The Digital Past

The Digital Past

History 390

Fall 2012

Professor Dan Cohen
Research Hall 483
Office Hours: Tues 10-noon and by appointment (please let me know in advance if you plan to attend office hours, and when, so I can slot students in)

Introduction: This course prepares you to use and understand a wide variety of current and emerging digital technologies in the service of doing history (and beyond). We will also spend time on ethics for historians in the digital age and the importance the challenges posed by the trade-offs between digital access and the need for data security. You will learn both the fundamentals and skills and something about how we as a society became so enamored of and dependent on these knowledge and information tools. Understanding a new technology requires not just knowing its technical aspects, but also understanding how new technologies transform the societies that embrace them.

Learning Goals: Each week we will focus on a particular IT skill through the examination of a particular historical topic or historical research skill. During the semester you will learn to use the more sophisticated features of digital tools and media, ranging from collaborative social media to databases, websites, and maps. You will come to understand basic information technology concepts and technologies and be able to analyze newly experienced sites and technologies and figure out how they are put together. Finally, you will learn about computer security and how to protect your content and yourself in an open and connected digital world.

Learning By Doing: The course largely emphasizes the acquisition of both historical methods and information technology skills through doing rather than just reading. That is, in most weeks students will engage in making or doing something historical using digital tools and networks.

The General Education Information Technology Requirement: This course satisfies the University’s information technology requirement, which has the following five goals:

1. Students will be able to use technology to locate, access, evaluate, and use information, and appropriately cite resources from digital/electronic media.

2. Students will understand the core IT concepts in a range of current and emerging technologies and learn to apply appropriate technologies to a range of tasks.

3. Students will understand many of the key ethical, legal and social issues related to information technology and how to interpret and comply with ethical principles, laws, regulations, and institutional policies.

4. Students will demonstrate the ability to communicate, create, and collaborate effectively using state-of-the-art information technologies in multiple modalities.

5. Students will understand the essential issues related to information security, how to take precautions and use techniques and tools to defend against computer crimes.

Unlike some other courses designed to satisfy the IT requirement, this course teaches the fundamentals of information technology within the context of a history course rather than as a set of abstract principles or discrete skills tied to particular software packages. But to make it more transparent which of the Gen Ed skills are being satisfied, the syllabus contains bracketed references to which of the five goals are addressed each week.

Course requirements: In addition to keeping up with the readings on a weekly basis, each student is expected to be an active participant in class discussions, both in the classroom and online. Failure to participate in our discussions will not only have a negative impact on your final grade, but will also make the class less enjoyable for you and for everyone else in class. Online participation will take place via the class blog and you will be expected to post there every week of the semester. Your blog will contain the results of the weekly exercises, as well as reactions to the reading and links to things you find that might be relevant to the class.

There will be a midterm exam and a final project, each of which allow you to demonstrate your mastery of the historical content and your mastery of the digital skills that are central to the course.

Final project: The goal of the final project is to create a portfolio of digital products (such as maps, charts, and visualizations) to explain a historical event, topic, or person. You will need to use multiple historical and technical skills to create facets of a thesis about your selected subject matter. You should have each of the following:

1) Two or more interactive maps showing substantive geographical data or other geospatial elements related to your topic.

2) Two or more graphs, charts, or other visualizations that tell a story with data about your topic.

3) Two analyses of texts related to your topic using computational tools.

4) A synthetic, cohesive presentation of the first three elements of the assignments using presentation software.

5) On your blog, you should add narrative contextualization, as well as a plan for the security and preservation of your project over time.


Your grade for the semester will be based upon the following criteria:



Class participation


Midterm exam


Final project


Course Policies

Attendance: Because each week’s topic lays the groundwork for the progressively more sophisticated work that we will be doing as the semester goes along, it is imperative that you come to class, keep up with your assignments, and stay engaged with the rest of the group, both in class and online via the class blog.

ADA: Any student who requires special arrangements in order to meet course requirements should contact me to make necessary accommodations (before September 7, please). Students should present appropriate verification from the Office of Disability Services, 703-993-2474. All academic accommodations must be arranged through that office.

