This spring witnessed the début of my new final-year module, The Press and American Society. As May dawns, teaching has concluded, final assessments have been submitted and the time for reflection has come.
Running twelve weeks, the module consisted of a weekly one-hour lecture and a weekly two-hour computer workshop. The former were a series of lectures on four important moments in US Social history
- The Annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War
- The Fugitive Slave Act and the Underground Railroad
- The Battle of Little Big Horn and the ‘Indian Wars’
- The Women’s Movement
and their relationship with the evolving entity known as ‘the press’. The latter centred around the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America on-line newspaper database and the exploration of newspaper material through basic digital humanities techniques. The overall aim of the module was to develop a critical appreciation of the ‘first draft of history’ and how it was and continues to be influenced and affected by its authors. While this was partly achieved through traditional lectures and reading, I hoped to make these impressions more tangible, more concrete, through an exploration of digital methodologies.
In an effort to encourage my students to go beyond the idea the newspaper reports were either “accurate” or “biased”, an idea often based on an initial gut reaction to the text, I asked them to manipulate the text through a variety of distant-reading tools and computer-generated visualisations. This, I hoped, would open their minds up to new questions and interpretations. Although few if any of my students professed robust computer skills at the start of the module, I was amazed at how quickly they took to some of the techniques, particular geo-visualisation and sentiment analysis. Although other methodologies, such topic modeling, were looked upon less favourable (owing to the small size of this year’s corpus), most applied themselves to the in-class exercises admirably.
Although I was fortunate to have relatively small seminar groups (12-15 students in each), I knew that it would be difficult to move the entire cohort through our exercises at a consistent and equal pace; some students would want to move more slowly while others were determined to charge ahead. To that end, I created a series of worksheets that provided step-by-step instructions and example analyses. In this way, a student who found a particular step difficult or time-consuming, or who simply did not understand my verbal instructions, could reference the sheet and catch up to the class during the ‘instruction intermissions’ I scattered throughout my seminars to wander around and answer individual questions. Likewise, those with strong computer skills could move through the exercises quickly and move onto their own projects, calling me over to assist when needed.
Because the creation of a corpus of texts required extensive collaboration across all seminar groups, and because most of the transcription and analysis processes would take place out-of-class, I chose to use as many online and freeware software solutions as possible. For the creation and storage of electronic transcriptions, and the manifest of those transcriptions, students used Google Drive. Although there many (arguably less intrusive) collaboration option available, Sheffield Hallam University currently manages student email through GoogleApps. This meant that all my students had an existing, university-linked Google Account that they could use to privately share materials. Moreover, being able to track and revert changes to collaborative documents proved invaluable when a few late-night editing sessions led to unintentional data massacres. In addition to GoogleDrive, and Microsoft Office, the module used the following free software packages and websites
Please read, use, modify, re-conceptualise and share!