Thinking about Collaboration and Digital History in Practice

Bill Caraher, Department of History, University of North Dakota

Over the past half semester I’ve been working with a dedicated group of graduate students on public and digital history practicum. The practicum focused on the creation of a digital history collection and exhibit celebrating the Chester Fritz Library’s 50th Birthday. This project has had its ups and downs and we’re only half way through the experiment, but I felt like we had gone far enough along to reflect on some of the things that I’ve learned coordinating a class in an intensively collaborative, digital environment.

The class was designed, at least in theory, around the needs of our “client” the Chester Fritz Library and through several meeting with various stakeholders in the process – the Director of Libraries and the heads of various divisions – and sitting in on a  town hall like meeting of library staff, we developed an overall strategy on how to approach the library’s 50th Birthday as a digital, public history event. The library helped us set some deadlines and shape some expectations for how this project would fit within the festivities that they had already planned in the fall of this year.


Check out the page here

The class itself consists of a five student dream team (as an Eagles fan I can say that): 3 Ph.D. students and an M.A. and a B.A. student.  At the midpoint of the semester, I asked the students to reflect upon their experiences in the class and my observations below derive in part from these reflections.  I not only received their generous permission to reflect on their reflection papers, but I’ve also asked them to check out this post and comment on my efforts to summarize their thoughts.

So here they are:

1. Structure and Room to Fail.  When I initially imagined the class, I had figured that our conversations with the library would help us shape our project, its deadlines, and goals.  So I did not create a formal syllabus, but rather created a list of suggested deadlines for various aspects of the project. In other words, the course lacked much in the way of formal structure, in part, because I hoped that our stakeholders and the students would set deadlines and goals.

They did move in this direction, but I overlooked one small issue in the planning of our public, digital history collection: the time to struggle and even fail. Some of the students initiatives which seemed quite reasonable involved far more time than any of us expected. The combination of unexpected delays, problems with workflow, and even plans or projects that didn’t work out, slowed the project down and the lack of a firm class structure gradually eroded a sense of urgency. Only a firm intervention set the class back on track, but by then, I think that the class was behind where we all hoped we would be as the public festivities started around homecoming week.

In the future, I think a firm structure would have provided some context for the kind of risks/reward analysis that my team considered when embarking on a more difficult or ambitious component of the project. In other words, we might have been more conscious of delays and other risks of ambitious plans, if there were checks on he system throughout the process.

2. Digital Immigrants. The digital learning curve was steeper than expected even for the most committed digital immigrants (i.e. students who were committed to learning digital tools but not “natively” familiar with them. I dislike the term “digital native” and “digital immigrant”, but in this case it seems particularly useful). In particular, I found that the students struggled to keep pace with the expectations of the digital world, where content has to appear continuously or at least at regular intervals to attract attention in the din of the internet. Student work patterns tended to encourage episodic writing usually toward the end of the term when papers become due. Asking them to produce content continuously throughout the semester and to write it directly into the digital stream (via a blog, a Twitter feed, and a digital collection) clearly created issues for our students who felt more at home with crafted final papers that emerged from long(ish) gestation periods and were refined over multiple drafts.

History is rather unique in that it tends to privilege to final product over the process. Historians tend not to dilate long on methods. The importance of the final product over the various intermediate steps that a scholar would take along the way, contributed to my students’ reluctance to expose their creative process to the world. So not only was the pace disruptive to their workflow patters, but they had few examples of pre-publication, public work to look to for guidance (and they do not read my blog or any other academic blogs.)

3. Collecting vs. Interpreting. One of the most interesting challenges of the process of producing web content on the fly is that my students initially insisted on a rather rigid division between the process of building a digital collection and the process of interpreting it. This divide, of course, is grounded in traditional models of historical research which imagines the first step to be data collection which forms the foundation for the analysis and interpretation.  This approach relies on a view of historical artifact as objects that exist outside of the interpretative process.  In fact, historians are still something bothered by the idea that our research questions can and do shape the kinds of evidence we look for in our sources and collections.

The dichotomy between collecting and analyzing is not grounded in reality, of course, (as any graduate student in the field could tell you): historical evidence and collection are the product of conscious decisions and selection processes. In other words, the collection itself – with its limits and character – is the product of historical thinking in the same way that more formal, written analysis and interpretation is.  Understanding these two processes as separate created a rift in their workflow and contributed to their difficulty in creating content continuously for the collection

4. Collaboration. In working with a group of students, I somehow expected a magic moment of collaboration to occur as individual’s found complementary interests, abilities, and schedules. So far, this has not happened. In fact, most of the year it was a challenge to get the entire group together at one time (we did not have a scheduled class time because I anticipated having to meet in different venues and with different stakeholders; this oversight is related to my point 1) much less having them work together as a cohesive unit.

