles may be classified in the History discipline, and T. Mills Kelly’s latest work Teaching History in the Digital Age is the only title specifically addressing education and, specifically, the ways in which educators, historians, in higher education need to adapt to and incorporate digital tools, concepts, and cognition into the classroom environment and history curricula.  Although Kelly’s reflections on past teaching experiences and commentary on how digital components might improve participants’ experiences of history courses won’t surprise those scholars already working in the DH, it is, nevertheless, a recommended read for all educators teaching in History courses (and related fields).  Various scholars have already opened the doors to fields like Software Studies, electronic literature, digital authorship, and new media art.  Kelly sees the sea of new debates and new opportunities surrounding the digital (though he is at times cautious and hesitant himself concerning digital work and a classroom’s digital protocols) and observes that History, as a discipline, is slow to partake in these debates—since, in his estimate, historians don’t experience “the crisis” as other departments—and “generally dismissive of the value of new media technologies for the teaching and learning of our discipline” (“Introduction”, par. 8).  Kelly manages to avoid judgments as to whether digital technologies aid student learning, he quickly admits that bringing in digital components makes them more engaged, which is clearly “something positive.”  The objective of the book then models a “how-to” guide, bridging generational, technological, and modal gaps extent in the teaching of History.

The book is anchored is what Kelly sees as a major disconnect between faculty and students and advocates for more classroom activities engaging students by making them active participants rather than passive listeners and recorders.  Supported by various Pew Research Center data and a 2010 survey conducted by Robert Townsend of the AHA, Kelly highlights the contradictory practices of faculty who use online resources and then refrain from bringing them into their own teaching, often forbidding their students from using similar resources and techniques.  The Townsend data, for example, reveals that less than ten percent of faculty teaching undergraduate history courses use wikis, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, or other social-networking platforms in their classrooms.  Again, Kelly is fearful that these historians “are watching from the dock as the ship called Web 2.0 sails away” without them (“Making: DIY History?”, par. 2).  It is clear to whom this book is aimed.  Kelly avoids the inclusion any of the theoretical underpinnings of his work, opting instead to offer some of the practical ways in which digital technologies aid student work (critically and creatively) and the field of History itself.  Much of this is supported with examples and anecdotes from his own classroom experiences, which makes the work both a quick read and an enjoyable one.

etchingThe body of the work is organized into five sections or activities related to the teaching of history: “Thinking”, “Finding”, “Analyzing”, “Presenting”, and “Making”. Kelly’s approach creates an easy-to-follow manual for instructors curious about the bringing in digital devices and elements to their classroom but reluctant to make the leap for one reason or another.  In fact, Kelly demonstrates that it’s really not the leap some instructors might expect, and, throughout the following chapters, he offers some lessons, activities, and strategies from his own classroom experiences.

In his chapter, “Thinking: How Students Learn about the Past”, Kelly notes that “the study of student thinking about the past has not been one of the major fields of endeavor among historians,” he frequently notes that the kinds of engagement that digital assignments promise can only aid most historians’ personal lists of characteristics of historical thinking (“Thinking”, par. 1).  While he never engages in the debates surrounding the benefits of digital distractions posited by Cathy Davidson or Nicholas Carr’s worries of “shallow thinking,” Kelly certainly maintains an optimistic state of mind: he envisions the digital as a re-envisioning of historiography and predicts a resurgence or at least a renewed interest in the discipline from students and often recounts how his own assignments in digital history serve as an aid and bridge to students who are non-majors.

The chapter on “Finding” is relatively straightforward.  Again, Kelly’s strength is locating those gaps between instructors and students and identifying ways (often combining national statistics with personal anecdotes) that faculty might better understand the mentality of their students.  In one example juxtaposing a traditional, print-based search with a digital one, Kelly records:

a delimited Google search run on January 5, 2011, on the name “Abraham Lincoln” produced 7,540,000 websites; 1,670,000 images; 10,600 videos; 1,320,000 books; and 121,000 scholarly articles. A further search on Lincoln across the multiple databases of newspapers provided by ProQuest Historical Newspapers produces another 80,252 citations. Together these add up to 10,741,852 possible resources for a student interested in Lincoln, his life, and his career. By contrast, a similar search of the catalog of the Library of Congress produced 4,277 citations, and such a search in the catalog of my university’s fairly small library produced 871. (“Finding”, par. 3)

In short, students (and instructors) can no longer feasibly manage all of this data.  And, for Kelly, more isn’t necessarily better.  Students are quick to find (and use) the information they find first, which means the first pages of a Google search, and, although students are quick to learn lessons themselves from these experiences, instructors need to be more than cognizant of these practices.  They need to be guides and models for students, demonstrating how to find the information they need: what to discard, what to use, and how to use it.

