This week, we finished our rotation block with Public Projects. I both struggled and thoroughly enjoyed working in Public Projects, as I learned so many new and helpful things while I also found my weaknesses in some of the more technical aspects of digital history. This block included many different types of projects, such as live testing a new website at the National Mall, writing entries for that project, testing Omeka, and even transcribing letters for Papers of the War Department.
I also got to venture into DC for the first time for work during this rotation, which I enjoyed immensely. I was very thankful that I got to test the new National Mall project with my other first year fellows, and you can read more about that experience here. I am excited to see it go live, and I hope that when it is live, many other first-time and returning visitors to the Mall can utilize it.
I also had some difficulties in the block that I overcame, which makes me feel incredibly accomplished. Although I felt comfortable with Omeka coming into this block, I have learned so much more about how it functions and the different uses than I had previously known. I also learned a lot about how transcribing and pulling out keywords from handwritten letters are entirely different experiences. This was difficult, especially figuring out what particular words were, but it was so useful, connecting, and interesting to read these letters from when the US was a brand new country.
I loved working within this block, and I liked that I was challenged by a lot of the projects we worked on. I have learned a lot of useful skills that I can apply to my future career or dissertation as a historian. Coming into George Mason University, I already had my MA in Public History, and I have a real passion for making history accessible to the public. I believe that a lot of the work that is being done in the Public Projects section of CHNM is applying this concept, and I take great inspiration from the people and projects that I have encountered while working here.
My time in the Education block of the Center for History and New Media as a Digital History Fellow has been quite interesting for me. Previously, my experience with teaching was limited to either working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant for introductory-level history courses or teaching fourth graders as a Public History Educator at a museum in Sanford, Florida. Due to my admittedly limited experience with K-12 education, this experience has been revealing on how technology can accommodate teaching history to students at those levels.
Although historians always analyze information and primary documents, it is a lot more difficult to determine the best way for students to utilize those resources for learning. For example, while writing reviews for Teaching History, I had to consider the typical things for historians, such as bias, type of information, and quality and quantity of the primary documents. What is new to me is that I also had to think of how these items could potentially enhance a lesson plan for a teacher for their class. In addition, I also had to consider the usability of these websites and tools. If a website is too difficult or confusing for a student to use, then it is problematic to consider it a valuable teaching resource, even if the information is good.
I have previously mentioned the challenges of thinking as an educator, and these challenges continue to be something that I must tackle as I continue in the educational portion of CHNM, as well as my future as a historian. I believe that these are some of the valuable lessons that I can take form working at a Digital History Fellow at CHNM, because I will be able to utilize the skills that I have obtained from working on these projects in future endeavors.
On Monday the first year fellows leave the Education Division and move to Public Projects for the remainder of our first semester. Over the last seven weeks, I have learned a lot about the projects in the education division, the project and tools within the division, and the division’s goals of providing teachers with skills and tool to teach historical thinking to students. I’ve come away from this rotation with a better understanding of not only the role of the education division but also with a new appreciation for the challenge of using and creating tools that encourage students to think critically about history.
My time in the education department at CHNM has passed quickly, but it has also been deeply enriching. I’ve learned a lot about the challenges of creating historical scholarship geared toward K-12 students and have come to appreciate the importance of integrating digital media in the classroom. As one can imagine, coming into the Center with limited technical skills can be intimidating, but in these seven weeks the combination of course content and fellowship activities has greatly reduced my concerns.
The Digital History Fellowship is situated at the convergence of three separate goals for graduate students at George Mason University. First, all graduate students in the Department of History and Art History are required to take courses in digital history, usually consisting of one class in theory or study and another in practice (collectively referred to as Clio I and II). These classes are designed to give graduate students an introduction to the concepts and practices of digital history and new media that are increasingly important for scholars in all disciplines. Although experiences in the classes are widely varied, the skills introduced in the courses are common throughout digital humanities and form the backbone of the work done here at the RRCHNM. Because DH Fellows work in the center while learning new skills, they benefit ongoing research and grow their own capabilities.
Second, each DH Fellow is pursuing a minor field in digital history, which can take the form of study for teaching, application, or research. Some of us have studied how to use digital tools and media in the classroom, while others have examined the methods used in digital public history. Because the fellowship is technically a practicum course, it qualifies as a component of our minor fields, which removes some of the difficulty in assembling the required classes. Some of our colleagues in the program who are also completing digital history minor fields often struggle to scrape together a handful of classes that are offered infrequently (due to scarcity of instructors). Although the program and the center are working to resolve the problem, the fellowship sidesteps the issue by allowing us to work as DH researchers in return for class credit.
Finally, the fellowship fulfills a new goal for the history program: to train graduate students in digital history methods and skills through practical training alongside senior researchers, and to engage those students in the production of new digital history projects. Generally, our experiences are directed toward increasing our abilities while also contributing to the field. Though other graduate students have worked as research assistants in the center, acquiring valuable skills and experience as they work on projects, the fellowship is somewhat unique in its clear, mutually beneficial goals. And that’s exactly the problem.
We all know that graduate students working in Digital Humanities Centers have the unique experience to work on a variety of projects and enhance technical and development skills. We have the chance to add lines to our CVs that can improve our chances of getting both academic and non-academic jobs, and get to see our names on the about pages of apps and websites. What I haven’t really seen in discussions about grad students in Centers is a conversation regarding the more immediate academic and social benefits–and challenges–that go along with participating in and working on-site at these Centers. We should also consider talking about how we can connect and collaborate with other grad students in similar situations.
Receiving a fellowship in the first year of its inception comes with a few advantages. When we entered the program last year, discussions about the structure and purpose of the fellowship were ongoing and the syllabus was somewhat fluid. This allowed us to express our own desires for the fellowship course, while also being privy to conversations about what the fellowship should aspire to. Meeting with senior staff and project leaders, we were able to quickly survey the types of work being done at the center and the resulting possibilities for DH fellows. Many of the staff were as curious as we were about the fellowship and this led to meaningful conversations about the Center as a whole.
The Digital History Fellows occupy a fairly unique role amongst the many graduate students currently studying in the humanities. We have been given research stipends to support the growth of our research capabilities, with particular emphasis on digital research methods. Because we are attached to the RRCHNM, our concentrated efforts are focused on specific projects, to which we contribute time and energy while developing digital methods and skills. We and the center benefit from the symbiotic relationship.