The lack of collaboration between the students led them to be concerned that they were working on the same projects at the same time. Moreover, it became difficult for the students to synchronize content production, analysis, and interpretation across multiple sites and across different forms of content. The result is a series of fine semi-independent projects that are attractive, intriguing, and almost exciting, but not nearly as good as they could have been.

I’ve learned the collaboration requires a certain amount of leadership on my part as the instructor.  On the other hand, understanding how collaboration worked and didn’t work brought to the fore the challenges of public and digital history as a process. While collaboration always seems like a way to make a project easier, it also requires that all participants have a commitment to a particular approach to documenting and understanding the past. Finding this middle ground for all the collaborators likely requires more effort from everyone involved that simply letting team members go out and work on related, but ultimately independent projects.

Of course, this is the genius of promoting collaborative work at the University. It forces collaborators and supervisors to not only articulate a (frequently shifting) final product, but also forces everyone involved to focus on process. As so much of what we do in the humanities is refining our processes (methods, procedures), I have come to appreciate the value of collaboration not as a means of getting students to work together, but rather as a means of unpacking the process of creating the knowledge.

5. Final Projects. As the semester crosses the half-way point, I’ve begun to think about what I can expect of this group for a final project. To some extent the work itself – with all its flaws and strengths – represents a final product. On the other hand, it seems like a public work should represent more than just an exercise in process. To manage a final product, we have to have consensus on what would make our efforts to collect and analyze a digital collection successful. (This does not mean that the process has to be closed or the final results definitive.)

At the same time, we need to have some kind of reflective component to the class so that we can all consider the academic, intellectual, and practical lessons of our work. My hope is that this blog post is a first step toward that.

Crossposted to Teaching Thursday.


  1. As an instructional designer, I have worked with faculty and many student employees to create projects – digital or otherwise. It can be a complex, collaborative process depending on the scope and nature of the project.

    Creating a design document that was approved by the client was always my first step in the process. That document (collaboratively created with the client) delineated the overall purpose, the audience the scope/ rough outline of the project and due date. A good design document takes a great deal of effort to draft. Depending on the client, negotiating may be involved in getting an approved final document.

    In addition to being the client liaison, I also served as the project manager, supervisor or the students, and quality control officer for the project deliverables.

    I say all this, because undertaking a project of the magnitude reported here by Bill Caraher is a major undertaking, that takes advanced planning and structure. If your university has an instructional designer, you would have been better served working with that person on such a project.

    A fundamental complication that superceeds this project, is the fact that this is a class … not an employment situation. Regardless of the content of the class, course syllabus are required by most university administrations. This is a matter of fairness to the students: outlining the instructor expectations and a course rubric that shows how students will be evaluated (the criteria upon which their work will be judged). The project design document should never be used as the measure upon which students are judged. It is not the purpose of that document. The lack of a syllabus was no small matter here.

    While it may be true that: “Asking them to produce content continuously throughout the semester and to write it directly into the digital stream (via a blog, a Twitter feed, and a digital collection) clearly created issues for our students who felt more at home with crafted final papers that emerged from long(ish) gestation periods and were refined over multiple drafts…”; it is also true that it added unexpected requirements to student workload.

    There is plenty to quible with in Mr Caraher’s interpretation of the issues [“History is rather unique in that it tends to privilege to final product over the process.” You really think it’s unique?]

    However, the main point is that there were many things that were underestimated or overlooked or discovered late in the process:
    1 – “To manage a final product, we have to have consensus on what would make our efforts to collect and analyze a digital collection successful.”

    2 – “I’ve learned the collaboration requires a certain amount of leadership on my part as the instructor.” To this I would add … a lot of leadership!

    The man in the mirror needs to look more carefully at his role in creating the successes or failures of this project.


  2. Thanks for your extensive comments! I agree with most of them. I really like the idea that you become the project manager, and I think that would have really streamlined the entire project.

    My experience was primarily with my own collaborative work in graduate school where my advisor was radically low grid. In other words, when he suggested collaborative work or an independent project, it was in our laps to design, execute, and report the project. There was never a syllabus (and never any credit other than publications or publicity for our work) or any structure. There was just a problem, a body of data, or a project that needed to be done.

    I guess I felt that this prepared me well for the real world, where, to my shock, there were no syllabi. Unfair or not, I did not get a syllabus for my first academic publication, my dissertation, my first major research project, or even my first job. So I tried to let the students structure their own learning and base it (as a practicum) on the real world expectations of the stakeholders.

    (I did oddly enough get a syllabus like document when it came to selling and buying a house.)

    Of course, working with an instructional designer would have helped. We had web-design help and some other random technical assistance from colleagues in other programs.

    As for history being unique, that was a historian’s conceit.

    Thanks again for taking the time for making comments.

    My take aways:
    1. Syllabus
    2. Project manager
    3. History is not unique.
    4. Get instructional design help.


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