Discovery, Pressure, and Serendipity – Handling Expectations in the Digital History Classroom

We’re one week in to the second iteration of the course Great Migration and Digital Storytelling, trying to figure out what went well the first time, what to change, and what we know will transpire differently. When my colleague Charlie Hardy and I first taught this course in Fall 2014, we didn’t know what to expect. We aimed to kick-off the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Great Migration of African Americans to Philadelphia, now officially beginning in 2016. We wanted our students to resurrect old oral history interviews with those who came north as part of the Great Migration, while working with other primary sources. But we didn’t really know what the end product would look like or feel like.

Durham School
Getting ready for the the semester. Students at the Durham School, June 1914, Courtesy of, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

Actually, I sort of expected variations of tech fails and disappointments, having muscled my way through several digital history courses, serving as my own IT and dealing with the inevitable shortcomings of both my own technical abilities and the infrastructure in which I attempted to teach. Case in point: the Fall semester when students didn’t get access to our Omeka instance in which they were creating their semester-long project until after Thanksgiving Break. So, back when we embarked on the Great Migration course in 2014, I was admittedly skeptical about what we could pull off.

I learned OHMS (Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, created by our good friends at the University of Kentucky Libraries’ Nunn Center for Oral History) two weeks prior to the start of the semester so I could demonstrate how to use it to our students. But I had not come close to mastering it. I didn’t yet have a good sense of the workflow required to build a website integrating multiple opensource platforms and archival items from over a dozen regional and national collections. Needless to say, Charlie and I made it up as we went along, sometimes to our students’ frustration.

But in many ways this iterative process of discovery and problem solving on the fly resulted in the creative work ultimately generated by our students. We instructed them to “amaze us,” as Charlie has repeatedly said. And they did. Through fits and starts, revisions and tears, this group of students created 6 compelling digital storytelling projects which combined audio, video, primary sources, maps and good stories. And the students—as frustrated as they may have been from the lack of deadlines and rubrics—left the course with an immense sense of satisfaction, which only grew once went live in February 2015, going on to win awards at university, regional, and national levels.

Berean School
Female Students at The Berean School of Philadelphia, c. 1933, courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvnaia

We started this semester building on to Goin’ North without a blank slate. Now, students have successful models of biographical sketches, Dublin Core metadata, OHMS indexes, and digital storytelling projects on which to model their work. Rather than creating a keyword thesaurus from scratch (of over 1000 terms!!)—the controlled vocabulary that allows users to find themes and subjects in the oral history indexes in a consistent way—this group of 25 students will merely be adding to it. They will know that a useful OHMS index has a perfect balance of metadata and emotion, because when they explore Kristin Geiger’s index of Ruth Wright Hayre’s interview, they will experience it firsthand.

But what will change in this iteration of the class when we all know what we’re doing and are no longer making it up as we go along? Will Charlie’s and my expectations of students’ work be different? Too high? Too narrow? Will our own vision of the final product change the way we give feedback? Will the lack of serendipity and discovery result in stifled creativity?

I don’t know the answers yet. We only met our students a week ago. I’m excited about their potential. Charlie pointed out to me how unusual it is that a significant number of these students have had or are planning internships, demonstrating commitment to getting hands-on experience. While on this first night of class many were likely overwhelmed, they were also motivated and inspired, ready to jump in. Our friend Doug Boyd from the University of Kentucky, who created OHMS, came to introduce the platform on our first day of class, explaining—using the great metaphor of the mix tape of my youth—how a good index changes the way we interact with an interview. We no longer are dependent on the written word of the transcript to find the precise section of the interview we want to hear. We can experience an interview in a multisensory way. He left the students understanding the significance of their mission in this class. And made sure they knew that people—all over the world, according to Doug—were paying attention to their work.

I think this extra attention changes the nature of what we’re doing in the classroom too. No pressure, right? I will keep telling that to our students. And I’ll keep repeating it to myself too. The first time we taught the class I didn’t feel pressure, except to not let the students down through tech fails, false starts, and disorganization. The lack of expectations and the yet unimagined end-product meant that whatever we created would be just that. Now whatever we create must fit into this existing thing.

This semester, I am going to strive to be extra observant and aware of the differences in the process, noting how adding to an existing project is a much different endeavor than creating one from scratch. I know I’m going to be much more organized: my style guides and rubrics are already cleaned up, waiting for students. You will laugh at the excessive number of spreadsheets I’ve created to track our progress. But I want to be sure I still am ready for the process of discovery and willing to let serendipity intervene.