Innovating Digital History in the Classroom: an interview with Drs James Baker and Sharon Webb

Back in July, the Royal Historical Association awarded its 2019 Innovation in Teaching Award to Dr James Baker and Dr Sharon Webb at the University of Sussex. This week Stephanie Wright from History caught up with both prize winners to learn more about how they incorporate digital history into their undergraduate teaching.

History: Can you briefly introduce yourselves and your innovative series of digital history workshops/lectures to our readers?

Baker: We are lecturers in the Department of History at the University of Sussex. We are both historians with expertise in the ‘digital humanities’, and one of the things we were tasked with doing when we joined Sussex in 2015 was to integrate ‘digital skills’ into our undergraduate degree programme. We were timetabled one hour each week with our first year cohort, and were more or less given freedom to fill it as we saw fit.

Dr Sharon Webb and Dr James Baker with Prof. Margot Finn, President of the Royal Historical Society (John Deehan for the Royal Historical Society, all rights reserved 2019)

Our department has a strong focus on reflexive practice and contemporary history, and so one of the motivations for creating this space in the programme was to compliment those agendas, to help our undergrads be better able to understand what it is to do history now, and what it will mean to do history on their own world. From this we gradually developed a narrative for our sessions, moving the students across the year from thinking critically about “Doing History in the Digital Age” to “Doing Digital History”.

Webb: We made this difference explicit since we wanted students to see “history”, and indeed other humanities-based subjects, as inherently linked to and influenced by prevailing technology. We didn’t launch straight into lectures on digital history and digital humanities because we want to acknowledge and highlight the fact that history, as a discipline, has fundamentally changed because of our contemporary digital environments.

“Doing History in the Digital Age” includes a session on using bibliographical management tools, like Zotero, as well as a session on search engines, which focused less on search strategies like Boolean search, and more on the mechanics and implications of using subjective tools like Google search. In both of these sessions we prompt students to think about the function and implication of each tool. When we move to “Doing Digital History” our sessions become more practical and hands-on: think workshop style lectures with 100+ students (not always easy).

Crucially, however, we ensure that we front load sessions with theory and, as appropriate, historical background and contexts. So, for example, our sessions on data visualisation start with a history of data visualisations. In this way students see that the “technology” is not driving these methods, instead they are rooted in the history of science and medical science, the history of statistics and economics, and indeed nation and state building.

History: What, for you, has been the most exciting aspect of this kind of approach to teaching? What do you see as the main benefits of this approach?

Baker: Anyone who teaches ‘skills’ sessions to undergraduates will know that they are a hard sell. History students don’t come to uni to learn skills, they come to uni to learn about the past. So there have been some tough moments, some knock-backs, and moments of doubt. Sometimes it is difficult to get across the advantages of digital methods since students still view themselves as students of history rather than practitioners or indeed researchers.

What has been exciting, however, is working with finalists who’ve gone through our first year lectures, seeing them willing and able to experiment – rigorously and critically – with computational approaches to their assessed work. It seems then that whilst our lectures might not click with everyone, or at least, everyone straight away, many of the students are taking away a healthy scepticism of the digital, and an appreciation of how much it has changed the work of the historian – so much so that we’re starting to see students want to go into areas like digital cultural heritage after their degree.

Webb: Another “exciting” element is the fact that we have to keep on top of technological changes, while this presents a challenge, it also means that students get to see how our ever changing digital environment impacts on history and research. Examples we use change year to year – and Google products (and their inevitable demise) are always a good example of this.

The experimental nature of the sessions can also be “exciting”, if not slightly stressful because technology is not always on your side. We often have to troubleshoot on the fly but this exposes the mechanics, vulnerabilities and realities of working with digital tools and methods – it’s a messy process and often a series of trials and errors. We want students to experiment in the practical sessions, and experimentation of this nature is not usually a documented part of the historical method.

History: Can you give us an example of the kinds of activities students might typically undertake over the course of the semester?

Dr Sharon Webb and Dr James Baker with Prof. Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History and Director of the Sussex Humanities Lab (John Deehan for the Royal Historical Society, all rights reserved 2019)

Webb: Across the semester students are tasked with various activities that are typically completed within the one-hour slot. One of these is the “digitisation history” session where we ask students to write metadata and create a scan of a primary source (we are very lucky to have Prof. Tim Hitchcock at Sussex, who seems to have an endless supply of microfilm and copies of The Illustrated London News for us to use in these sessions). This session isn’t a how-to of digitisation necessarily, instead it demonstrates to students the work involved in creating digital surrogates of primary material.

We hope students come away with an appreciation that not everything is digitised and the reasons for this. Additionally, asking them to write metadata highlights the fact that object descriptions are not always objective and not always correct (e.g. archival descriptions and interpretations of objects change over time).

