Digital Humanities and Public History as Teaching Tools

I am primarily interested in Digital Humanities as a teaching tool, in particular the intersection between DH and public history. In recent years, I have worked to integrate public history and museum studies projects into my courses. These assignments are designed to help students thing about history both as an academic discipline and as a discipline that engages with a broader public – through work in archives, libraries, and historical societies; the curation of museum exhibits; and the construction of historical narratives for broad consumption. DH tools have been useful in developing these sorts of assignments. They also expose students to different ways of presenting research, other than the traditional research paper, including in digital formats, and train students in working with technology – skills that help prepare them for a variety of careers.

Wende Museum Project

My first foray into DH was when I co-organized a special workshop with Wende Museum: “Museum & Material Cultures: Exhibiting the GDR.” The workshop brought together five LMU students and five students from the University of Leipzig to explore the history of the German Democratic Republic using the museum’s artifacts. This was an exercise in public history, as the students discussed the relationship between history and memory, the pedagogical function of public history, the role of museums, and questions of display, representation, and audience. Over the course of a month, the students did research in museum, with the goal of producing an online exhibit about the everyday life of East Germans in Berlin, Leipzig, and Halle-Neustadt. They selected the artifacts, researched them, wrote the texts, and designed – within the constraints of the museum website – the exhibit layout.

The culmination of the workshop was the production of a prototype for the online exhibition, “Living in a Socialist City,” with five sections, each curated by a pair of students (one German and one American): Marketing a Socialist City, Public Spaces & the Socialist City, Private Spaces, The Marketplace & Consumer Culture, and Social Experiences. The exhibit is now live on the Wende Museum website. I also wrote about the experience, including the benefits and challenges of such a community-based learning experience and international collaboration, for the blog on Undergraduate Research in German & European Studies (in 5 parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5). Two LMU students who participated in the workshop also wrote about their experiences for the blog: one about doing research in an archive and the other about the collaborative aspect.

Translating the Workshop Experience into My Classes

The workshop students learned how to work with artifacts as historical sources (rather than just with documents). They learned about the importance of audience, how authors must consider their likely audiences when crafting narratives. They learned how to think about the visual – about display and the integration of text and image. They also came to realize that History majors don’t just go to law school or become teachers, that their research and writing skills prepare them for a variety of professional opportunities.

My next step was to think about how to translate the workshop experience into all of my classes. I initially asked students to curate museum exhibits in the form of PowerPoint shows but then shifted to using online tools. A colleague and I, in a team-taught course on Ireland and Poland as European colonies, decided to require students to build a website (on WordPress) in lieu of doing a research paper. They were expected to work as a group (it was a small class) to develop the overall concept and design and to choose the themes. Individual students were then responsible for individual pages. The assignment proved a disaster. In the face of an unfamiliar assignment requiring technology skills, the students just shut down. They were intimidated and overwhelmed by the scale and nature of the assignment, which was compounded by the fact that they were dealing with unfamiliar histories, not having had much past exposure to Irish and Polish history.

I had a better experience in the world history course that I was teaching that semester, where I required students to develop a single webpage presenting their research on a chosen topic. The assignment included very specific parameters – that they had to include at least one audio/visual “artifact,” a link to at least one textual primary source, references to at least two secondary sources. The clear expectations helped students, many of whom produced pretty good webpages, including ones on: the partition of India, Chinese immigration during the Gold Rush, and the link between the Haitian revolution and a yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia.

The lesson that I took from that experience was that students needed explicit instructions about what their webpages should look like. I also decided to try to lessen the technological obstacles that students might face, as building a webpage is far more challenging that using an app. So that they could concentrate on the narrative that they were crafting (for a broad audience, rather than just for me) and on the integration of primary sources and artifacts into that narrative, I switched from requiring students to create their own webpages to requiring students to do blog posts on a class website that I established. I have since required students both to write the traditional research paper and to write a blog entry in which they distill their research for a broader public: European Imperialism course and Weimar Germany course.

