“The Digital Past” course goes digital

“The Digital Past” course goes digital

Several years ago, in an effort to bring its expertise in digital history to a broader undergraduate audience, the Department of History and Art History created a new class: HIST 390, “The Digital Past.” The class attempts to teach undergraduates at Mason the fundamentals of information technology, but within the context of a humanities course. Students learn how to use the latest digital tools in order to study human society and analyze historical change.

You might think that a class called “The Digital Past” would be an easy one to move online in a crisis. To the contrary, our HIST390 classrooms are usually full of active learning and hands-on instruction, which makes them more difficult than most classes to put online. To make our HIST390 sections successful, the professors had to do a lot of creative thinking about how to finish the semester strong.

Dr. Nate Sleeter, one of the faculty, wrote, “I have a lot of experience teaching online, but it was immediately clear that History 390 Post COVID was not an online course. The students didn't sign up for an online course (in fact, several said during the semester that they actively avoid them) and I didn't plan for an online course. Added to this was the likelihood that students' lives would be impacted directly and indirectly by the virus. Taken together, this was a new kind of course where the goal would be to salvage what we could while making sure that the goal above all others was to be humane. I figure if we can't be humane then what's the point of teaching the humanities.”

All the classes had to increase the use of online tools in order to maintain community remotely. Many of the sections already used Slack as a backchannel for out-of-class discussion and help, but Slack became a vital part of the instruction. For Dr. Abby Mullen’s class, Slack became the new place for small-group and class-wide discussion of the asynchronous teaching materials she created. Several of the professors, following Dr. Sleeter’s lead, encouraged students to use Slack as a place for reflection about the concept of online learning as well, using the tools learned in the class to help understand the historical moment.

The instructors also created new ways of instructing their students and new projects that capitalized on the remote nature of the class. Dr. Mullen created podcast episodes for each class period that students listened to and then discussed on Slack. Dr. Sleeter invented some new assignments to help students process the online nature of their work. For example, he had students think through an example of popular history (a movie, tv show, video game, etc.) and relate a scene that communicates a central message.

Dr. Sleeter says, “The assignment yielded a wide range of responses including some good examples that I had expected like Hamilton and Saving Private Ryan, but also others that weren't exactly popular history, but students were still able to identify clear historical themes. Students brought up Hunger Games and Harry Potter and speculated about what historical events they might be modeled on. One student talked about movies made just after September 11 being influenced by that event. Another student brought up movies with "survival" themes and wondered if they were influenced by the depictions of the Holocaust.”

Since this is a class about digital methods, the students were already doing digital work for their assignments and final projects, but the way in which they created those projects turned out differently for some. For Dr. Katja Hering’s class, the semester's focus was doing oral histories, but doing oral histories proved more challenging when the students couldn’t do interviews face-to-face. Dr. Hering gave the students the option to do a different project, but some forged ahead with their oral histories, finding new ways to connect remotely.

Youheng (Johann) Chen did stick to the original assignment and produced a podcast episode titled “The Last Chinese Emperor.” Youheng used his knowledge of the Chinese language and presented the life and legacy of the last Chinese Emperor, Aisin Gioro Puyi (1906-1967) in historical context to his English-speaking audience in an accessible way. Marcia Irizarry Snyder interviewed a trauma center nurse about her personal experiences during COVID 19 in honor of National Nurses Week 2020. Savannah Dennison wrote a web essay analyzing an oral history interview from the collections of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum with German Jewish refugee artist David Bloch, who was deaf and escaped from Germany to Shanghai in 1940. Dennison highlights the experiences of deaf Holocaust victims and also addresses the challenge of translating the interview with Bloch from German into American Sign Language.

In Dr. Mullen’s class, the original portfolio-like final project gave way to a more focused dive into one particular technology. The class centers on war in the antebellum United States, and Dr. Mullen’s students spent the semester focusing on one war of their choice. They produced final projects that showed their ability to master both a particular piece of technology as well as the history of their war. Gillian Payne created a timeline about the Mexican-American War, linking her STEM major skills to the historical questions she answered about the war. Z Larkins embraced their personal connections to the American Revolution, producing a podcast about their home state’s role in the Revolution.

Though this semester didn’t turn out the way anyone anticipated, the students in HIST 390 were able to see in real time how the course was relevant to the world in which we now live. They learned how to identify reliable information on the Internet, to find ways to collaborate and do research remotely, and to learn how to relate the past to our current moment—skills that were important pre-pandemic, but that will become all the more critical in the months and years ahead.