Our First Live Episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast is in the Books!

Podcast on stageThis morning we recorded our first live episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast before the Community of Educators (faculty and co-curricular educators) at Messiah College.

The Community of Educators gathered today at “Educator’s Day,” a tradition in which our faculty and co-curricular educators mark the end of the previous year and turn our attention to developing ourselves for the year ahead.  The theme of this year’s Educator’s Day was “Flourishing in a Digital World.”

As I noted in my post this morning, the administration asked us to record an episode of the podcast related to this theme.   Our guests were three humanities scholars doing very creative work at the intersection of digital scholarship and place.  David Pettegrew runs Messiah College’s Digital Harrisburg Initiative, Jean Corey runs Messiah’s Center for Public Humanities, and Nathan Skulstad is a digital documentarian and story-teller.

We could not have done this live episode without the hard work of podcast producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling and Cynthia Wells, the director of the Ernest L. Boyer Center at Messiah.  Thanks as well to Ashley Sheaffer of the Messiah College Agape Center for interviewing me on the episode and the skilled technicians on the Messiah College sound team for making us sound good!

Stay tuned.  This bonus episode will drop sometime in the next few weeks.  In the meantime, head over to Patreon site and help get us to Season 5.

Some tweets:

And Drew’s excellent response to Mr. Hatfield’s snarky tweet:

Digital History at Messiah College

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Yesterday I was telling the museum professionals at the PA Museum Association annual conference about our Public History Program at Messiah College.  Here is what I said:

As the chair of the history department, I have also been involved in helping to create Messiah College’s public history program.  Our public history students get training in the kind of historical thinking and historical content that all of our history majors receive.  That includes 39 hours of coursework.  But they also take a course in public history theory and practice and enroll in other courses that have substantial units devoted to oral history, local history, history education, public archaeology, and digital history.  But that is not all!  Students also take electives in topics such as web design, event planning, GIS technology, business administration, museum studies, public relations writing, or photography.    Our program is innovative, and I know of several colleges that have used it as a model for their own public history programs.

As I told the museum professionals, digital history plays an important role in our public history program.  We offer a 300-level course in the subject and use the Digital Harrisburg Initiative as a home base for a lot of our work in this area.

Want to learn more about digital history at Messiah?  Watch this video. (For whatever reason, I cannot get it to embed).

Digital Harrisburg at the 2018 AHA

DHI

I just finished chairing a session at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association titled “Placing the American Community: Lessons from the Digital Harrisburg Project.”

Here is the session abstract:

In spring 2014, students and faculty from Messiah College and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology initiated a collaborative digital project to place the entire population of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the neighboring (historically) immigrant town of Steelton, on contemporary historical maps from the early twentieth century. Through class exercises and projects, work study positions, and volunteer efforts, history professors and students input the entire population of these communities from the decennial censuses of 1900-1930, including all relevant census fields such as race and birthplace, immigrant status, occupation and industry. At the same time, and in conjunction with this work, GIS students and faculty at both institutions digitized contemporary maps of Harrisburg and Steelton. The result of this combined labor is a massive demographic database of over 300,000 names, linked to over 10,000 individual residences in a GIS. Teams have also begun to incorporate (via a unique property number) other large data sets such as church membership rolls, names and occupations from city directories, and property values for the same time span. And history faculty have mined newspaper databases and recorded oral histories to fill out the picture of the city.

The Digital Harrisburg Project has been a boon to our institutions, giving our history students new digital proficiencies in databases and GIS, and our GIS and computer science students an opportunity to tackle historical problems, while also creating real and enduring collaborations across departments and institutions. As importantly, the project has generated a new and powerful historical resource for understanding and rethinking major phenomena in U.S. urban history. The integration of multiple sets of information encoded at individual street addresses in GIS has created one of the highest-resolution digital images of an early twentieth century urban community transformed by immigration, population growth, and city planning. Plotting the population through time (1900-1930) sheds light on the dynamic patterns of human mobility and migration that were characteristic of communities at the junction of major roads, waterways, and rail lines. The datasets also have allowed us to reconsider the demographic, racial, and spatial aspects of Harrisburg’s successful urban reform movement, outlined most clearly in William Wilson’s pioneering work on The City Beautiful Movement (1989).