Moving Forward

My next step is to expand the assignment again, back in the direction of asking students to create a course website. In spring 2017, I am teaching a course on Nazi Germany, which will include a Spring Break trip to Berlin to explore how the Nazi era and the Holocaust are remembered in Germany and the ways in which Germans have developed a historical narrative around the Nazi era and the Holocaust geared towards public education and memorialization. Students will be required to develop a class website focusing on the history and memory of Nazi Germany. The website will require them to practice the craft of public history – to produce historical narratives and arguments for a broad audience. It will also require them to do work in DH, including blogs, virtual exhibits, videos, and a timeline. In particular, students will draw on their experiences in Berlin to map sites of importance, using GIS technology to layer places, images, and historical analysis. I plan to do a similar assignment when I next teach Honors History – to have students build a website around the social and cultural history of technology, including textual and audio/visual artifacts, historical timelines, historical essays, and video interviews with local experts.

My efforts are part of a broader departmental initiative to focus more on public history, museum studies, historical documentaries, and journalism as part of the LMU history major. Digital Humanities figure prominently in these discussions about presentation, representations, and audience, so I welcome the opportunity to learn more about what others are doing.

“Teaching and Learning with Primary Sources”: A New Module to Complement German History in Documents and Images

The Fashion Conscious Man [International Men's Fashion Week in Cologne, 1986]. Coutesy of Inter-Nationes and the German Information Center.
The Fashion Conscious Man [International Men’s Fashion Week in Cologne, 1986]. Courtesy of Inter-Nationes and the German Information Center.
The German Historical Institute’s flagship digital project, German History in Documents and Images (GHDI), is currently being revised and relaunched. Conceived in 2002, GHDI is an online anthology consisting of ten chronological volumes that cover German history from 1500 to the end of the first Merkel cabinet in 2009. The site is completely bilingual; it includes approximately 1,700 primary-source documents (in German and English translation) and 2,300 images, all of which are accompanied by introductory texts that aid in interpretation. One goal of the relaunch is to enhance GHDI’s utility as a teaching tool; another is to make it more interdisciplinary, so that it better serves colleagues in neighboring disciplines, including German studies. In light of these objectives, the combined seminar on digital resources and teaching with authentic historical sources promises to be an ideal forum for discussing ways of presenting primary source materials in a digital environment for optimal pedagogical use.

GHDI recently went through an external academic review. Many reviewers commented that the site needs a hands-on introductory section on teaching and learning with primary sources. In response, the Institute will design a new pedagogical module that will introduce some common rubrics for source analysis, including “The 6 C’s of Primary Source Analysis” (content, citation, context, connections, communication, and conclusion). The rubrics will then be applied to select textual and visual sources in GHDI. To name one example, the writings of nineteenth-century author and women’s advocate Hedwig Dohm (“What the Pastors Think of Women”) could provide the basis for a lively classroom discussion of “communication” and point of view. The module will also include recommended assignments and classroom activities. Again, on the topic of gender, it would be interesting for students to compare the views expressed in texts by Franz-Josef Wuermeling, FRG Minister of Family and Youth Affairs, and activist film director Helke Sander. Another exercise might involve examining texts by authors who advocate opposing stances on crucial issues, such as the introduction of free markets in land, labor, and capital, a hotly debated topic in Vormärz Germany. Lastly, it might be interesting to invite three of four contemporary scholars to interpret a single source from differing interpretative and methodological points of view.

Questions for GSA seminar participants might include: which types of sources and activities tend to work well in classroom teaching; and how can technology be employed both to enrich traditional approaches to primary source analysis (such as the assignments described above) and to create new ones? With respect to the latter question, it would be interesting to discuss the potential of annotation applications, such as Hypothes.Is and Annotation Studio, in the context of source analysis and pedagogy. Multi-textual annotation tools could facilitate comparative approaches to sources; social annotations tools would aid in small group and classroom discussion. Annotation applications also include features that would allow students to create small sub-collections of documents and images from GHDI; this would make it easier for them to create their own historical narratives with select source materials.

