Tim Roberts Civil War letters project,Digital History Teaching,Digital tools,Public history & historical thinking,Uncategorized Why I’m in the George Mason University digital public history program-1st version

Why I’m in the George Mason University digital public history program-1st version

I am a professor of American history at Western Illinois University, where I have taught undergraduate and graduate students for ten years in both traditional and online settings. I was awarded tenure in 2012. In 2013 I was awarded a Fulbright year-long lectureship to teach at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China. Previously I taught American history for six years at Bilkent University, an English-language university in Turkey. After completing my doctoral program in history from the University of Oxford (UK), my first full-time position was as a visiting assistant professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. I have published three peer-reviewed books and numerous scholarly articles in American history. My research focuses on the history of American “exceptionalism,” on the experiences of Union soldiers and their families during the Civil War, and on early American foreign relations. I am currently writing a study of American and French imperialism in comparative and transnational perspective from the nineteenth century through World War I.
My interest in studying digital public humanities at George Mason is three-fold, involving research, teaching, and community service. I have become fairly proficient in traditional research scholarship, but wish, and need, to become versed in presenting my work in non-traditional media. These include online exhibits, websites, and various visual and textual analysis methods. I envision learning how to conduct research based on gathering metadata for keywords and concepts over time and space, to emphasize the transnational nature of, say, ideas about frontier settlement and its underlying ideologies of mission, exceptionalism, and empire in the United States and France. I also wish to gain some familiarity with history-applicable digital tools, such as Omeka and GIS mapping, which would enable me to present in virtual form visual and textual representations of places such as Civil War sites described in the writings of Illinois soldiers and their families.
Concerning teaching, our history department has recently developed a course in public history, offered to graduate and advanced undergraduate students, to which I contributed and may teach in the future. The course is partly a response to the state of much of the field of history, as our department attempts to continue to attract students despite apparently broadly declining interest in study of the liberal arts. We have been rethinking what skills we should emphasize that students obtain in our classrooms, and what kinds of written and other forms of communication we require in students’ work. I think that the historical discipline is still struggling, partly for self-preservation, but also in a healthy way, over what it means to study history in the era of digital media. One outcome of that rethinking is a greater emphasis on acquisition of transferable or interdisciplinary media skills. Our public history course reflects these issues, and thus exposes students to some aspects of what have become mainstream careers for practitioners of history outside the classroom. But the class could be enhanced by incorporation of readings and especially student and faculty-student collaborative projects involving digital history tools, with which I would like to become familiar.
Finally, I inhabit two other positions in which proficiency in digital and public history could make me more valuable as an academic and as a public historian. I recently was appointed our department’s graduate studies coordinator. Thus I am in a key position to shape our graduate curriculum, which would benefit from courses exposing students to basic tools of digital research and public audience communication. Meanwhile, I am also active as a volunteer and member of the board of directors of a local history museum. Despite our location in region of the rural Midwest facing population decline and a faltering economy, the museum recently completed a capital campaign that raised $100,000 for a major enhancement of programming space. Building on this project, the museum is keen to grow its appeal in our region by telling the community’s (or communities’) stories through a variety of exhibit and interactive programs that include history, genealogy, music, and theater. A large question with which we as directors of the museum are grappling is whether and how to appeal to the public to actually visit the museum, versus delivering programs virtually, through websites, social media, and podcasts. My learning about what public history scholars and practitioners are saying about these issues in terms of audience analysis, community access, the significance of physical location to certain historical sites, and the financial impact of actual versus virtual historical tourism could help me direct the museum to move towards the vanguard of public history and be a real factor in the region’s cultural and economic vitality.

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