HIST 407: Digital History
Fall 2015: TuTh 11:00-12:15
Student Success Center 4047

Prof. Evan Friss
Email: frissej@jmu.edu
Office Location and Hours: Jackson 220, Tuesdays and Thursdays 1:30-3:00

Course Description and Objectives:

The course will provide an overview of the developing field of digital history.  We will explore the ways in which technology can change the way we research, write, document, exhibit, and produce history.  To do so, we will read about, think about, and practice with an array of digital tools.  You should not expect to become an expert in any single technology, but you will develop a familiarity with a wide range of tools and applications and will have the chance to create your own digital history project. In the process, I hope, we will all not only reconsider the relationship between the digital realm and the field of history, but also the way we conceive of history itself.

By the end of the course students will be able to:

  • Identify the history of digital history and its current trajectory
  • Contrast digital and traditional history
  • Develop a familiarity with the vocabulary associated with digital history
  • Discover the uses and limits of a wide range of digital tools
  • Demonstrate proficiency in producing a work of digital history

Grading and Assignments:

Digital Possibilities Paper (12%)
Digital Workshops (13%)
Participation (15%)
Quizzes (15%)
Digital History Project (45%)

  • Grades: (A) means genuinely outstanding, mastery of the subject, near flawless exposition, and incisive interpretation; (B) means well above average achievements in mastery of the subject, exposition, and interpretation throughout the course; (C) means comprehension of the basic concepts, competent exposition, and interpretation; (D) means unsatisfactory but still barely passing; (F) means failure.
  • Digital Possibilities Paper: Think about existing pieces of technology and how they might be used to further the study of history. You will want to select a tool that is currently (at least as far as you can tell) not used by historians and write a short paper (600 words), proposing a new, scholarly use for the technology. The paper is due Oct. 8.
  • Digital Workshops: Each of you will be responsible for leading your classmates in a workshop based around one piece of technology. You will be assigned the particular tool and you will have up to 25 minutes to show us the possibilities and limits of your particular resource and enable us, through a designed exercise, to tinker with it.
  • Participation: I expect you to participate actively and intelligently each class. Be sure to complete the readings for the entire week by the Tuesday session of the given week.
  • Quizzes: The (unannounced) quizzes will cover any assigned readings and material from recent classes.
  • Final Project: Over the course of the semester, you will create a digital history project on a topic of your choice using an appropriate platform. Nevertheless, the project needs to be a piece of original historical scholarship that is fundamentally driven by the use of digital technologies. The project will consist of five components. First, you must write a detailed Proposal (900 words) in which you outline the title, subject, form, sources, and audience of the project. You should select a subject that is well suited to digital history and I encourage you to work on a historical question with which you are already familiar. The proposal (7% of your final grade) is due on October 1. Towards the end of the semester, you will deliver a Presentation to the class, showcasing your work. The presentation (6% of your final grade) should last between 10 and 15 minutes. After the presentations, you will have the chance to provide Peer Review. Each student will be assigned three digital projects to review and will write a critique of each one (3 X 350 words) by December 7. These reviews (6% of your final grade) will be evaluated based on how helpful they are to the creator of the work and how much you, in your own project, revised your work according to the suggestions of your peers. The Final Project itself will be graded on both the quality of your historical contribution and the design of the project, including issues related to ease of navigation, content display and quality, documentation, metadata, and the significance and relevance for your intended audience. Along with the project, you will also compose a short Reflection Paper (750 words) in which you critically engage with your own process of doing digital history. A copy of the reflection paper (6% of your final grade) and a link to your digital project (20% of your final grade) must be sent via email by December 14.


For information on these polices, visit: http://www.jmu.edu/history/syllabus.shtml

  • The JMU Honor Code and Academic Honesty (Plagiarism or any other forms of academic dishonesty will result in an automatic “F” grade for this course.)
  • Registration Dates and Deadlines
  • College of Arts and Letters First-week Attendance Policy
  • Inclement Weather
  • Intellectual Property
  • Disability Accommodations
  • Religious Accommodations


Week 1 (Sept. 1 & 3): Digital History: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
“Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” Journal of American History
Edward L. Ayers, “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History”
Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Introduction and Exploring the History Web)
Stefan Tanaka, “Pasts in a Digital Age”

Week 2 (Sept. 8 & 10): Archives, Libraries, and Museums on the Web
Digital Workshop: Omeka
Anthony Grafton, “Future Readings: Digitization and its Discontents,” The New Yorker
Nicholson Baker, Double Fold (excerpt)
Review of On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive
About the Dublin Core
Creating Metadata
Examine the following sites and consider their relative strengths and weaknesses:
Digital Public Library of America
The William F. Cody Archive
Traces of Mind Control from Cold War America
The Roaring Twenties