The analysis of images will be given equal – and perhaps even greater – weight in the planned module. Today’s students, as is commonly observed, grew up in a media-rich environment; and this fact has given rise to the general idea that they are more visually attuned than earlier generations. But is that really the case? And, if so, then what does that mean with respect to source analysis in the classroom? Are students well versed in the formal analysis of images, and how could this more art historical approach be applied to history and German studies curricula? While most students could likely identify an obviously staged photograph such as the one featured above (published by a German textile lobbying group on the occasion of International Men’s Fashion Week in 1986), they might not be able to do so in all cases. This could be problematic when they are confronted with propagandistic imagery. One relatively common criticism leveled at the GHDI website is that is includes too many portraits (the implication being that they are boring). In response, the Institute plans to author more comprehensive image captions to help point out the richness conveyed by some of these sources. But these criticisms also point to a larger question: what types of images do students and teachers expect to see represented in a large digital collection? Do teachers, for instance, want headshots of politicians and writers to use as basic illustrations – as opposed to “real sources” – in PowerPoint slides? And can images even be responsibly separated into these two categories? Should a site like GHDI feature photos that already appear in countless Germany history texts and websites (e.g. Menzel paintings)? Whereas some scholars regard such images as tired, others view them as iconic or reassuringly familiar. What sort of mixture of the familiar and the new should a site like GHDI strive for?

The GHDI relaunch will involve not only revisions and additions to the academic content, but also the creation of a new technical infrastructure and user interface. The content revisions and the technical relaunch are inseparable, not least because the types of multimedia source materials that need to be included in a revised GHDI (e.g. sound- and video-clips) cannot be published on the current platform. In addition to providing basic information on source analysis, the planned pedagogical module will also include recommendations and activities based on multimedia sources, especially postwar German films. While film and television have long been used in teaching, there are still relatively few pedagogical resources geared toward their classroom application (compared with the resources devoted to texts and images). For this and other reasons, the Institute may develop a blog and an online discussion forum to promote an informal, two-way discussion about teaching with primary sources, particularly film and audio materials. At the moment, it appears that many scholars share interesting tips about current multimedia sources – references to the television shows Deutschland 83 or Ku’damm 56 – through private Facebook or Twitter accounts. Unfortunately, these recommendations are usually limited to the scholar’s personal “friends” or “followers.” Creating a forum where members of the profession could share links and information would ensure that tips about new multimedia sources reached a larger audience and did not disappear in a sea of individual social media accounts.





Investigating Historic Events through the Intersection of Public and Private Spheres – Claudia Lynn & Sibel Sayılı-Hurley

The analysis and interpretation of linguistic structures in authentic, digitized historic sources and materials with the help of data visualization tools has the potential to raise learners’ critical cultural awareness of the target culture while at the same time raising and expanding their linguistic awareness.

Byram’s Model for Intercultural Communicative Competence (1997) defined critical cultural awareness as “…an ability to evaluate critically and on the basis of explicit criteria perspectives, practices and products in one’s own and other cultures and countries” (p. 53) and posited that it enriches and facilitates the acquisition of a foreign language. This definition has also been incorporated into the ACTFL National Standards for Foreign Language Learning. Language serves as the prime vehicle to embed cultural perspectives in its structures and lexicon, describes and reports on the practices within culture(s), and contributes to the emergence of cultural products. Data visualization tools can aid FL learners -especially at the intermediate level -to untangle and decipher these complex, profound relationships between language and culture. By means of dual coding -verbal and non-verbal, learners process the abstract vocabulary and complex structures of authentic sources with a positive effect on comprehension, retention, and production. (Paivio, 2006, p. 181) Additionally, data visualization appeals to the multi-literacy competencies of digital natives since digital natives are “…operating at twitch speed (not conventional speed); employing random access (not step-by-step); parallel processing (not linear processing); graphics first (not text); play oriented (not work); connected (not stand alone).” (Pendergast, 2010, p. 3) Data visualization tools appeal to most if not all of these characteristics: they offer multiple entries to non-linear processing of texts, they produce images to supplement text comprehension and analysis, and they offer options for text manipulation that may appear rather playful on the surface but that can also be harnessed for critical engagement with course materials.