Medical and Other Excuses: Every semester someone is forced to miss either an examination or the due date for an assignment either as the result of an illness or a family emergency. If you find yourself in this situation, fairness to all students in the class requires the proper documentation, without which your excuses will not be accepted. If you need to know more about this process consult me as soon as the emergency is taken care of.

Plagiarism and Cheating: Just don’t. Plagiarism and cheating are much easier in the digital age, but finding cheaters is even more easy, especially when you know computers and the internet as well as I do. Besides, the university expects students to demonstrate a high code of personal honor when it comes to academic work. Please read the George Mason University Honor Code if you have any questions about what is expected of you in this regard. Penalties for academic dishonesty are severe. In short, you are at extreme risk for failing the course from just a single act of plagiarism or cheating, and your academic career will be put in jeopardy.

Enrollment Status: Students are responsible for verifying their enrollment status in this course. Any change in that status is the responsibility of the student and must be made by the dates listed in the Schedule of Classes. The last day to add a course is September 4. The last day to drop a course is September 28. After the last day to drop a course, withdrawal from the course must be approved by the Dean and will be approved only for nonacademic reasons. Undergraduate students may choose to exercise a selective withdrawal. See the Schedule of Classes for selective withdrawal procedures.

Course Blogs:



Course Outline

Week 1 — August 27 & 29 — The Origins of Computing and the Modern Digital Landscape

Course introduction to demystify information technology and help students understand the basics. As part of getting set up in new media for the course, students will look behind the scenes at how these websites and digital services are created, including basic IT concepts such as the client, server, hardware, software, the network and its protocols, the web and its standards, and newer technology such as mobile. We will continue to refer to these concepts and particular technologies week to week in the course. By the end of the course students should be able to analyze newly experienced sites and technologies and figure out how they are put together using these principles.

Read: Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic (July 1945)

Read: Cohen & Rosenzweig, Digital History, Introduction, “Promises and Perils of Digital History.”

Video: RSS in Plain English by CommonCraft

Practicum: Sign up for a blog at onMason, learn how to use the writing environment in WordPress, which is a common one for many digital word processing services, and make a first post. Sign up for Google Reader to receive all posts from the class, in the process learning about connective technologies on the web, such as RSS.

[This week is geared toward meeting IT requirements 2 & 4]

Week 2 — September 5 — Hypertext and the World Wide Web [No class on September 3 – Labor Day]

Video: History of the Internet

Read: Ted Nelson, “Complex information processing: a file structure for the complex, the changing and the indeterminate” [if you access this PDF from off campus, you will be asked to log into Mason’s library system with your Mason ID]

Read: Cohen & Rosenzweig, Digital History, ch. 2, “Getting Started: The Basic Technologies Behind the Web.”

Practicum: Create a blog post that includes the following: subheads for sections, a numbered list, an unnumbered list, bold and italicized words, and at least one link and one image.

[IT requirement 2]

Week 3 — September 10 & 12 — Digitization, Searching, and Finding

Read: Cohen & Rosenzweig, ch. 3, “Becoming Digital

Explore: ProQuest Historical Newspapers database, available through the Mason library website under the databases tab (search for “ProQuest Historical Newspapers”).

Practicum: Internet scavenger hunt, to be explained in the first class of the week and finished by the second class. During our investigation of this particular database of historical sources we’ll consider such things as how databases are organized, the standards archivists use when organizing data, and how users interact with the data.

Exercise: Scavenger hunt: Find and blog how you found these three historical items (be sure to include links to, or excerpts from, each item):

1) An op-ed on a labor dispute involving public school teachers from before 1970

2) The first documented use of solar power in the United States

3) The best resource for the history of California ballot initiatives, including voting data

[IT requirement 1]

Week 4 — September 19 — The Reliability of Digital Sources, and the Analog Sources They Come From [No class September 17 – Rosh Hashanah]

Read: Errol Morris, series on a Crimean War photograph: “Which Came First?” Parts 1, 2, 3; also: Morris on Photoshop, history, and “Photography as a Weapon

Video: Jon Udell, Heavy Metal Umlaut

Read:Evaluating Websites

Exercise: Judge a Wikipedia article on a historical topic by looking at its sources, discussion, and history.