In this session, we provide an overview of the history of the Digital Project within our institutional contexts; outline the nature of the data sets including the geospatial framework; highlight the potential of the data for reconsidering broad issues of historiographic debate; and showcase our recent efforts to replicate the data for other cities and places through new technologies (computer vision). The goal of this session is to publicize the results of the project in anticipation of the imminent public dissemination of the demographic and geospatial datasets for purposes of research, and to highlight how others might engage in a similar project within their own communities. We also hope attendees will provide us feedback as we consider next steps.

Participants included James LaGrand (Messiah College History Department), David Pettegrew (Messiah College History Department), Albert Sarvis (Harrisburg University of Science and Technology), David Owen (Messiah College Computer Science Department), and Lisa Krissof Boehm (Urban Studies at Bridgewater State University).

Speakers focused on 3 aspects of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative:

  1. Digital Harrisburg as a collaborative venture between faculty and students at Messiah College, Harrisburg University, and civic institutions
  2. Digital Harrisburg as a pedagogical framework to help Messiah College history students develop digital proficiencies and make historical arguments with technology; and to introduce computer science and GIS students to historical applicatons of datasets.
  3. Digital Harrisburg as a public humanities project designed to engage different audiences in the city.

The audience–a combination of digital historians and Pennsylvania history experts–was small.  But they were also very engaged.  Commentator Lisa Boehm praised our work, told us to be “less humble” about it, and offered some great suggestions for moving forward.

Click here to learn more about the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

AHA Bound!

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I’m heading to Washington D.C. today for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. I will be joining thousands of historians in a weekend of presentations, panels, conversations, job-searching, book-browsing, receptions and other history-related activities.  As always, we will have the conference covered here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Check back often for updates from this D.C. history-fest!

I will be participating in two sessions.  Both will take place on Friday:

Placing the American Community: Lessons from the Digital Harrisburg Project

The Bible in American Cultural and Political History

I hope to see some of you there!

Our Second “Patron’s Only” Summer Mini-Episode Is Here!

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If you are a patron of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, you have heard from producer Drew Dylri Hermeling this morning about how to access our second patrons-only summer mini-episode.

Our guest on the episode is David Pettegrew, Associate Professor of History at Messiah College and Director of the college’s Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

In this episode, David talks about the technological innovations that are changing the way we do history and how digital history merges with local history and public history in Pennsylvania’s capital city!

We are thrilled to share this special episode with our patrons and send it along to all future patrons as well.  Please consider becoming a patron by visiting our Patreon page and making a pledge.  In addition to the usual perks of patronship (mugs and books!), new patrons will also receive our first 2017 patrons-only episode with Civil Rights Movement tourism expert Todd Allen.

Library of Congress Places 25,000 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps Online

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This is huge.  We uses these maps for our Digital Harrisburg Project at Messiah College.

Here is a taste of the press release:

The Library of Congress has placed online nearly 25,000 Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which depict the structure and use of buildings in U.S. cities and towns. Maps will be added monthly until 2020, for a total of approximately 500,000.

The online collection now features maps published prior to 1900.  The states available include Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Alaska is also online, with maps published through the early 1960s.  By 2020, all the states will be online, showing maps from the late 1880s through the early 1960s.

In collaboration with the Library’s Geography and Map Division, Historical Information Gatherers digitized the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps during a 16-month period at the Library of Congress.  The Library is in the process of adding metadata and placing the digitized, public-domain maps on its website. 

