On Not Banning Laptops in the Classroom

This post has been percolating for a while as a series of op-ed pieces and studies announcing that handwriting is better for learning or that laptops or other devices are ineffective or that tech shouldn’t be used in the classroom continue to emerge.  I know I’ll get push back about this response, but I’ve needed to sit down and write this for a while now (and it’s easier to have these responses collected together so I can point to them later when these studies and think-pieces continue to emerge).   [Apologies for the listicle approach to this post.]

1) Those studies about the wonders of handwriting all suffer from the same set of flaws, namely, a) that they don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes. That is, they all hand students devices and tell them to take notes in the same way they would in written form. In some cases those devices don’t have keyboards; in some cases they don’t provide software tools to use (there are some great ones, but doing it in say, Word, isn’t going to maximize the options digital spaces allow), in some cases the devices are not ones the students use themselves and with which they are comfortable. And b) the studies are almost always focused on learning in large lecture classes or classes in which the assessment of success is performance on a standardized (typically multiple-choice) test, not in the ways that many, many classes operate, and not a measure that many of us use in our own classes. And c) they don’t actually attempt to integrate the devices into the classes in question, a point that Kevin Gannon makes in his excellent post on the subject.  [It’s possible I have missed one of these studies that actually addresses all of these things and builds in training for students (and faculty) in integrating devices, or maybe works with a population of students that has had access to a robust, integrated (not nominal) 1:1 laptop program for an extended period of time before the study.  If I have missed it, I’m sure someone will let me know.]

2) Banning laptops is going to be a big problem when increasingly you have students like those in my local middle school who are exclusively using laptops in all of their classes to great effect and success. More and more students in K-12 are going to be doing that and a ban will be telling at least some students who are used to taking notes that way (who are actually BETTER at taking notes that way), that they can’t use the tools for which they have developed a process.

3) Banning laptops is also going to be a problem because of the trend toward digitized sources:  more and more campus bookstores are offering readings and interactive activities in digital form, sometimes because it’s cheaper, but often because it’s easier for them to manage, and because some students want them in that form. Some texts are ONLY being offered in digital form going forward, and many of the ancillary materials publishers are offering only work in digital form. Plus, increasingly faculty (like me, but many others) are assigning readings that are only online or in JSTOR or other online collections. That’s both because of access, but also because of economic fairness. And then, I want them to have copies of the readings with them and it’s not economically or ecologically fair to ask them to print those copies out and bring them with them to class.  [In fact, having students collectively or individually annotate class readings with a tool such as Hypothes.is is a powerful way to improve classroom discussion that would be much more difficult without devices.]

4) Let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that banning technology from our classrooms does not help with the general perception in the public that universities, faculty, and the education we offer is not relevant or adaptable to the modern age.  [There are obviously many other reasons we seem to be losing this argument about the value of traditional education that have nothing to do with the laptop ban discussion, but my point here is simply that blanket bans on technology do not help the larger perception of academics.  I won’t use the L-word, but you know that others do when they see op-eds from teachers about banning tech from classrooms.]

5) I’ve seen faculty suggest that laptop bans just results in students using smart phones more, even when there is a ban on that as well. So then someone suggests (usually jokingly, sometimes not) jamming cell phones. Jamming cell phones violates federal law, so, um, good luck with that.

6) On the point of incorporating these devices into our pedagogy: I want students to be able to integrate the wide array of other sources available to them with what they are learning in my class, and I often ask them to go out and find good sources to answer questions that emerge during class lecture, discussion, and group work.  In other words, I work to integrate those tools and their connections to that larger array of information into the class.  [Admittedly, it also means that sometimes students will say, “but this other source says something different.”  That’s a terrific learning opportunity for us to talk as a class about sources, interpretation, and authority.]

6a) We should be working with students to meaningfully incorporate these devices into their learning.  I have no doubt that adding devices that students use in a wide variety of non-scholarly ways outside of class without attempts to integrate them into classes or to teach students to use those devices in academic ways risks ineffective uses of them.  I have plenty of conversations with students about how to take notes already. Most of the time their problem isn’t which device (pencil, laptop, phone, quill) they use to take those notes, but how to take them and how to use them to learn based on their own experiences, learning styles, and discipline.

