Teaching Atlantic Slavery in World History with Digital Student Projects

One of my ongoing teaching and research questions concerns situating the Atlantic and Atlantic slavery in world history. To bring these topics to the attention of undergraduates, I have designed and implemented assignments that allow students to directly address comparative questions related to legal personality, indenture, slave trading, and transculturation. For a final assessment in an undergraduate seminar on comparative slavery, students created individual online exhibits to complete a project involving two case studies. The goals were a) to contextualize digital sources in historical ways b) to distill information for an online reader and c) to integrate and discuss two cases of slavery to form a coherent argument. The sites had to contain a minimum of three pages or sections incorporating images, text, and other media.

The basic requirements for the project included comparative analysis with supporting multimedia items; use of appropriate secondary sources from class or other academic texts; complete captions for all media; and a minimum of 2,000 words in the three combined pages. I graded the project on a rubric for its historiographical engagement, original arguments, comparative analyses, item captions, primary source use, and design.

Africans and Chinese Laborers project 1
Partial screenshot of an opening page from a student project on nineteenth-century Cuba.
Africans and Chinese Laborers project 2
Partial screenshot of a student project using of primary sources to discuss labor in Cuba.

Using a range of scholarly works, including Lisa Yun’s The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba, James Sweet’s Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World, and Kristin Mann’s Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900, students explored transregional approaches to study slavery. These methods were then intended to help students create accessible projects linking or comparing the experiences of historical subjects in the worlds of Atlantic slavery.

The Praxis Program at UVA: DH for Graduate Students

A wonderful resource for grad students interested in learning more about DH is the site for The Praxis Program, a project from the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library. Do not miss the “Tutorials” or “Scratchpad” tabs if you (like me) don’t know everything yet. I am still trying to decide which of these tools is best suited to my teaching and research, but Prism is intriguing. As a tool for “crowdsourcing interpretation,” this looks like a great way to encourage collaboration among students and between scholars. I plan to try it out on my introductory class and will post successes and challenges in my lesson. Thanks to the contributors who made this public and available!

As a scholar of Africana and Latin American Studies, I am on the look out for digital humanities projects that address my regional and thematic interests. The UVA Library Scholars’ Lab is undertaking exciting projects in African-American and Latin American history, such as the Falmouth Project. I am following with interest the scholarship of Tamika RichesonCecilia Márquez, and Alex Gil, among others. And there is also “Mapping an Asian American Indie Rock Digital Diaspora,” which technically is not my field of remote knowledge or expertise. But I had to link to it because it’s an excellent presentation of scholarship. I will end this post by lamenting the fact that I could not attend a recent GIS workshop at UVA that promised the “pursuit of mappiness.”

Teaching with Podcasts

This semester I assigned a five-minute podcast on gender in Latin American history in my introductory course. I recommend this kind of project as a method for practicing speaking, building argument, getting experience with technology, and encouraging students’ interacting with peers. Students used Audacity, which caused few technological hiccups. The project involved a peer edit based on a rubric for clarity, length, accuracy, and persuasiveness. Though these were broad elements, they elicited useful qualitative comments from student partners during peer grading.

I requested feedback from the students regarding the assignment. One student mentioned that making the podcast immediately preceded an interview and provided preparation and practice for measured, clear speaking. Another student said that peer edits increased the quality of the podcasts; students wished to provide their peers with a good example of their work. For an introductory course, a podcast assignment is useful in conjunction with written essays to help students build distinct skills and communicate with their peers. Here is a site I consulted for instructions about audioblogging/podcasting. I look forward to incorporating more audio elements into my teaching.

I have consulted Dr. Lisa Spiro’s blog entry “Digital Pedagogy in Practice” for useful information about the rationale behind creating digital assignments. Her post, “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities” from a few years ago also comes recommended.

Omeka for Teaching

Attending THATCampAAR gave me some great teaching ideas, including using Omeka for student projects. This is a tool that makes it easy to place digital content in historical context, as evidenced here. A big thank you to Amanda French (GMU) for her workshop!

The first time I integrated a curated online exhibit as a project in a course was my first semester of teaching, through a Dean’s Teaching Fellowship at JHU. I used the digital media project in place of a final exam and had students execute their projects and present them in groups of three or four. The purposes were to present exhibits that contextualize digital sources in historical ways as well as build skills in presenting and explaining historical processes. The projects were stellar, but the stakes of the assignment were too high (40% of the final grade). I now would not consider weighting so much of a grade in a lower-division course toward a final project or exam. Still, the outcomes were good and the students built digital, written, and oral presentation skills.

Reglas de Congo snip
Screenshot of an Omeka site created for a lower-division Latin American history course in Spring 2014 at Johns Hopkins University.