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps are a valuable resource for genealogists, historians, urban planners, teachers or anyone with a personal connection to a community, street or building.  The maps depict more than 12,000 American towns and cities.  They show the size, shape and construction materials of dwellings, commercial buildings, factories and other structures.  They indicate both the names and width of streets, and show property boundaries and how individual buildings were used.  House and block numbers are identified.  They also show the location of water mains, fire alarm boxes and fire hydrants.

In the 19th century, specialized maps were originally prepared for the exclusive use of fire insurance companies and underwriters.  Those companies needed accurate, current and detailed information about the properties they were insuring. The Sanborn Map Company was created around 1866 in the United States in response to this need and began publishing and registering maps for copyright. The Library of Congress acquired the maps through copyright deposit, and the collection grew to 700,000 individual sheets. The insurance industry eventually phased out use of the maps and Sanborn stopped producing updates in the late 1970s.

I have spent far too much time looking at these maps this weekend.  You can view them here.

Why Computer Scientists Should “Stop Hating” the Humanities

HartleyThis issue keeps coming up.

Yesterday during a faculty meeting I listened to a colleague explain digital humanities to a group of more traditional-minded humanists.  He discussed the digital humanities as an effort to bridge the divide between computer scientists and humanistic inquiry.

Last weekend we dropped Episode 21 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Our guest was Scott Hartley, a venture capitalist who came of age in the Silicon Valley.  Hartley’s new book The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World argues that liberal arts graduates usually have the most creative and successful business ideas.

Now Wired magazine is getting into the act.  Check out Emma Pierson‘s piece “Hey, Computer Scientists! Stop Hating on the Humanities.

Here is a taste:

As a computer science PhD student, I am a disciple of big data. I see no ground too sacred for statistics: I have used it to study everything from sex to Shakespeare, and earned angry retorts for these attempts to render the ineffable mathematical. At Stanford I was given, as a teenager, weapons both elegant and lethal—algorithms that could pick out the terrorists most worth targeting in a network, detect someone’s dissatisfaction with the government from their online writing.

Computer science is wondrous. The problem is that many people in Silicon Valley believe that it is all that matters. You see this when recruiters at career fairs make it clear they’re only interested in the computer scientists; in the salary gap between engineering and non-engineering students; in the quizzical looks humanities students get when they dare to reveal their majors. I’ve watched brilliant computer scientists display such woeful ignorance of the populations they were studying that I laughed in their faces. I’ve watched military scientists present their lethal innovations with childlike enthusiasm while making no mention of whom the weapons are being used on. There are few things scarier than a scientist who can give an academic talk on how to shoot a human being but can’t reason about whether you should be shooting them at all.

Read the rest here.

 

What is Going On With Digital Harrisburg?

A lot.

I have been on sabbatical this semester so I am not privy to a lot of the day-to-day activity in the Messiah College History Department‘s Digital Harrisburg Initiative.  That is why I am thankful for the regular blog updates from the students in Dr. David Pettegrew’s Digital History course.

Yesterday Pettegrew published a wrap-up post (or perhaps mid-term report might be a better way to describe it) about all that is happening this Fall.  

Here is a taste:

City Beautiful: The Campaign for Beauty. Students are now developing a section of the City Beautiful Omeka site originally created by students the last time I taught this class in Spring 2014. This semester we are focusing on the campaign for public improvements that occurred in the city between Mira Lloyd Dock’s speech to the Board of Trade in December 1900 and the vote for a new mayor and the bond issue in February 1902. We have collected stories, photographs, and news items from newspaper databases for The Patriot (Harrisburg) and The Harrisburg Telegraph to better understand the reformers involved in the movement (including their residences and networks), the venues and places used for promoting the bond issue, and the areas of the city where campaigning was most active. We are trying to understand how the reformers sought to convince the population to vote on a bond issue to take civic debt (and higher taxes) in order to implement reform. Students will soon be adding short overviews to the Omeka site explaining how campaign events related to the space of the city. This map below, for example, shows the the residences (red) of some of the principal reformers who drove the campaign for improvement in 1901-1902 against the background of how the different city precincts voted for the bond issue to support improvements. The darker the background, the greater the support for improvement. (The first number in the map below indicates the ward of the city, the second number the precinct, e.g., 7.6 = Ward 7, Precinct 6).

