Thursday, December 31, 2015

Syllabus - Digital History (graduate level)

I've been asked in a few interviews lately how I would teach the digital humanities to historians. It's a subject about which I have a lot to say, but sometimes showing is better that writing, so I'm posting a proposed syllabus for a graduate seminar in Digital History.

As someone who actively uses digital humanities methods, and is a visiting assistant professor of digital humanities, and who gets far more interviews for DH jobs than history of science jobs, I'm nonetheless terrified of the hype surrounding DH.

The expectations are too high, which prompts skepticism and frustration among historians who don't use these tools/methods. It also leads to funding for centers for the digital humanities, and emphasis on digital humanities, and interdisciplinary DH-centered work, all of which are very good things - but I'm worried that DH is going to go the way of cliometrics or Holocaust Studies: an important academic pursuit that ends up insular and ghettoized by developing alienating jargon and opaque institutions.

It's already very difficult to use digital tools in a subtle way in historical writing, because historians instantly hone in on the novelty and abandon the customs of measured trust we routinely grant for other types of sources. Historians would not bat an eye if I wrote (to make up an example from whole-cloth) that the US State Department came to care a lot more about Egypt in 1952, and I knew this because I'd read through their archives, they mention Egypt much more, here are a few example citations, and one or two direct quotes from those citations. They would trust that I had, indeed, given the archive due consideration, and anyone disagreeing with my interpretation is free to use that (or another) collection to refute me later. If I made the same claim, based on a digital textual analysis of words used in the State Department archives, combined with having read through that archive myself, I would immediately get extreme doubt. 'How do you know this is representative? You really need to characterize and defend your methodology rigorously, all kinds of things could be hiding in that data' they would say (and have said, in real world article reviews for similar cases). The novelty is threatening, as is the difficulty of accepting evidence based on techniques with which you're not familiar. This is certainly not helped by the frequent, breathless over-hyping employed by digital humanities scholars, claiming their tool will make all previous work obsolete and deliver the sun and moon as earrings to the dean.

Ultimately, digital humanities must be one more set of tools in a historian's toolbag, exactly equal in status and importance to archival research, oral history, quantitative analysis, social science theory, or any other. For some projects digital tools will be the One True Path, for others they will be useless. Most of the time they will need to be combined with traditional archival research, and possibly oral histories, and the result will be greater than the sum of the parts.

All of that is behind my selections for the following syllabus. It's a new creation, so I'd be thrilled to receive feedback. There's no question that it can (and will) be improved and adapted with time. Hopefully even as it is it can be useful for those considering teaching (or taking) a class on digital history circa 2015.

Credit for some of the readings ideas come from other excellent syllabi I've found around the net, including:
Douglas Seefeldt's:
William Thomas':
Jason Heppler's:

PDF version

History XXX – Digital History
Graduate Level
 Spring 2016 | 3 credits

            Douglas Michael O'Reagan
            Office hours: [Office hours]
                                   by appointment, including via Skype/Google Hangouts/email

Hype for the potential of digital tools to revolutionize humanities scholarship has existed for decades, but seems to have grown even greater in recent years. Digital Humanities has become a small, interdisciplinary field in itself, though one famously resistant to simple definition. Methods as disparate as data visualization, text analysis, creation of online archives, public history via podcasts and other digital/social media, network analysis, and maintaining informal blogs all meet at fall under at least many people's idea of Digital Humanities.

What does all of this mean for history, specifically? This course will take you through examples of many types of digital humanities projects as they're applied to understanding the past. We will be taking a critical eye to these projects, asking above all else the fundamental question of scholarship: "So what?" In each case, we will focus on how, exactly, we can use digital tools – in combination with other methodologies, including oral histories and archival research – to allow us new kinds of insights into the past, or new tools for teaching students and the public about our research. Students should continually reflect on how these tools and examples might connect to your own research.

Course Requirements:

Active participation (60%) – Includes readiness to discuss the assigned readings each week. Most weeks also include a digital project, which you should explore thoroughly.

