Syllabus—Approaching Digital History

spring 2014 @ northwestern university.


How are digital technologies altering the study of history? What are the new possibilities for digital history? What are the new problems? In this seminar, we will explore new methods, theories, and practices of digital history. Students will probe the field through readings, seminar discussions, and online blogging. We will also learn through doing by working both individually and collectively on a set of digital history projects. No computer programming skills are prerequisites for this course, just an eagerness to dive in and explore where the digital and the historical meet. Students will be evaluated based on robust participation in course meetings and online blog, completion of reading assignments, three major blog assignments, additional smaller assignments, and a larger final project that applies digital history methods to a historical topic of interest for each student (this can be a research project or topic of curiosity for undergraduates, an analysis of existing digital history projects and approaches, or, for graduate students, a project that centers on preparation for comprehensive exams or, perhaps most productively, becomes a digital historical component of dissertation research. This course is open to both graduate and undergraduate students.

Course Info

History 393-0-31 (38107)

Tuesday and Thursday, 3:30-4:50pm

University Hall 112


Dr. Michael J. Kramer

Visiting Assistant Professor, History and American Studies

Co-Director, Northwestern University Digital Humanities Laboratory (

Contact: <>

Office hours: Thursday, 2-3pm, Harris Hall 212.


WEEK 1                           
Tu 4/1Introduction: What Is Digital History?
Th 4/3Digital History at the Cutting Edge: Case Study 1
  • Ben Schmidt, “Reading digital sources: a case study in ship’s logs,” and other posts, starting with “Data narratives and structural histories: Melville, Maury, and American whaling,” Sapping Attention, 15 November 2012,
Mo 4/7Blog post 


What is your experience of digital technologies? If you could develop a digital history project in this course, either reviewing existing works or pursuing your own independent research (in connection with research in another course or as a stand-alone project), what would you be interested in doing? Write a short, informal post of roughly 300-500 words and post on our “Spring 2014” website.

Tu 4/8Digital History Methodology Debates 1: Overviews
Th 4/10Digital History Methodology Debates 2: The Hermeneutics of Data
Mon 4/14Assignment #1 due, upload to Class Blog by 11:59pm.Write a 500-1000 word review of Ben Schmidt’s digital history project on whaling logs in the 19th century. What is Schmidt’s argument? What is his evidence? What is his method? To whom (what other scholars and thinkers) is he directing the project and how does he communicate his position to them (you might draw upon the methodological overview readings we have done thus far)? First, explain in your own words what Schmidt does in the project. Then, be sure to take your reader through what you take to be the key sections in Schmidt’s blog posts (what materials? Quote or paraphrase them and cite them)? Finally, develop a critique: what is convincing to you and why? What troubles you about the project and why? Be sure to include an opening introductory paragraph that culminates in a fully developed thesis statement. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence and transitions to the next paragraph. Your final paragraph should be a conclusion that reiterates your thesis in a new way and adds a final “punch” to your review. Refer to the guidelines on writing your blog post for rubric and more information.
Tu 4/15Digital History Methodology Debates 3: It’s All About the Stuff?
Th 4/17Digital History at the Cutting Edge: Case Study 2


Mo 4/21Blog post 

Student presentation preview rough draft. What is it that you wish for us to explore at your student presentation session? Write a short, informal post of roughly 300-500 words and post on our “Spring 2014” website. Include an overview of the questions about which you are curious, your description of the project or problem or topic you wish to address, citations, things you want us to look at, etc.

Tu 4/22Digital History Methodology Debates 4: Time and Space, Narrative and Database
Th 4/24Digital History at the Cutting Edge: Case Study 3
  • Richard White, “Shaping the West”
  • Richard White, Excerpts from Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: WW Norton, 2011), available on e-reserves
Mon 4/28Assignment #2 due, upload to Class Blog by 11:59pm.

Develop a 1000 word review that compares Richard White’s digital project “Shaping the West” to the excerpts from his book, Railroaded. Use specific examples from each to develop an argument about the possibilities and problems of digital history. What is different about each presentation? Where do they intersect? What do you take to be the “argument” being made in the book and in the digital project? Are they similar, different? Does one make more of an argument than the other? If so why or why not? How does White present his “data,” evidence, and interpretation in each case? Refer to the guidelines on writing your blog post for rubric and more information.

Tu 4/29No Class: Time for preparing presentations
Th 5/1Student selected topic
Tu 5/6Student selected topic
Th 5/8Student selected topic
Tu 5/13Student selected topic
Th 5/15Student selected topic
Tu 5/20Student selected topic
Th 5/22Student selected topic
Mon 5/26Assignment #3 due, upload to Class Blog by 11:59pm.

Develop a 500-100 word review of a digital history project, post, tool, or essay of your choice. Refer to the guidelines on writing your blog post for rubric and more information.

Tu 5/27No Class: research time
Th 5/29Wrap Up: Digital History Problems and Possibilities
FINAL Fri 6/13Assignment #4 due, upload to Class Blog by 11:59pm.

