Documenting the American South

Docsouth Home
The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway

Higher Education

Digital humanities projects like “Driving Through Time” in university settings provide rich opportunities for teaching and learning. Because they draw upon the skills and expertise of many disciplines, from history to geography to computer science, design, and information management, digital humanities projects offer excellent arenas for hands-on educational experiences that integrate students’ knowledge and call upon them to hone their research, analytical, technical, writing, and creative skills all at once.

Digital approaches are especially promising for teaching history because of the capacity of new digital tools both to vastly increase the availability of primary source documents and to offer new ways of visualizing the past. Bridging the divide between scholarship and public outreach, too, projects like “Driving Through Time” are at the frontiers of “public history” – history that draws upon the insights of scholars but is aimed at or primarily engaged with public audiences or communities. Experiential education – students doing history work, on the ground – has long been fundamental to public history teaching at the university level.

Taking advantage of the confluence of these opportunities, Dr. Anne Mitchell Whisnant has incorporated student work on “Driving Through Time” into her graduate/undergraduate Introduction to Public History course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 2009.

In the fall semesters of 2009 and 2010, Dr. Whisnant’s students not only learned about public history, but they also added metadata and content to the "Driving Through Time" database, used the Zotero tool to tag and categorize "Driving Through Time" content, researched specific topics related to the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, identified additional materials for digitization, and created short essays, or “overlooks,” about topics they found interesting in their research.

Below are samples of the overlooks created by this class in 2009. Each was edited and formatted by the "Driving Through Time" staff.

In the fall semester of 2010, Dr. Whisnant’s students used the Google suite of tools to develop simple visual or spatial representations of historical narratives to supplement their overlook narratives. For instance, students curated sets of photographs dealing with particular topics and pinpointed their locations in Google Earth with "pushpins" that, when clicked, opened small windows with the relevant photograph included. Other students created map overlays in which historical maps were “georeferenced” and made viewable atop current satellite images of the same area labeled with pertinent features that were important in the historical negotations over issues such as the Parkway route at Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina.

The UNC School of Information and Library Science field experience program has provided another avenue for student involvement in Driving Through Time. The field experience program enables students to gain professional experience in an information organization while receiving class credit. Students are mentored by a supervising professional in the organization, as well as by a SILS professor. Sarah Forzetting, a Masters of Library Science graduate student who took Dr. Whisnant’s public history course, spent the spring of 2010 doing her field experience with "Driving Through Time." Working with the bibliography in Dr. Whisnant’s book Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History [1] and the resources at the Southern Historical Collection, Forzetting researched and wrote an overlook about the Parkway and Little Switzerland. She maintained a very detailed blog that describes her objectives, questions, and lessons learned. The visualization tool she used to organize and present her research, Spicy Nodes, was in beta during the development of this overlook.

While it offers splendid learning opportunities, involving students in materials digitization and content development for a digital humanities project does have challenges. Teaching with project work requires intensive collaboration and communication between the instructor and the library and project staff. Library infrastructure must be flexible enough to accommodate a changing cast of project workers who need secure login access, and detailed help documents and workflow systems must be developed to assist students in navigating the technical aspects of the project with consistent accuracy. Students often face a steep learning curve mastering necessary technical or content knowledge while under pressure to produce quality work, and additional help or out-of-class sessions may be required to help students master needed skills. And having students do work in “real time” on a real project – while providing an authentic experience of doing history – also can cause discomfort in students who thrive on a high level of direction and certainty. Still, the payoffs for the instructor, project, and students can be significant.

1. Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).