The subsequent chapter “Analyzing” deals with this final component.  This might be the most useful and convincing for the more conservative instructors, since Kelly acknowledges not only the enormous corpus of data now available to researchers but also the languages that make them available, here, HTML and XML.  While he emphasizes how mark-up languages might support analyses via text-, image-, and data-mining, there is a much larger series of conversations waiting behind this, including how these new forms of reading, writing, and designing are creating a need for a new kind of history altogether.  Indeed, this, too, is taken into account, as Kelly questions what is most needed by his students (intellectually and professionally).  He questions the value of the closed-circuited five- or ten-page essay, and offers some examples of alternatives, which include a historical remix of a newsreel and the creation of an online exhibit.  Furthermore, Kelly advocates for nothing less than “sharing,” opening up a student’s work to the entire class via Slideware, blogs, and wikis.  The theme of the work remains constant: there is a disconnect between the teaching of history and students’ everyday activities that needs to be bridged.  Here, Kelly, the historian, transforms into cartographer, mapping out paths leading to strategies that help students make meaning of what’s being taught in their history class and carve out new niches the combine what they love and do to what the professional historian practices.  For Kelly, these spaces are ways “to be historians in the digital space, to analyze historical information, and then present it in ways that are useful to others” (“Presenting”, par. 34).

Paper Archives

For the traditional history instructors, the concluding chapter on “Making” History presents the most radical appeals of the book—transforming the classroom into a playful workshop fostering creativity and collaboration.  Students can investigate objectivity and historical truth by reworking/remixing primary sources and exploring historical hoaxes and, what Kelly refers to as, “soft readings” (that is, assigning no “serious” works—“no Herodotus, no Thucydides, no Foucault…”) (“Making”, par. 11).  Kelly thoroughly describes one course dedicated to “Lying about the Past” in which students gain research skills and experience during the first half of the semester and then create their own “historical hoax” during the second half.  This exercise, like Kelly’s work, sparks conversation and debate, exposing mythologies and opening new interpretations and scholarship.  It’s a wonderful exercise to try out, though it’s sure to be a bit read as a bit controversial to some readers.

Although the monograph is for sale in print, it is an Open Access digitally-born work available through the University of Michigan Press’ imprint digitalculturebooks, another sign of this transition from print to digital and Kelly’s advocacy for DH principles of open access, sharing, and collaboration.  As Kelly recognizes throughout his work, scholars and students face new challenges in this multi-modal domain: What the most effective and efficient ways conduct research and disseminate ideas?  How should instructors, departments, and universities address and adapt these changes into the classroom and curriculum so that students are best served?  How does digital work in the classroom offer historical perspective to ideas of authorship, readership, publishing, and distribution?  What is the nature and changing face of the book? Despite Kelly’s efforts to promote digital components into the classroom, this own work remains a bit static in its own design and presentation.  Kelly could have been a bit more ambitious here and served not only as a guide to his students in the classroom but as a model to his peers had he created a much more interactive, multi-modal work himself.  I intentionally cited the OA version here to highlight the long scrolling of chapters and the need for the academy to reconsider how we cite these works and to reconsider just what is scholarship.

While it’s a bit out of the scope for this work, at the end of the book, I am left wondering what Kelly thinks about the future of scholarship and the future of the professional historian.  Blogs, wikis, slideware, and the like are great “exercises” for the classroom and are now clearly part of the historian’s work.  But there is another disconnect to be addressed.  New digital tools and platforms are clearly vital to the future of the discipline and the advancement of scholarship, but can they be “counted” as scholarship itself or just another task—a side job—that historians should undertake?  In the end, Teaching History in the Digital Age does what all good scholarship is meant to do: it sparks conversation and advances new approaches to history.


(*Note: I wrote this review as part of the Digital History Book Review of the Month at HASTAC organized by Benjamin Weber (PhD Student, Harvard University) and Christina Davidson (PhD Student, Duke University)

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This entry was posted on December 27, 2013 by in Digital Humanities, Reviews and tagged , , , .
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