A knowledge of digital history theories and methods is quickly becoming essential for public historians. More and more, digital history is a required part of the public history graduate curriculum. A panel at the (now-not-so-recent) meeting of the National Council on Public History featured public history students engaged in this new digitally-infused curriculum.
Organized and chaired by our very own Jeremy Boggs, the panel included one student from American University’s M.A. Concentration in Public History, Leah Suhrstedt, and two students from New York University’s M.A. in Archives and Public History program, Adina Langer and Lauren Gutterman. I was lucky to be asked at the last minute to provide a brief comment on what turned out to be three inspiring presentations. Two things stood out in each talk, both of them relatively simple but important insights for faculty and administrators organizing public history courses or programs.
First, it was clear from the students’ experiences that teaching and learning digital history involve good measures of risk and trust on the part of both faculty and students. In teaching something as new, changeable, and diverse as digital history, faculty have to give students freedom to try new things and make mistakes, to challenge traditional modes of work, and experiment with new kinds of knowledge creation and dissemination. At the same time, students have to accept this risk and trust themselves and their potential to engage new technologies and master new skills. To paraphrase Langer’s presentation, “Its about leaving the gate open, about teaching students how to teach themselves.” In fact, this should be a comfortable role for seasoned public history instructors. As Suhrstedt suggested in her presentation, as professionals working in mostly small and underfunded organizations, we have all been asked at some point in our careers to do something for which we were completely unprepared by our graduate training. Public historians are already scholars, public intellectuals, fundraisers, teachers, community activists, therapists, and on and on. Becoming a digital public historian is really just adding another hat to the rack.
Second, teaching digital history is not just about teaching students how to build websites. New modes of publishing and the technologies and programming languages required to mount history on the web are important parts of the digital history curriculum. But teaching students to be digital public historians means teaching them when and how best to use digital technologies in all aspects of public historical work. It’s about teaching new pathways for the entire public historical endeavor, including exhibiting history online, but also how to use digital media for community outreach, fundraising, project management, and even advocacy, something Suhrstedt demonstrated in presenting her work with the National Trust’s social media campaign. Tellingly, Gutterman’s presentation of her work with OutHistory.org was almost exclusively about outreach. The lesson of these projects is that the digital should be taught not just as new mode of dissemination, but a new mode of engagement.
Both of these thoughts have rattled around in my brain for some time, but it was only with the help of Langer, Gutterman, and Suhrstedt that I can put them to paper (or pixels, as is really the case). Fortunately for public history faculty faced with incorporating digital history into their public history curricula, both insights point to digital history not being all that different from traditional public history. Risk, trust, and engagement are all very familiar concepts to veteran public historians, something that should give us confidence in weaving the new digital history more tightly into our programs.