6b) Incorporating devices into teaching will require faculty training and support.  I suspect that some (though certainly not all) of the support for these bans stems from the fact that many faculty don’t feel confident in using technology broadly and in particular for academic purposes (for note-taking, for social media, for research and analysis, for blogging, etc.) themselves and so don’t feel confident in having their students use those tools in and out of class.    [One answer to that at UMW is our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, and our student-centered Digital Knowledge Center, as well as the week-long Digital Pedagogy Lab institute. But there are more and more options out there to get faculty members the development they need to become more comfortable with digitally enabled pedagogy.]

7) Other critiques of laptop/device bans include: accessibility issues for studies with accommodations, the argument that bans are more about professors’ egos, the notion that bans demonstrate an inflexibility of approach, and the point that other distractions exist too.

8) Caveat: It’s the blanket ban with which I have such issues. I don’t have a problem with faculty asking students at certain points to close their laptops or put away their devices because the type of engagement at that moment is changing.

9) Caveat #2: When there are devices in the classroom, especially larger ones, a few students will use them in ways that will be distracting.  I’m not opposed to strategies or explicit conversations about reducing that problem.  It’s the throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach of blanket bans that are the issue here.

10) Finally, having conversations with students about how they use devices more generally and laptops in particular for academic success is important, as well as how best to take notes. I do it with students in my First-Year Seminar in detail, and in other classes in general. My school is working to develop these practices more generally and to support faculty as they incorporate technology into their classes.

Encouraging good learning practices among students (and faculty) is a terrific thing to do. I’m just not convinced that entirely banning one set of those practices and the tools used to engage in them is the way to get either group to develop those practices more generally.


[Thanks to Sue Fernsebner for pointing out the appropriateness of this discussion in the wake of the many pieces reflecting on Seymour Papert‘s life and work.]

A Plethora of Riches

So, let me start by noting that this kind of post is not typical.  People don’t generally write these kind of posts. And, frankly, there are good reasons for that. And yet, here I am writing it.  I’ll explain why shortly.

But let’s start with the context.  I’ve been working as the Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation at the University of Mary Washington since April of 2014.  It’s a great job where I get to be a faculty member (a Professor of History and American Studies) half time and the rest of the time oversee our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our recently created (but thoroughly awesome) Digital Knowledge Center, and one of the coolest student-centered buildings in academia, the Information & Technology Convergence Center (now named after our current president, the Hurley Convergence Center). Although we’ve seen turnover this past year in DTLT (no year when you lose Tim Owens, Ryan Brazell, Andy Rush, Jim Groom, and Lisa Ames can be all good), we’ve also done some amazing hiring, bringing in Jess Reingold, Jesse Stommel, and Lee Skallerup Bessette, and soon Nigel Haarstad, with another superb new colleague soon to be announced.  They are creative, terrific, brilliant people who have joined Martha Burtis, Mary Kayler, Leah Tams, Amanda Rutstein, Cartland Berge, Roberta Gentry, and Zach Whalen in the Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit.

So, despite these changes (in fact, partly because of them), I wasn’t looking for a new job.  And yet, one came looking for me.  A search firm contacted me late last fall about a new position at a Research 1 University at the Vice Provost level.  I’m a big fan of this school, having worked for many years with great people there.  The job is a new position that brings together a number of elements that exist at a university that is clearly on the move, clearly on its way upward, clearly at the forefront of the struggle over the soul of higher education.  And after an application and an initial interview with the search committee, I was a finalist for the position with an on-campus interview.  Now, I know that I’m operating from a place of remarkable privilege, a privilege that so many other academics have not and do not have.  I have a full-time position and I love my job, one that has tenure and a good salary and terrific colleagues, and I’m fortunate enough to have developed a reputation within the discipline that has allowed me to travel around the country giving workshops on digital history, digital humanities, and digitally enabled pedagogy, as well as editing a section of a leading journal for one major organization on digital history projects, and leading a digital history working group for another major professional organization.  Most importantly, I applied for this job knowing that I loved the position that I’m currently in with no risk of losing that position if it didn’t work out.

Yesterday, about a month after my on-campus interview, I found out that I am no longer being considered for the position, that they have offered the job to someone else.

