Teaching the teachers

During the winter semester of 2018 our Doctoral Training Unit on Digital History and Hermeneutics decided to introduce digital history to the first-year master students. We divided and conquered each lesson in pairs or groups of three PhD researchers, coordinated by Postdoc researcher Tim Van Der Heijden.

Preparing classes

Armed with the structure and experience from the previous teacher and fellow PhD researcher Max Kemman we discussed general content as a team and each took on two or three lessons to share the workload. For example, I took on the theoretical lesson on Publishing for the Web, and two practical sessions focussed on the When?-question, including Timelines and Databases, and Queries and Data Visualisation. In order to create a uniform structure for the students even with twelve different teachers, I first transformed the Hillary Clinton-emails from a spreadsheet to a relational database together with my colleague Shohreh Haddaddan for the practical sessions.[1]

Preparing Writing for the Webwas relatively straightforward with my colleague Marleen de Kramer, since we set our goal together and then divided the session into what (to publish on the web) and how (to set up a website). We provided the students optional readings and a mandatory HTML-module on codecademy so they could learn the basics on their own before class. We prepared group brainstorms to determine the goals and audience of the introdigitalhistory.dhlab.lu website.

On the 5th of October we followed a workshop by dr. Robert Reuter organised to prepare us for teaching this course specifically. We were asked to explain what and how we would be teaching, as well as how we would assess the learning and teaching afterwards. Together with Antonio Fiscarelli and Kaarel Sikk we answered these questions for the practical When-sessions. In general we explained concepts in the format of a traditional lecture. Furthermore we introduced practical tools such as database software MariaDB with the Navicat-interface and data visualisation software Tableau in tutorials for the students to follow at their own pace.

Trying to teach

We structured the Writing for the Web-lecture based on questions such as: What should we write? Who are we writing for? How do we write for the web? We also briefly introduced the Hillary Clinton emails and showed the website we created for the course. To determine the goal and audience of the course website students brainstormed in groups of two and together we created a persona. We tested their understanding of web-accessibility in the form of storyboards and wireframes. Students cooperated well in class discussions, but due to time restrictions had some trouble understanding the assignments.

In Timelines and Databaseswe included historical examples of timeline visualisations, and discussed the concept of time based on the article Is Time Historical? in a traditional lecture.[2] We wanted students to understand the link between a primary source and data, as well as the principles of a relational database. Therefore we prepared a step-by-step tutorial for them to create a database from scratch and manually insert data from the first 10 Hillary Clinton emails. Despite screenshots and a step-by-step explanation the students still struggled, although part of the struggle came from fear of the unknown. We also discovered some minor mistakes in the Windows-tutorial and were delayed by students who didn’t or couldn’t install the software beforehand.

For Queries and Data Visualisation we transformed research questions into SQL queries and discussed best-practices in data visualisation by criticising bad examples and introducing Edward Tuftes principles. The query-walkthrough also recapped the previous dataset structure and students started to better understand the dataset assignment. We were still short on time in class. Fortunately, the Tableau tutorial was much easier and most of the students finished quickly. We interpreted the timeline visualisation they created together at the end of class and gave them a month to repeat the exercise and reflect on their timelines in a blogpost.

Evaluating assignments

The storyboards depicted scenarios of use focussed on web accessibility and tested the student’s understanding of the course, as well as their creativity in problem solving. With a few minor exceptions, we were positively surprised by their first assignment. As for the wireframes we noticed that we should have provided clearer guidelines on web design, but we hope the feedback was useful.

Despite initial protest about the database assignment nearly all students scored very high, partially because evaluating a database is generally easier and more objective. For next year we do need more time to properly explain relational databases and the context and structure of the Hillary Clinton emails in particular. A separate session would furthermore ease the workload and give the students a little more time to build the database.

The timeline blogposts were challenging to grade even though we set out clear criteria from the start. This assignment sparked a serious discussion on bibliographic referencing in blogposts. We generally expected students to reference literature and emails either by including hyperlinks or adding a bibliography, but should have specified the format beforehand. Overall we were impressed by their historical analysis of events in their timelines of the Hillary Clinton emails.

[1] The procedure and code used to scrape and clean the Clinton emails can be found here: https://github.com/C2DH/A-Republic-of-Emails. We built a relational dataset by reformatting and cleaning the data from the spreadsheets using Python.

[2] Hunt, L., (2007). “Is Time Historical?” in Measuring time, making history. Budapest; New York: Central European University Press.