History and the Digital World

Draft syllabus

How are history and computing related? How does computing support or change the goals of historians, in terms of theory, methodology, pedagogy and publication? How does history inform computing practices? This class is designed as a graduate-level introduction to some of the debates, historiographic challenges, and practical undertakings that arise when these two worlds combine.

NB: This draft syllabus was dramatically revised for use in Spring of 2016.

Course structure and goals

Because digital history is theoretical in nature as well as being an applied methodological approach with a heavy emphasis on collaboration, the structure of each session will reflect that. Each session is divided into a theoretical or historiographical discussion and a practical collaborative workshop. Each week we will use these different readings to explore a specific set of digital tools, and use the practical experience as a way of understanding how tools can help to advance and inform the historiographic debates that have been introduced. By the end of the semester, we will have:

  • Surveyed the promises, limitations, and boundaries of the digital as they apply to scholarly communications and production in history and the humanities at large
  • Developed a working familiarity with the goals and concerns of the community of scholars engaged in digital history projects of all kinds
  • Developed individual/tool-based and collaborative/project-development expertise that contributes to your scholarly footprint in the digital history community

Assignments and Assessments

Three types of assessments provide coverage for the three course goals.

  • In-class discussion and 6 short responses (40%): Short 500-word public responses (e.g. blog, Tumblr, etc.), with attendant shorter social-media posts (Twitter, Instagram), to 6 of the 10 weeks with broad-topic coverage and pre-assigned reading. Everyone will respond to week 2, Definitions and Challenges. These short responses are designed to help you define the boundaries of digital history as you see it, as well as to help you find and participate in the digital history and humanities communities. These responses will require you to find, vet and briefly discuss an additional 2 long-form sources and 4-5 social-media posts on that topic. Responses–plus your participation in class as you discuss your responses, your colleagues’ responses, and the sources in and beyond our syllabus–are worth 40% of your grade.
  • Tool expertise (10%): In addition to the weekly high-level overviews of particular types of tools, you’ll also be asked to develop tool expertise in a single tool that will further your interests as a historian. Some of this tool building will happen during our course sessions, but the bulk of it will be done in consult with the professor and will take advantage of the many training opportunities and workshops that exist both at the university level and on a wider national scale. To support your learning, you’ll be divided into groups with peers who are developing similar skill sets. Your skill-set development will account for 10% of your grade and will be assessed on your discussion of your learning process and how you chose to integrate your tool into your final project.
  • A final project with 3 components (50%)

    • An in-class presentation (10%) of your project’s background, potential, and road map in weeks 9 or 10. This requires three things: assigning 1 reading for your colleagues a minimum of 1 week in advance; doing a 10-minute overview that explains your project’s theoretical and historiographic underpinnings and provides a technical roadmap; leading a 20-minute peer-review discussion that integrates the reading with your project and its roadmap.
    • A poster (printed or interactive) (10%) presented in draft form during a practice jury in week 13 and in final form at a juried poster session during finals week. The jury of 3 will be announced during week 8 of the semester but will include scholars with digital expertise, public-history expertise and scholars with traditional history research projects. This also includes bragging rights for the jury winner.
    • A final project submission (30%) that presents a more detailed account of the process and results of the presentation and poster in some sort of permanently accessible form (e.g. blog, . This will include a discussion of your choice of tool, your skill acquisition process and the role your specific tool played in the project’s final form. For ease of assessment, the final project submission will be the time-investment equivalent of a 25-30-page paper. We’ll negotiate the workload of this kind of project on an individual basis. Substantial portions of both the poster and the mid-semester presentation can and should be incorporated into this component of the final project. **Nota bene: In an ideal world, you should base this project on a well-received paper written for another graduate course in history, or on a chapter from your dissertation, in order to take advantage of the historiographic foundation you have already developed in that topic.

Late Assignments: If an assignment is due the same day that we have class, it is should be posted anytime prior to the beginning of class. If it is due on a non-class-session day, it is due by midnight. The assignments are an important part of class interaction and will therefore be penalized by 10% a day for each day that they are late, starting with one minute past the beginning of class or one minute past midnight as appropriate. You will be responsible for posting the URL or other finding aid for your assignment to Canvas, and I will use that to assess late penalties.


Please let me know if you have conflicts or difficulties. I am happy to make alternate arrangements or accommodations, but I can only do so if you take responsibility for communicating your needs to me directly and as far in advance as possible.

Course calendar

Nota bene: These readings will change, in part because digital history moves quickly, and in part because the interests you express will affect what we read as the semester progresses. Please make sure you check reading weekly.

