It’s graduation season, which means a deluge of think-pieces about “what students should be able to do.” Humanities majors, in particular, often hear the message that their skills aren’t valuable (however that’s being defined at the moment), at least not in comparison with the “hard” skills of other disciplines. Then when the “soft” skills of the humanities are highlighted as important, students are shamed for not having them either.
Graduates entering the hottest job market in decades shouldn't expect their first job will be a cinch. Employers want them to have exceptional soft skills: the ability to write, listen and communicate effectively. https://t.co/LQqeEWK4Ty pic.twitter.com/rfrG4uM4UC
— The Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) May 11, 2019
There’s plenty of ink being spilled on this topic, but precious little time spent in comparison looking at what students are actually learning and doing.
One of the things history students are doing is learning to use digital tools and methods to research and communicate about the past, often through public-facing projects.[efn_note]To understand how brave and impressive this is, just think about any of your college papers being published online for all the world to see.[/efn_note] Through their work, these projects make the processes and products of historical research visible and accessible to a broad audience. Why is that important? Well, when I went to look for an image to use for this piece, Wikimedia Commons didn’t even have a subcategory for “Historical research.”
Thankfully, we have lots of talented students and teachers showing us what it looks like. This kind of work isn’t brand new either, nor is it only being done at the biggest or most well-funded institutions. In fact, when we put out the call for recent projects to highlight, we got so many responses we’re going to break them up into a series of posts. Welcome to the first round.
Begun in the spring of 2017 and continued in the spring of 2019, Black Student Protests from Jim Crow to the Present is a project of the students and faculty of the Africana Studies Department at Brown University. From the site:
Our aim in creating this site is not to re-tell the history of protest here – or nationally – but instead to create an accessible, public-facing archive, to be useful to anyone beyond Brown who might be interested in the dynamic tension among young people, race, institutions, and social transformation.
There are many interesting ways to use the project, but one way to start is through the international, national, and Brown timelines.
Carl Robert Keyes’ Adverts 250 Project–and the related Slavery Adverts 250 Project–are familiar to many historians on Twitter. The project “explores the history of advertising in eighteenth-century America [through] a daily image of an advertisement published in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago that day.”
— Carl Robert Keyes (@TradeCardCarl) April 11, 2019
This past semester, the students in Keyes’ Revolutionary America course at Assumption College served as guest curators for the project. You can explore their contributions and read their reflections here. You never know what you’ll find in an 18th century newspaper!
At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Chris Cantwell’s Local History Research Methods class has contributed the research and writing for Gathering Places. From the site:
Gathering Places is a living archive of Milwaukee’s places of worship; an ongoing project that seeks to document the diversity of the city’s religious landscape. Here you will find histories of the city’s congregations alongside photographs, archival documents, and audio recordings of Milwaukee’s religious life. All of this material is placed atop a dynamic map of the city, which allows you to watch the growth and movement of Milwaukee’s congregations by scrolling through the timeline.
Click here to learn more about the project and hear from the students themselves.
Institutions and campuses have histories too. At James Madison University, Meg Mulrooney’s Spring 2019 Introduction to Public History course “used JMU campus history as a unifying theme.” Students created exhibits that incorporated “unfamiliar, untold, and unacknowledged aspects of this institution’s past” as part of understanding JMU’s “history as a segregated women’s school.”
Objects That Tell Stories is a digital exhibit curated by the students in Blair Stein’s Spring 2019 History of Science course at the University of Oklahoma. From the site:
The artifacts included here come from museums all around the world and have been brought together to show how sciences and technologies have been used across space and time to create, affirm, and question identities. We have also been tracing how sciences and technologies help human beings in different times and places make sense of relationships between themselves and the natural world.
You can also check out the Spring 2018 exhibit: Reigns, Grains, and Automobiles.
And to cap off this first installment, a ongoing project from University of Utah MA student Jaclyn Foster: the Upper Canada Slavery Database. The project’s goals, from its homepage:
First, a series of blog posts introduces the history. Second, a searchable database of enslaved residents encourages original research and facilitates statistical analysis. Third, lesson plans encourage K-12 educators to incorporate this history into their Canadian History curricula.
Explore the blog posts here and follow the site for more as the project proceeds.
Stay tuned for our next round of digital history highlights, coming soon. If your high school, undergraduate, or graduate students did a project you want us to highlight, email the link to erin at contingentmag dot org or tweet it at us!