“…history may be better suited to digital technology than any other humanistic discipline. Changes in our field far removed from anything to do with computers have helped create a situation in history where the advantages of computers can seem appealing, and perhaps even necessary. At the same time, changes in information technology, far removed from any consideration of its possible uses for our discipline, have made it possible for us to think of new ways to approach the past. The new technologies seem tailor-made for history, a match for the growing bulk and complexity of our ever more self-conscious practice, efficient vehicles to connect with larger and more diverse audiences.”

— Edward L. Ayers, “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History” (1999)

Course description

This is a hands-on course that introduces students to the use of digital tools and sources to conduct original historical research, analyze and interpret findings, and communicate results. Digital history is an interdisciplinary approach that seeks to bring digital technology into conversation with humanities disciplines and, specifically, seeks to analyze, synthesize, and present knowledge through computational media. Digital historians create digital archival collections, databases, digitize objects, analyze humanistic material in digital form, and addresses scholarly questions often difficult, if not impossible, to ask using non-computational methods.

In this course you will apply digital methods to an historical question and produce a final, public project. We will also have a series of guests joining us for the course, all scholars in digital humanities, whose work is helping shape the field. You will have an opportunity to engage with these scholars and the methodologies, theories, questions, and works they are producing.

In order to keep our efforts focused, we will apply what we learn to a particular area of historical study: the history of Silicon Valley. We all live in this place, and we should seek to understand something about the place in which we all live, work, and play. The Santa Clara Valley has undergone dramatic environmental, urban, rural, political, social, and economic change through the process of conservation and preservation, environmentalism, urban sprawl, postindustrial growth, mining and timbering industries, and Cold War defense research. We will examine the twentieth century history of the Santa Clara Valley and attempt to understand its relationship to the region, to the American West, to the nation, and to the world.

The core result of this class is a digital history project: you will work with historical data to form an original research question and, using the tools introduced throughout the course, will leverage a method towards answering that question. In the third week of the course, you will be randomly assigned a team of collaborators. For the remainder of the quarter, you and your team will work together with a single tool and original research you conduct in order to create a beta version of a digital history project. We will present the results of your work in an electronic poster session and the end of the quarter.

Learning goals

Students in this course will:

  1. Gain an introductory technical knowledge of many digital tools or methods that can be useful to historians and an in-depth knowledge of one or two.
  2. Read existing scholarship on a contested historical subject and formulate historiographical questions on their own.
  3. Learn to apply technical knowledge about digital tools to a substantive and complex historical question.
  4. Create a public-facing digital project that illustrates the promise and limitations of digital historical methods.

What to expect

This course will feel different from your usual history course. First, rather than just learning the content of the course, you will be asked to apply your knowledge to create things. Not all of these will be determined on the first day of the course. You will have a large responsibility for the final product(s).

Second, to attain the technical skills necessary to create things, you may be asked to inform and educate yourself outside of class using extracurricular resources. Be prepared for a lot of DIY throughout the quarter, but you can also expect help. You won’t be going at this alone. Your classmates are collaborators and in that role they may be asked to help you figure out assignment-related problems, evaluate your work, and share the workload. You should do the same in return. And come talk with me early and often!

Finally, much of the work for the course will be done in public on the course blog and on sites like Twitter (if you’re sharing thoughts on Twitter, use the hashtag #hist205f!). While your grades and evaluations will remain private, you will share your work with students elsewhere and with the public at large.

The course is asking you to do things not normally expected in a history course, where often the emphasis is on individual reading, research, and writing. The course will be much more informal, and you can expect that we might change assignments for the course as we go depending on where our discussions and interests take us. Your engagement and participation will be essential to the course’s success. The historical and computational methods in this course are best learned by combining them with the readings, writing, and experimentation we will be doing in the course.