Our project aims to raise learners’ awareness of the multi-faceted nature of language and culture as well as cultural meaning embedded in language. In our project, learners in an intermediate German course at a postsecondary institution will employ text analysis tools for critical observation and reflection of linguistic choices within the source materials. Learners will use text analysis tools to decode embedded cultural perspectives in the target language, assess their own assumptions, and ultimately also reach a better understanding of their own culture. Additionally, our learners will be contributing to the body of knowledge of German language, culture, and history. We hope to achieve this while simultaneously raising learners’ awareness of the possibilities that Digital Humanities offers and introducing them to some of the learning tools used in Digital Humanities research. We believe learners will thereby also learn a transferable skill.

In this particular course, learners will engage with the history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) through the novel Am kürzeren Ende der Sonnenallee.  Our presentation focuses on personal and public accounts of key events during the period of 1945-1990 that are referenced in the novel. We are especially interested in the intersection of public and private spheres as conveyed through historic sources. Our work with the novel for this project will be the culmination of our co-authored textbook Bewegungen (in preparation for submission), which implements an innovative fourth semester bridge curriculum and aims at revealing multiple perspectives within culture embedded in language.

Learners will examine digitized historic sources (digitized archives of newspapers, eye witness accounts, etc.) about significant events through both public and private accounts to complement the fictional account in the novel. This will provide learners with a multi-layered perspective: the sequence of events (reported facts) and the way the source/account frames and presents events linguistically, semantically, and visually and thereby frames meaning for the reader. Learners will be divided into two teams. One team will work with a selection of different public GDR accounts (e.g., newspapers, history textbooks, radio and TV reports etc.) of the events, while the other team will use a selection of private GDR accounts (eyewitnesses, photos, letters, etc.) of the events. Using data visualization tools such as Voyant. Learners will be able to compare the personal and public accounts in an exploratory qualitative data analysis and gain a better understanding of life in the GDR.

This project promotes not only FL acquisition and critical cultural awareness but also develops valuable research skills. Data visualization compels learners to develop what Kramer coined the bridge between evidence and argument because they will have to make decisions on how to select, evaluate and present data (Kramer, 2012). Thus, learners will become active participants in creating meaning in L2: they will make choices (from a selection of accounts), explain their choices, analyze the language, acquire a new skill through the Digital Humanities tools etc., that is, language acquisition will happen dynamically instead of passively. Learners will also become aware of the limitations of their research tools and methods. However, teaching with Digital Humanities in an intermediate foreign language class also poses certain challenges. We anticipate that learners’ limitations within L2 and their unfamiliarity with Digital Humanities will be among the most challenging.

 Future of the project

We have three goals for the future of the project. First, in the near future, we hope to expand our project by having future classes/learners contribute to the project.  Second, we hope to include non-textual accounts of historic events (e.g., photos, videos, artefacts) to develop models of how to analyze and interpret these digital sources. Third, we hope to be able to collaborate with other colleges/universities teaching the novel and have their learners contribute to our interactive and collaborative publishing platform (e.g., WordPress, Omeka, Scalar).

Screenshots of Text Analysis with Voyant

Voyant Screenshots


Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence. Clevedon, United     Kingdom: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Kramer, Michael J. “What does Digital Humanities Bring to the Table” Issues in Digital History. 25 Sept.     2012. Web. 1 Jun 2016.

Paivio, A. (2006). Mind and Its Evolution: A Dual Coding Theoretical Interpretation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Pendergast, D. (March, 2010). Connecting with Millennials: Using Tag Clouds to Build a Folksonomy from Key Home Economics Documents. Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal. 38 (3), 289-302.

