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The Digital Past: Reconstruction and Redemption (Spring 2021)

Course: HIST 390-DL2. Spring 2021. Department of History and Art History, George Mason University. 3 credits. Meets Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:30pm to 2:45pm in Zoom.

Instructor: Lincoln Mullen <>. Office: Research Hall 484. Office hours: By appointment on Zoom. Book an appointment.

Course description

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. The topics we are learning—digital literacy, and the complex of issues around race, politics, and economics tied to the history of Reconstruction—are now more than ever vital to understanding and participating in American democracy.

Learning goals

In this course you will

  • learn the history of American Reconstruction,
  • create historical scholarship using digital tools and resources,
  • publish historical scholarship on the web, and
  • develop your digital literacies.

You will also learn the IT competencies from the Mason Core:

  1. Students will understand the principles of information storage, exchange, security, and privacy and be aware of related ethical issues.
  2. Students will become critical consumers of digital information; they will be capable of selecting and evaluating appropriate, relevant, and trustworthy sources of information.
  3. Students can use appropriate information and computing technologies to organize and analyze information and use it to guide decision-making.
  4. Students will be able to choose and apply appropriate algorithmic methods to solve a problem.

Essential information

For spring semester 2021, this class will be taught online. Of course, given ongoing developments of the pandemic and the possibility of COVID-19 exposure, we will all have to remain flexible. In addition to following all GMU policies about COVID-19, I ask that you communicate with me if you will be absent from class or if you will turn in an assignment late. Likewise, please check for emails and other messages from me in case there are ever any developments that affect our class. By working together, we will make this a semester where you stay safe and learn a great deal about information technology and the history of Reconstruction.

The Zoom connection information is available on Blackboard.

This class will include a combination of lecture, discussion, and in-class and out-of-class assignments. Doing the reading is absolutely essential. Attend class having read any assigned material and completed any out-of-class assignments, and be prepared to discuss both. You must have a copy of the texts assigned for each day available to you during class (electronic copies are fine, of course).

To facilitate our class, communication for this course will happen in our Slack group. Please sign up and join the #digital-past-2021 channel. Read this getting started guide if you need help.

Before the start of class each week, I will send you a message about what to expect. This will help guide your participation in class each week. Please read it carefully and note any actions you should take.

You are always welcome to talk with me during office hours. To do so, please book an appointment. If the scheduled times don’t work for you, email me and suggest a few other times that would work for you.

Required readings. Only one book is required. All other readings will be available on Blackboard or through the GMU libraries.

  • Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. Updated edition. Harper Collins, 2015. ISBN: 978-0062370860.

You will also need to sign up for a year’s hosting with Reclaim Hosting. Do the cheapest option, the “Personal Plan.” We will go over this in class, and you do not need to set this up until I explain it.


Grades will be based on the following assignments. Final grades will be calculated using the typical percentage-based grading scale (A = 93–100, A- = 90–92, B+ = 88–89, B = 83–87, B- = 80–82, … F = 0–59).

Turn in all assignments on Blackboard. In the box for the assignment text, include the URL to your assignment or blog post. This URL must be public. You should test the URL with a browser that is not logged in.

In this class you will create a number of smaller projects on the history of Reconstruction. Each of these projects will demonstrate a specific skill that you learned in class. These assignments are deliberately smaller scale and build on one another so that you can develop your digital literacy over time, rather than being obligated to one or two high stakes assignments. You will also write blog posts on various subjects.

Blog posts and skills assignments (12 @ 5% each = 60%). Each Thursday you will be assigned either to write a blog post or to undertake a skills-based digital assignment. All assignments or blog posts given on Thursday are due before the start of class on Tuesday. Except for the Omeka assignments, embed these in a page or post on your WordPress website. If asked to write a blog post, it should be approximately three hundred words long, using full sentences, paragraphs with topic sentences, and images or other illustrations as appropriate. (Update 1 April 2021: One of these assignments is waived.)

Quizzes (10%). Any class may (and likely will) include a brief quiz over the assigned readings.

Midterm exam (10%). There will be a mid-term examination covering both the historical and the information technology aspects of this class.

Final exam (10%). There will be a final examination covering both the historical and the information technology aspects of this class.

Participation (10%). In addition to participating in class discussions, specific opportunities for participating in class (in person or online) will be explained prior to class sessions. These will sometimes include smaller group discussions through breakout rooms in Slack and Zoom.


Tues. Jan. 26. Introduction.

In class:

Before the next class: Sign up for web hosting at Reclaim Hosting. Think carefully about your domain name, and find one that has application beyond this class.

Thurs. Jan. 28. What is digital history?


