Instructor: Matt Price
Office Hrs: T 1-2:30, SS 3077
Meeting Times Thurs 2-4, SS 1088

In general, communication should take place via Slack. In the case of questions having to do with official University business (requests for extensions, discussion of accommodations, any message involving sensitive personal data) please use my University email, being sure to put “HIS393” in the subject line.


We all know – it is so commonplace that we barely even notice it! – that we are living through a revolutionary period in the history of communication. In the year of your birth, the World Wide Web was a scrawny, hand-powered frontier of hand-coded sites and Internet startups. Amazon and Google were infants. The University of Toronto Library website looked something like this:

and many students and faculty still used the card catalog to find books in Robarts.

Today, the processes of research, writing and reading are all dramatically transformed by information technology. Instead of painstakingly discovering rare books and manuscript artifacts, we can do full-text searches on a vast corpus. Our writing is mediated by immensely powerful computing machines, and our creations need not be limited exclusively to the linear texts around which all the humanities initially took shape. Readers encounter our writing, not as a few precious drops of information in a desert of ignorance, but as part of an endless stream of information that assaults them all day long.

How should history respond to these new conditions of our existence? In this class we explore foundational topics in the “digital humanities” and ask what we can learn from them about how we should be doing history – in particular, how we should be collecting, analyzing, synthesizing and presenting knowledge.

  • How do the digital media developed in the last two decades change the way we understand history? Can the fundamental goal of interpreting the past survive?
  • What, if any, new technical skills do we need to acquire?
  • Can we use the new media to ask (and answer!) new kinds of questions? Can they help us improve our answers to the old questions?
  • Perhaps most powerfully: how do the new digital conditions of existence relate to the question of “engaged” scholarship? What new opportunities, constraints, and dangers does digital production call forth when we mix scholarship and citizenship?


At the end of this course, you should:

  • be able to describe to others what the phrase “digital humanities” means to you.
  • be able to frame a coherent and nuanced argument of your own about the value of DH methods to the field of history
  • be able to clearly state and defend a position regarding “engaged scholarship”, and articulate the relationship of your argument to the contemporary media landscape
  • have a basic understanding of markup languages and their use in DH
  • be able to make compelling use of media materials such as audio, video, and animation in historical arguments
  • understand how to create simple historical maps, and have an opinion about the value of GIS in historical argument


There are many approaches to the digital humanities, all of them involving tools that are under rapid and iterative development. A given project is likely to require a substantial training period in the particular tools chosen by the principal investigators. It is therefore not possible for this course to provide an effective survey of “the” digital humanities toolkit. But learning tools is an essential skill for the digital humanist. So what should we do?

Almost every digital humanist will, at some point, need to do the following:

  • read and edit HTML, CSS and Javascript
  • debug running web pages using the browser’s built-in tools
  • use a text editor to write code in any of several languages
  • collaborate with peers using version control software, almost always git

Our emphasis is therefore on simple coding taught using standard tools that are available almost everywhere. Almost all of the software we use is Free or Open Source. You will learn very basic web development skills and slowly come to apply them to increasingly sophisticated (but still pretty simple!) historical questions. These baby steps will give you some sense of what skills a “real” digital history project requires, and give you the tools you’ll need to teach yourself when you encounter new tools in the course of a project.



The University provides academic accommodations for students with disabilities in accordance with the terms of the Ontario Human Rights Code. For information on services and resources, see

Respecting Diversity

Diverse backgrounds, embodiments, and experiences are essential to the critical thinking endeavor at the heart of higher education. We expect you to be respectful of the many social and cultural differences among us, which may include, but are not limited to: age, cultural background, disability, ethnicity, technical ability, gender identity and presentation, citizenship and immigration status, national origin, race, religious and political beliefs, sex, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Please talk with me right away if you experience disrespect in this class—from any source, including myself—and I will active work to address it.


As noted above, most communication should take place via Slack. In the case of questions having to do with official University business (requests for extensions, discussion of accommodations, any message involving sensitive personal data) please use my University email, being sure to put “HIS393” in the subject line. I’ll do my best to reply within two working days, though occasionally the delay may be slightly longer. Please allow the full 48 hours to elapse before sending a repeat email.

