Last week I made my first attempt at installing Omeka onto a server – my first step towards creating my Sixteen Tons project. Let’s just say I’m still in the process of completing this first step, but I am happy to have been given the opportunity to try a task that I would have never even attempted before becoming a CHI fellow. At times, I feel like the digital underdog, frantically Googling things like, “what does RT mean on Twitter?” (it means Re-Tweet!). But I am most likely not an exception to the wide array of professional historians out there.

Historians now recognize and value the importance of digital archive collections. While computers cannot replace cultural submersion experiences that many history graduate students are expected to participate in for their specializing region/s, I personally have benefited from the vast amount of primary documents that are a growing part of online archival collections. But as an educator of history, I feel immensely unprepared to teach a room filled with students who will have never even seen the twentieth century. Sixteen Tons is the result of this concern, in addition to my frustration of having been a part of, what I believe were, disastrous attempts at utilizing digital humanities in the classroom. This frustration is not a unique experience – all over the country, large research universities continue to utilize a traditional classroom model approach to teaching history:

Since the mid-1990s considerable attention has been paid to reforming undergraduate education at public research universities. At the center of many of these efforts has been the idea that research universities have failed to use their own strengths to their advantage. Rather than focusing on research and involving students in the endeavor to add to the pool of human knowledge many undergraduate curricula at these institutions have simply attempted to reproduce a liberal arts curriculum, and, it must be noted, are failing bad at it.*

In addition to filling digital classrooms of 100 students or more who may never even have to hold a discussion with any of their 99 classmates, students have tended to rely on digital technology for a quick fix to having to write an 8-page history paper (Wikipedia, while extremely useful, has written way too many of the papers that I have graded in the past few years). Yes, digitial technology should give students the answers to history – it should give them lots of answers, none of which can be precisely summed up into a neat little article. “Creative Chaos” is the term MSU Professor of History, Malcolm Magee, used in a recent talk at the university to describe the process in which students actively sort through various primary and secondary sources to create their own original work. It was something that I had only done once as an undergraduate, but the whole process also really made me love history.

So now the trick is to figure out how to utilize digital technology to manage and teach students how to use these vast array of sources. I’ll be posting in the future about some good, not-so-good, and excellent examples of how historians are doing this. Hopefully I’ll find some good ideas for my own project.

*Robert Stevens and Josh Thumma. “Faculty-Undergraduate Collaboration in Digital History at a Public Research University” The History Teacher, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Aug., 2005) pp. 525.