Now we get to the point about why posts like this are unusual.  Typically people don’t talk about these positions when they don’t get them, in part because they don’t want people at their current job to know that they were willing to consider leaving, in part because they are worried that they might be embarrassed by not getting the job, in part because they are worried about what the people at the job they applied for will think about them, and in part because they worry about how people at potential future jobs might view someone who talks about the often-closed search process.  These are very good reasons not to talk about jobs for which you have applied but not been selected.

So, why am I doing so?  I spend a great deal of time telling my students that they should create a digital identity that reveals who they are, that makes it clear what they want to do and be, that claims boldly what they believe in and what they want to do, and that acknowledges (even celebrates) failures or incomplete paths as part of the learning and development process.  I was unsuccessful in applying for this job; now what have I learned from it?

You know what I’ve learned? That I’m glad. [Now, I know that it’ll be easy for people who don’t know me to dismiss this as simply me settling, or me rationalizing not getting a job.  To them, I’ll just say, “That’s a reasonable point of view given the evidence you have, and you’re wrong.”]  I’m really happy I didn’t get this job, and not because I have anything against the school to which I applied, but because I’m convinced that I already have an important contribution to make, that I have an amazing team to work with, that I have colleagues who value what matters in higher education right now where I am right now.  [Let’s be clear: there was much to attract me to the school I applied to, and not just the increased money and significant promotion.  It was a chance to work on a different stage, as part of a school that is often mentioned in conversations about higher education. And there were great, terrific colleagues there to work with as well.]  But in the end, as I thought about the two positions in the weeks after the on-campus interview, I increasingly realized that UMW was the place where I wanted to be, a place where I was able to make a bigger difference, a place where my students continue to inspire me every day, a place where my team, my colleagues, and even my incoming president shared the values that I believe in, a place that keeps the focus on students, that believes that a liberal arts education is the best foundation for a changing world, that integrates digital tools into that liberal arts education better than almost any school in the nation (and has earned a national reputation and big grants for doing so), that balances teaching and learning and research and service and community in ways that represent one incredibly valuable path for higher education over the next few decades.

So, today, I’m incredibly glad to be at the University of Mary Washington with my colleagues and my friends and my students.

Terrific News for UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies

I am so excited to have been able to send the following announcement to the UMW community.

It is with great pleasure that I announce the hiring of Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette as an Instructional Technology Specialist and of Dr. Jesse Stommel as the Executive Director of DTLT.

Lee Skallerup Bessette is coming to us from the University of Kentucky, where she worked as a Faculty Instructional Consultant at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. Previous to her time at UK, she had taught at various regional, public institutions in three different states. Originally from Montreal, Canada, she holds a PhD in Comparative Literature, where her research interests include translation and canon formation, but her first love has always been teaching. She blogs and writes about teaching, pedagogy, technology, and higher education more generally on her blog, College Ready Writing, which is housed at Insidehighered.com. She also is a contributor at ProfHacker, and has written for Hybrid Pedagogy, Women in Higher Education, and Educating Modern Learners. You can also find her on Twitter as @readywriting. Currently, Lee is interested in networked learning and student-centered pedagogy, which includes the unconference format for learning and professional development, as well as technology enhanced collaborative spaces.  She will start November 10.

Jesse Stommel is Founding Director of Hybrid Pedagogy: a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology and Co-founder of Digital Pedagogy Lab. He is an advocate for pedagogy and the public digital humanities. He has worked in faculty development in various ways since 2003. He has held faculty positions at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Marylhurst University, a liberal arts institution in Portland, OR. Jesse is also a documentary filmmaker and has taught courses about American literature, film, and new media. He experiments relentlessly with learning interfaces, both digital and analog, and works in his research and teaching to emphasize new forms of collaboration. He’s got a rascal pup, Emily, and two clever cats, Loki and Odin. He can be found online at www.jessestommel.com and on Twitter @Jessifer. He will start October 12.

Please welcome them to the UMW community.