Also: I have an injury-related difficulty co-ordinating action between my left and right hands, which leads to very frequent & distinctive typographical errors (and is also one of the many reasons you don’t want to hear me play a musical instrument). In my course materials, assignment comments, and announcements, I strive to eliminate those errors, but in instant messaging I am less attentive, as typing corrections approximately triples my composition time. So… please bear with me.


Make every effort to attend each class meeting (including lab sections)! Class will begin and (usually) end on time. Please do your best to get to class before the start of the session. Students are expected to attend all meetings, with exceptions permitted in case of illness and family emergencies.

Please silence all cell phones/pagers/etc. before the beginning of each class. You should bring your laptop for in-class work, but please don’t use class time (lecture or lab) to check your email, update your Facebook, read reddit, watch YouTube, make dank memes, seize the means of production (allowed), etc. Such usage is distracting and interferes with learning both for you and for all the other students around you. Spend class time on class materials. If another student’s activity is distracting, please ask them to stop it (or let me know outside of class).


Course assignments will require you to install software. All of the software we use is free, but it requires a laptop to run. A Chromebook unfortunately will not be sufficient. While it is in principle possible to do all of your assignments on the web or using a very basic text editor, I do not recommend that method, and will not offer technical support. If you don’t own a laptop, you should find a way to borrow one, or buy a cheap model on College St to use for the duration of the semester.

I can offer help with the following

Tool On Mac On Windows On Linux
Real Web Browser Firefox and/or Chrome Firefox and/or Chrome Firefox and/or Chrome
Text Editor Atom Atom Atom
Bash Shell Environment Terminal (Built in) Git for Windows or Windows Subsystem for Linux gnome-terminal, qterm, etc
Git Version Control Git for OSX Git for Windows apt-get install git
Git Visualization gitKraken gitKraken gitKraken
Github Org Membership Sign up here Sign up here Sign up here
Node and NPM Node Website (guide) Node Website (guide) Node Website (distro instructions)

Please see the Setup page for more details about the particular tools we will be using. YOU WILL ABSOLUTEY NEED TO HAVE THESE TOOLS IN ORDER TO TAKE THE COURSE

Course Requirements & Grading

The assignments in this course take a wide variety of forms, and for the most part, differ significantly from what you’re likely to have encountered in other History courses. If you have little technical experience, or have perhaps ended up in this course by accident (!), you may find some of the work daunting at first. I have done my very best to make the assignments feasible for beginners, but you will likely encounter some difficult moments. I therefore strongly urge you to (1) start early! and (2) persevere through the difficult initial stages. The frustration you experience is, in fact, part of pedagogical method here. You are not expected to become a coding ninja, but learning how to learn is a major component of work in the Digital Humanities.

Be warned! Marking in this course is unusual!

Grading in this course is done using a modified point system. The system may seem odd at first, but it has definite advantages for both students and teachers, so don’t be intimidated. Instead of receiving a number or letter grade for each assignment, and then getting a weighted sum of those grades as your final mark, you will choose what final mark to try for and then complete the assignments required for that mark. A certain set of assignments is required for a D; for a C, you must complete all of the “D” assignments plus another set; for a B, all of the C assignments plus some more; and the same goes for an A.

Here are some more details:

  • All Assignments Are Graded Pass/Fail: Each assignment you get will include a careful explanation of my expectations. If your work meets those expectations, you get full credit; if not you get no credit.
  • A ‘Passing’ Mark on Assignments is a B+: In order to get credit for an assignment, you will have to demonstrate a high level of mastery – about the level normally required for a B+.
  • Each Higher Grade Represents a quantum level of additional achievement: As you move up the ladder, assignments test more advanced and difficult concepts from the course.
  • If you fail, you can try again: You start the semester with 5 ‘retry’ chits, which you can use to resubmit assignments that have not succeeded. If necessary, you can use all of those chits on a single assignment! Resubmission process must be completed withing 1 week of the return date of the original version.
  • A late assignment costs one ‘retry’ chit: There is no percentage penalty for late work; instead, a late paper will cost you one of your retry opportunities.
  • Second and third tries get fewer comments: I will give substantial comments on first tries; additional tries will get less and less fulsome commentary.
  • Pluses and Minuses are determined by participation: The only part of your grade which is not determined on a pass/fail basis is the “+” or “-” part, which is assigned based on your on and offline participation. See the participation grade sheet for more details.