Your final assignment should be a longer, 1500-2000 word exploration of a topic of your choice. It can be a multimedia essay or a more conventional text-based essay. You might focus on one of the following topics: (1) a digital project related to original research on a historical topic (or connected to an essay you are working on in another history course; (2) an extended review and assessment of a set of digital history tools, projects, essays, or posts; (3) an exploration of a particular theme in the emergent field of digital history. Refer to the guidelines on writing your blog post for rubric and more information.


Attendance: Students are expected to attend all meetings. If a student misses more than three meetings, the instructor reserves the right to issue a failing grade.

Assignments: Students must complete all assignments to pass the course. The assignments consist of blog posts, three assignments, and a final longer publication, either in a conventional text form or more experimental multimedia format. These are designed to be fun, but they are also demanding—and perhaps for some, frustrating. Please be aware that historical analysis is not a science in the strict sense of the term. There is no purely objective, machine-like way to develop interpretation within the traditions of historical meaning-making. This means there is not some perfectly standardized way to evaluate your work. There is, however, a craft to this mode of thinking, writing, and reasoning. It is improvement of this craft that these assignments and evaluations can help you. Your task is to develop effective and compelling evidence-based arguments informed by historical awareness and thinking. These will often work by applying your judgment and assessment to consider how things connect or contrast to each other:  how do different aspects you are studying relate each other? And most importantly, why?

Rather than test the breadth of your absorption of course materials, the assignments test your ability to wield knowledge of materials in the course (lectures, readings, viewings) in order to mount effective and compelling evidence-based arguments. If this mode of evaluation is not to your tastes, I recommend that you do not take the course.

Your assignments must be well written in order to communicate a convincing, compelling, and precise argument that is driven by our description and analysis of meaning in materials drawn from the course (and other sources if needed). Evaluations are based on the following rubric:

  • (1)  the presence of an articulated and compelling argument (a thesis statement, see number 4 below for more)
  • (2)  the presence of evidence
  • (3)  the compelling and precise connection of evidence to argument by comparing and contrasting details and their significance to the argument of the essay
  • (4)  an effective opening introduction that uses (a) a “hook” to (b) frame a precise and compelling question in order to (c) articulate a thesis statement that addresses the question and characterizes how and why it matters to our understanding of the historical topic at hand
  • (5)  logical flow and grace of prose: the presence of an introduction that ends with a thesis statement (see number 4), clear topic sentences for each paragraph of the essay, the presence of effective transitions from one part of the essay to the next, and a compelling conclusion that restates the thesis in new language and closes with a memorable sense of why the thesis matters to our historical understanding
  • (6)  where applicable, proper citations in footnote or endnote form (your choice) as per Chicago Manual of Style guidelines (

If you have any questions about evaluation in the course geared at helping you access and develop the craft of historical analysis, please speak with the instructor or teaching assistants to discuss further. Assignments that students hand in after the due date without explicit plans for an extension arranged with the instructor and teaching assistant prior to the deadline are deducted three (3) points per day.

Student Selected Topic: Each of you will lead a discussion of a digital history-related topic for half of a seminar meeting (plan on 35 minutes so we can get a little break in the middle). Your task is to develop:

  • (1) a discussion focus: it can be thematically based (e.g., I want to develop a digital historical component to my senior thesis or another research paper, here are ideas and questions I have; or, what kind of digital history is being developed already about the “roaring twenties,” etc.); it can focus on a particular tool or platform (e.g., how are people using “Scalar” as a platform; how are people using certain kinds of “text-mining” tools; timelines; visualization tools; or any other tool or platform you encounter); or it can focus on a methodological issue (e.g., what are the stakes of publishing multimedia history?; what is the history of “cliometrics” and why is it returning, in a sense, through digital history?; what happens to questions of race, gender, class, region, or another category of analysis in the digital framework?).
  • (2) a set of materials for us to examine before your discussion. What’s the “stuff” you want us to investigate to prepare for your discussion?
  • (3) a set of questions you would like us to think about for your discussion. Help guide us toward what you are wondering about or interested in.

History Department Writing Center: The History Department Writing Center is available for students working on your assignments. It is not merely for students having difficulty with their writing (we all have difficulty with our writing for it is difficult to write well). It is for students at any level or stage of the writing process: reading evidence, “brainstorming,” generating an argument, connecting argument to evidence, structuring paragraphs and transitions, and improving style and tone. Students wishing to contact the History Department Writing Center should email

Academic Integrity: All Weinberg College and Northwestern policies concerning plagiarism and academic dishonesty are strictly enforced in this course. The instructor also reserves the right to assign a failing grade for the course if a student is found to have violated college or university policy concerning academic integrity. See for more details.

Special Needs: Students with special needs and disabilities that have been declared and documented through the Northwestern Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) should meet with the instructor to discuss any specific accommodations. For further information, see the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) website:


Participation: 40%

  • General discussion contributions: 10%
  • Blog posts, comments (in addition to assignments): 10%
  • Student-led discussion session: 20%

Assignment 1: 10%

Assignment 2: 15%

Assignment 3: 15%

Final: 20%

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