Digital History, from Both Sides
Introduction: Walter Hawthorne and Brandon Locke
In 2012, the Department of History at Michigan State University moved to the Old Horticulture Building, where we discovered an enormous storage room that had once been a classroom. After considerable fundraising and renovation, we launched in it a great experiment with the Department of Anthropology: the Lab for the Education and Advancement in Digital Research (LEADR).
LEADR was a step toward resolving a problem in our department. MSU has long been at the cutting edge of digital historical research. We helped establish H-Net and created Matrix, MSU’s Center for Digital Humanities and Social Science. Our scholars have initiated impressive digital research projects, many sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities—for example, Slave Biographies, Islam and Modernity, What America Ate, Overcoming Apartheid, and the MSU Vietnam Group Archive Project.
But graduate and undergraduate teaching was another story. We were conducting research through methods born in the 21st century but teaching research methods born in the 19th. Simply put, lecture halls and small seminar rooms limited what and how we could teach. The acquisition of the old storage space was fortuitous indeed.
LEADR is a beautiful, high-tech flex space where faculty and students research, design, and launch public, web-based digital history projects. People bring a range of skills to the lab and work together, exchanging ideas and dividing tasks. Coursework includes instruction in web development, data management, data mining, and computational analysis—all introduced by the director, invited guests, and graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants. Students have also learned how to operate our 3-D printers and drone, create 3-D models of artifacts, and create multimodal projects that engage with diverse publics. We have large televisions for presentations and collaborative work, desktop and laptop computers, and cameras and audio equipment.
Since its inception, LEADR has been central to more than 80 classes. For us, the space is important because students acquire new skills there. Like history majors across the country, they can tout abilities in research, oral and written communication, and critical thinking. But they also know how to compile datasets, mine them, and run quantitative analyses using a variety of programs. They know how to manage tremendous amounts of digital data. They know how to produce projects that have broad, public appeal. They know how to reach people through the platform that today touches people’s lives from East Lansing to Beijing—the World Wide Web. And many have developed skills in coding. A selection of student projects is available at leadr.msu.edu/projects.
To gain a sense of the difference LEADR can make from a student’s point of view, we asked a recent graduate to reflect on her own experiences.
A Student’s Experience: DeLacey A. Yancey
In fall 2014, I began my last year as an undergraduate student at Michigan State University. I was a typical senior. I was committed to graduating in a timely fashion by focusing on requirements, some of which, I knew, would require me to harness what I had learned in history and teacher education coursework. To my surprise, a required senior seminar offered in the history department opened up a new world of possibilities for me as a young historian and teacher.
The class, taught by US history professor David Bailey, required students to conduct research and then to do something more than write an essay. Each of us had to develop a website. That is, we had to make the subject of our research understandable to and accessible by the broader public. This approach was altogether new to me. In no other class had I been asked to make my work accessible to the public, and other than being taught how to write clearly and concisely, rarely had I been taught strategies to do so.
Professor Bailey’s classroom, if you could call it that, was like nothing we had ever encountered. It wasn’t a lecture hall, and it wasn’t a seminar room. The space was called LEADR. There we found a crazy number of desktop computers, all with specialized software, along with a 3-D printer, cameras, and video and audio recording equipment. The lab had a director, Brandon Locke, and several graduate student assistants, all of whom helped us with technical and design questions over the 15-week semester.
As I learned how to present history on the web, I became excited about the possibility of pushing history in a new direction. As an African American woman, I have long been troubled that African American history dwells too much on oppression. I wanted to tell a history of something else, of the perseverance, dexterity, and especially innovative spirit of African American thinkers. The website I developed, BlackMVPatents (blackmvpatents.leadr.msu.edu), showcases the achievements of black inventors.
From primary sources available on the Internet and in the MSU Library, I created a collection of images and essays about black inventors. Included are descriptions of what they made and how their inventions made an impact on people’s lives. Among my subjects are the well known—Fredrick M. Jones, Granville T. Woods, and George Washington Carver—and the not so well known. I narrowed my list of inventors by considering how important their inventions have been to shaping people’s lives over time and to today.
In no other class had I been asked to make my work accessible to the public, and rarely had I been taught strategies to do so.
This website was initially intended to serve as a resource for teachers in elementary and secondary schools and for their students. Therefore, I wanted to make it fun. So, with help from LEADR staff, I created a variety of matching games, crossword puzzles, and other interactive features for teachers to use in their classrooms and for children to play at home. I sought to include historical pedagogy that would be engaging and germane. In so doing, I built on coursework I had completed in education, which was geared in part toward engaging K–12 students on digital platforms that they are familiar with and that are central to the world we live in today.
I have come to discover through my years of working with children that many of them need to be inspired to learn. They get excited by advocacy and, sure, enjoy gaming. So I designed my website to surprise and energize students. It is a platform to teach our youth about people of color who have improved the human condition. The ultimate goal for BlackMVPatents is to change the approach to black history, which, of course, is the story of more than black inventors. It is the story of the struggles and successes of people in industry, medicine, nursing, education, and much, much more.
Before I engaged with history through LEADR, I thought about K–12 history education as teaching facts—names, dates, places, and events. Now I think much more about teaching students how to find, in libraries and on the web, the stuff necessary for making historical arguments and how to make those arguments relevant to issues of concern to them and their communities. I think more about skill building—about teaching students how to write essays and how to create websites.
For me, Professor Bailey’s class was innovative because it unleashed my creativity. He allowed me to do something more than write an essay that would be read by one professor and returned for filing or throwing away. I explored history in a way I had never explored it before. I created something I am proud of and passionate about—something that I can share broadly, something I continue to think about, return to, and update. In his class, I developed skills with a variety of web-development packages, I learned about programming, and I considered website design. Professor Bailey’s class set me on a course to do more with history education than I ever thought was possible.
Walter Hawthorne is chair of the Department of History at Michigan State University. Brandon Locke is director of LEADR at MSU. DeLacey A. Yancey is a recent graduate of MSU with a degree in social science education and a concentration in history. She is now pursuing a graduate degree in arts and cultural management with a museum studies concentration at MSU.
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