I know there will be questions! Please don’t hesitate to ask them. And here, finally, is the list of assignments. Detailed assignments will be handed out with adequate time to permit completion.

Assignment Due Date Brief Description A B C D
Git & Github Jan. 15 version control and collaboration
G & GH Extras
HTML & CSS Jan. 26 web markup and presentation
H & C Extras
Javascript for DH Feb. 02 intro to programming
JS Extras
Data-Driven History Feb. 16 CANCELLED x x x x
Spatial History Mar. 02 Simple GIS Web project
Oral History Mar. 16 Multimedia Web Project
Project Proposal Mar. 23 Imagine a Digital History Project


The following texts are required and available at the Bookstore, or via various online booksellers:

  • Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History Verso, 2005.
  • Geddes et al Toward Spatial Humanities Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.
  • Perks, et al. The Oral History Reader. 2006

Course Outline

Text, Code, and the Web

Introducing Digital History (Jan. 04)

Class Synopsis: Introduction to the course, Github, and Markdown.

Readings: You may want to read some of these as general preparation for this and other history classes:

In-Class Activity: Collaboration on Github, Markdown

What the Web Signifies (Jan. 11)

We all live with the web, but that doesn’t mean we think much about how it works and what it’s changed. This week’s lecture presents some thoughts on the changing nature of the public sphere and the significance of the web’s digital and machine-readable nature.


In-Class Activity: HTML + CSS

Abundance and Openness (Jan. 18)

One of the key features of the web is its immenseness. We will discuss how this genuinely new circumstance transforms the work of the historian.

In-Class Activity: More HTML + CSS

Data Driven History

Distant Reading 1 (Jan. 25)

Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees was a manifesto of sorts for a data-driven literary history. We’ll discuss the first 2/3s of this book before turning to some practical skills


In-Class Activity: Javascript variables & functions

Distant Reading 2: Are Texts Data? (Feb. 01)

More Moretti, and some criticisms


In-Class Activity: Javascript objects and DOM manipulation

Revised Feb. 08: Distant Reading Catch-up (Feb. 15)

More JS, and Trees.

Maps, Visualization, and History

Revise Date: Spatial History (Feb. 22)

Contemporary “Historical GIS” and web-based geohistory projects descend from an illustrious lineage of qualitative and quantitative “spatial histories”. In class today we explore what happens when “place” takes centre stage in a historical analysis.


In-Class Activity: Mapping with Google

Visualization (Mar. 01)

Of course, maps and graphs are in a certain sense part of a much broader field of rhetorical visualizations: attempts to convey quantitative information through pictures in an effort to convince the reader.


In-Class Activity: Reading visualizations

Maps Online (Mar. 08)

Maps and visiaulizations are neat and all, but contemporary web-based geohistory allows historical maps to interact powerfully with other data sources. We’ll explore some possibilities!


  • “Railways and Agriculture in France and Great Britain” in Toward Spatial Humanities
  • “The Development, Persistance, and Change of Racial Segregation in U.S. Urban Areas, 1880-2010” in Toward Spatial Humanities
  • google earth tutorial:

In-Class Activity: GIS

Oral History, Crowdsourcing, and the Promise of the Public Sphere

What’s Special about Oral History (Mar. 15)

Oral History has a long tradition; we explore its roots and peculiarities, and


In-Class Activity: Popcorn.js

Interlude: Project Planning & Citizen History (Mar. 22)

We’ll discuss some project management techniques that should help you with your final proposal

Oral History & Remix Culture (Mar. 29)

Once oral histories migrate to the web, they, like maps, can interact with other kinds of data.

If we’re ahead of schedule, we’ll watch Harlan County USA in class.


In-Class Activity: popcorn.js (just in case)


Thanks to Joel Wrossley of the University of Washington and Thomas J Bradley of Algonquin Collegee for help and inspiration in assignments and grading strategy. The “Policies” section above is taken almost verbatim from Joel’s web development course. Various pieces of the course have been inspired by other teachers over the year, and I hope to do a better job of document theft and inspiration from here on in.