Coming Up with Guidelines for Student Interpretive Digital History Projects

It’s been a great quarter teaching Digitizing Folk Music History: The Berkeley Folk Festival for the first time. Students are in the home stretch developing their interpretive digital history projects based on the archival holdings of the Berkeley Folk Festival, which is housed at Northwestern’s Special Collections Library.

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One challenge in the course has been coming up with reasonable but challenging expectations for the final interpretive digital history project that students must complete.

Because this is a history class, first, and not a digital media training course, I have tried to foreground the historical component. As I wrote to students, “I want all of you to pursue digital design and inquiry elements within the context of your historical research, not in place of historical research.

One day perhaps this seminar will be part of a more developed interdisciplinary curriculum that includes digital media training, archival studies coursework, and other relevant classes to give students the opportunity to acquire a richer set of experiences, knowledge, and skills. But for now the challenge is for students to think boldly about the digital as an extension of existing historical practices (which I would summarize as thinking about primary sources, putting them in conversation with relevant secondary literatures, and developing compelling interpretations grounded in this evidence and these conversations).

Below is what I wrote to students, along with the guidelines for the final project. Students will publish an interpretive digital history project and a final, analytic essay.

Thoughts? Critiques? Suggestions? Ideas? I’ll be teaching this course again so I welcome your input.


Hi Folkniks:

As you head into the home stretch, I thought it would be useful to remind you to look at the guidelines for the final interpretive digital history project and essay.

Remember that your goal here is this: to produce high-level, clear, compelling historical findings grounded in your development of an interpretation that is based on primary sources and is in conversation with the existing relevant historical literature. We are thinking about the digital as a way to pursue this historical quest.

Many of you are ready to “go for it” on a full-on digital dimension. In which case, go for it! But make sure you are doing so in the context of the above paragraph. Ask yourself: how is your digital dimension related to quality historical inquiry?

For others, to remind you, for the purposes of this class you can propose bold digital designs and methods, but you need only attempt to implement some achievable portion of your bolder plan for now. If your final project is mostly “web 1.0″ text and images with a proposal for more advanced digital exploration and you demonstrate an attempt at some kind of partial implementation, that is perfectly acceptable. So long as you display substantive, compelling historical inquiry any accomplished digital dimensions may well wind up as as just a component of your project.

In sum, I want all of you to pursue digital design and inquiry elements within the context of your historical research, not in place of historical research.

Guidelines/Rubric: Digital Project and Final Essay

Interpretive Digital History Project. 30% of final grade. Due 6/8.


Your final digital project must develop a convincing and compelling interpretation grounded in, but not necessarily exclusively focused on, materials in the Berkeley Folk Festival archive. A successful project will address specific arguments in the existing historiography of the American folk music revival and related topics based on the secondary materials we have explored. It will do so by demonstrating how new primary evidence relates to this extant literature. The project will also explore inventive and creative uses of digital technologies, tools, designs, and capabilities to further the interpretive stakes of the project. At minimum, the project will do so in theory, but all projects must show evidence of at least an attempt at implementation of digital dimensions to the research project.


1. Interpretation 25%

·      What is the interpretation?

·      Is the interpretation clearly, precisely, and evocatively conveyed?

2. Use of evidence 25%

·      Is the evidence from the Berkeley Folk Festival archive linked to the interpretation effectively and precisely?

·      Does the project deepen a reader’s understanding of the evidence from the archive?

·      Does the project effectively draw upon additional primary sources?

3. Use of secondary material 25%

·      Does the project effectively and compellingly link its interpretation and evidence to secondary materials?

·      Does it explain existing interpretations cogently?

·      Does it demonstrate clearly what is important about its intervention in the existing questions, debates, and dilemmas of scholarly understanding?

4. Use of the digital 25%

·      Does the project make innovative use of digital tools, capacities, technologies, and design to communicate its interpretation?

·      Does it do so conceptually?

·      Was the project able to implement this technology effectively?

NOTE: Citations and Bibliographic Requirements

Your digital project should include an integration or section that lists credits and citations. These should include secondary sources (authors, titles, publications, dates) and any photographic credits you can locate. You may use Chicago Manual of Style as a rough guide for citation formats, but use common sense as well. Your task is to give your reader access to the sources you made use of in a clear and concise way and to credit ideas and materials you draw upon.


FINAL ESSAY. 20% of final grade. Due 6/8.


Your final analytic essay should be 5-6 pages, double-spaced, 12-point font size, standard margins. It should consist of a “hook” introduction (a vignette or brief explanation to grab a reader’s attention) followed by a fully-developed thesis statement. Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence, and link its evidence precisely to the claims or subpoints being made. Paragraphs should end with a transition sentence that leads clearly to the next paragraph. Your essay should end with a conclusion that summarizes and effectively extends the argument put forward. It should include citations and a bibliography (Chicago Manual of Style preferred).

The essay should contain compelling explanations of:

·      What the interpretation in your digital history project is.

·      What primary evidence you draw upon from the Berkeley Folk Festival and elsewhere.

·      How that evidence links to your interpretation.

·      Why your interpretation is significant in relation to the larger relevant secondary literature.

·      How your use of the digital offered deeper insights into the historical materials, interpretation, and secondary literature.


1. Interpretation 30%

·      Is the interpretation compelling and convincing?

2. Use of evidence 15%

·      Does the essay draw upon relevant evidence from the Berkeley Folk Festival archive?

·      Does the essay draw effectively upon evidence from elsewhere?

·      Does the essay show how this evidence relates to its interpretation effectively?

3. Use of secondary literature 15%

·      Does the essay make a convincing and precisely articulated intervention in the existing secondary literature on a specific aspect of the folk music revival or related topic?

4. Connections to the Digital 15%

·      Does the essay explain its use of digital tools, technology, design, or capabilities effectively?

·      Does the essay show how its use of the digital effectively probes the evidence?

·      Does the essay show how its use of the digital deepens its interpretation?

5. Communication 25%

·      Does the essay clearly and precisely explain its thesis, using vivid and accurate language?

·      Does the essay convincingly link evidence to interpretation?

·      Does the essay compellingly and precisely show how its interpretation relates to the existing secondary literature?

·      Does the essay compellingly explain its use of the digital in relation to the evidence, interpretation, and secondary literature?

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