And here are some thing you can expect in the future from the Digital Harrisburg Initiative:

Expansion and Other News. Finally, our team has been thinking over the last few months about how we might expand the project over the next year or two. Here are some developments:
  • Professors Jim LaGrand and Jean Corey at Messiah College are working with their students this year through a course in Public History (Spring 2016) and the Public Humanties Student Fellows program to tell the story of particular neighborhoods and churches in Harrisburg. This will certainly involve more oral history and documentary work than we’ve done in the past, which will comprise a whole new layer for understanding the history of the city.
  • Too early to say much about this, but I’ve been corresponding with individuals in other communities of the region (Mechanicsburg and Lancaster) about developing similar demographic and GIS-based projects for those communities.
  • We’ve applied for external grants to fund the development and refinement of our data sets.
  • Professor Erikson will be teaching his intro to GIS class again in the spring and will add more geospatial layers for other communities of the region.
  • The Burg
  • The public student humanities fellows are working with an interdisciplinary group of volunteers to discover the rich cultural/ historical landscape of the city through a project called Poetry in Place project, which invites regional public poets and Harrisburg City School students to write about significant sites. Eventually this project will be linked to a digital map of the city.

More Good News About the Digital Harrisburg Initiative

As I have written here before, Messiah College hosts the Digital Harrisburg Initiative, a digital project that is trying to understand early 20th-century Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  (Read our coverage here).

M. Diane McCormick has written a very thorough piece about the project at The Burg.  Here is a taste:

The turn of the 20th century was the era of City Beautiful, when Harrisburg was a leader in the young nation’s progressive urban movement.

Though City Beautiful has been well documented, questions remain. When ridding the city of typhus depended on a yes vote for a municipal bond for sewer upgrades, why did some precincts vote no?

We know about the elites who championed City Beautiful, but how did the reforms affect the everyday lives of citizens?

The questions are still being explored, but Digital Harrisburg has begun seeking answers. It started when liberal arts Messiah College and nerdy Harrisburg University started conversing on ways to blend humanities and technology. At Messiah, Associate Professor David Pettegrew turned his digital history class students into sort of 1900 census-takers, transcribing census data into a database for easy searching.

At the same time, students of Albert Sarvis, Harrisburg University assistant professor of geospatial technology and project management, aligned Harrisburg’s 1901 road network with today’s map. Another class vectorized—that is, drew the shapes—of city buildings and lined up the shapes with the address codes tied to the census findings of Pettegrew’s students.

It’s not as if the findings themselves are new. They’ve been discoverable in records for decades—for anyone with the unlimited time to find them. Digitization makes results instantly searchable.

Demographic trends in income, occupation, race and ethnicity quickly pop up by geography. Where did families live who had the highest rate of living children, versus those who had lost the largest numbers of children? That might have influenced their City Beautiful votes.

It’s a way to compare “a pattern or any other spatial layer you want to,” said Sarvis.

“It’s not just how many German illiterate women there are, but exactly where in the city they are,” he added.

Never Knew Existed

Rachel Carey joined the project as a Pettegrew student and is now the data master. The history major with a minor in music (she plays French horn) graduates from Messiah College at the end of 2015 and then looks forward to a graduate program in history.

Digitizing history is the 21st-century solution to the age-old puzzle of how to engage new generations in history, said Carey. Historians have a new tool to “bring the past into the present” and help contemporary audiences relate to the neighborhoods and communities of the past, even in “this smallish city.”

“My favorite part is being able to visualize the past, and that’s what this project is all about,” she said. “We take these people who formerly we knew nothing about. We put it on the Internet and map their houses. You go onto the map, click a house, and you can read all of this information about these people you never knew existed.”

