In mid-October, I presented on a roundtable titled “Teaching the American West Online” at the Western History Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Our panel also included Dr. Jennifer Thigpen (Washington State University), Cassandra Clark ( Ph.D. Candidate, University of Utah), and was chaired by Dr. Sandra Mathews (Nebraska Wesleyan University). I enjoyed the opportunity to share my experiences as a graduate assistant in MSU’s Lab for the Education and Advancement of Digital Research (LEADR), a member on the board for the Digital Scholarship Lab, and a CHI fellow. I am grateful for Michigan State’s vibrant Digital Humanities community which has shaped my worldview to consider the future of humanities disciplines in a digital age.

Jen Andrella presents at the Western History Association annual conference, Oct. 2019, Las Vegas, NV.

Acknowledging that Digital Humanities is still an unfamiliar field to many historians, I began my talk at the WHA by discussing how the digital age has affected how we document history, how scholarship is produced, and how we teach history.  After all, it was not until 2015 that the American Historical Association adopted guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship in history. It can be intimidating for instructors and students alike to prepare digital projects as part of their courses, but doing so provides opportunities to reinvent education and immerse students in re-conceptualizing the historical discipline and Western history more specifically. As teachers, we need to consistently reevaluate our approaches and keep our courses relevant for the contemporary world.

My teaching philosophy centers immersive and experience-based learning as one of the most important modes of education. I believe that a future of the historical discipline which includes Digital Humanities projects will provide a unique opportunity for immersive learning and empower students to engage with hands-on digital tools, digitized archives, and learn new ways of producing and presenting scholarship. One of the primary goals is to improve the digital literacy of students and equip them with the skills of applied history. To do so, I introduced the audience to several platforms and tools that could be easily self-taught and implemented into any course design. These included: Timeline JS, StoryMap JS, Voyant, and ArcGIS Story Maps. Furthermore, I emphasized the benefits of blogging for course engagement and student interaction. Reclaim Hosting provides access to WordPress and a host of other digital platforms and remains an invaluable resource for students doing digital project-based courses.

With regards to Western history, integrating Digital Humanities approaches provides new avenues to reimagine the American West as a space. I directed the audience towards Stanford University’s Spatial History Project which offers a variety of western history examples that combine tabular data with geographic data into unique visualizations. As Richard White reiterates in his essay, “What is Spatial History?” Stanford’s project supports an emphasis on space rather than time as the dominant lens of history.[1] This is particularly critical in studies of the American West, where the regional and spatial understanding of the West is constantly shifting. Immersing students in research that contributes to or challenges these boundaries is truly invaluable. Through tools like mapping and quantified data visualization, Digital Humanities offers the chance to view larger patterns of topics like migration, land holding, political influence, commerce, and environmental change.

All of the questions from the audience pointed in an important direction: many colleges and universities across North America sense the demand for Digital Humanities, but do not know where to begin, what resources are available, and how to structure Digital Humanities classes for students. This was particularly striking to me and was a reminder of my privilege to be part of MSU’s strong DH community. As I prepare for the job market next year, I will need to consider how to convey my background in Digital Humanities as part of my scholarly and teaching identity. This is especially critical given the abundance of conversations about the decline of academic jobs in the humanities (and history specifically). I acknowledge that this is partly true, but more importantly, humanities disciplines are changing in new contexts. How we prepare undergraduate and graduate students for careers inside or outside of the academy will be central to the survival of the discipline. Like everything else, history will need to re-conceptualize its worth or it may very well face certain declension.

There is a market for DH, and it is growing. Time to connect the dots.

[1] Richard White, “What is Spatial History?” Working Paper (Spatial History Lab, February 1, 2010).