Orignal proposed individual activities

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In my project, I will research the use of digital “tools” in my history classes.  Students will be able to use these tools (often called “apps”) via their smart phones, Ipads, laptops or computers to access digital historical materials and to facilitate interactive collaboration.  I will also either create or locate specific historical materials that will enable students to better understand the value of the study of history.

I will first explore the use of the Omeka database software, created by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, that allows for the creation of an online digital archive.  With such an archive, a student can create collections of historical materials and also develop online interpretative exhibitions of those materials.  See, for example, the Charles M. Robinson Schoolhouses in Northern Virginia (cmrobinsonschools.omeka.net/) site developed by Amy Bertsch, one of my students.  I intend to have students work with materials documenting the history of Northern Virginia in the past fifty years.  This will enable students to work actively with a database tool yet also provide them with the benefit of first-hand experience documenting the history of the region in which they live.

Another specific database project that I will pursue involves the creation of a historical memory collection.  In my HIS 102, 112 and 135 courses, students have the option of writing a “my family and history” paper that sets the experiences of their family within the context of what has happened in the world since 1945.  The resulting searchable archive of these papers will create a more personal account of the past half century, thus making history more relevant and “connectable” for students in the courses.

Next, I will investigate the emerging field of data visualization, a method of taking data and providing a graphical representation of that data online in order to enable students to see connections that typically would be very difficult to perceive.  One such data tool is Many Eyes, (www-958.ibm.com) which I have used on a trial basis to illustrate/display some US census data.  Data tools, such as Many Eyes, will give students the opportunity to experiment and analyze historical data (events, statistics, dates, etc) by allowing the visualization of that data.  Sources for the data could be from censuses, almanacs, government publications or from collections such as B. R. Mitchell’s European Historical Statistics.

Another digital tool, similar to data visualization, is GIS (Geographic Information System) which allows a student to model and visualize data in ways that reveal relationships and spatial patterns.  In other words, GIS takes data and maps it, making it “seeable” so that it is easier to interpret and understand.  US census and local city directories can be mapped using GIS and then interpreted by students to discover historical relationships and trends/developments.  A particularly powerful GIS tool is Google Earth.  There are many different ways that students can use Google Earth to work with historical materials, and some publishers, such as W. W. Norton, have already begun to offer “Explore Western Civilizations Tours” using Google Earth.

Something that is very new in the digital humanities is the appearance of textual analysis tools.  “Topic modeling” is one such software tool that sorts texts into topics.  Since the research topics are generated by a computer program, they are not subject to user bias or preconception.  For example, one can apply topic modeling to a collection of World War I letters and discover that one of the common topics/threads throughout the letters is the idea of cherry orchards.  In the past few years, several good collections of digital texts have become available.  Here are just a few examples:

I will explore the ways that we can use different digital tools to work with these materials.

Finally, I would like my students to actually locate and digitize historical materials that can be used in my courses.  This type of assignment will provide them with a hands-on element to their study of history.  For example, on a trial basis, I have had students working to digitize parts of the 1900 US census for select local communities. Students are then required to analyze that census information to understand the socio-economic structure of American society at the turn of the last century.  I have also experimented with student use of obituaries to better understand personal relationships in past communities.  In particular, I encourage students to work with local history materials to come closer to a type of history that they have rarely experienced while also broadening their understanding of the larger forces affecting the course of Western history.