Civil Disobedience and Opposition to the East German Regime in the Years from 1949-1953

Iris Bork-Goldfield (Wesleyan University)

How did citizens resist East Germany’s dictatorial regime, and what happened to those who were caught? These were the questions that I pursued and researched for four years. The main focus of my research was a group of young men and women who lived in Werder/Havel in Brandenburg, Germany, 30 miles southwest of Berlin. They wrote leaflets and secretly distributed them in Werder and surrounding towns. Some were caught, tortured, and spent several years in prison. Eight of them disappeared from view completely. It took 44 years–seven years after the Wall had come down—until relatives and friends found out what had happened to them. Based on interviews with survivors, historical documents that included Stasi files, photos, historical news reals, letters, diaries, etc., I produced a film documentary and wrote the book Wir wollten was tun (We Wanted to Do Something), which was published in 2015. The documentary is available online with English subtitles and German captions. They were created with both German and American students in mind (16 to 24 years of age).

Beate Brunow (Wofford College) and I developed teaching materials for both the film and the book for American students of German. We introduced our pedagogical materials at the ACTFL conference in November 2015. These teaching suggestions are available online on our own website but also with additional authentic materials on the website of the Bundesstiftung für die Aufarbeitung der DDR Diktatur. The materials can be used in conjunction with both the documentary and the book.

These materials were developed for the teaching of history in the German classroom but are easily adaptable to history classes. My original goal was to create a documentary where contemporary witnesses who were actively involved in the resistance between 1949 and 1953 tell their stories. I used a digital camera and a Macbook Pro laptop to record the interviews. I used a professional film editing program to create the video. The book tells the film’s story in more detail. The reader learns the historical background and what happened after 1953. A topic that is not mentioned in the documentary but included in the book is the resistance movement in the 1980s.

Useful and of interest for further research would be:

        1. Integrating research and teaching through digital humanities projects
        2. An online searchable textual database of the Stasi files.
        3. The creation of a GIS-oriented map in order to better visualize where resistance fighters were active and distributed their materials.
        4. A geotagged map of artifacts of various resistance groups, since the students from Werder were not the only ones who actively and secretly opposed the East German government.
        5. A website in which specific parts of the book are connected to the film.


Since I am not very familiar with geotags, cursor-activated popup windows, and Google
geocoding, I hope to learn more about them in the seminar. Such tools will help me make the
book and film a true DH project.

The question I have for the GSA seminar participants is whether they could imagine teaching
this topic (resistance in the former GDR) in their classes and what I or others—including
students—could do to explore and enrich this topic and make it accessible to the world.

Alea–A Digital Remixing Tool for Students and Scholars

Shuffling Büchner

ale·a·to·ry (adjective)

1. of or relating to accidental causes; of luck or chance; unpredictable

2. employing the element of chance in the choice of tones, rests, durations, rhythms, dynamics, etc.


Alea is a tool for reordering and rearranging pre-existing texts. Inspired by the cut-up, découpé techniques of the Dadaists, Alea invites users to drag and drop elements of a larger text in order to generate their own desired sequence of elements, thereby producing new causal, thematic, and temporal connections through deliberate or random experimentation. Each individual re-sequencing involves users in a struggle to explore how the ordering of specific parts of texts contribute to their overall structure, meaning, and aesthetic impact. Simultaneously, users will question their own modes of reading while questioning traditional critical perspectives and editing objectives. Once complete, Alea will foster both pedagogical use and scholarly exploration.


The tool’s concept emerged after more than fifteen years of engaging with the Woyzeck corpus, a dramatic fragment comprised of a series of seemingly unrelated scenes that form only a shadow of a plot: Franz Woyzeck, a soldier, father, and experimental subject, eventually resolves to kill his common-law wife, Marie, after a series of emotional injustices, social inequities, and underlying psychological issues drive him insane. Before the work’s author Georg Büchner could finish a definitive version of the play, he died from typhus at the age of 23. In an attempt to make sense of Büchner’s posthumous work, his family and editors deciphered, revised, and modified the 25 episodic scenes that the author left scattered across four separate, incomplete drafts.