  • Week 1: Intro: Humanities and computing? Computing in the humanities? Digital humanities? A brief history, plus the beginnings of a digital scholarly footprint

  • Week 2: Definitions and Challenges: What has digital history been? How is it defined differently from “regular” history? How is it part of or different from DH at large? What kinds of things does it do well/not do well? How are these grounded in perception? Reality? Credentials? Collaborations? This week’s reading is particularly heavy, but the perspectives here will ground the remainder of the semester; weekly readings will be lower during weeks with a heavy technical component.

    • Susan Hockney, [A History of Humanities Computing] (http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/view?docId=blackwell/9781405103213/9781405103213.xml&chunk.id=ss1-2-1&toc.depth=1&toc.id=ss1-2-1&brand=9781405103213_brand), in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/
    • “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History” in Journal of American History 95:2, September 2008, p. 452-491.
    • Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas, “What Is Digital History?”Intersections: History and New Media in Perspectives on History (May 2009, accessed May 20, 2015).
    • Sherman Dorn, Is (Digital) History More Than an Argument about the Past?, in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds., *Writing History in the Digital Age *(University of Michigan, final 2013 publisher version; accessed May 22, 2015, http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu). See also the 2012 web edition of the same scholarship](http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dh/12230987.0001.001/1:4/–writing-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.1).
    • Joshua Sternfeld, Historical Understanding in the Quantum Age in Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer 2014, accessed May 20, 2015).
    • William J. Turkel, Shezan Muhammedi, and Mary Beth Start, “Grounding Digital History in the History of Computing“ in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Volume 36, Number 2, April-June 2014, pp. 72-75.
    • Jo Guldi and David Armitage, “Introduction: The bonfire of the humanities” in The History Manifesto (Cambridge University Press, 2014; linked version updated Feb 2015; accessed May 31, 2015)
    • http://historyonics.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/big-data-small-data-and-meaning_9.html and http://digitalriffs.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/big-data-some-historical-perspectives.html
  • Week 3: Pedagogy and Public History: What are the tools that make up a digital historian’s arsenal and how does that affect how we present and interact with digital history? How do we bring the digital into a public and scholarly world in ways that move outside of print, outside of the monograph, outside of the classroom? Does that change history as a profession? Does that change who we think of as a historian?

  • Week 4: Evidence vs Data: Is evidence different than data? How do we know? How do we navigate the difference between aggregate and anecdotal? How do we navigate different data sets ranging from small-scale personal archival collection to large paywalled data to public data scraping?

  • Week 5: Data mining: What can we do with large scale data from a textual perspective? How does it change how we talk about data (statistics vs anecdote), and/or use interdisciplinary approaches like computational linguistics?

  • Week 6: Data visualization: Does seeing data instead of reading about evidence change how we ask questions? Make arguments? What works and what doesn’t in data visualization?

    • John Theibault, “Visualizations and Historical Arguments“ in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds., Writing History in the Digital Age. final 2013 publisher version (accessed May 22, 2015),
    • Scott B. Weingart, “Demystifying Networks, Parts I & II” in Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Winter 2011, accessed May 20, 2015).
    • Micki Kaufman, “Quantifying Kissinger Intro Video” in ”Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me:” Quantifying Kissinger (July 2014; accessed May 28, 2015)
    • Noah Iliinsky, Questions to Ask About Data Viz (October 2012; accessed May 22, 2015)
    • Bring a social network or text mining question from your research that you’d like to visualize
  • Week 7: Images and imagery: How does image processing work? What does it contribute to a study of history? Can augmented reality provide additional substance to the question of historical research?

  • Week 8: Spatial history: What is the “spatial turn” and how does GIS inform historical research?

    • Jo Guldi, “The Spatial Turn in History”, in Spatial Humanities: A Project of the Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship (Scholar’s Lab; accessed May 31, 2015)
    • http://southernspaces.org/2014/has-historical-gis-arrived-review-toward-spatial-humanities
  • Weeks 9 & 10: Presentations
  • Week 11: Access: How do we manage digital history access? How do digital historians become digital historians, and who does that privilege? How do we make digital history accessible? How do digital and public history fit together? How do we use what we know about history to disrupt these patterns?

  • Week 12: Project management & Sustainability: How does a digital history project, with all of its moving parts and collaborators, get off the ground? How do we manage publication, data, analysis, visualization, and access as a whole on small and large scales? How do we back up our stuff? How do we future-proof our stuff? How do we pass our stuff to someone else? At what point in a DH project do we start to think about project management issues?

  • Week 13: Poster sessions
  • Week 14: Professionalization: How does digital history and its emphasis on distributed knowledge and collaboration change the history profession? How do we mitigate the practicalities of having to develop an additional set of skills? How do we approach the scholarly world as digital historians?

  • Week 15: Final thoughts: What role does digital history play in the history profession at large? Where are we going, and can there be consensus on the answer?

  • Week 16: Final poster session
    • Location TBA