Announcing the Dick Dowling Digital Archive

It gives me great pleasure to announce the unveiling of the Dick Dowling Digital Archive and the related exhibit, Dick Dowling and Sabine Pass in History and Memory. The collection and the exhibit, both proudly powered by Omeka, were produced by myself and undergraduate students in Civil War history at Rice University in collaboration with the Woodson Research Center at Fondren Library, the Houston Area Digital Archives, and the Humanities Research Center.

Dick Dowling was an Irish American Houstonian most famous for his role in a Civil War battle fought at Sabine Pass on September 8, 1863. Beginning in the Spring 2011 semester, Rice students in HIST 246, “The American Civil War Era,” began locating, scanning, describing, and writing about historical documents related to Dowling which were then uploaded into an Omeka collection. Students also produced four interpretive digital projects that also now reside in the collection. The Movie Group produced an introductory video (group blog and video). The Map Group produced several maps with ArcGIS showing the past locations of Dowling’s statue in the city (group blog, map, and map guide). The Timeline Group used SIMILE to produce a dynamic timeline of events (group blog and timeline). And the Podcast Group created several audio tours meant to be heard at various Dowling-related sites in Houston (group blog and audio tours).

Other students in the spring and fall semester of 2011 worked to draft, organize, and lay out the exhibit pages for The Afterlives of Dick Dowling, the first major section of the Omeka exhibit featuring items in the Dick Dowling Digital Archive. Students in the fall semester also helped me to think through the other major section, Slavery and the Battle of Sabine Pass, which I composed in bits and pieces over the last several months.

In a future blog post I hope to say more about how this project developed. For now, I’m happy to announce its existence and invite you to take a look around. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, or corrections here or at dowling-archive AT

Methods in U.S. Cultural History

Today I started teaching my semester-long graduate seminar, HIST 587: Methods in U.S. Cultural History. The syllabus I will be using is very similar to the one I used in the Fall 2009 semester, in that the major objective will be to produce a draft of an article-length essay based on original research. But I am also going to be trying at least two new things this time around.

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Google Docs and Group Work

Mark Sample recently had a great post about reading aloud in the classroom, in the course of which he also briefly revealed how he uses Google Docs as a sort of digital whiteboard for collecting responses from students. I’ve also sometimes used Google Docs in the classroom for similar purposes. The advantage of doing this, of course, is that the Google Doc created during class can later be shared with students online. And because Google Docs can be edited collaboratively by several users at once, it also makes it possible to reproduce the old pedagogical technique of having students "go to the board" to write down responses without ever requiring that they leave their seats.

Here’s a quick example of a lesson that I’ve done twice now, with pretty good results. In my course on the American Civil War Era (current and past), I devote several of my classes to discussing the consequences of emancipation for freedpeople. One of my major goals is to help students appreciate the range of different circumstances in which freedpeople found themselves. In one class, I do this by distributing a packet of four primary sources, all of which are available online, and then break students into groups to discuss the four sources.

So long as at least four students in the class have a laptop with them, I can also do this next step: I direct students to this Google spreadsheet, whose settings are usually such that anyone with the link can edit the sheet. I ask each group to answer a series of questions about the document–when and where the episode described took place, the circumstances under which laborers are working, and so on. Each group edits the document simultaneously, and I have it displayed on a screen in the classroom so that everyone can see everyone else’s edits as they happen.

At the end of the exercise, we "rank" how well each case met the expectations and desires of freedpeople (which have been discussed in previous classes). And by having the spreadsheet before us, we are then able to have a discussion about which variables seem to correlate most strongly to situations that benefited freedpeople’s interests. In this case, what I want them to see is that the date (during the war, or after), the state, and the presence of the military helped determine the nature of the post-emancipation labor contracts that developed.

That’s one way I use Google Docs in the classroom. Please share other tips if you have them!

Grading with my iPad

A friend recently emailed me to ask how I feel about using my iPad to grade student papers. One of the main reasons why I bought an iPad when it came out was to help with this task; since I ride the bus and light rail to work most days, I wanted an easy way to take my grading and reading with me, without having to lug a huge stack of papers around. My friend’s email gives me a good excuse to briefly summarize the steps I take to use my iPad for grading, and to share some of my reflections on how it’s worked out so far.

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Teaching with Blogs

Tomorrow at noon, I am going to be speaking about blogging and teaching at a “brown bag” workshop at the Digital Media Center at Rice. This post contains a rough outline of what I plan to say, as well as links to resources that I will mention at the workshop.

My comments will fall into three categories:

  1. I’ll survey how I’ve actually used blogs in my past courses, to give a sense of the variety of possible formats available with a fairly low amount of technical know-how.
  2. I’ll share some general lessons and tips I think I’ve learned from these experiences.
  3. I’ll briefly talk about the technical side of setting up blogs and maintaining them over the course of a semester, focusing particularly on how to use the WordPress MU installation, Blogs @ Rice University.

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