While exploring Büchner’s drama with students at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany and the University of Virginia, I noticed that they tended to struggle with or underperform on one critical thinking assignment: after discussing how a New York theater company once performed the play by drawing scenes randomly from a hat and found that the play invariably “worked” in whatever sequence emerged, students were asked to create and analyze their own reordering of the scenes. At first, students were reluctant, apparently unwilling or unable to experiment more with the corpus. I believe approaching Woyzeck in a printed format primed the students to perform weakly. Despite classroom discussions of Woyzeck’s editorial history, some students nevertheless seemed to believe that the printed order of the scenes was the infallible, immutable order so they were unwilling to explore the possibilities. Similarly, the printed format caused other students to struggle with conceptualizing each scene as a separate component with no fixed place in the order. This rich exercise and its full benefit were ultimately stymied by the corpus in a physical, printed format. Thus, a digital tool like Alea is necessary and can offer support as a pedagogic tool.

Future Directions

There are many possible directions for this project:

  • At the click of a button, Alea will present a random, computer-generated arrangement of the Woyzeck corpus. Given that the 25 scenes can be ordered in literally trillions of ways (25! or 1.551121e+25, to be exact), each click will offer new, never-before-seen possibilities.
  • Users will be able to create, save, and curate their own re-sequencings.
  • Users will be able to export their sequences as an .xml file that they can then use with a visualizing tool like Voyant to analyze the effects of the new sequence against more conventionally edited versions.
  • Users will be able to insert their own textual fragments into the Alea interface before remixing.
  • Users will be able to insert various media files, including text documents, audio files, and short videos, to create a multimedial collage.

Screenshots of Current Build (click to enlarge)

Alea's current interface is very utilitarian. Each blue bar bears the title of a scene from Woyzeck.
Alea’s current interface is very utilitarian. Each blue bar bears the title of a scene from Woyzeck.


Clicking on a scene's blue bar causes that scene's full text to expand below. Future builds will provide "collapse all" and "expand all" buttons to make rearranging and reading easier.
Clicking on a scene’s blue bar causes that scene’s full text to expand below. Future builds will provide “collapse all” and “expand all” buttons to make rearranging and reading easier.


Users can click and drag each blue bar into a new arrangement of their choice. In this image, only the first few scenes have been reordered. Future builds will feature a "randomize order" button that will rearrange the bars in an unpredictable manner.
Users can click and drag each blue bar into a new arrangement of their choice. In this image, only the first few scenes have been reordered. Future builds will feature a “randomize order” button that will rearrange the bars in an unpredictable manner.


Each participant will use these guiding questions to provide feedback for each project in their category: Research, Teaching, or Methods.

  1. How does this project contribute to teaching, learning, research?
  2. Does it create or reframe knowledge and/or help develop skills?
  3. Does is provide new ways of viewing/studying sources?
  4. How can the project contribute to inclusivity in our classrooms? (in terms of document/source diversity and/or accessibility?)
  5. How might this model/method be transferred or applied in other disciplines?
  6. Does the project allow for interdisciplinary/inter-institutional work/collaboration?
  7. Is it sufficiently rigorous in respect to the intellectual aims of the project and in what ways might the project be improved?

Presentation Questions: Teaching

Each seminar participant will give a short, 10-minute presentation on his or her project at the GSA (schedule TBA). The conveners have divided projects into three categories: Research, Teaching, and Methods.  Each group will have a specific set of questions to address.

Questions for projects that focus primarily on teaching:

  1. What were your goals and how did the DH tools help you achieve them?
  2. What is the main impact of the project in your classroom and on student learning?
  3. What are two challenges of teaching with DH?
  4. What is the future of this project?
  5. One big question for the group that you want answered.