Digital tools for community-engaged learning

Thanks to all those who came to my presentation at SRU’s Community Engagement Breakfast Series.  Below are some tools to spark your thinking about digital tools for community engagement in your own classes!

HistoryPin Assignment materials

I would definitely recommend reading through the “Read Me!” file in there, as it contains my comments on lessons learned, refinements, etc.


Easy-to-use tools for digital storytelling – including timelines, audio annotations, mapping, and more


An open-source web publishing platform for sharing digital collections and creating media-rich online exhibits.

Be sure and check out their directory of projects for ideas on the wide variety of ways this platform can be used by students and partner institutions

My Digital History Students: A Tech Profile

This fall, I am teaching a course in Digital History for the first time at Slippery Rock University.  At the beginning of the course, I had my students complete a brief survey about their access, use, and familiarity with various forms of computer technology. (This is an idea I stole from several DH pros, including Sharon Leon.)

The results of this survey were enlightening – some answers were expected, but there were also several surprises. A couple of interesting takeaways:

  1. The desktop is officially dead.  All 18 students indicated they own laptops, while only three own desktop computers. 17 owned smartphones, meaning there is one lovable Luddite holding out in my class!
  2. I was surprised how few students use Firefox, which is generally my favorite browser. I suspect the longtime lack of an iOS version of Firefox (only released in August 2016), combined with Google Chrome’s obsession with syncing bookmarks, account info, etc. across devices has contributed to making it the default browser used by many.
  3. While Facebook was by far the most popular social media platform, only half the class reported using Instagram or Twitter. We got started with Twitter on the first day (hashtag: #sruhist411) and will be using it through the semester to follow issues, debates, and cool stuff happening in the DH world.
  4. There seems to be a general lack of experience with authoring content in the digital realm (aside from social media, of course). 13 of the 18 reported they would be “not at all confident” in their ability to publish their own website with a custom domain. Only 3 reported experience with a blogging platform, and the same number indicated they had used wiki tools in the past.

If you’re interested, full results of the survey can be seen here. I’m excited to see how the class develops as we go along, and my hope is that by the end my students will not only have a much broader familiarity with technological tools available to them, but greater confidence in their ability to use these tools to move from being consumers to creators in the digital world.


Correlation vs. Causation: Urban history edition

Decaying former mansion, Detroit, 1999 (Library of Congress

Decaying former mansion, Detroit, 1999 (Library of Congress

In recent days, Republican nominee Donald Trump has been making an effort to reach out to African-American voters, particularly those in major urban areas.  The effort has been ham-fisted, at best and involved resurrecting an old argument about Democratic party policies and urban areas: namely, that because the Democratic party maintains a strong presence in older, economically-declining cities, it is in fact this political dominance that is responsible for decline.  Democratic rule, the argument goes, causes urban economic decline, poverty, and high rates of crime.  In his August 19 speech, Trump stated,

“Look at how much African American communities are suffering from Democratic control. To those I say the following: What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump? What do you have to lose?…You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”

As I said, while Trump’s presentation may be especially hyperbolic (and inaccurate) this argument has been around for some time; Glenn Beck peddled a version of it back in 2008, and it is resurrected fairly often in conservative commentary like Fox News. The point has undeniable appeal – it points to a clear, factual correlation, and can offer a clear, simple explanation to what is a frustratingly complex problem.

Like most “simple” answers to complex issues, however, there’s only one problem: it doesn’t hold water. Yes, in struggling cities like Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, it’s true that Democratic politicians tend to hold sway. However, let’s take a look at the top 10 fastest-growing cities of the last decade If it were true that Democratic leadership destined cities to poverty, then surely these cities have benefited from conservative GOP dominance? The table below (based on 30 minutes of internet research by yours truly) tells a different story:

Dems and cities1

Obviously, using only the mayoral administration is a crude measure of political “control” in American cities (a more thorough analysis would want to consider the makeup of city councils/aldermen, etc.) – but this, I believe, makes the point sufficiently.  Correlation is not causation, and Democratic political power doesn’t “cause” urban decline any more than Nicolas Cage movies cause people to drown in swimming pools.

None of this is to hold Democrats blameless for urban malaise, or to say that conservative policies can’t contribute to a solution for inner cities.  But it is to say that political candidates and pundits ought to take a more thoughtful approach to these serious issues, perhaps by studying a little urban history to understand the myriad forces that contribute to urban economic decline and racial division.  If they’re serious about improving urban poverty, scholarship like Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto and the host of new works on racial segregation and poverty in urban America (most popularly, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Case for Reparations”) would go a long way toward deepening their understanding.

I suspect, however, that talking heads and attention-seeking candidates will not be visiting the history section of their local library any time soon, and that the culture of sloppy thinking, easy answers and finger-pointing will dominate our rhetoric of urban poverty for some time to come.