The American Historian

The Challenges and Rewards of Digital Public History in the Classroom

Anne Mitchell Whisnant and Pamella R. Lach

New digital tools and digitized primary sources enable even beginning students to build history projects with a public presence. But laying the groundwork for students to do sophisticated digital public history is complicated. Sometimes, the

In this article we—Anne, an administrator and adjunct associate professor of history and American Studies at the University of the North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and the scholarly adviser for Driving through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway, a digital history project hosted by the UNC Libraries, and Pam, a historian trained in information science who is Associate Director of UNC’s Digital Innovation Lab (DIL)—explain how we have discovered a middle ground that allows students to work on challenging and rewarding digital history projects that ensure that the historical and technological learning curves are manageable and that student work is properly vetted before it is made public.


Growing Pains

Anne has long recognized that the Internet offers learning opportunities for students enrolled in her UNC undergraduate/graduate Introduction to Public History course. But there have been growing pains. In 2009 Anne had her students enter metadata directly into the Driving through Time website. However, because students had a limited understanding of the history of the parkway and because the data-entry guidelines were rather loose, the result was often poorly written and erroneous metadata. Graduate assistants spent months cleaning up errors and inconsistencies.

In subsequent semesters, Anne assigned students to research, write, and publish (on a private WordPress site) short, illustrated interpretive essays using Driving through Time digital primary sources. Students wrote more than a dozen promising essays, and five were subsequently published on the Driving through Time website. While this approach yielded valuable research and writing experience for students and produced good site content, it did not engage students with the intellectual or technical complexities—or the visual possibilities—of sophisticated digital tools. And because Anne lacked sufficient editorial assistance, many student essays went unpublished, reducing the project’s public impact and the students’ sense of accomplishment.


A Solution

Last fall, Anne began collaborating with Pam to develop a successful formula for incorporating a fully realized digital public history project into the Introduction to Public History course. Our collaboration proved successful, we think, because it combined our skills and experience. Anne’s strengths are her subject expertise and digital history experience, while Pam’s strengths lie in project management and her ability to translate technical requirements into plain terms and historical ideas into data. Together, we devised a challenging yet straightforward assignment that hit a sweet spot: the stakes were sufficiently high for students (their work would be posted publicly) and the technical and content learning curve was manageable. In a fifteen-week semester, we were able to build something new that had public value.

The result was the Unbuilt Blue Ridge Parkway, an interpretive project combining digital primary sources from Driving through Time with mostly heretofore unavailable information about parts of the parkway that were planned but never built. Inspired by the National Building Museum’s 2011 Unbuilt Washington exhibit, the Unbuilt Blue Ridge Parkway project invites students and visitors to consider that past outcomes were not inevitable, but resulted from choices among viable options. The Blue Ridge Parkway’s seventy-year history is full of such decision points—its archives are littered with maps, drawings, proposals, and documents related to many unbuilt projects. We chose six unbuilt projects and assigned a group of students to each. The students’ research fed into our core digital exhibit, an interactive map with ninety map markers that showcased highlights of the six stories explored by our students.

Each of the six unbuilt projects represented a challenging historical research puzzle, but the archives did not always contain all the pieces. For example, the group working on Americana Village, a planned installation of pioneer life and mountain crafts demonstrations on the estate of a North Carolina textile magnate, lamented their inability to determine why the project died in the late 1960s after nearly a decade of planning. A member of the group working on an aborted picnic and camping area (originally designated for African American visitors) at Pine Spur, Virginia, was frustrated not to find “some memorandum out there that has exactly what we want in it.” The frustrations of students, however, were positive signs. They demonstrated that students cared about their projects and were asking good historical questions. And, as all historians know, even research that does not uncover all the answers we seek can be rewarding nevertheless. One student working on the never-constructed 190-mile parkway extension into northern Georgia noted that she “loved visiting the archive . . . and having the opportunity to dig through history."


The Building Process

Creating the Unbuilt Blue Ridge Parkway entailed a complex and labor-intensive collaboration that included ourselves, Anne’s Introduction to Public History students, and two graduate students in the DIL Graduate Practicum in Digital Humanities, a class co-taught by Pam. We decided to organize our work around four “Mileposts” (a riff on Blue Ridge Parkway mile markers). We foregrounded historical research and narrative development so the historical materials and stories could guide us in building appropriate technical infrastructure.

That infrastructure included the DIL’s DH Press, a WordPress-based digital humanities visualization toolkit that can be used, among other things, to create map-based interpretive projects that highlight digitized primary-source materials. Findings were rendered as mappable “data points” in DH Press that then allowed us to create an interactive map. We then developed a skeletal website architecture and a data model for the map. In class, we trained Anne’s students to follow our data dictionary to collect and enter data in a Google Docs spreadsheet. After we checked, edited, and normalized the data, Pam imported it into DH Press. Meanwhile, Anne’s students drafted and posted the contextual narrative accounts. After an intensive flurry of work near the semester’s end, we demonstrated the live site for students at the final Introduction to Public History class meeting.


Lessons Learned

The Unbuilt Blue Ridge Parkway project owes its success to a combination of good decisions, hard work, and a supportive infrastructure that allowed students in two classes to work together. The topic was well suited to the tools, and constraining the work to six stories for which there was ample archival material helped students avoid many research dead-ends. Inviting the Introduction to Public History students to provide design input yielded a data model that aligned well with the content and helped students produce quality data. And working in the familiar WordPress environment allowed the entire group to focus on content and not be overly distracted by the technology.

Still, the time commitment was substantial. Anne, Pam, and Pam’s DIL graduate students worked overtime to meet, while Anne’s Introduction to Public History students dedicated more than five hundred hours to the project. And difficulties remained: Anne’s students still had trouble mastering their historical stories and understanding the relationship among what one called “exceedingly tedious” data-point entry, the final map visualization, and the narrative accounts. “I have learned that I’m not as tech savvy as I once thought I was,” one student reflected. Another student said, “I struggled with the technological aspect . . . more than I thought I would,” and added, “history definitely does not fit into boxes.” Happily, students found the hard work rewarding. Although one student said the project was “one of the most time consuming, stressful projects I have been involved in,” he concluded that “it has by far been the most enjoyable.”

Pam’s DIL graduate students, meanwhile, benefited from working one-on-one with Pam on the data. One graduate student said she learned that DH Press was not a black box that somehow transformed the data into a seamless visualization. Instead, she learned how difficult it is to create and use data to illustrate theoretical concepts in digital humanities projects, and she watched her previously rudimentary technological skills blossom to a level such that she could supervise a separate DH Press project the following semester.

While our model is much more labor-intensive than a typical single-instructor course, we believe the outcome was well worth the time. It was rewarding to see our students in both courses learn by doing. Anne’s students worked together to create a public history project, and Pam’s DIL graduate students traversed an entire digital project life cycle. Many of Anne’s students expressed a new appreciation for the complexity of exhibit creation and collaborative work. “I have learned a great deal about the scope and the depth that historians have to dig in archives . . . to discover hidden truths buried beneath bureaucracy of governmental and societal politics,” one student noted. Another student highlighted his increased “respect for public historians, librarians, museum curators, or anyone involved in Digital Humanities.” Together, we have realized that cross-course collaboration that draws intelligently and efficiently on the strengths of everyone involved and serves everyone’s needs can also build a publicly beneficial and interesting project of which everyone can be proud.