Undergraduate Digital History Syllabus

University of Waterloo
Department of History
HIST 250
Introduction to Historical Thinking
9:30-10:20am Wednesdays and Fridays, EV2 2002

Instructor Information
Instructor: Dr. Ian Milligan
Office: Hagey Hall 114
Office Phone: (519) 888-4567 x32775
Office Hours: Monday 2:00-3:30pm or by appointment (I am generally on campus every day when possible, although it’s best to e-mail me in advance so you don’t have a wasted trip to Hagey Hall)

Instructor: Joseph Buscemi
Office: Hagey Hall XXX
Office Hours: TBA

Course Description

Welcome to HIST 250! We want to do three, hopefully non-hokey, things in this course.
First, we will explore the idea of history. Topics covered include: what is history? What isn’t history? What is the history of history? Why is it useful? What makes it different from or similar to other disciplines? What are the limits of historical enquiries? Is history a science? What is the relationship between past and present? What kinds of history are there?
Second, we will explore how we can all think like historians. What is a primary source? What is a secondary source? This will help you build up a foundation of knowledge that will serve you well over the course of your future studies. In tutorial, we put all of this into practice through a series of workshops that will have you writing better, arguing better, avoiding pitfalls better, and finally, thinking more clearly about what it is we all do.
Finally, we’re going to have some fun. You’re all history majors for a reason (or want to be, right?), and it’s my hope that we can all share our passion for the topic with each other.

Course Goals and Learning Objectives
We have three goals for this course:

  1. To introduce you to the field of history by socializing and professionalizing you into the main themes, debates, and issues that define the area. There is a common base of knowledge that historians should have: this course provides that.
  2. To develop and hone your research and writing skills through the progressive delivery of three short papers.
  3. To help you gain confidence in your oral speaking and small group discussion seminars.

Required Texts
There is one required textbook for this course.
Tosh, John. The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History. 5th ed. Harlow, England: Longman, 2010.
Otherwise, readings are available freely through the UW Library E-Reserves System.

Assessment in a Nutshell
Assessment Date of Evaluation Weighting
Participation Ongoing 15%
Ongoing Course Blog Ongoing, See Below 30%
Final Project Proposal 4 February 2015 10%
Final Project 1 April 2015 35%
Final Project Lightning Talk 16 March or 18 March 2015 10%
Assignment Breakdown

Assessment #1: Tutorial and Course Participation (15%)

Students are expected to be actively involved in lecture and tutorial discussions. Remember: this is not a straight-up lecture course, so it will be a bit more active in terms of participating. I expect you to:

  • Attend class regularly with the readings completed
  • Make a conscientious effort to learn and explore course themes and concepts
  • If you ever have a question, feel struck, or if anything arises – don’t hesitate to contact me.

Assessment #2: Ongoing Course Blog (30%)

Rather than short assignments, we will write a series of short blog posts on the course blog. There are five required blog posts, each of which can be between 500 to 800 words. Blog posts are not essays – they are simply there to show that you’re playing with the material and showing off some of your results.
They are listed below, but for your reference they are:

  • Week of January 12th: Write an initial post just saying hi and why you are interested in the course. This is more just to make sure that we’ve all got blogs set up!
    • I would also like you to set up an ‘about‘ page describing who are you, including a picture of yourself (or an avatar), and 250 words of personal description.
  • Week of January 19th: Write a post about the three sites listed in the syllabus: what are they? What do they offer? Are they valuable? Representative?
  • Week of February 2nd: Write a short blog post on the Science article, the N-Gram viewer, and the Mining the Dispatch site. What do you think? Play with the N-Gram Viewer and tell me about some interesting things you find.
  • Week of March 9th: Write a shot blog post on your early encounters with Python. How far did you get? Do you think this is a valuable approach for historians? Why or why not? 
  • Final week: Write a short blog post revisiting your first post: do you still agree? What do you think of digital history?

Each blog post will be evaluated on the following criteria:

  • Clarity: Is it well written? Does the blog post follow proper spelling, grammar, and stylistic conventions?
  • Engagement: Does the post engage with the assignment? Does it demonstrate that you have used the tool?
  • Description: What is the tool?
  • Analysis: Be critical. If you are frustrated, if you do not think something makes sense, or if a tool does not seem useful, this is OK. If you think it is the best thing since sliced bread, this is OK as well!

Assessment #3: Final Project PROPOSAL

400-500 words (roughly two pages, double-spaced) – due February 4th. For this, you need to do the following:

  • What is your project going to be?
  • What sources will you be drawing on?