--Weekly discussion questions – Each week, you will be required to bring in 3-5 discussion questions based on the readings and projects assigned. These should be questions that stimulate conversation, with multiple legitimate possible answers. These will be part of your participation grade.

Reviews of digital projects (10% each = 30% total) – You will be required to find three digital projects, ideally relevant to your own field and research, and review their content and significance. Each review should be between 1-2 pages and discuss the project's significance for its field, and/or for public engagement. These are due on the last day of class, but can be turned in at any point.

Reflection on how you can use digital tools/methods (10%) – This short (~1-2 page) reflection, due on the last day of class, can take a number of forms. It can be a proposal for a new digital humanities project. It can be a blog post for teachers in your field, outlining the best tools/visualizations/digital projects that would be useful in a survey course. It can be a historiographic paper about how DH has changed (or how it has changed your field).

Course Readings:

In addition to the following required readings, I recommend the following as a general guide:

Cohen and Rosenzweig. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. (U. Pennsylvania Press, 2006). Online at


Intro; what is DH? Historical methodology and digital tools

Ayers, Edward L. "The Pasts and Futures of Digital History," Virginia Center for Digital History,

Michael O’Malley and Roy Rosenzweig, “Brave New World or Blind Alley?" (

Orville Vernon Burton, “American Digital History” (

Ayers, Edward L. "The Pasts and Futures of Digital History," Virginia Center for Digital History,

What the H? Digital History vs. Digital Humanities

Excerpts from Schreibman, Siemens, and Unsworth, A Companion to Digital Humanities. Blackwell
-"The Digital Humanities and Humanities Computing: An Introduction"
-"The History of Humanities Computing"
-"Computing and the Historical Imagination"
-Applications section

Stephen Robertson, "The Differences between Digital History and Digital Humanities," blog post at

Scott Paul McGinnis, "DH vs DH, and Moretti's War," blog post at

Cliometrics (or, All This Has Happened Before)

Naomi Lamoreaux, “Economic History and the Cliometric Revolution,” in Molho and Wood, eds., Imagined Histories, pp. 59-84.

Robert Fogel, “’Scientific’ History and Traditional History,” in Robert Fogel and G. R. Elton, Which Road to the Past. Two Views of History (New Haven, 1983), pp. 7-70.

Jan Willem Drukker, The Revolution that Bit its own Tail: How Economic History Changed our Ideas on Economic Growth, Ch. 1-4

Digital Archives

Project: The Valley of the Shadow

At least skim through Ed Ayers, In the Presence of Mine Enemies, paying special attention to the level of detail and sourcing. Read through at least three reviews of the book online.

"The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities"

Kornblith, "Venturing into the Civil War, Virtually: A Review," Journal of American History, Vol. 88, No. 1 (2001)

Kevin Derksen. "The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities (review)." Journal of the Early Republic 26.1 (2006): 157-162. Project MUSE. Web. 30 Dec. 2015.
Geo-spatial Mapping

Bodenhamer and Corrigan (eds.), The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship:
-Ch. 1, 2, 3, 7, 10

White, Richard. "What is Spatial History?" (working paper, Spatial History Project, 2010)

Simon Rogers, "John Snow's data journalism: The cholera map that changed the world"

Project: NukeMap

Network analysis

Project: Mapping the Republic of Letters

Vera and Schupp, "Network analysis in comparative social sciences," Comparative Education, Vol. 42, No. 3 (2006), 405-429.

Padgett and Ansell, "Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434," American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 98, No. 6 (May 1993), p.1259-1319

John F. Padgett and Paul D. McLean, “Organizational Invention and Elite Transformation: The Birth of Partnership Systems in Renaissance Florence1,” American Journal of Sociology 111, no. 5 (2006): 1463–1568.

Peterson, "The conquest of vitalism or the eclipse of organicism: The 1930s Cambridge organizer project and the social network of mid-twentieth-century biology," British Journal of the History of Science, Vol. 47, No. 173 (2014), p.281-304.

