Digital History

History 411

Spring 2021

(note: for Fall 2019 version of this class, click here)

Dr. Aaron Cowan
Slippery Rock University
Phone: 724.738.2409

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

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

Students will:

  • Become familiar with the potential of digital technologies for the study 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
  • Understand core principles and best practices for digital archiving, copyright compliance, and digital scholarship
  • Study ethical debates regarding the practice of digital humanities


The D2L page for the course will only be used to post grades. All other course material will be available on this page.


All of the software we will use in this course is free and open-source. However, you are required to purchase hosting service via Reclaim Hosting  – they offer a very reasonable student rate of $30.  Please don’t do this ahead of time, as we will walk through the steps in class (and I will also give you a discount code at that time!)

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.

Disabilities To receive classroom accommodations under the Americans with
Disabilities Act, you must be assessed by SRU’s Office for Students with Disabilities (phone:
738-4877). If you have done so already, please schedule a meeting with me during the first
week of class to discuss any necessary accommodations.


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.

Reflective Journaling Each week (usually Tuesdays) we will have readings focused on the topic for the week, which we’ll discuss as a class. In the first week of class, I will distribute journals in which I’ll ask you to record “pre” and “post” discussion thoughts about our readings. Guidelines here

Practicum Assignments & Blog Posts 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 demonstration of these tools and post it to your blog. Assignments for these are found on the page for each week. You will also write brief reflective blog posts summarizing the tool, its advantages for historical scholarship, and its possible application to the Poor Farm Project (below).

Butler County Poor Farm Project We will be working with the Genealogy Department of the Butler County Public Library to digitize some records from the Butler County Poor Farm, as well as do some analysis and interpretation of the data in these records.  Further instructions and deadlines are available here.

Mid-Term and Final Learning Reflections At mid-semester and 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.

No grades does not mean “no expectations,” nor does it mean no feedback. I will offer thorough qualitative feedback on assignments and journal writing throughout the semester. 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:

To Pass

I expect you to attend class regularly (no more than 3 absences for the semester)[1], submit a Final Reflection that honestly evaluates your learning, and complete at least 80% of the other assigned work (journals, practicum assignments, etc.). You should also participate in class discussions at least a few times in the semester.

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 completing all journal entries, participating in discussion regularly, and completing the practicum assignments to the very best of your ability. To earn a B, I expect you to come to class regularly (not missing more than 2 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)

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.

[1] Attendance requirements listed here are general ones; obviously in case of extreme emergencies, these may be flexible.

Course Schedule

Week 1 (August 26): Being and Learning in a Digital World

Week 2 (September 2): Origins and Evolution of Digital History

Week 3 (September 9): Challenges and Opportunities for Historical Research

Week 4 (September 16): Content Management and Exhibits

Week 5 (September 23) : Mapping and Geospatial History

Week 6 (September 30): Poor Farm Project: Background and Planning

Week 7 (October 7): Fall Break & Catchup/Synthesis

Week 8 (October 14): Historical Data and Visualization

Week 9 (October 21):  Team Training/Development Sessions

Week 10 (October 28): Building Your Toolbox

Week 11 (November 4): Digital and Public History

Week 12 (November 11): Exhibit Consultations/Transcription Work

Week 13 (November 18): The Sounds of History

Week 14 (November 25): TBA

Week 15 (December 2): Project Wrapup

Notice Regarding Title IX

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:

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