Assessment #4: Final Project

This is a major research project for this course, but will allow you to pursue one of the six tools that you have explored in depth. There is quite a bit of freedom in what you want to do. The project is due on our last day of class, on April 1st and should be the rough workload equivalent of a 10-12 page paper in terms of workload.

  • Research, establish, and write a historical website: Using Omeka or WordPress, create a small public history website. This could be of:
    • University of Waterloo topics: cataloguing public art, buildings, nature, and so forth on campus.
    • Local history: finding historical sites, plaques, etc.
    • Other (preferably something you love)
    • Here, you’ll be building on examples we discuss in class.

~ OR ~

  • Conduct large-scale textual analysis and share your analysis: In consultation with me, we can find a corpus that you could then explore using tools such as topic modeling, n-grams, voyant tools, and so forth.
    • I can also provide ready made corpuses, including historical plaques, historical books, and so forth.
    • The end result can be a historical paper (8-10 pages) or can be a website explaining your findings (similar to Mining the Dispatch).

~ OR ~

  • Carry out spatial research: With maps, in consultation with the library, me, or city resources, come up with a question. Can we map historical maps onto current grids? Can you make an interactive historical document using Neatline? You could do one of UW, one of the local community, or elsewhere.

~ OR ~

  • Create a tool with Python: Building on our introductory Programming Historian 2 work, you could find a corpus online, find a way to spider the sources, and program your own textual analysis tools. As with above, you could write a historical paper (8-10 pages) which would note your own experiences as well as findings, or put this on your website.

~ OR ~

Something else! Come talk to me in office hours.

Assessment #5: Final Project Lightning Talk (10%)

This will involve quickly showing off what you’ve done to the rest of the class.

Week-by-Week Breakdown
Week 1: January 5th and 7th, Going Digital

Professor Milligan is unfortunately not able to host the class on January 5th as he is at the American Historical Association annual meeting. He will e-mail you with more information.

Reading: “Introduction: Promises and Perils of Digital History,” in Digital History.

Homework: Set up your home system in accordance with what we discuss in January 8th class.

Week 2: January 12th and 14th, The History Web

Reading: “Exploring the History Web,” in Digital History.

Reading (for tutorial): “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” available online, http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/issues/952/interchange/index.html

Ian Milligan, “Illusionary Order: Online Databases, Optical Character Recognition, and Canadian History, 1997-2010,” Canadian Historical Review, 94.4 (December 2013). Available online via LEARN.

Homework: Set up a WordPress.com blog, and say hi in your first post! Who are you, why are you in the course, what is your background?

Week 3: January 19th and 21st, Citizen Histories and Web Histories

Reading: “Designing for the History Web,” in Digital History.

Toni Appelbaum, “How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit,” 15 May 2012, available online, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/05/how-the-professor-who-fooled-wikipedia-got-caught-by-reddit/257134/.

Explore the following websites:

9/11 Digital Archive: http://911digitalarchive.org

Hurricane Katrina Archive: http://hurricanearchive.org

Occupy Archive: http://occupyarchive.org

Homework: Write a short blog post on the three websites listed above. What are they? What do they offer? Are they valuable? Representative? (500-800 words)

Week 4: January 26th and 28th, Podcasting and Sketchup 

Reading: “Building an Audience,” in Digital History.

Devon Elliott, Robert MacDougall, and William J. Turkel, “New Old Things: Fabrication, Physical Computing, and Experiment in Historical Practice,” Canadian Journal of Communication, 37 (2012): 121-128. http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/2506.

Homework: Play with Sketchup Make. Make a simple object and we will look into 3D printing it.

Week 5: February 2nd and 4th, Textual Analysis: From Word Clouds to Topic Modeling

Reading: Jean-Baptiste Michel et al, “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” Science. Michel et al – Quantiative Analysis of Culture.pdf

Graham, Milligan, and Weingart. “Basic Text Mining,” at http://www.themacroscope.org/?page_id=362.

Graham, Milligan, and Weingart. “Topic Modeling by Hand,” at http://www.themacroscope.org/?page_id=47.

Read the following websites and explore the projects:

– Mining the Dispatch:http://dsl.richmond.edu/dispatch/

– Google N-Gram: http://books.google.com/ngrams

Homework: Write a short blog post on the Science article, the N-Gram viewer, and the Mining the Dispatch website. Play with them! Have fun! What do you think?

Week 6: February 9th and 11th, Digitizing Primary Documents

Reading: “Collecting History Online” and “Preserving Digital History,” in Digital History.