At Messiah, the project has become an “energized enterprise” among faculty and students from many classes. Some students of Messiah History Department Chairman John Fea added Market Square Presbyterian Church membership records to the database, finding where church members, many among the city’s elite, lived in relation to neighborhoods and ethnicities. For the rest of 2015, inputting citywide property values for 1900 is a top priority for the Digital Harrisburg team.

Read the rest here.

Pennsylvania History Wrap-Up

Yesterday was the last day of classes for the Spring 2015  semester at Messiah College.  It was also the last day of my Pennsylvania History course.  Teaching this course at Messiah has been an interesting challenge.  Pennsylvania History is taken by a cross-section of students: history majors, history majors with a public history concentration, and general education students pursuing a “pluralism” distribution requirement.  In other words, some of the students get pretty fired up about the study of the past, while others are just enduring the course in order to get their pluralism credits “out of the way.”

The History Department at Messiah hopes to achieve multiple goals and purposes with this course. First, we hope that our students will gain content knowledge and learn how to think like historians. Second, we want them to develop an appreciation for the state in which they live or are attending college.  Third, we want to teach them practical skills for “doing” history.  These include digital history, local history, and oral history.

So how did this all work out?

In terms of delivering content, we read all of Pencak and Miller’s Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth.  Students had a quiz on every chapter, exposing them to content from native Americans prior to the arrival of William Penn all the way up to the turn of the 21st century.  Most of the lectures in the class played off of my strengths in early American history.  We covered Pennsylvania history up to the Civil War.  These lectures focused on the  native American-European contact, William Penn and the Quakers, the connections between religious freedom and liberalism in the colonial era, the Paxton Boys Riots, the Enlightenment in Philadelphia, the American Revolution, the Whiskey Rebellion, early republican politics, and the Civil War in Pennsylvania..

Early in the semester the students did some work on the 1900 census for the city of Harrisburg.  They matched the names on the census records with the names on the 1900 membership rolls of the Market Square Presbyterian Church.  We were then able to begin identifying the religious commitments of the people on the census and, with the help of Digital Harrisburg guru David Pettegrew, were able to mark the Presbyterians on a 1900 map of the city.  As might be expected, Presbyterians lived in some of the most high-end neighborhoods of Harrisburg, especially those neighborhoods situated along the Susquehanna River.  Thanks to some ethnic mapping done by the Digital Harrisburg project, we were also able to compare the places where Presbyterians tended to live in 1900 with the  places where Germans (mostly Lutherans and Catholics), Irish (mostly Catholics), Greeks (mostly Orthodox), and African Americans (most AME or Baptist) lived.

Presbyterians in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, circa 1900

The students were also required to complete an oral history project.  They interviewed someone who experienced a significant event in Pennsylvania History, prepared a transcript of the interview, and then used the transcript to write an eight-page paper on that particular event, using the interview as their only primary source.  Popular topics included rural Pennsylvania and the World War II homefront, the Three Mile Island meltdown of 1979, agricultural and family life in Pennsylvania, and the history of various religious organizations and denominations.  Students were held to professional standards of oral history practice.  One student loved the assignment so much that she wants to pursue an M.A. in history with a concentration in oral history.

Finally, students were asked to contribute to the Digital Harrisburg Project through an exploration of Catholicism in the city during the years 1900-1910.  Each student was given a ten-month period from a Harrisburg newspaper (thanks Newspapers.com) and told to write a five page history of Catholicism in Harrisburg during that period.  We then spent a couple of class periods trying to redact their various reports into some kind of narrative.  We never did decide on one overarching theme that defined Harrisburg Catholicism in this period, but we did spend a lot of time talking about the relationship between Catholicism and ethnic identity, immigration in the city, the Harrisburg Catholic response to the assassination of McKinley, Protestant-Catholic relations in Harrisburg, the local response to the death of Pope Leo XIII, and the building of the Cathedral of St. Patrick.

