A confirmation of Andrew Goldstone on “Teaching Quantitative Methods”

At his blog, Andrew Goldstone has posted a pre-print of his essay on “Teaching Quantitative Methods: What Makes It Hard (in Literary Studies)” for the forthcoming Debates in DH 2018. It’s a “lessons learned” essay from one of his courses that is well worth reading if you’re teaching or taking that kind of a course in a humanities discipline. This semester I’m teaching my fourth course that fits into that category (fifth, if you count DHSI), and I can co-sign nearly everything that Goldstone writes, having committed many of the same mistakes and learned some of the same lessons. (Except over time I’ve relaxed my *nix-based fundamentalism and repealed my ban on Windows.) Here is a response to Goldstone’s main points.

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Syllabi for spring 2017

This semester I am teaching three courses, two undergraduate and one graduate. “Global History of Christianity” is a new course which Mack Holt, John Turner, and I are team teaching in both history and religious studies. This course was Mack’s idea, and the team teaching this semester is a one-time deal, but I am very glad that it’s been approved for the catalog going forward. “The Digital Past” is taught by a number of people at Mason, but I’ve decided to organize mine around the theme of “Reconstruction and Redemption.” For the graduate students, I’ve taught a version of “Data and Visualization in Digital History” before, but this is the first time that I’m teaching it as one of the required courses in the PhD sequence instead of as an elective.

Here are the syllabi and course descriptions.

Global History of Christianity, syllabus

This course is organized around a comparative examination of the many forms of global Christianity over the past two thousand years. Chronologically, it begins with the ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts of early Christianity and continues through the present. Students will become familiar with many kinds of Christianity across the globe, including Asian, African, Latin American, European, and North American Christianities. In each geographic and chronological contexts, students will explore several themes: use of sacred texts and the experiences of a typical church service, the relationship between Christianity and politics, and cultural aspects such as marriage and sexuality. Students will also consider Christianity as a series of global systems organized around missions, migration, trade, and warfare.

The Digital Past: Reconstruction and Redemption, syllabus

In this class, you will to learn to do history using digital tools. The course—which satisfies the Mason Core IT requirement—teaches the fundamentals of information technology by applying them to practical problems in history. Throughout the semester, you will work individually and with classmates on a series of projects about American history during the period of Reconstruction. You will learn how to do research online, but also how to put those sources in the context of other scholarly work. You will gather data, learn how to question it, analyze it, summarize it, and interpret it. You will create visualizations of datasets, including maps. You will learn how to present visual and textual sources online in web exhibits, and you will learn how to write and publish effectively online. Through learning by doing, you will gain both digital skills and the skills of a historian. This combination will be useful to you throughout your university career and in your future work.

Data and Visualization in Digital History, syllabus

In this methods course you will be introduced to data analysis and visualization for historians. You will learn to work with historical data, including finding, gathering, manipulating, analyzing, visualizing, and arguing from data, with special attention to geospatial, textual, and network data. These methods will be taught primarily through scripting in the R programming language, using other command line tools as appropriate. You will also learn how to present history on the web with HTML and CSS. While historical methods can be applied to many topics and time periods, they cannot be understood separate from how the discipline forms meaningful questions and interpretations, nor divorced from the particularities of the sources and histories of some specific topic. Therefore, in this course we will examine the historiographical tradition to see how historians have used data and visualization to understand the past. And we will work together to apply these methods to a series of datasets in the history of the nineteenth-century United States, with a focus on religion.

Pick the title for my digital history textbook

In my first semester teaching one of my department’s graduate methods courses in digital history, I realized that there was not a lot good material for teaching computer programming and data analysis in R for historians. So I started writing up a series of tutorials for my students, which they said were helpful. It seemed like those materials could be the nucleus of a textbook, so I started writing one with the title Digital History Methods in R.

It was too soon to start writing, though. Besides needing to spend my time on more pressing projects, I didn’t really have a clear conception of how to teach the material. And in the past few years, the landscape for teaching computational history has been transformed. There are many more books available, some specifically aimed at humanists, such as Graham, Milligan, and Weingart’s Exploring Big Historical Data and Arnold and Tilton’s Humanities Data in R, and others aimed at teaching a modern version of R, such as Hadley Wickham’s Advanced R and R for Data Science. The “tidyverse” of R packages has made a consistent approach to data analysis possible, and the set of packages for text analysis in R is now much better. R markdown and bookdown have made writing a technical book about R much easier, and Shiny has made it much easier to demonstrate concepts interactively.

After teaching these courses a few times, I have a clearer conception of what the textbook needs to accomplish and how I want it to look.

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Slack in my classroom

For several semesters now, I’ve used Slack for my graduate courses in digital history. (Here’s a good introduction to Slack for teaching.) Judging by what the students tell me and what they write on the student evaluations, nothing I’ve done as a teacher has been as universally popular. Students appreciate a way to get detailed help from me quickly. Students seem to be less reluctant to ask questions when they can see that other people are asking questions, and when the answer is public for everyone’s benefit. And I can tell from the reports Slack sends that they use Slack to talk to one another.

I like Slack because it encourages an ongoing connection between the students and me during the week. Rather than only hearing from students once or twice a week when the class meets, I have a more or less continuous connection to them, at least to the extent that they choose. Slack has cut student e-mails in those courses to virtually nil. It’s very helpful for me to have a single place to go to communicate with students, and where I can easily turn a query directed only at me into a general lesson for the entire group. For technical questions, it is far easier to give explanations with code blocks and screenshots. It’s also really nice to see students help one another figure out difficult assignments.

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Some Thoughts on Digital Dissertations at Mason

The Department of History and Art History at George Mason University has recently approved guidelines for digital dissertations. While PhD students at several universities have already produced digital dissertations in the humanities, to my knowledge these are the first guidelines for born-digital dissertations created at the departmental level. The guidelines take a broad view of what producing a digital dissertation might entail. The primary author of the guidelines was my colleague Sharon Leon, who has written a post about how she put the guidelines together. These guidelines open a lot of room for graduate students to determine the form of their dissertations, while also providing some concrete guidance about the essential elements. I hope the guidelines clear the way for graduate students in our department to create the kinds of dissertations that they want. Graduate students should have room to be intellectual pioneers without having to always be institutional pioneers as well.

There are three things that I want to say about these guidelines.

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