Histoire publique

Teaching Digital Public History: taking future historians outside the Ivory Tower

Teaching Digital Public History: taking future historians outside the Ivory Tower
Members of the C²DH are preparing a course in Digital Public History for Bachelor students at the University of Luxembourg and they reflect on ways to get them involved with the topic.

Until 2017 the Bachelor in History of the University of Luxembourg has never offered a course on Digital or Public History and it appears that most of the programmes around the world related to either Digital or Public History are often designed for postgraduate students. The launch of the new Center for Contemporary and Digital History at the University brought together some new synergies and the authors of this blogpost - both PhD candidates at the C²DH - decided to organize the first introductory course to Digital and Public History in English language designed towards Bachelor students.

The first idea of teaching this course started with the History Portfolios: every year new students are joining the University, and the Bachelor course organizers were looking for volunteers among historians to accompany the students alongside their six semesters of studies, on the path they undertook to become historians, through the Portfolios. The students can rely, during this journey, on the tutor as someone with whom they can discuss about the discipline, about their doubts and expectations, but also about the academic experience in general. Last year, Anita Lucchesi, a PhD candidate at the C²DH, volunteered to be one of those tutors for a group of young students, all brand new in the Bachelor in History. After a few meetings she realised that only two of the seven recently enrolled students had heard about Digital History, and none had even a clue what Public History was. Despite their lack of knowledge about it the students showed curiosity and interest during discussions, especially after hearing about the upcoming launch of a research centre dealing with Digital History. This enthusiasm encouraged Anita to engage in informal discussions with the coordinator of the Bachelor in History, Andrea Binsfeld, about setting up a course in Digital and Public History.

Meanwhile, another PhD candidate, Richard Legay, joined the C²DH and was looking for teaching activities. It is a coffee break that brought together Anita and Richard over their shared interests in teaching and in Public History, a field they both studied (Anita in Brazil and Richard in Ireland), and made them decide to collaborate. The undergraduate level represents a great opportunity for teaching Digital Public History as it offers space for experimentation as the students are not looking yet for specialisation. A few coffee breaks later, many discussions and brainstormings led to the creation of a course proposal fueled with previous experiences and current PhD projects (Anita's and Richard's) sent to the teaching staff of the Bachelor in History.

The proposal received a hearty welcome, and after agreeing on the structure of the course, the main struggle started: how to teach Digital Public History to Bachelor students with so many paths, options and resources? There is obviously no magical spell to get students involved and interested in a topic, but the question of how to do a great job in a course of ‘only’ 14 weeks sticked. The detailed program of the course is still currently being written and discussed, and any tip or comment is more than welcome! Feel free to share any thoughts that might help to set up such a course, whether you are a public or a digital historian, or not a scholar.

The decision has been taken to teach by following a pattern in three times: sensitize, problematize and hands-on. By following this pattern, the main purpose of the module becomes the creation/realization, by the students, of an original Digital History Project, which is a challenging, but also highly rewarding task, for them as well as for the teachers. From audio or video podcasts to projects on Historypin and Story Maps, the goal is to give the students a relative amount of freedom about what they can do and the format they can use to maximize their involvement in their project. These projects are also an interesting way to engage students at an early stage in their studies to other aspects of History, to remind them of the links with a broader audience outside the academic world. Behind this practical approach to Digital Public History there is a will to favor collaborative work between the students as well as constructive criticism towards the different initiatives.

The original projects might be useful for the students to have a first experience with various digital tools that can be used for historical purposes, but they should also give them a chance to critically reflect on these tools and their possible uses. This is the reason why the “hands-on” part will only happen after the more theoretical, self-reflective and critical sessions. These preliminary sessions might include sensitization through presentations of outstanding Digital Public History Projects online, but also through fieldtrips to local cultural institutions in Luxembourg dealing with Public History, such as the Centre National de l’Audiovisuel in Dudelange, the Musée National de la Résistance in Esch-sur-Alzette or the Centre de Documentation sur les Migrations Humaines, also in Dudelange. The idea there is to get the students outside of the “ivory tower” and to connect them with their environment. The Digital aspects that will be dominating the course might give the impression that Public History is disconnected, while the goal is quite the opposite. However it will be essential to make distinctions between the online and offline environments, and discuss with students the specificities and consequences of engaging with an audience in both material and immaterial ways.

For instance, the institutions mentioned above are formidable opportunities for students to engage with problematics of Public History familiar to this history in the everyday world outside of academia. The institutions might not all be linked to the digital realm, but they still are of great relevance to any kind of Digital Public History projects nevertheless. Being public means being exposed and subject to instant requests (and direct complains and contestations), a position that requires skills in interactivity and the ability to engage with audiences in a different way than with scholars, who share “the same language”.  Therefore, studying and doing Digital Public History bring some new challenges for academic historians, usually not used to approach potentially big audiences in this fashion.

With this course the teachers would like to give students enough information, autonomy and skills to think about Digital Public History in their long life formation and allow them to experiment and play around the tools to get as much experience as possible (during 14 weeks). Hopefully they will have enough background and confidence to walk outside the “ivory tower”, virtually or literally, and challenge the public uses of history they might encounter. Bearing in mind their future careers, this introductory course could serve as an inspiration, especially considering that digital approaches to Public History are key issues for the C²DH as well as the Master en Histoire Européenne Contemporaine, also taught at the University of Luxembourg.

Now that the centre took up its residence with all the scholars working in a shared environment there can only be hope for more synergies coming together. Progress and failures will also be shared here in order to favor interaction and self-reflection to enrich the course along the way. Hopefully, those teaching will learn as much as those who will be taught!