Jesse and Lee join Martha Burtis and Lisa Ames, as well as another recent (and terrific) hire, Jess Reingold, to form a powerful team to work with students and faculty at Mary Washington in integrating technology into teaching and learning.  They join the other members of the Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit (CTE&I‘s Mary Kayler, the ITCC‘s Cartland Berge, and Leah Tams, as well as Faculty Fellows Roberta Gentry and Zach Whalen) in a group that makes me excited and proud to come to work each day.


Changes and New Opportunities for UMW’s DTLT

Changes are often hard, but they can also be opportunities for an academic unit to grow and develop in new ways.  That’s the case for UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies right now.  Tim Owens and Jim Groom will be leaving DTLT this summer (Tim) and fall (Jim) to pursue Reclaim Hosting, their company that provides hosting services to the academic market. Ryan Brazell just left to take a position at the University of Richmond.  We will miss all of them greatly (though it looks like Jim and Tim may continue to be affiliated with UMW in other ways going forward).

While it will be impossible to replace exactly what these three have brought to UMW and DTLT in particular and ed-tech at the higher-ed level in general, we are fortunate to be able to announce three position openings at DTLT to join Lisa Ames, Martha Burtis, and Andy Rush, as well as the other members of UMW’s Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit (of which DTLT is a part).

1) Executive Director of DTLT — [Full posting and application information: https://careers.umw.edu/postings/2950 ]

The Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies leads DTLT, supports and partners with faculty and colleagues in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), the Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation, the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), and the University Libraries in the integration of information technologies and digital media into the teaching and learning environment, and provides leadership for the effective and innovative use of information technologies and digital media to the larger University community, particularly within academic and research contexts. [This position reports to the Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation (me).]

2) Instructional Technology Specialist — [Full posting and application information: http://careers.umw.edu/postings/2980 — This link is correct, though this job won’t be posted until later this week.  UPDATE: This job is now posted too.]

The Instructional Technology Specialist (ITS) will work closely with faculty and colleagues in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), the Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation, the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), and the University Libraries to explore the use of information technologies to augment teaching, learning, and research at the University, with a particular focus on designing, developing, and managing projects growing out of UMW’s academic departments and programs. The ITS will also contribute tactical and strategic perspective to the development of the University’s vision of effective use of technologies in teaching and learning. [This position reports to the Executive Director of DTLT and is intended for someone with a fair amount of experience in education technology and faculty development.]

3) Entry-Level Instructional Technology Specialist — [Full posting and application information: https://careers.umw.edu/postings/2964 ]

The Entry-Level Instructional Technology Specialist position involves the following responsibilities: Collaborate with faculty and colleagues in the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT), the Center for Teaching Excellence & Innovation, the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), and the University Libraries, and assist with the integration of instructional technology and information resources into teaching, learning, and research at the University; assist faculty in the evaluation of discipline-specific software and technologies; engage in individual and collaborative professional research about the general landscape of technology for teaching and learning; assist in exploring new instructional technologies for the UMW campus community; serve as an advocate for the effective and innovative use of information instructional technologies and digital media, particularly within academic and research contexts. [This position reports to the Executive Director of DTLT and is intended for someone with limited–but some–experience in education technology and faculty/student/staff development.  We currently envision this as a position for which recent grads especially might be interested in applying.]

If you or anyone you know is interested in any of these positions, please contact me, or the chairs of the ITS (Martha Burtis) and Entry-Level ITS (Lisa Ames) search committees before the July 1 application deadlines.



Teaching, Technology, Innovation Faculty Fellows

I sent out this email to all UMW Faculty earlier today.  I’m excited to see what kinds of ideas and programs develop when we embed a couple of UMW’s great faculty members in the Teaching, Technology, and Innovation unit.  It’s part of a number of changes happening over the next few months in the unit, and I hope to share more on those soon.


During the 2015-2016 school year, the Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit is starting a new TTI Fellows program, building on the success of the Faculty Fellows Program in Academic and Career Services and the DSI Faculty Fellows program of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation.  The two TTI Fellows will work closely throughout the 2015-2016 school year with CTE&I, the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, and the Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation on issues related to digitally related faculty development and teaching excellence.

