Teaching digital history is the perfect topic to end the class on. After having completed 12 weeks of this course, I have both experience and the readings to “pull” from when considering this topic. Digital literacy and digital fluency are extremely important if the field of history is to continue and grow. One of the questions asked in a session at the RRCHNM 2oth Anniversary conference was “Is Digital History inevitable?” Someone could easily argue both sides of this question but one of the contributors in the session redirected the focus to, arguably, a more important topic. He said “Digital History is not inevitable. Digital sources are.” With the ever growing corpus of digital sources, digital teaching/pedagogy is quickly becoming a major focal point.
Danah Boyd’s Are today’s youth digital natives chapter was particularly interesting to me. Growing up with the digital age was a “fish in the water” experience. Trying to explain to a fish what water is proves to be very difficult as its entire world is water and it knows nothing else. It would be near impossible for the fish to grasp the concept of water and thus come to appreciate it more. For myself, I never fully noticed that I grew up with the digital age. It wasn’t until recently that I snapped out of this “trance” and recognized what I had experienced. To project onto Boyd’s argument, today’s youth do not inherently have this appreciation and aptitude for the digital. While they are immersed in it, the digital literacy, fluency and skills are acquired through work not inherited through generational cohort. Recently, in a session the at RRCHNM 20th Anniversary Conference, it was discussed the lack of understanding undergraduates have of certain digital resources such as JSTOR. It was mentioned that certain students thought JSTOR was a journal. One of the contributor’s of the session responded with “JSTOR is no more an academic journal than your grocery store is a farm.” In comparison with Boyd’s research on the near reverence shown for Google and it’s search results, some other DHers and I tried to find a similar analogy to explain what the search results are. Though not perfect we arrived at “Google is like an advice columnist who is both paid by companies and influenced by lobbyists.” The assumption that individuals born into a specific day and age, are inherently adept at digital practices is neither fair for that individual or those who come to rely upon them.
Furthermore, in the teaching of digital history, Dan Cohen’s closing remarks in his article Pragmatic as Well as Prescient: Digital History Education at George Mason University were particularly poignant. In referencing a blog post by Tom Scheinfelt, he writes “digital history (and the digital humanities more broadly) requires more attention to methodology than theory. This might be an uncomfortable fact, since for most of the past 50 years our discipline has focused on—and rewarded—theoretical advancements rather than practical ones.” This has been a reoccurring topic in both class and in my own discussions. There needs to be a shift away from the totally theory focused historical training and scholarship to one that gives reverence to the method and medium. In Allison Marsh’s Omeka in the Classroom: The challenges of teaching material culture in a digital world articulated that even the graduate students have come to expect the traditional. When she introduced her students to the digital she writes that “when it comes to coursework they expect, and sometimes demand, a traditional graduate seminar where we read and discuss books. More than one student has balked at my assignments, whining, ‘I don’t need to learn how to program. I just want to be a regular historian.’ ” We, as historians, need to come to value the method and medium. And in order for that to take place, we need to embrace the varying methods of analysis and research. In order to bring about this change, I think it has to start in primary education to some degree. When incoming scholars are raised with digital awareness and literacy, the field of history would change much more quickly.
Mills Kelly’s Chapter 5: Making: DIY History? from his book Teaching History in the Digital Age highlights his Lying about the Past class. As awesome and fun a class as this would be, it would be just as informative and didactic. Even Mills noticed that the two class sections he taught of this class were the most prepared, thought the most critically, and engaged the material in all the years he has taught. The students learned valuable lessons about ethics and history as well as greatly increased their digital literacy. I am sure the ethics of the class in general have been and can be debated, but it left an indelible imprint on each of the students. This type of engagement with the digital is what the youth (and for that matter adults) need in order to increase their digital awareness and skills.