On a side note, it’s always surprising to see how differently students treat the physical material – some ask to keep the pages of the London Illustrated News they have been given to work with and treat it like an historic artefact, some leave it behind on the desk, while others fold and crumple their pages – I suppose this demonstrates how far removed primary sources and artefacts can become when we only see or rely on digital surrogates.

History: What have been the main challenges of introducing digital methods of research to students?

Baker: Relevance. Our sessions are timetabling as part of two core first year modules: “The Early Modern World” in the Autumn, and “Making of the Modern World” in the Spring. Even within a given week, the content of these modules are broad in both chronological and geographical scope, and our task is to ensure that our ‘skills’ lectures aren’t too abstract, too separate from the historical topics the students came to Sussex to learn about.

So whilst some sessions are easy to tie to the topic at hand – for example, an introduction to using Zotero to organise research and create citations is easy to sell two or three weeks before their first essay deadline! – in other cases, such as the digitisation session, it is much harder, because for obvious reasons we can’t have the most relevant primary sources to hand. So we spend a lot of time explaining the joins – having digitised primary source X, what does it change about how you’ll use a digital representation of primary source Y – which doesn’t always make for the most elegant pedagogy.

Webb: The challenge of relevance also extends to the way in which students view themselves and their role in a university. At this stage in their career, students do not often describe themselves as historians or researchers – they are studying history rather than contributing to it. This shift in perspective often occurs in year two or three, so our first-year students sometimes do not see the relevance or usefulness of the research methods and techniques we share with them. But when this shift occurs, there is a eureka moment for some – I can use a data visualisation to demonstrate a finding?!

History: Do you see any new digital approaches to “doing history” on the horizon which you might eventually incorporate into your teaching?

Webb: We would eventually like to expand our lecture series and the modules we teach but there are some structural restrictions we need to address first. For example, incorporating lab time into our curriculum is not currently possible, but we are working on it. However, all our teaching incorporates some element of digital history or digital humanities, so whether James is teaching on a module on the history of the printed image, or I’m teaching my ‘Social Networks and History’ module, students will find a thread or link with the digital skills lectures.

We are also running a special topic next year on Digital Archiving. We started this last year as a thematic module and students responded brilliantly. This module was a mix of theory and practice, and it was this structure that students responded positively to. Digitising an archive, writing metadata, building a catalogue, working with oral histories, helped our students to think critically about how the archives they use as historians are constructed but also how those archives are evolving in the contemporary moment.

So, at the moment we would not describe what we do as “teaching tech.” But that doesn’t mean we won’t. Both of us are involved in various coding and software initiatives – James with the Programming Historian, and I with Feminists Approaches to Computation Technology – and since we always try to incorporate our research into our teaching, you never know what’s on the horizon.

Sharon Webb is a Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Sussex, History Department and a member of the Sussex Humanities Lab. Sharon is a historian of Irish associational culture and nationalism (eighteenth and nineteenth century) and a digital humanities practitioner, with a background in requirements/user analysis, digital preservation, digital archiving, text encoding, and data modelling. Sharon also has programming and coding experience and has contributed to the successful development of major national digital infrastructures.

Sharon’s current research interests include community archives and digital preservation (with a special interest in LGBTQI+, feminist and BAME archives), social network analysis (method and theory), feminism and technology, among others. She was PI for a British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award (2018) on the topic of community archives and digital preservation and works with community groups such as Queer in Brighton. Sharon is also Co-I for the ESRC funded Reanimating Data Project. Sharon is a co-founder member of the FACT///. network (Feminism Approaches to Computational Technology), and is also the Equalities and Diversity Officer for the School of History, Art History and Philosophy.  Find Sharon on Twitter, or find out more about her work in community archives at: www.preservingcommunityarchives.co.uk

James Baker is a Senior Lecturer in Digital History and Archives at the University of Sussex and at the Sussex Humanities Lab. He is a Software Sustainability Institute Fellow, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and holds degrees from the University of Southampton and latterly the University of Kent, where in 2010 he completed his doctoral research on the late-Georgian artist-engraver Isaac Cruikshank. He is an expert in the authority of the digital record, the history of knowledge organisation, historical interactions with information technologies, and the history of the printed image. His research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK), British Academy, British Council, and the European Commission.

Prior to joining Sussex in 2015, James held positions of Digital Curator at the British Library and Postdoctoral Fellow with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. He is a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Peer Review College, a convenor of the Institute of Historical Research Digital History seminar, a member of The Programming Historian Editorial Board and a Director of ProgHist Ltd (Company Number 12192946), a committee member of the Archives and Records Association (UK) Section for Archives and Technology, and an International Advisory Board Member of British Art Studies. Find James on Twitter, or visit https://cradledincaricature.com/ for more about his work.


Both images attributable to John Deehan for the Royal Historical Society, all rights reserved 2019, used here with permission.

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