Slippery Rock State College mainframe, c. 1972 (from SRU Digital Collections)
 Slippery Rock State College mainframe, c. 1972-1975. Image from SRU Archives Digital Photograph Collections

Instructor Info

Dr. Aaron Cowan
Slippery Rock University
Phone: 724.264.5844 (text or call)
Office hours: MW 1:30-3:00 pm, Th 9-11 am, or by appointment. Office hours available in person or via Zoom

Course Description

This course will examine the rapidly-evolving field of digital history – the use of computer technologies to research and interpret the past, and also to present the past in potentially innovative ways. We will explore how digital tools readily intersect with the practice of history, and how these tools are changing the way we understand our discipline.

Learning Goals

  • Become familiar with the potential of digital technologies for the study and interpretation of the past, as well as some of the liabilities and limitations of these technologies
  • Practice skills such as web publishing, data visualization, geospatial mapping, text mining, digitization, and digital exhibit construction
  • Consider ethical questions and problems regarding the practice of digital humanities
  • Develop greater confidence in using digital technologies to understand and share the past

Readings and Required Software

All of the software and reading materials we will use in this course are free and open-source. However, you are required to purchase hosting service via Reclaim Hosting  – they offer a very reasonable individual rate of $45.  Please don’t do this ahead of time, as we will walk through the steps in class during Week 1.

We will be reading a wide variety of articles, blog posts, podcasts, and other digital texts, and will also return several times to these core texts:

Class Policies

Attendance Student participation is an essential component of this class; attendance will be taken every class meeting. See Grading for discussion of how poor attendance can impact your grade. Should extended illness or other extenuating circumstances arise, please contact me as soon as possible.

Classroom Etiquette Please be courteous to classmates. During discussion, respect one another’s ideas and maintain a courteous, professional tone. Keep technology usage focused on the goals and activities of the course.

Communication NOTE: Please check your SRU email regularly, or set it up to forward mail to your preferred account. Important messages about class will be sent to your email. I welcome student emails and try to reply promptly; please allow up to 24 hours for a response.

COVID-19 Protocols Slippery Rock University requires that all students, faculty, staff, and visitors are required to wear a face covering inside all University buildings, regardless of vaccination status. Wearing a mask consistently and properly is one of the best ways to slow the spread of COVID-19 and insure that we continue to be able to meet in-person.  If you have further questions, please refer to the SRU Student COVID-19 Resource webpage. The masking requirement will be strictly enforced in our in-person meetings

Correct Pronouns, Names, and Inclusion In order to create a space where all students are respected and included, I welcome and expect all students to use the correct name and pronouns of their classmates. I will do my best to respect and use the language you use to refer to yourself. Please inform me if my documentation reflects a name or set of pronouns different from what you use, and if you have any questions or concerns, please contact me.

Disabilities To receive classroom accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you must be assessed by SRU’s Office of Disability Services. If you have done so already, please schedule a meeting with me during the first week of class to discuss any necessary accommodations.

Title IX Obligation Slippery Rock University and its faculty are committed to assuring a safe and productive educational environment for all students. In order to meet this commitment and to comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and guidance from the Office for Civil Rights, the University requires faculty members to report incidents of sexual violence shared by students to the University’s Title IX Coordinator. The only exceptions to the faculty member’s reporting obligation are when incidents of sexual violence are communicated by a student during a classroom discussion, in a writing assignment for a class, or as part of a University-approved research project. Faculty members are obligated to report sexual violence or any other abuse of a student who was, or is, a child (a person under 18 years of age) when the abuse allegedly occurred to the person designated in the University protection of minors policy. Information regarding the reporting of sexual violence and the resources that are available to victims of sexual violence is set forth at:


Your assignments for this course are designed to assess your understanding of the theory of digital history as well as your mastery of basic technical skills of doing digital history. See the Grading section below for how these will be assessed.

Hypothesis Annotations Each week (usually on Tuesdays) we will have readings focused on the topic for the week, which we’ll discuss as a class. We’ll mark up these texts together as we read, using the collaborative annotation tool Hypothesis.  Further instructions here.

