Digital Humanities

Digital technology represents one of the greatest developments in contemporary education, which I believe enhances the liberal arts and our ability to communicate the human experience.

Currently, however, we are at an experimental stage, trying to understand how to use this technology in both the classroom and in our own research.

I have included here three of my projects on using digital humanities in the classroom, each illustrating a different approach to using the possibilities of digital humanities within a traditional liberal arts pedagogy.

Powerpoint and
Its Discontents

There are as many opinions about the benefits of using Powerpoint (and its relatives such as Keynote, Google Docs Presentation, SlideRocket, or a host of others) in the classroom as there are users of Powerpoint in the classroom. Most of us have been subjected to "Death by Powerpoint," or grown frustrated at the rigid linear format that the software forces on our presentations. And we are well-advised to continue to be constantly critical of relying on the technology to the exclusion of other pedagogical approaches.

That said, Powerpoint does offer a lot of advantages, and the software itself is capable of far more than just presenting text and pictures. Most of my work utilizes the ability of Powerpoint to animate objects to convey a sense of movement and historical change to my presentations. It is not ideal--and time-consuming--but it is a readily-available solution to the problem of stepping beyond to static image to showing a dynamic world.

This, I believe, represents one of my basic thoughts about the digital humanities: it is ultimately the content that matters, not the technology.

Why the Black?

You might have noticed that for my presentations I use a black background, rather than the traditional white or some form of pattern. The reason for this is an old trick borrowed from art historians: colors show up much more vividly on a black backdrop than they do on a white.

All Roads Lead to Rome - Digital Technology in the Classroom

One of the chief problems encountered in teaching history courses is the need to illustrate large-scale dynamic processes, such as the operation of the medieval strip-and-field system, World War I trenches, or Early Modern global trade networks. In the past, we have relied on two methods to do so: deep analysis of written texts or exposition from static maps or paintings (or, at best, as series of such illustrations). In both cases, however, this places a large burden on the student to "fill in" the process.

I am increasingly using digital technology in classroom presentations to illustrate these processes. The sample presentation below was built in Powerpoint, and is used in my Western Civilization I survey courses to explain the importance of trade to the Roman imperial system. The actual presentation would take about 30 minutes, as I explain ideas more in-depth and students ask questions. The brief (10 minute) version below just walks directly through the presentation.

Click on Image to Play Presentation (recent Flash player needed)

One reason I am interested in this approach is the iterative possibilities of digital technology. In the above example, the same map can be used to illustrate the decline of the Roman Empire, when after the Third Century Crises the western trade networks collapse and the older, eastern trade networks resume their original purpose of serving the local cities rather than the Roman Empire. This is, of course, one of the reasons the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire is able to survive almost a millenium after the collapse of its western counterpart.

David's The Tennis Court Oath - Art in History

The use of artwork as primary historical texts is a time-honored practice among historians. Like many colleagues, I regularly discuss artwork in class, guiding students through the various elements of a painting. But while Powerpoint might have replaced the slide projector as the preferred means of showing artwork, the technique of presentation remains largely the same.

Recently, I began experimenting with Prezi, an online software package that allows a different presentation model from Powerpoint. A key difference is Prezi allows the viewer to "zoom in" on a piece of the presentation. Below is an example of using Prezi's abilities to present the history behind Jacques-Louis David's Le Serment du Jeu de palme (1791), better known in English as The Tennis Court Oath.

The Library Scavenger Hunt - Digitally Teaching Research

The final example illustrates how I believe digital technology can be used to teach skill sets as well as content. My survey classes include an assignment called a "Library Scavenger Hunt." The students select a historical topic from a list compiled by me, and are asked to compile a bibliography of primary and secondary sources on the topic.

The purpose is to teach students the basics of library research. This includes not only using the various databases that are increasingly indispensible to research, but also how to think about connections that might lead to additional sources.

To illustrate this, I give a presentation where I walk students through researching a historical topic, emphasizing the first step should be to find out about the topic, in this case Nzinga Mbemba. The end result is a "mind map" of connections:

Mind Map for Nzinga Mbemba

The purpose of this is to help students break the increasingly common habit of just typing something into a database and copying the answer. Doing that with a topic like "Nzinga Mbemba" is likely to result in only a few sources. However, by building out connections to larger issues such as "Kongo Kingdom," "Roman Catholicism in Africa," or "African Slave Trade," students can generate keywords to find additional sources. The timeline at the bottom gives them a range to start locating primary sources as well.

Updated on 1 August 2018
Copyright © 2009-2018, Scott A. Gavorsky