Specific responsibilities and work will vary depending on the background of the particular faculty member, but in this first year the unit is particularly interested in two areas of focus: 1) creating a broad-ranging set of approaches to help UMW faculty develop online or hybrid courses and 2) developing innovative and creative uses of technology in teaching, research, or service.  Both are core areas of interest for TTI more generally, and active intense collaboration with two faculty members will strengthen the work of the unit and the opportunities for faculty members at UMW.  The general expectation is that fellows will contribute several hours of work each week during the fall and spring semesters, participate in regular TTI staff meetings, work on a project related to the area of focus, and offer at least two faculty workshops over the course of the year.

The TTI Fellows program is open to any member of the full-time teaching faculty. Compensation will involve an $8000 stipend (payable over the academic year) and it is expected that the fellow will serve for the full academic year.

If you are interested in being considered to serve in such a role, please send a letter addressing your interest in working with either of the two main areas to me (jmcclurk@umw.edu) by July 1. Your letter should include specific ideas for projects and workshops you might offer in that area. A review committee made up of the Director of CTE&I, a representative from DTLT, & me will consider applications in the context of the needs of TTI.  Our goal would be for the Fellows to be in place by August 24.

Please let me know if you have any questions or would like to further discuss this opportunity.


Jeff McClurken
Professor of History & American Studies
Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation

An Amazing Life

The last few days have been very difficult for the UMW community.  It’s been a turbulent semester, but the news late last week that one of our students had been murdered in an event that remains tragic and largely unexplained has rocked our worlds.

I didn’t know Grace Mann well, but I knew of her from many people who I respect and trust, students, faculty, and staff.  I knew of her activism, I knew of her passionate defenses of others, I knew of her energy and enthusiasm, and I knew that I was glad that she had been appointed to serve on the President’s Task Force on Sexual Assault.  I knew that Grace, an American Studies major, had, even as a junior, already been involved at a high level in independent studies and presentations at scholarly conferences.  Her dance mat typing skills helped her a lot. I knew that she had a reputation for engaging, challenging, and inspiring those who taught her.  I knew that I was looking forward to having her in my US Women’s History course in the fall (especially because I was going to have to bring my “A game” to keep up with her).

My heart aches for her parents and her family, for her fellow activists, for her friends, for her teachers, for her communities in Fredericksburg, Northern Virginia, and beyond.  I cried with so, so many of them today as we attended her funeral at Temple Rodef Shalom, and the grave-side burial at King David Memorial Gardens.  I won’t try to summarize the funeral (which can be seen here by clicking on the On-Demand Viewer on that page) beyond noting that the speakers–Cedric Rucker, Leah Cox, her roommates and best friends, and her amazing parents–depicted a life of light, passion, energy, deep friendship, inspiration, activism, and love–deep, giving, encompassing love–that defies simple categorization but included many, many hugs.  The sadness at her death and the inspiration of her life battled within me all day and I suspect within the many others around me.

It’s painful to imagine what we have all lost, what the world has lost, from her life being abruptly shortened in this way.  Given what Grace had already accomplished, the good she had already done, the people she had already inspired, we are poorer today to not have her among us.  Yet the incredible woman her parents brought up will continue to inspire all who knew her, and as long as her story continues to be told, she will inspire others as well.

Her parents have requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to RCASA, the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault. Having watched RCASA provide essential support as far back as my own undergraduate days at Mary Washington in the early-1990s, I know it is a great organization doing incredibly important work and donations to it are a fitting tribute to much of Grace’s work on and off campus.  There will also be a memorial fund established at UMW in her honor.

There were many hugs today as we mourned our loss and celebrated Grace’s life.

Talking about Digital History and the SHA

At the Southern Historical Association Conference in November 2013, I was asked by Ian Binnington and David Herr, editors of the H-South discussion network and fellow historians of the South, to sit down and talk about digital history, digital tools, scholarship and teaching, and the role of scholarly organizations and conferences in a Digital Age.  I was honored to be asked (though I should note I was a last-minute replacement for another scholar who has a terrific book about which it would have been great to hear more), and Ian and I talked for about an hour.  David Herr did a great job splitting the footage into discrete clips. [I’ll be honest, though I’m pleased with the conversation, mostly what I see are my own verbal tics, include some painful verbal clutter.] Still, I think Ian and I work through some basic issues and opportunities that historians face these days.