[IT requirement 1, 3]

Week 5 — September 24 — Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues in a Digital Age: Owning and Mining the Past [No class September 26 – Yom Kippur]

Read: Cohen & Rosenzweig, ch. 7, “Owning the Past?

Video: The Amen Break

Video: Copyright Criminals

Read: Mason’s Copyright Office PowerPoint presentation, “The Basics

Exercise: Determine the ethics and legality of one of these three sites:

1) The TV News Archive

2) The Time Magazine Corpus

3) Archive Team

[IT requirement 3]

Week 6 — October 1 & 3 — Information and Security

Read: Mat Honan, “How Apple and Amazon Security Flaws Led to My Epic Hacking” and “How I got my Digital Life Back

Read: Basic Computer Security

Read: Passwords Under Assault

Discussion: The practical problems of computer security and how one weak link compromises the network and all the computers connected to it. We will discuss what informed users can do to protect against this.

Exercise: Self-evaluation of your personal security practices.

[IT requirement 3]

Week 7 — October 9 & 10 — Review and midterm exam 

October 9: Review and discussion of what’s to come in the second half of the class

October 10: Midterm

Week 8 — October 15 & 17 — Tools and Services

Familiarize yourself with some of the tools we will be using in the second half of the class:

Google Docs (Spreadsheets, Presentations, Charts) Tutorials

Google Chart Wizard

Google Maps – My Maps: If you are logged into your Google account, go to and click on “My Maps” and then “Create Map”. You can export your map as KML by adding “&output=kml” to the end of the URL for the map you create (the URL is in the upper right, where the chain/link icon is).

KML Tutorial

Exercise: Create a basic chart and map.

Week 9 — October 22 & 24 —Maps, Spatial Analysis & History

Read: Will Thomas and Edward Ayers, “The Difference Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,”

Explore: Hypercities, PhilaPlace, Euclid Corridor History Project

Practicum: Create a historical map involving geolocated data, images, or video using Google Maps. Some links to get you started:

Guide to Google Maps “My Maps”

New York Public Library historical maps

David Rumsey’s historical maps rendered in KML

Rumsey maps list

Digital Harlem, 1915-1930


Overlaying a historical map on Google Earth

Maps from the Library of Congress

History Pin

Rumsey map search

Rumsey Historical Maps on Google Maps

Google Maps introduction at

Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

Example Google search for KML/KMZ files

[IT requirements 1, 2, & 4]

Week 10 — October 29 & 31 —Databases and Statistics [Amanda French substitutes on October 29]

Read at least two Feltron reports

Practicum: Learn how to use Google Charts well and create at least one chart using historical data.

[IT requirements 1, 2, & 4]

Daytum personal data recorder and visualizer

Probing the Past

Week 11 — November 5 & 7 — The Visual Communication of Information

Read: Edward Tufte, “PowerPoint is Evil”  and Peter Norvig, “The Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation

Explore: Many Eyes

Practicum: Using the slideware program of your choice, create a three-slide presentation on a moment in history.

[IT requirements 2 & 4]

Week 12 — November 12 & 14 —Digital Research

Read: Cohen, “From Babel to Knowledge: Data Mining Large Digital Collections

Explore: Time Magazine Corpus

Explore: Google Ngram Viewer

Practicum: Create a chart using one of the services mentioned, and explain how it illustrates a historical event or era. Be sure to include any caveats about using the chart.

Other tools: Wordle, BYU Corpora, Bookworm, Voyant Tools

[IT requirement 1 & 2]

Week 13 — November 19 — The Stability of Information Technology and Digital Records [No class November 21 – Thanksgiving break]

Read: Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era

Explore: “Born digital” archives: April 16 Archive, Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, September 11 Digital Archive

Read: Digital Preservation Guide from the Library of Congress

Practicum: Create a preservation path, describing any hardware, software, and processes needed, for your family’s historical record.

[IT requirement 1, 2, & 3]

Week 14 — November 26 & 28 — The Principles of Programming  [Amanda French substitutes on October 28]

Video: Intro to Scratch

Read: Scratch Getting Started Guide

Download and explore: Scratch

Exercise: Solve the Blockly maze

Week 15 — December 3 &  5 — Review and Wrap-up

Final projects should be submitted via email to the instructor by noon on Friday, December 14.

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