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History Department Courses Incorporate Digital Tools into Curriculum

Two courses in the History department this semester are taking advantage of modern technology to better understand the past.

Gabriel Pizzorno—a preceptor in the History Department who teaches “History 1993: Introduction to Digital History” and supervises the Digital Fellows Program—sees digital history as a way to process information faster and to discover patterns or trends which previously would not be apparent.

Pizzorno’s course introduces students to the basics of digital histories, methods for studying digital history, and its future applications.

Robinson Hall
Robinson Hall is home to Harvard's History Department.
Anne Ruderman—who also teaches a course which integrates elements of digital history, “History 1050: Slavery and the Slave Trade in the Atlantic World”—described a central component of digital history as being able to understand where computers might be more useful in conducting research compared to traditional methods used to study history.

“It’s essential to develop and explore the dialogue between analogue and digital tools,” Ruderman said.

Pizzorno’s course teaches students how to find relevant data and refine that information for the project they are completing. Students enrolled in Pizzorno’s course experiment with different ways to present information in a digital format.

“I take what we understand to be the research workflow and combine it with a data processing workflow,” said Pizzorno.

Ruderman’s course takes a slightly different approach, teaching the methods of digital history by incorporating the methods into the material.

Ruderman has included teaching the tools of digital history into the course by replacing four lectures on the material of the course with tutorials on how to use certain technologies for research purposes.

“I decided that if I wanted to have these digital elements as a core component of the class, I needed to teach the students how to use them as part of the class, not as some additional seminar they had to attend one Friday at 5 p.m.,” Ruderman said.

Ruderman has replaced midterms and papers with more untraditional assignments which cause the students to use digital tools to think about the best way to present the material. Instead of a final paper, students will produce their own podcast delving into a topic of their choosing.

Ruderman believes that the emergence and growth of the material available on the Internet has fundamentally altered the way individuals will perform historical research, allowing for the rapid acquisition of historical data.

“It’s really not a fashion or a fad. I really think of it as a paradigm shift,” Ruderman said.

Pizzorno does not see digital history as a subsection of the study of History, but rather as something that will soon be a fundamental aspect of the discipline.

“Soon people won’t even identify digital history as something different, because it will be so ingrained as part of the way people study history,” Pizzorno said.

—Staff writer Edith M. Herwitz can be reached at edith.herwitz@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @edith_herwitz.

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