Changing Modes of Research


Digital Tools

Dangers of Digital Humanities



Student Engagement

Changing Conferences

Finishing Up the Semester with a Big Thank You

It has been an incredible semester.  We’ve opened an amazing building that thousands of people have already used, submitted one grant and are working on another, created a new First-Year Seminar that 7 of us will teach next fall, opened a new Digital Knowledge Center with students helping other students with technology questions, begun a process of assessing where our students are and would like to go regarding digitally enabled learning, created a new major in Communication and Digital Studies, and so much more.  I’ve also taught two classes, advised dozens of students, and started a new section of the team-taught, inter-institutional Century America class with my colleague from UNCA, Ellen Holmes Pearson.

My dual roles as Professor of History and American Studies and as the Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation has been made possible by a network of amazing people at UMW. This post is just an attempt to document that network in the most basic way and to say thank you to each of them.

  • My colleagues in the new Teaching, Technology, and Innovation Unit that I now oversee.
    • Mary Kayler, Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation
    • Jim Groom, Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies
      • Lisa Ames, LMS Administrator & eLearning Specialist
      • Martha Burtis, Director of the Digital Knowledge Center
        • Student tutors of the DKC
      • Ryan Brazell, Instructional Technology Specialist
      • Tim Owens, Assistant Director of DTLT
      • Andy Rush, Coordinator of Academic Media Production
    • Leah Tams, Admin Assistant
    • Cartland Berge, ITCC Building and Digital Auditorium Manager
  • The ITCC Building Committee — who designed the building over a six year period (and many of whom have stayed on as part of the Building User’s Group).
    • Rosemary Arneson, University Librarian
    • Jack Bales, Reference Librarian
    • Martha Burtis, Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies
    • Hall Cheshire, Interim Chief Information Officer
    • Gary Hobson, Capital Outlay Director
    • Nina Mikhalevsky, Professor of Philosophy
    • Allyson Moerman, Associate Vice President for Finance and Controller
    • Cedric Rucker, Dean of Student Life
    • Leonard Shelton, Associate Capital Outlay Director
    • Jerry Slezak, Director, Information Technology Support Services
    • John Morello, Associate Provost (committee chair)
  • The many other people in the other units in the ITCC
    • Gwendolyn Hale, Writing Center and Writing Program Director
    • P. Anand Rao, Associate Professor of Communication and Speaking Intensive Program Director
    • Amanda Rutstein, ITCC Office Manager
    • Deb Hovey Boutchyard, Director of Network & Communication Services
    • David Dean, Director of Data Center Services
    • The whole team of IT Support Services
    • Keith Mellinger, Director of the QEP
  • The many people in Capital Outlay, Facilities, UMW Police, Housekeeping, and Emergency Management and Safety, especially Joey Straughan.
  • Jonathan Levin, Provost
    • The Deans and Associate Provosts of the Academic Affairs Council
  • My patient colleagues in the History and American Studies Department, who have put up with my being away from the halls of Monroe more than I first envisioned.
  • Debra Schleef, Steve Hanna, and others outside my department who have listened to me talk endlessly about security, contractors, and building management issues,
  • The students in my US History in Film and History of the Information Age classes, who reminded me constantly of the mission of the institution and why I love teaching.
James Farmer on ITCC Media Wall

James Farmer video created by UMW students displayed on the new ITCC Media Wall — See http://jamesfarmerlectures.umwblogs.org/ for video.

I have so many people to thank, so my apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone.  But it should be clear that if I had a good semester, it’s because I work with a large, amazing network of colleagues.  So thank you all.

Revised Digital History Review Guidelines

Thanks to all those who offered advice on my last post, especially Sheila Brennan and Matthew Lincoln.  The new guidelines I submitted are copied below.  They are still heavily based on those created by previous editors of this section of the Journal (Roy Rosenzweig and Kelly Schrum) but offer more categories, more instructions for reviewing, and a mention of collaborative authorship and coding/programming.  It’s not perfect, but I think it does a much better job of addressing the changes in a growing and complex field.

Digital History Reviews

“Web Site Reviews” first appeared in the June 2001 issue of the Journal of American History and became “Digital History Reviews” in the September 2013 issue. This section is a collaborative venture with the History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, http://historymatters.gmu.edu. This section appears quarterly and normally runs five reviews.