In class:

Assignment: Write a blog post reviewing one of the following digital history projects. What topic, period, and place of history do they cover? What arguments or interpretations do they make? What is the audience for the site? What sources are they based on? Who created them, and who did what work? Who funded them? What technologies do they use? Include screenshots of important parts of the website. Be sure to cite the project according to the Chicago Manual of Style conventions.

Tues. Feb 2. Overview of Reconstruction.


In class:

Thurs. Feb. 4. Finding secondary sources / history of the Internet.


In class:

Assignment: Using the library catalog, JSTOR, and other library resources, find a book on Reconstruction history and a journal article on Reconstruction history. If you can get access to a physical book, that’s great, but if not then find an e-book. Access the book through the library. Write a blog post with correct citation information for the book and journal article you found according to the Chicago Manual of Style. In a paragraph each, summarize their argument. (You can do this by reading the introduction and conclusion.) Add the items to your Zotero library. Include a link to your public Zotero library including those items in your blog post.

Tues. Feb. 9. Wartime reconstruction.


In class:

Thurs. Feb. 11. Finding primary sources.


In class:

Assignment: Find five primary sources, from at least two different collections. You are welcome, even encouraged, to look for sources mentioned in the textbook. Add your sources to Zotero, and include a link a collection in Zotero. Write a blog post that cites the items using correct Chicago citations, and indicate which database they came from. Briefly summarize each of the sources. What did you learn from reading these sources? What did you learn about looking for sources and the reliability of sources found online?

Tues. Feb. 16. Early Reconstruction. Timelines.


In class:

  • Timeline.js. Make sure you have a Google account before coming to class.

In-class assignment: Working with a small group, create a timeline of events in Reconstruction. The timeline should include approximately 12 events. Each event should include an accurate date, a sentence of description, and an image if possible. While of course you won’t cover the entire history of Reconstruction in 12 events, pick some kind of theme (e.g., black representation in Congress, political violence, occupation, Greater Reconstruction, and so on). Embed your timeline in a blog post and submit it; of course, everyone in your group will submit the same timeline.


In class:

Assignment: Using the primary sources that you gathered earlier, or other sources that you have found, create an Omeka collection with three to five Omeka items. Each item must be fully described in the metadata, though you do not necessarily have to use every Dublin Core field. Be sure to include a reference to the place you found the source in the appropriate field, and a copyright statement as appropriate.

Tues. Feb. 23. Freedom and Emancipation.


Thurs. Feb 25. Omeka exhibits.


In class:

  • Creating exhibits in Omeka.

Assignment: Create a coherent Omeka exhibit that tells a story about some aspect of Reconstruction. You may draw on other people’s items, but be sure not to modify any but your own. The exhibit should include a minimum of five items, each with metadata and in most cases with images. Link these items together with prose. You are practicing not just the technology behind Omeka, but the craft of writing for the web.

Tues. Mar. 2. Free labor.


In class: Discussing your exhibits.

Thurs. Mar. 4. Databases.

Before class: Sign up for a free account on Airtable.


In class: Working with no more than four people in a group, create a database that digitizes elements from the Freedmen’s Bureau. Decide on the schema of the database, i.e., which tables will hold which content. Enter a few items each to make sure that your database model actually fits the data. Have the structure of your database complete by next Thursday for review in class. Be prepared to talk in class about the decisions that you made.

Tues. Mar. 9. Presidential Reconstruction.


  • Foner, ch. 5 (“The Failure of Presidential Reconstruction”).

Thurs. Mar 11. Radical Reconstruction. Databases continued.


  • Foner, ch. 6 (“The Making of Radical Reconstruction”).

In class: Working on database assignment.

Assignment: Working in your group of no more than four people, finalize your database model. Each person should contribute at least fifteen records (i.e. rows) to the database. Make sure that each person’s contributions are marked in a column. Each person should write his or her own blog post, including a link to the publicly available database. The post should explain the decisions you made in normalizing the data. Submit the link to your blog post to Blackboard.

Tues. Mar. 16. Midterm examination.

Exam to be given online. Details to be announced.

Thurs. Mar 18. Georeferencing.

Before class:


In class:

Assignment: Georeference your historical map. Link to your georectified map in a blog post, and write a brief post explaining what you learned from the map and how georeferencing maps might be useful for understanding Reconstruction. Be sure to include a link back to the David Rumsey Map Collection.

Tues. Mar. 23. Southern politics.


Thurs. Mar 25. Mapping.

Before class:


Assignment: Using sources you have already gathered, create a narrative map of Reconstruction using StoryMap.js. The map should clearly communicate its subject and develop as a narrative across space. Embed the map in a blog post, and write about what you learned from making the map and the map itself.

Tues. Mar. 30. Economics of Reconstruction.


Thurs. Apr. 1. Text mining.