Textual analysis

Project: The Old Bailey Online

Project: Google N-Gram Viewer

Michel et al, "Quantitative Analysis of Culture using Millions of Digitized Books," Science 331 (2010)

Sullivan, "When OCR Goes Bad: Google's Ngram Viewer & the F-Word"

"Google Ngram Viewer: How good is it really?" UH Digital History Blog

Sudhahar et al, "Automated analysis of the US presidential elections using Big Data and network analysis," Big Data & Society
-You can skim through much of this one, but look closely at the images. What can they tell us about the history of that time? What limits their effectiveness?


Marie Leca-Tsiomis, “The Use and Abuse of the Digital Humanities in the History of Ideas: How to Study the Encyclopédie,” History of European Ideas 39, no. 4 (2013): 467–76.

Project: The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project

G. Williams, "Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities,"

Cohen and Rosenzweig, Digital History, Introduction, "The Promises and Perils of Digital History"

Kirsch, "Technology is Taking Over English Departments: The False Promise of Digital Humanities." The New Republic (

Roundtable, "The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities." Thinking C21

Digital History's Long View: Data retention and career credit

Daniel Cohen & Roy Rosenzweig, “Preserving Digital History,” chapter 8 of Digital History

Daniel V. Pitti, “Designing Sustainable Projects and Publications,”

Margaret Hedstrom, "Digital preservation: A time bomb for Digital Libraries,"

Catherine Marshall, "Rethinking Personal Digital Archiving, Part 1"

AHA Draft Guidelines for the Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship in History

Public History and Outreach

Project: Omeka
-Specific Omeka-based project: Bracero History Archive (

Project: "Ranger in Your Pocket" tours of Manhattan Project sites

"Project": Sign up for (or in to) Twitter and search for the hashtag #twitterstorians . Read through it for a while, then run the same search a day or two later. Try to get a feel for what people discuss on that hashtag. Also try to find any hashtags specific to your subfield. For history of science, it used to be #histsci, #histtech, and #histmed (science, technology, medicine respectively), before they merged (through community effort) into #histstm.

Project: Alex Wellerstein, The Nuclear Secrecy Blog


Digital tools for historical research

Project: Zotero

Project: Mendeley

-Dong Ngo, "Digital Storage Basics, Part. 3: Backup vs. Redundancy"

Collaborative Research

Who Owns History?

Daniel Cohen & Roy Rosenzweig, “Owning the Past?” chapter 7 of Digital History

Marilyn Deegan and Simon Tanner, “Conversion of Primary Sources” (

Darnton, “The New Age of the Book.” The New York Review of Books

Bell. “The Bookless Future: What the Internet is doing to Scholarship.” The New Republic  (

Townsend, “Google Books: What’s Not to Like?” AHA Today

Meyer, " How Open-Access Scholarship Improves the Internet," The Atlantic (

Berger and Cirasella, "Beyond Beall's List: Better understanding predatory publishers," College & Research Libraries News, Vol. 76, No. 3 (2015): 132-135
Digital Pedagogy

Brier, "Where's the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities," Debates in the Digital Humanities

Carey, "Here's What Will Truly Change Higher Education: Online Degrees That are Seen as Official," The New York Times, 5 March 2015 (

Laurillard, "Five Myths about MOOCS," Times Higher Education (

Classroom Technology
Higgins et al, "The Impact of Digital Technology on Learning: A Summary for the Education Endowment Foundation," Nov. 2012.

Tucker, "The Flipped Classroom"

Duke Center for Instructional Technology, "Active Learning"

McKeachie and Svinicki, McKeachie's Teaching Tips (
Ambrose et al, How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching (

Reinventing Knowledge

McNeely with Wolverton. Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008)

Forms of Knowledge (or, All of This Has Happened Before?)

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. (New York: Metheuen, 1983).
Wrap-up and Reflection

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