Jeffrey W. McClurken, Professor of History and American Studies & Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation at the University of Mary Washington, is the contributing editor for the “Digital History Reviews” section of the Journal.

The editor welcomes suggestions and may be reached at jmcclurk@umw.edu.



Although these scholarly reviews of digital history projects follow the long tradition of reviewing books in the JAH—as well as the more recent practice of reviewing museum exhibitions, films, and textbooks—digital history reviews have some particular features. The guidelines below provide specific suggestions for dealing with this medium. Please feel free to write to me with any questions you might have, as well as suggested revisions and clarifications in the guidelines.

Digital history projects share a common medium, but they are quite diverse in their character. Reviewers need to keep that diversity in mind and to evaluate them on their own terms. Generally, most digital history projects fall into one of the following categories, although many sites combine different genres:

  • Archive: a site that provides a body of primary sources. Could also include collections of documents marked up in TEI or databases of materials.
  • Essay, Exhibit, Digital Narrative: something created or written specifically for the Web or with digital methods, that serves as a secondary source for interpreting the past by offering a historical narrative or argument. This can also include maps, network visualizations, or other ways of representing historical data.
  • Teaching Resource: a site that provides online assignments, syllabi, other resources specifically geared toward using the Web or digital apps for teaching, including educational history content for children or adults, pedagogical training tools, and outreach to the education community.
  • Tool: downloadable, plugin, app, or online service that provides functionality related to creating, accessing, aggregating, or editing digital history content (rather than the content itself).
  • Gateway/Clearinghouse: a site that provides access to other websites or Internet-based resources.
  • Journal/Blog/Publication: any type of online publication.
  • Professional/Institutional Site: a site devoted to sharing information on a particular organization.
  • Digital Community: online social spaces that offer a virtual space for people to gather around a common experience, exhibition or interest.
  • Podcasts:video and audio podcasts that engage audiences on historical topics and themes.
  • Audio/Application-based Tours: Downloadable walking, car, or museum tours
  • Games: Challenging interactive activities that educate through competition or role playing, finding evidence defined by rules and linked to a specific outcome. Games can be online, peer-to-peer or mobile.
  • Data sets, APIs: compilations of machine-readable data, shared in a commonly-accessible format, possibly through a CSV file or an Application Programming Interface (API), or data files, that allows others to make use of this data in their own digital history work.

Many projects to be reviewed will probably fall into one of the first three categories. The reviewing criteria will vary depending on the category into which the site falls. Thus, for example, an archival site should be evaluated based on the quality of the materials presented; the care with which they have been prepared and perhaps edited and introduced; the ease of navigation; and its usefulness to teachers, students, and scholars. How comprehensive is the archive? Are there biases in what has been included or excluded? Does the archive, in effect, offer a point of view or interpretation? As with other types of reviews, you are providing guidance to readers on the usefulness of the site in their teaching or scholarship. At the same time, you are participating in a community of critical discourse and you are trying to improve the level of work in the field. As you would do in a scholarly book review, then, you are speaking both to potential readers and to producers of similar work.

Even within a single category, the purposes of the digital history projects can vary significantly. An online exhibition or a digital narrative can be directed at a largely scholarly audience or a more broadly public audience. It would be unfair to fault a popularly oriented website for failing to trace the latest nuances in scholarship, but it would certainly be fair to note that the creators had not taken current scholarship into account. In general, then, online exhibitions and essays should be judged by the quality of their interpretation: What version of the past is presented? Is it grounded in historical scholarship? Is it original in its interpretation or mode of presentation? Again, the goal of the review is to provide guidance to potential readers (who might be reading in their roles as teachers, scholars, or citizens) and to raise the level of digital-based historical work.

Classroom-oriented projects would be judged by the quality of the scholarship underlying them, but naturally you would also want to evaluate the originality and usefulness of the pedagogical approach. Will this project be useful to teachers and students? At what level?

