"EMPOWERING DIGITAL WORK"
A COPLACDigital reflection by Benjamin Bankhurst
COPLACDigital was a transformative and, frankly, empowering experience for me as an educator. I say empowering for two reasons. First, it provided me with skills to adequately prepare my students for a changing career landscape. Prior to my participation in the project, I, like many with little graduate training in the Digital Humanities, found the prospect of integrating digital pedagogy into the classroom daunting. DH literacy is a necessary component of a twenty-first century history education, and I often felt that I was not adequately exposing my students to these skills. To put it bluntly, I was haunted by the suspicion that I was letting my students down. Preparing and teaching the COPLACDigital course “The Social Life of Books” alongside Dr. Benjamin Pauley (English Department, Eastern Connecticut State University) helped me overcome my anxieties regarding digital approaches to history and inspired me to integrate new exercises into my courses. Second, the project inspired me to think about the classroom itself in new ways. One of the features of COPLAC grant that I found most appealing, and what persuaded me to accept the nomination to participate in the first place, was the program’s reliance on a multi-campus model for online synchronous teaching. Expanding the classroom beyond its physical confines via the videoconferencing platform Zoom enabled my students access to experts in different fields (in this case Dr. Pauley) and, perhaps most importantly, to other students across the country. Equipped with these new skills, I decided to make changes to the classes in my normal course rotation. In this reflection essay I will share how COPLACDigital helped me reimagine my upper-division undergraduate history of the American Revolution course.
In the Spring semesters 2017 and 2019 I team-taught a digital history course alongside Dr. Kyle Roberts (History Department, Loyola University Chicago) on the topic of the American Revolution. Our objective was to offer a multi-site, synchronous class on the American Revolution, bringing together students from Loyola University Chicago and Shepherd University to learn about the American Revolution through a digital lens. Over the course of running my COPLACDigital class, it became clear that it was possible to run an online seminar on Zoom with little oversight from campus IT. In fact, we relied on Zoom exclusively on one occasion when the UNC teleconferencing software was not working. The biggest issue that we had to overcome when initially planning the course was class size. Taken together, our classes contained roughly 40 students in total. This was a much larger group than the 14-16 students in the COPLACDigital classes. A few Zoom functions were useful in managing a class of this size. First, the “breakout room” function enabled us to divide the class into smaller discussion groups. Second, the “polling” function enabled us to gauge student knowledge/opinion during our meetings. We also grouped students into “households” (based upon families from the Revolutionary Era), each containing two Shepherd and two Loyola students in order for them to form more productive relationships. We organized weekly assignments, including blog posts, around the households. The COPLACDigital home site, particularly the resource page, was invaluable to our course as we sent our students there to discover tutorials on WordPress design and blog citation.
We partnered with Will Fenton at the Library Company of Philadelphia, creator of the Digital Paxton project, to come up with a transcription exercise centered around eighteenth-century manuscript material relating to the Paxton Boys massacres of 1763/64. Will graciously provided us with high-resolution scans from the Friendly Association Papers housed in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Each student transcribed a single manuscript page and reflected on what the page told her or him. Eventually their transcriptions were uploaded to the Digital Paxton site, allowing students to understand that they had contributed to the public understanding of a defining moment in the construction of race in America. This, a handful of students later shared, was their proudest achievement in the class. Two former Loyola students, both of whom were part of the Spring 2017 class, co-authored, alongside Will Fenton, an academic article published in 2019 in which they discussed pedagogical approaches to transcription.
In another assignment that worked well in the class, students used Knightlab’s TimelineJS (a tool to which I was first introduced in COPLACDigital) to create a visual biography of an American Loyalist. We called this assignment “Adopting a Loyalist Refugee.” We assigned each household primary sources from the Parliamentary Loyalist Claims Commission in order for students to flesh out the lives of individual loyalists. Upon reviewing the assignment, we immediately saw the potential for the creation of a much richer knowledge site and digital archive and put forward a grant application to fund a student-led digitization project centered around the Loyalist experience. In January 2019 we were thrilled to learn that we had been awarded a Lapidus Grant from the Omohundro Institute for Early American Studies. Students in our 2019 course will now be able to work with high-resolution images from the National Archives UK to build a database and website exploring the loyalist diaspora. In short, COPLACDigital transformed my teaching. Digital History is now a feature of my upper-division courses, and many of my recent students participate in larger digital projects. The COPLACDigital program exposed me to new educational pedagogies and tools to interrogate and visualize data. It also provided the training and confidence to bring web design into the classroom. All that is necessary with which to begin is the desire to experiment and to accept that more often than not, you will be learning these skills alongside your students. The resources available on the COPLACDigital site are a great place start.
COPLAC Social Life of Books course: http://slob.coplacdigital.org/course/
American Revolution Course website: https://revolutionwillbedigitized.wordpress.com
Digital Paxton Transcription Assignment: http://digitalpaxton.org/works/digital-paxton/transcription-assignment-exploring-the-digital-archive
Will Fenton, Kate Johnson, and Kelly Schmidt, “Digital Paxton: Collaborative Construction with Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Functions” The Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy, Issue 14 (January, 2019).