I am not sure all of my students were thrilled about doing these assignments.  Some didn’t really care about history.  Others wanted more content and fewer skills-based assignments. Some had no interested in Harrisburg.  But in general, like all diligent Messiah College students, they did the assignments with little complaint and perhaps even a bit of good cheer.  For a lot of them this was their first exposure to a history course and how historians think differently than nurses, engineers, or business professionals.

Keep your eye on the Digital Harrisburg Project website.  Some of the stuff that the class produced this semester may eventually find its way there.

Pennsylvania History 2.0

The Cathedral of St. Patrick, Harrisburg, PA

Some of you who read this blog carefully and have a good memory will recall that in Spring 2014 I developed a course on Pennsylvania history.

The course serves several student constituencies at Messiah College.  First, it counts as an upper-division history course for Messiah history majors. Second, it counts as an elective in our public history program.  We are not only using this course to teach content (Lenape Indians to Three Mile Island and beyond), but our students also gain basic training in how to do oral history, local history, and even a very small amount of digital history. Third, this course counts as a general education course that meets Messiah’s “pluralism” requirement. As a result we spend a lot of time discussing questions of religious, ethnic, class, and racial identity as it relates to events that happened in the history of the state.  I challenge the students to ask whether or not William Penn’s so-called “Holy Experiment” has been a success.

Once again, I have decided to use Randall Miller and Bill Pencak’s book Pennsylvania: A History of the Commonwealth.  I like this book because it offers chronological coverage of Pennsylvania’s past alongside chapters related to the skills and practices–oral history, folklore, genealogy, etc.–of doing Pennsylvania history.

Last year students had two major assignments.  First, they had to visit local archives and create an online exhibit using Omeka software.  Second, they had to conduct an oral history interview, transcribe the interview, and write an eight-page paper placing the subject of the interview in a larger historical context.

This year I have kept the oral history assignment.  Students are writing oral history papers based on interviews with longtime employees of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, people who lived through Three Mile Island, steelworkers who suffered through de-industrialization, and those who experienced the Pennsylvania home front during World War II, to name a few of the topics.

I have replaced the Omeka assignment with two smaller projects related to the work of our ongoing Digital Harrisburg Initiative.  First, students will be doing research that will eventually lead to the mapping of the Harrisburg Presbyterian community in 1900.  They are using church membership lists from Harrisburg’s historic Market Street Presbyterian Church and comparing the names and addresses with the 1900 census that David Pettegrew and his team of students have digitized.  Since the 1900 census has been mapped on a 1900 fire insurance map, it will be easy to develop the map further to include the location of Presbyterians.  This assignment is due next week, giving David’s team plenty of time to create the Presbyterian map in preparation for our analysis in class next month.

Second, we will be exploring the history of Catholics in Harrisburg in the years between 1900 and 1910.  Each student is assigned a 6-9 month section of the Harrisburg Daily Independent and the Harrisburg Telegraph.  Using Newspapers.com, they will find every article related to Catholicism in the city and write a five-page history of Catholicism in Harrisburg for their assigned 6-9 month period.  We will then spend several 90-minute class periods discussing these reports and piecing together the history of Harrisburg in this particular decade.  We are especially interested in the building of the Cathedral of St. Patrick’s on State Street.

Stay tuned:  I hope to do some posts on how these projects are progressing.

Dispatches from the History Major: "Digital Harrisburg: The Undergraduate Experience"

