Thoughts on Teaching Digital Public History

This semester I taught a class on digital public history. I designed the class based on what I wish I learned in college for my career in public history. Small assignments included a grant, mission statement, project pitch, exhibit label, and a budget. Our big assignment was a collaborative digital history project. As I was thinking through the learning objectives for the class, I decided to focus on learning how to work together, collaboratively, on a single project. For so many “analog” history classes, the final project is a research paper. Students, individually, articulate a question, track down sources, craft an argument, and turn in a lengthy piece of writing. This is standard operating procedure in many history classes. But after two years of pandemic learning, when we were physically distant from one another, I didn’t want to send students into solitary research silos. I wanted to use digital tools to teach collaboration. Admittedly, a single collaborative project was a big ask for exhausted students. I was worried that it wouldn’t work. But, it did.

Each student pitched a project idea to the class. After some discussion, and fine tuning, we settled on finding the history behind a campus ghost story. What began as simply retelling a popular campus story, evolved into a project about archival errors, the evolution of space on campus, and how campus lore functions in a college community. Each student researched different parts of the narrative (again, standard history class stuff), and then we worked together on a StoryMap to tell this history. We chose a StoryMap because after a semester of evaluating digital projects, students came to appreciate ease of use and aesthetics. StoryMaps has both: it’s sleek and easy for a visitor to navigate. Each student signed up for an account and we spent a day simply playing and tinkering in the software. This was an unexpectedly fun day. I was worried that the digital tools would fail us and that we would all get frustrated and disheartened, but that didn’t happen. We learned by doing and if one student had a problem another went to assist. We learned together and we weren’t afraid to ask for help.

One thing I learned while teaching this course is the power of flexibility. I filled in the last third of the syllabus as it was happening. For someone who values consistency and communication in a course outline, this was hard. But it reflected the collaborative nature of the work. I did not want to dictate the final project. Instead, I wanted students to take the lead and feel invested in the direction of the course. The digital focus allowed this to happen. Students were excited by creating a StoryMap and finding the images and videos to fill out the exhibit. We learned something new together, and no single person was an expert. We learned that collaboration is a slow and deliberate process, that requires a whole lot of communication. Digital tools brought us together and allowed us to create something we’re proud of.