Reviews of digital history projects must necessarily address questions of navigation and presentation. To some extent, this is the same as a book reviewer commenting on whether a book is well written or clearly organized. To be sure, the conventions of book publication are well enough established that book reviewers rarely comment on matters of navigation or design—although they do occasionally note a poorly prepared index or a work with excessive typographical errors. But in the digital world, which is an emerging medium that is visual (and often multimedia), issues of design and “interface” are necessarily more important. In this sense, digital history reviews share a great deal with film and exhibit reviews. In general, reviewers should consider what, if anything, the electronic medium adds to the historical work being presented. Does the digital format allow the creators of the project to do something different or better than what has been done in pre-digital formats (for example, books, films, museum exhibitions)? Have the creators of the project made effective use of the medium? How easy is it to find specific materials and to find your way around the project?

In summary, most reviews will address the following five areas:

  • Content: Is the scholarship sound and current? What is the interpretative point of view? How well is the content communicated to users?
  • Design: Does the information architecture clearly communicate what a user can find in the site? Does the structure make it easy for a user to navigate through the site? Do all of the sections of the project function as expected? Does it have a clear, effective, and original design? How accessible is the site for individuals of all abilities? If it is a website, is it responsive (i.e., tablet/mobile-friendly)?
  • Audience: Is the project directed at a clear audience? How well does the project address the needs of that audience?
  • Digital Media: Does it make effective use of digital media and new technology? Does it do something that could not be done in other media—print, exhibition, film?
  • Creators: Many digital projects include multiple contributors. Who worked on this project and in what capacity?

Although it won’t be necessary for all sites, it may well be appropriate to comment on some of the more technical aspects of the site.  What programming or coding choices have been made and how have they shaped the project that emerged?  How are the materials of the project made available? [For example, how are the materials in a database project accessible? Via a search bar?  In a downloadable format? In multiple machine-readable formats (CSV, JSON, API)?]  Remember, however, that the journal’s audience may not be familiar with these terms, so plan on some context.  If you have questions about when such comments are appropriate or how best to provide context, please ask me.

Because some digital history projects (largely archives) are vast, it is not possible to read every document or visit every link. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1940, at the Library of Congress’s American Memory site, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wpaintro/wpahome.html, includes 2,900 documents that range from 2,000 to 15,000 words in length. The reviewer could hardly be expected to read what probably amounts to the equivalent of 300 books. In such circumstances, some systematic sampling of the contents can substitute for a review of every single part. At the same time, the reviewer of a digital project should devote the same kind of close attention to the work as does a reviewer of a book, exhibition, or film. Because there is no easy way to indicate the size of a digital project (as you can note the number of pages in a book or the number of minutes in a film), you should try (ideally early in your review) to give readers some sense of the kinds of material found and the quantity of each.

One final way that digital history projects differ from books, exhibits, and films is that they are often works in progress. Thus, we ask that the headnote for the review indicate when you examined the project (this could be a range of dates) just as you would indicate in reviewing a performance of a play. Where the project plans some significant further changes, you should say that in the review. If you think that it would make more sense to wait for further changes before reviewing the project, then please let us know and we will put the review off to a later date. If you feel that you need additional information about a project in order to complete a review, we would be happy to contact the author or creator on your behalf.

Because of our scholarly and pedagogical focus, our first priority in selecting reviewers is to find people whose scholarship and teaching parallels the subject areas of the project. We do not favor people who have some “technical” skill any more than we would expect book reviewers to know how books are typeset and printed. But we do have a preference—where possible—for reviewers who are familiar with what has been done in the digital world, since that will give them a comparative context for their evaluation. Still, we recognize that such familiarity is still only gradually emerging among professional historians, and some reviewers will be relatively new to such work.


Name of site/title. Address/URL. Who set it up? Who maintains it (if different)? When reviewer consulted it.


Panoramic Maps, 1847–1929. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/pmhtml/panhome.html. Created and maintained by the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Reviewed Dec. 25, 2000–Jan. 2, 2001.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: March 25, 1911. http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire. Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University in cooperation with UNITE! (Union of Needle Trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees); edited by Hope Nisly and Patricia Sione. Last site update April 21, 2000. Reviewed Dec. 20, 2000–Jan. 5, 2001.


Jeffrey McClurken
Editor, Digital History Reviews, Journal of American History
Professor of History and American Studies
Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation
University of Mary Washington
Twitter: @jmcclurken
Phone: 540-654-1475
jmcclurk at umw dot edu