In case you missed it last week, we published the first installment of Messiah College sophomore history major James Mueller’s new series: “Dispatches from the History Major.”  Here is installment #2.  –JF
If you’ve been keeping up with the Messiah College History Department at all this past year, you might have heard of a not so little thing called the Digital Harrisburg Project. If you haven’t been helplessly enthralled by Messiah College’s social networking posts concerning the project, well, it’s never too late to begin a new addiction:
But please, remember to still have dinner with your family. We’ll be here when you get back.  
Now, if you’re like most social media users, you’re already bored with me. But never fear! I’m only going to talk about the Digital Harrisburg Project tangentially – I won’t go into any details (not in this post anyway). What I really want to talk about is undergraduate scholarship.
Yesterday an acquaintance asked me what I thought was the most challenging part of being a history major at Messiah. “Definitely the expectations of the professors,” I responded. “In upper division classes they push you to think, speak, and write like a professional historian. I have one professor who always exhorts me to write papers which I would be comfortable publishing.”
Of course, this is what every good university professor preaches, right? Well, maybe. But initiatives like the Digital Harrisburg Project (which has now been incorporated into three different undergraduate history courses at Messiah) demonstrate that, for this school at least, undergraduate scholarship is more than just idealistic mumbo jumbo.
When people hear the name Harrisburg they either cringe because of its poor reputation or furrow their brow because they’ve never heard of it. Often, even the ones who hate it don’t know much about it. That’s because there is an astonishingly little amount of scholarship out there on this forgotten city. Even if my contribution to the Digital Harrisburg Project has been minimal in comparison to the true undergraduates heroes like Rachel Carey and Rachel Morris (check out Rachel Carey’s blog to find out more about the work these two have done), it’s exciting to be a part of an undergraduate team generating original scholarship for a neglected community. I’m thankful Messiah College has given me that opportunity! 

The Digital Harrisburg Initiative Rolls On

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DHI Fellows hard at work in the Messiah College History Dept.

Some of you who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home are familiar with the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.  If you still don’t know about the project, let me bring it to your attention here.  DHI is an interdisciplinary digital history project housed in the School of Humanities at Messiah College and run by my History Department colleague David Pettegrew.  It attempts to tell the story of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania from roughly the 1880-1930.  

Like most digital history projects, DHI is a work in progress.  David and his team of historians, GIS experts, undergraduate fellows, and student researchers continue to add new information to the site.

DHI was launched a year ago this month.  Here is a taste of David Pettegrew’s celebratory post:

About a year ago, a number of faculty and students from several courses at Messiah College and Harrisburg University partnered to launch a new initiative to digitize Harrisburg’s history. It’s incredible how our original vision of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative (DHI) has grown over the last year as we’ve found new partners and begun to outline the social contours of the City Beautiful movement. Here’s an update on the groups, courses, and institutions who are partnering this semester to contribute to the initiative:
1. The Digital Harrisburg Working Group (Rachel Carey, James Mueller, David Crout, and I) continue to plow forward in making progress on the 1900 and 1910 census. We lost our wonderful GIS tech, Rachel Morris, to an early graduation, but we’ve since gained a new member David Crout.  Rachel is digitizing the 1910 census for Harrisburg, James is working on normalizing the 1900 data, and David Crout is working on the triennial tax assessments. You’ll hear more from all of our group during the semester.
2. John Fea’s class in Pennsylvania History at Messiah College is working on church rolls for Pine Street Presbyterian and St. Patricks Cathedral parish at the turn of the 20th century as well as the relationship of these communities to the City Beautiful movement. Once these membership rolls are collected and digitized, we’ll be able to plot members of these different communities according to their area of residence, and analyze membership against criteria like ethnicity, birthplace, and occupation, among others.
3. Jim LaGrand’s students in U.S. Urban History at Messiah College will be working on the occupational data for 1900 . It’s currently the only field in our database that is not at all normalized…
4. Professor Jeff Erikson is working with several students this semester on a directed study related to GIS. His students are georeferencing and tracing the 1902 Sanborn maps for Steelton, the community immediately south of Harrisburg. Since Rachel Carey has keyed the census data for Steelton, completing this will be a first step in understanding the large community of immigrants in Harrisburg 120 years ago.
5. Professor Albert Sarvis of Harrisburg University, in the meantime, is working with geospatial technology students on georeferencing the Sanborn maps of 1905 for Harrisburg. Once these are completed, we’ll add later years of Sanborn maps for the city.
6. Over at Jump Street, Andrea Glass is directing a group of capable high school student interns in digitizing images and documents from the Harrisburg City Archive. I’m hopeful that we’ll start to crowdsource some of the photos without provenience at this site to encourage identification. For some possibility, see the incredible site dedicated to the Philadelphia City Archive. We’re about to launch an Omeka site devoted to Harrisburg history that is a bit broader than City Beautiful.
7. We’ll be partnering this semester with Professor Michael Barton’s class at Penn State Harrisburg, who will analyze the census data for the Eighth Ward. This is a boon to us since Barton has been a pioneer in telling Harrisburg’s story, and his students produced some of the earliest work on the subject. See, for example, the excellent website about the Old Eighth Ward created and maintained by Stephanie Patterson Gilbert. Look for some interesting stories and historical analysis.
8. Since launching this site, I’ve heard from a number of people who are also working on digital projects related to Harrisburg. I think of Robert Shoaff, who is doing interesting work with city youth to build up a digital 3D model of Midtown called the Midtown Minecraft Project (see the blog here). There are others who have contacted me recently about their interests in contributing to the initiative.
There are a number of other exciting projects that are just developing such as public memory harvests and gaming, which we’ll publicize when the timing is right. Stay tuned.
Beyond these endeavors, a number of presentations are in the works. We’ll keep you updated. If you would like to support our initiative, visit the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference page and follow the link to vote for including our project in a major DH conference in July.
Things are happening quickly with the DHI. It will be interesting to see where we are a year from now.

