Angela Smith (Ph.D., Middle Tennessee State University, 2011) is an assistant professor of history at North Dakota State University where she teaches twentieth-century American history and public history. She has spent much of her first three and a half years at NDSU working with students on both digital and analog projects that have helped build bridges with stakeholders in small-town history societies and museums in the region. Her inquiry into the challenges they face inspired her to create a Public History Field School in June 2015 in Ellendale, North Dakota. She recently completed a monograph adapted from her dissertation on radical Southern poet John Beecher, a descendant of the nineteenth-century abolitionist family. The manuscript is under review with the University of Alabama Press.
A Civil War battle in North Dakota and a brothel operated by a black madam in Fargo are just two of the areas that have become part of The Fargo History Project. The site is a delivery vehicle for student research in my 404/604 Digital History course at North Dakota State University. Begun in fall of 2012 and offered every fall, students take on various local history research projects and post their work on the site. The inaugural class researched the founding of Fargo to 1894, a year chosen because a devastating fire that occurred the previous year. The next year, students updated the website to add functionality and content, and they created a documentary about Melvina Massey, “Prostitution and Fargo’s Most Famous Madam.” Last fall, the class created two documentaries, “The Jefferson of the Valley: the Randolph Probstfield Story” and the “1862 Siege of Fort Abercrombie.” Each year I assign a local history topic and divide the class into groups with a designated graduate student leader. The course is focused not just on technology, but also on local history research and process learning. Each year the course shifts, but the end results are always posted on the website and shared with the community in a formal presentation. Last December, 150 people attended the premiere of the two documentaries, which was held at the Hjemkomst Center.
This teaching model works in part because of a skill-set I bring to the field. I came to teaching from twenty years of work as a graphic designer and digital prepress specialist. I rode the first digital wave through great jobs as the graphic arts industry shifted from analog to digital. In doing this, I had an opportunity to work on countless CD packages, books, websites, and various kinds of printed materials. A longtime interest in history kept nudging me, and I decided to enter grad school and begin work on a Ph.D. in public history. I believed my technological literacy and design skills would serve me well in an analog profession. I was not wrong. But—my previous career skill set is not the only qualification for teaching Digital History and teaching it well.
There are three central tenets that guide my teaching and public history practice: 1) because technology is an ever changing tool, both professor and student must learn to learn; 2) active peer teaching and learning balances a project-based class; and 3), combined student and community engagement is vital to teaching, collecting, and preserving history.
In their training, history professors learn to dig deep and understand their field and the corresponding historiography. They may learn some pedagogical strategies, but only recently have those methods included digital tools. Fortunately for me, my earlier career gave me a comfort with digital tools, design, and communication that now allows me to approach teaching as a process instead of a predefined content area. I see technology as a tool—like a pencil or a pen. Technology on its own does nothing. However, in the hands of skilled practitioners the tool can be used to create works of art. Yet even the practitioner’s skill does not appear immediately, but is honed through practice and repetition.
It is this fundamental notion that guides my teaching. On the first day of the digital history class, I explain that my goal for them is to “learn to learn.” Technology will change, but if they learn to learn they can figure out how to use the technology by using online tutorials from online sites such as Lynda.com, YouTube, or Coursera. Today’s students arrive at college with some digital knowledge, and I ask them to build on that knowledge as they do solid historical research, both of which are critical to a final project.
I divide my 404/604 Digital History Course into three parts that utilize these tenets. The first several weeks of the course are spent introducing students to the field of digital history and resources for learning to learn. After taking a survey of digital skills, I break the students down into groups based on their abilities. I then introduce each group to the local history project that will be undertaken over the course of the semester.
Their grade is based on several factors. During the first part of the course, students write summaries of assigned readings and are responsible for other introductory assignments. For accountability, a midterm in early October covers early content, and that point ends traditional class time. The rest of the semester is spent researching, gathering visual material, writing a script or content posts, and assembling the final project with benchmark due dates that the students and I define. Students are also graded by detailed peer reviews, instructor reviews, and the quality of the final product. The final result of their work is added to The Fargo History Project website and introduced in a public unveiling at the end of the semester. Because I want the students to own the project, I do not dictate the scope. I introduce them to the topic very broadly and they begin their research early in the semester. Graduate students are charged with group leadership responsibilities and guide the project’s research and scope.
Peer learning balances the unevenness of student skills sets. Students who have greater expertise in technology—those who have previously created films and are comfortable with photography or building websites—are paired with less experienced students. All, however, are required to participate fully in the research process, as well as learning to use the digital tools from their peers. In Fall 2014, one group carved out new ways to collaborate on a documentary by posting iterations of the film via Google docs and inviting group members to comment on each cut. Students work together to find the story, write the script, and assemble the story for visual media. On the opening night, many community members and university attendees comment very positively on the quality of the work.
Combined student and community engagement is vital to teaching, collecting, and preserving history. Local history is a rich resource for student research and interpretation. As historian Lucy Salmon wrote a century ago, history is in our backyard. Today, by using the digital technology tools available to us and taking advantage of the range of the Internet, we have an opportunity to share that history with both our neighbors and a worldwide audience. Additionally, towns and cities care about their history. It is about identity and sense of place. In my experience, students understand that, and when local citizens observe students engaged in local historical interpretation there is an emotional tug. If students care enough to research and produce a locally based documentary or website, then perhaps our history is in good hands.