Week 3 (Sept. 15 & 17): Space 
Digital Workshop: Historical GIS, Google Maps/Earth, StoryMap JS, Neatline
Review Shaping the West and Visualizing Emancipation
Bodenhamer, Corrigan, and Harris, eds., The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Introduction)
David J. Bodenhamer, “The Spatial Humanities: Space, Time, and Place in the New Digital Age”
David J. Bodenhamer, “The Potential of Spatial Humanities”
Edward L. Ayers, “Turning Toward Place, Space, and Time”
Gary Lock, “Representations of Space and Place in the Humanities”

Week 4 (Sept. 22 & 24): Finding, Creating, and Managing Content
Digital Workshop: Zotero, Evernote, PopUpArchive, Storify, Scalar
Ansley T. Erickson, “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Notecards”
Patrick Leary, “Googling the Victorians”
Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making us Stupid,” The Atlantic
William J. Turkel, Kevin Kee and Spencer Roberts, “A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive”
Larry Cebula, “An Open Letter to the Historians of the 22nd Century: Sorry for all the Stuff”

Week 5 (Sept. 29 & Oct.1): The Crowd
Proposal Due Oct. 1
Digital Workshop: Wikipedia, Historypin, Scripto, Hypothes.is
Robert S. Wolff, “The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia”
Martha Saxton, “Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience”
Timothy Messer-Kruse, “The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia”
Amanda Grace Sikarskie, “Citizen Scholars: Facebook and the Co-Creation of Knowledge”
Try transcribing one of the documents from the University of Iowa libraries
The September 11 Digital Archive

Week 6 (Oct. 6 & 8): 3-D Printing  (We’ll meet in the 3D Printing Lab, Burruss 349, this week)
Digital Possibilities Paper Due Oct. 8
Liz Neely and Miriam Langer, “Please Feel the Museum: The Emergence of 3D Printing and Scanning”
William J. Turkel and Devon Elliott, “Making and Playing with Models: Using Rapid Prototyping to Explore the History and Technology of Stage Magic”
Matthew MacArthur, “Get Real!: The Role of Objects in the Digital Age”

Week 7 (Oct. 13):  Social Media (No Class on Oct. 15: Work on Final Projects)
Digital Workshop: Flickr Commons, Twitter
“Speaking Digitally About Exhibits,” New York Times
About the Twitter Archive At the Library of Congress
Find examples of three different ways in which cultural institutions use social media applications.

Week 8 (Oct. 20 & 22): Data
Digital Workshop: Palladio, Voyant Tools, Google Ngram, Gephi
Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, and Trees (excerpt)
The 2013 Feltron Annual Report
Frederick W. Gibbs and Trevor J. Owens, “The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing”
Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display,” Digital Humanities Quarterly

Week 9 (Oct. 27 & 29): Design
Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Designing for the History Web)
Sarah Larson, “Why You Hate Google’s New Logo,” The New Yorker
Find a digital history project that you find visually appealing and one that is not.  Think about why that is and be prepared to discuss in class.
Helvetica shown in class

Week 10 (Nov. 3.): Authenticity (No Class on Nov. 5: Work on Final Projects)
“Photography as a Weapon,” New York Times
Leslie Madsen-Brooks, “I nevertheless am a historian”: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers”
Rebecca Onion, “Snapshots of History,” Slate

Week 11: (Nov. 10 & 12): Final Project Presentations

Week 12: (Nov. 17 & 19): Final Project Presentations

Week 13: Thanksgiving Break (No Class)

Week 14: (Dec. 1 & 3):  Digitization and Preservation
Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Preserving Digital History)
Megan Garber, “What If You Could Snapchat a Scent?: Meet the New Technologies that Want to Transform Fragrances into Archives,” The Atlantic
David Thomas and Valerie Johnson, “New Universe or Black Holes”
Raiders of the Lost Web, The Atlantic
The Irony of Writing Online About Digital Preservation, The Atlantic 
Explore the Internet Archive
Guest Lecture from Laura Drake Davis (Dec. 3)

Week 15: (Dec. 8 & 10): Rethinking Traditional Scholarship
Peer Reviews Due December 7
David A. Bell, “The Bookless Future: What the Internet is doing to Scholarship, New Republic
Steven Levy, “The Future of Reading,” Newsweek
Dan Cohen, The Ivory Tower and the Open Web (Introduction: Burritos, Browsers, and Books [Draft])
Diane Favro and Christopher Johanson, “Death in Motion: Funeral Processions in the Roman Forum”
Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging and the Academy”
Mapping Decline
Edward Ayers, “Does Digital Scholarship Have a Future”

December 14: Reflection Papers and Final Project Due