Before class: Experiment with either Google Books or Bookworm.


In class:

Assignment: Write a blog post about what you learned using text analysis tools. You should include screenshots of visualizations from at least two visualization tools. You can use Google Books as we did in class, or you can use one of the others linked on the syllabus. Search for key terms in the history of Reconstruction of slavery. Embed these visualizations in a blog post. What did you learn from this distant reading of texts? What does this approach reveal that other methods do not? (Update 1 April 2021: This assignment has been waived.)

Tues. Apr. 6. Enforcing Reconstruction. Black political conventions.


Thurs. Apr. 8. Visualization.

Before class: Create a free account at Tableau Public.


In class:

Assignment: Using the datasets provided, create one visualization. What did your visualizations show you that you didn’t see before? What kinds of literacy do your visualizations require? Embed the visualizations in a blog post where you briefly answer these questions.

Tues. Apr. 13. Reconstruction in the North.


  • Foner, ch. 10 (“The Reconstruction of the North”).
  • William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers, “The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,” American Historical Review 108, no. 5 (December 1, 2003): 1299–1307, doi:10.1086/587017.

Thurs. Apr. 15. Sustainability, ethics, security.


In class:

Assignment: Pick one of the following two topics and write a blog post in answer to these questions. Topic 1: How sustainable is the digital work that you have done in this course. What would it take to sustain each of the assignments that you have completed? Which of the assignments are you able to export from the web services where you created them? Topic 2: How secure is your digital life? Who has access to your information? What kinds of things might hackers, corporations, or states be able to figure out about you from that information?

Tues. Apr. 20. Economics of Reconstruction.


Before the next class: Sign up for a free account at Observable.

Thurs. Apr. 22. Programming, machine learning, and algorithms.


In class: Programming in JavaScript.

Tues. Apr. 27. Redemption.


Thurs. Apr. 29. Conclusion.

In class: How Reconstruction has shaped our present.

Tuesday, May 4: Final exam, 1:30pm–4:15pm

Exam to be given online. Details to be announced.

Fine print

This syllabus may be updated online as necessary. The online version of this syllabus is the only authoritative version.

Follow the GMU COVID-19 safety protocols at all times.

You are expected to attend each class and to participate actively (exceptions made only for health reasons, religious holidays, and other university-approved excuses). Whether or not students attend class consistently is the best indicator of how well they will do in the class.

As a courtesy to you to help you with the online or hybrid format of the course, I will share my slides and recordings of our Zoom sessions for the most recent class periods. These are intended to supplement, not replace, attendance in class. By accessing these materials, you agree not to distribute them to anyone outside the course.

Computers, phones, and the like are to be used only for course work while class is in session. Grades may be reduced due to repeated absences. Complete all the readings before the start of each class. No unexcused late work will be accepted. No work will be accepted after the last day of class unless specifically assigned. I will discuss grades only in conversation during office hours, not over email.

Class communications will be sent to your GMU email account, which you must check. You should also check the course Slack group regularly, and be logged into it during class if you are not in the classroom in-person.

Unless otherwise specified, you should work on your own for assignments. In general, every source that you use should be acknowledged in a note or bibliography entry. Sources must be adequately paraphrased, meaning (at a minimum) that word choice, sentence and paragraph structure, and the order of ideas must be made your own. Whenever you use others’ exact words, you must mark them as such by quotation marks or block quotations with accompanying citations. Plagiarism consists of presenting the writing, research, or analysis of others as one’s own. It applies not only to using the text of another author’s work verbatim without quotation marks and accurate citations but also to the taking of specific information, analysis or opinions—even if not in the exact words of the author—and presenting them without citation in one’s own paper. Any instance of plagiarism will result in, at minimum, the student receiving a grade of 0 on this paper, and the student will not be given the opportunity to rewrite the paper.

George Mason University has an Honor Code, which requires all members of this community to maintain the highest standards of academic honesty and integrity. Cheating, plagiarism, lying, and stealing are all prohibited. All violations of the Honor Code will be reported to the Honor Committee.

See the George Mason University catalog for general policies, as well as the university statement on diversity.

If you are a student with a disability and you need academic accommodations, please see me and contact the Office of Disability Resources at 703-993-2474. All academic accommodations must be arranged through that office.

Students are responsible for verifying their enrollment in this class. Schedule adjustments should be made by the deadlines published in the Schedule of Classes. (Deadlines each semester are published in the Schedule of Classes available from the Registrar’s website.)

HIST 390 is taught by many people at George Mason, and I have borrowed assignments, readings, and the structure of the course from syllabi by Erin Bush, Dan Cohen, Amanda French, Mills Kelly, Sharon Leon, Mike O’Malley, Abby Mullen, and Stephen Robertson.