Incorporating Digital Literacy into History Methods Courses

In the History and American Studies 2009 Departmental Strategic Plan my department said that, in addition to other skills and literacies, we wanted all majors to develop the following abilities:

n  Digital Literacy
o   The ability to find reliable, scholarly, information on topics:
§  Within gated, subscription databases and in the larger, disorganized online world.
§  In online archives, museums and institutions of higher education.
o   The ability to assess and evaluate the reliability of online sources bringing to this newer source of information the skills of judicious, critical skepticism that have long been an indispensable historical tool.
o   The ability to produce creative, scholarly materials for the digital world that require the same level of rigor historians have applied to writing and publishing traditional papers, presentations, and monographs
When we developed learning outcomes for the history major, we incorporated these concepts into 8 of the 14 objectives, including the most obvious one:
  • Ability to utilize technological resources in research, data analysis, and presentation.
Now, we are looking at revising our department’s long standing methods course, HIST 299, into a two semester class (HIST 297 — Colloquium and HIST 298 — Practicum) for a number of reasons, among them the desire to be able to fully integrate all of the aspects we believe necessary to be a successful history major in our upper-level classes, in graduate school, and beyond.

At our last department meeting, the department agreed to include the following ideas, concepts, and assignments into the two classes:   

HIST 297
n  Finding and evaluating sources online
o   How do we find and evaluate online materials for scholarly uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in a systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
§  Learn library databases
§  Advanced scholarly searching
§  Evaluating sources online
n  Discuss new forms of scholarly communication and methodology, including digital history projects, collaborative writing, blogs, text-mining/topic modeling, mapping/GIS [1]  
n  Digital identity
o   How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually)?
n  Potential assignments for HIST 297:
o   E-portfolio/digital resume
o   Website review (e.g, along the lines of the Journal of American History website reviews)
o   Public writing (reflective blogs or individual/group resource sites on historical topics)
o   Some kind of public history assignment
HIST 298

n  Review, as needed, concepts of source location and evaluation (focusing on primary sources), digital identity, and new forms of scholarly methods and communication.
n  Potential assignments
o   Minimum level:
§  Public writing (Research log or resource site on topic)
o   Innovative level:
§  Multimedia version of their research project.
§  Contribute to a larger digital project in a small way
·       Partnered with James Monroe Papers, James Monroe Museum, and/or Library’s Special Collections, students could make small contributions to larger projects, getting a sense for what goes on behind the scenes and contributing to a larger good.
·       Or students could participate in crowd-sourced transcription projects, such as the War Department Papers or Jeremy Bentham’s papers.

We’ll have to see how it actually plays out in classes, but I’m glad to see our department working on practical ways to implement digital fluency into the core classes of our curriculum.

[1]Here I’m talking about, at minimum, exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.

A Professor’s Legacy

This weekend I attended a memorial service for one of my Mary Washington college professors, and later colleague, Dr. Richard “Doc” Warner.  Dick had died suddenly a couple of weeks ago while in New York to talk to an editor about the historical novels he’d been writing since he retired.

Dick Warner spent 36 years at Mary Washington, teaching classes in Russian, French, and maritime history.  When I first came to the school as a prospective student he was the one who spent nearly 90 minutes talking to me about the school and the history major.  This was in stark contrast to the other schools I had visited at which I was lucky to get even five minutes with any faculty members; I don’t know if he ever realized it, but he was a big reason that I came to (then) Mary Washington College.  [Over a decade later,  when I applied after graduate school for a tenure-track teaching position in the department, Dick told me that he would only support hiring me if I agreed to become chair someday….  Something tells me he’s still got a smile and a twinkle in his eye about that one.]

Although a dedicated teacher, his real passion was men’s rugby.  He was instrumental in starting the club sport at MWC in the 1980s and was, as one of the participants this weekend noted, the “Godfather of Mary Washington Rugby”.  He advocated for resources with the administration and raised money from a wide variety of sources.  He recruited constantly, boldly poaching athletes from more mainstream sports at the school.  He attended almost every match for decades and continued to come to many games, even after his retirement and move out of state in 2004.

I knew most of this before this weekend.  Frankly, you couldn’t be Dick’s colleague (or student) without getting a major rugby update at least once a week.  But this weekend’s memorial service was a powerful sign of Dick Warner’s impact, of a remarkable legacy.  At the service, on the rugby pitch that really should be named Doc Warner Field, nearly 100 people remembered his life and his impact on them.  As we went around the large circle, we heard from alumni from the classes of the 1980s to 2011, from people who had traveled thousands of miles or just a few blocks, from teary middle-age men to proud recent graduates, all to pay tribute to Dick.

But the tales that were told of Doc Warner this weekend went beyond that of solely a sport.  Of course there were stories of recruiting phone calls and of conversations about various aspects of a student’s rugby game, of the enduring passion and love Dick had for the sport and its players.  But even more powerful were those stories of Dick mentoring students about their classes, working out structured schedules with young men who were having trouble adjusting to the rigorous demands of Mary Washington’s courses, introducing them not only to the library, but to the specific cubicle in which they would henceforth be studying.  Several alums spoke to the fact that, rather than being easier on rugby players in his own classes, that he expected more of them.  And that attention to their success as students and as men didn’t stop with their graduation.  We heard of countless recommendation letters written, or phone calls to potential employers; we heard of the community of people (students, alumni, parents, friends) bound together ostensibly by rugby, but really by Doc Warner’s unrelenting energy and interest; we heard about Dick recognizing former students on the street decades later and remembering key details about their lives.  We heard from Dick’s own family about the importance of “his second family” to Dick, of his pride in them and in their successes.  We heard about his generosity, his quiet support of students in financial straits, and his wry sense of humor.

I was talking with other faculty members at the end of the memorial, wondering at the powerful impact Dick had had on these student-athletes.  Few faculty have the kind of impact, inspire the kind of devotion, leave the kind of legacy that he did.  Many of us who teach would be thrilled to have a memorial service to which so many of those we advised and taught came, where there was as much joy and laughter as there were tears and sadness, a sense of a life well and fully lived for both family and work.  It was a fitting tribute to Richard Warner’s career and life.