Practicum Assignments Throughout the semester, we will be exploring various tools and methods for digital history work, and in many weeks you will be asked to do a practicum assignment demonstrating these tools, and post it to your blog. Specific instructions for these are found on the page for each week.

Blog Posts You will also write 10 blog posts reflecting on the topics of the week, your growth and learning, or your personal digital project. Specific prompts or instructions will be given each week.

Digital History Project Over the course of the semester, you will develop a digital history project that uses the tools and skills we have explored in class. Further instructions will be distributed during Week 2.

Final Learning Reflections For the final exam, you’ll be asked to write reflectively about your learning, the work you’ve invested in the course, and what you will take with you moving forward.


This course uses a form of grading called contract grading. There are no points or letter grades in this course, aside from the final letter grade you earn at the end.
Of course, the university requires me to enter a final grade for you at the end of the course, and this will be determined by the criteria below (see handy table at the end for quick reference):

To Pass

I expect you to attend class regularly (no more than 4 absences for the semester), submit a Final Reflection that honestly evaluates your learning, and complete at least 70% of the other assigned work (blog posts, practicum assignments, etc.). You should also participate in class discussions at least a few times in the semester. You are not required to complete the final digital history project.

To Earn a B

You will earn a B in the class if you complete all of the work in the class (including the reading) in a timely manner and with thoughtfulness, sincere effort, and attention to detail: this means reading your texts closely and annotating more than 50% of them using Hypothesis, completing all blog posts, participating in discussion regularly, completing the practicum assignments to the very best of your ability, and completing a final digital history project that meets the specifications. To earn a B, I expect you to come to class regularly (not missing more than 4 classes in a semester) and to be fully present and engaged in class.

To Earn an A

You will earn an A in the class if you do all of what is required for a B and show excellence in your work. To earn an A, I ask that you put extra effort into your learning process and stretch yourself intellectually. Some features I look for in A work include:

  • Strong critical thinking, including the ability to understand and respond to other views
  • Persistence in problem solving and pursuit of an idea
  • Writing that shows critical reading, careful rereading, and original thought
  • Expressing ideas that are uniquely your own, not just repeated from the readings or class discussions
  • Taking risks and showing creativity in your learning (trying a new technique or a more challenging approach)
Learning ActivityCBA
Hypothesis AnnotationsNot required50% of weeksAll weeks, at level 2 or higher
Small Assignments/Blog Posts6/88/88/8
Class Discussion ParticipationA few timesRegularlyRegularly, at a high level
Final ProjectNot requiredMeets standardsMeets or exceeds standards
Final Learning ReflectionYesYesYes
Why Contract Grading?

Traditional grading systems encourage you to work for “points,” as if learning were a game whose goal was to get a certain grade. And, inevitably, the grade – not the learning – becomes the ultimate focal point. Contract grading redirects your focus on the process of learning, not your grade.

Furthermore, in a class like this that focuses on the process of developing entirely new skills and practices, it makes little sense to evaluate based on a “final product.”
If at any time you’d like to discuss how your academic work is measuring up to these standards, please come visit my office and I’d be glad to discuss it with you. Your mid-term reflection (and my feedback) will also provide an opportunity for you to assess your own learning and growth.

Additional Notes
  • Assignments must meet the specifications to count as complete; if an assignment does not meet specifications, students will be given 7 days to revise and resubmit.
  • Regarding attendance: obviously learning in the midst of a pandemic can create exigencies that make your attendance in class impossible. Should such circumstances arise, please contact me so we can discuss this.
  • In order to achieve a grade level, all the criteria in a given column must be met. For example, if a student submits the research project, but only submitted 3 analytical essays, they cannot earn the B.
  • All assignments must be submitted on time; if you are unable to complete an assignment as thoroughly as you’d like by the due date, submit it and you may revise it after receiving feedback.
  • Students failing to meet the criteria for “C” will generally receive a D; Fs will typically only be earned in cases in which students stop participating in the course and do not withdraw.

[1] In case of extreme illness, emergencies, or mandated COVID-19 protocols, these may be flexible. Please contact me should such a situation arise.

“Our vision of history is amplified by the digital world, the profusion of evidence all around us enabling exploration and encouraging new forms of interpretation.”

Historian Ed Ayers, “Teaching History in Pandemic Times