Bringing "Active Learning" Into the Classroom

Last year, as some of you may remember, I taught Pennsylvania History for the first time.

At Messiah College, the Pennsylvania History course attracts a cross-section of students–history majors, public history students, and non-history majors seeking a “pluralism” general education credit.  Part of the course employs the so-called “coverage” model.  In other words, we “cover” a significant swath of Pennsylvania history from William Penn to the present.  The other part of the course is skills based.  Students learn how to do an oral history, they gain experience in doing local history, and they make contributions to our Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

Last year I was very excited to get the students engaged in “active learning,” or, as we historians call it, the “doing” of history.  Unfortunately, not all of the students in the class had the same level of excitement.  While some students participated enthusiastically in an oral history project and a digital exhibit using Omeka software, other students preferred to consume their history by listening to me lecture.  My student evaluations were fine, but several students wanted me to know that they did not appreciate the “skills” dimension of the course.

I am teaching Pennsylvania History again this semester.  Students will still be “doing history.”  I kept the oral history assignment.  I dropped the Omeka assignment and added a couple of local history assignments that will require students to explore historical records related to Harrisburg.

As I think about how to get my students connected to the more “active” dimensions of this course, I found David Gooblar’s piece at Vitae to be very helpful.  Here is a taste of “Why Students Resist Active Learning“:

Be explicit up front. As I’ve noted, a course in which students are expected to be active participants can be a bit of a shock for some. So make the case for your pedagogical choices. Read up on the benefits of active learning (two good places to start are here and here) and, particularly at the beginning of the semester, let your students know that there are well-researched reasons behind the way you’ve designed the course. Treat students like colleagues whose cooperation you need and they will be much more likely to buy in to new approaches.
Be open. Throughout the semester, get into the habit of explaining the justification behind each activity as you introduce it. Let your students know why a particular exercise or topic will be useful to them, either for their final grade, or (better yet!) in their lives outside the classroom walls….
Vary your teaching methods. Some students may resist your attempts to integrate active-learning strategies simply because you rely too heavily on one kind of activity. You want your teaching to benefit both the extrovert who loves collaborative exercises and the bookworm who excels at in-class writing assignments. Mix it up on a regular basis and keep everyone on their toes.
Lecture sometimes. Finally, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. There are (still!) perfectly good reasons to lecture to your students — some of the time. For one, you know a lot about the course topic and students will benefit from you telling them what you know. But perhaps more important, a lecture component can help increase the benefits of the learner-centered activities that take up the rest of class time….