Reading: Explore the Internet Archive at http://archive.org.

Week 7: February 23rd and 25th, Spatial Histories

Reading: “What is Spatial History?” http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29

Jo Guldi, “What is the Spatial Turn?” Click around, but specifically focus on “The Spatial Turn in History.” http://spatial.scholarslab.org/spatial-turn/

Trading Consequences Project – read the blog at http://tradingconsequences.blogs.edina.ac.uk/, the linked White Paper, and play with the visualizations. Links will be posted on LEARN.

Homework: Play with Neatline and Google Earth.

One-on-one meetings with Professor Milligan re: your project begin.

Week 8: March 2nd and 4th, Humanities Programming

Readings: The Programming Historian, available online, http://programminghistorian.org.

We will focus primarily on:

– Data Manipulation (Introduction to the Bash command line);

– Setting up Python;

– And the pathway towards interacting with the Old Bailey Online with Python.

Those of you with past programming experience will get some other fun stuff to do.


Week 9: March 9th and 11th, Humanities Programming

Readings: The Programming Historian, available online, http://programminghistorian.org. Continuing our work from last week. The Monday class will be largely the same, and Wednesday will have some options to branch out to explore areas that interest you.

Homework: After our introductory classes, begin to work through the lessons. Write up a short blog post on your encounters with Python. How far did you get? Do you think this is a valuable approach for historians? Why or why not?

Note that I do not expect you to become the best Python programmer in the world. Instead, these readings are to help you start thinking about programming and whether we think it matters for Arts students. At the end of the day, if you hated it and got nowhere, that’s fine!

Week 10: March 16th and 18th, Lightning Talks

Each student will present a short lightning talk on their research in progress, with time for questions.

Refreshments will be provided, conference style.

Week 11: March 23rd and 25th, Gaming

Readings will be provided.

These will be the last readings for the course, giving you time to focus on your project.

Week 12: March 30th and April 1st, What Might be Next and Course Wrapup

Course Policies

Late Work

Late work is generally penalized at five percent a day, unless you are in touch with me beforehand and we work something out. If you are submitting a late assignment, e-mail it to me and bring a hard copy (if applicable) to the next class. I will ‘stop the clock’ based on when your e-mail is stamped.

Electronic Device Policy

You are encouraged to bring and use laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc. to class, although I do expect that you will use it responsibly and not distract your classmates.

Institutional-required statements for undergraduate course outlines approved by Senate Undergraduate Council, April 14, 2009

Academic Integrity

In order to maintain a culture of academic integrity, members of the University of Waterloo community are expected to promote honesty, trust, fairness, respect and responsibility.  See the UWaterloo Academic Integritity Webpage (https://uwaterloo.ca/academic-integrity/) and the Arts Academic Integrity Office Webpage (http://arts.uwaterloo.ca/current-undergraduates/academic-responsibility) for more information.


A student is expected to know what constitutes academic integrity to avoid committing academic offenses and to take responsibility for his/her actions. A student who is unsure whether an action constitutes an offense, or who needs help in learning how to avoid offenses (e.g., plagiarism, cheating) or about “rules” for group work/collaboration should seek guidance from the course professor, academic advisor, or the undergraduate associate dean. For information on categories of offenses and types of penalties, students should refer to Policy 71, Student Discipline (http://www.adm.uwaterloo.ca/infosec/Policies/policy71.htm). For typical penalties check Guidelines for the Assessment of Penalties (http://www.adm.uwaterloo.ca/infosec/guidelines/penaltyguidelines.htm).


A student who believes that a decision affecting some aspect of his/her university life has been unfair or unreasonable may have grounds for initiating a grievance. Read Policy 70, Student Petitions and Grievances, Section 4 (https://uwaterloo.ca/secretariat/policies-procedures-guidelines/policy-70). When in doubt please be certain to contact the department’s administrative assistant who will provide further assistance.


A decision made or penalty imposed under Policy 70, Student Petitions and Grievances (other than a petition) or Policy 71, Student Discipline may be appealed if there is a ground. A student who believes he/she has a ground for an appeal should refer to Policy 72, Student Appeals (http://www.adm.uwaterloo.ca/infosec/Policies/policy72.htm).

Note for Students with Disabilities

The Office for Persons with Disabilities (OPD), located in Needles Hall, Room 1132, collaborates with all academic departments to arrange appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities without compromising the academic integrity of the curriculum. If you require academic accommodations to lessen the impact of your disability, please register with the OPD at the beginning of each academic term.