This semester, my students have learned the narrow streets of the Marais, traced the path once taken by Paris’s city walls, and considered how the spires of the cathedral of Notre Dame would have drawn the eye of the medieval city dweller: all without leaving upstate New York.

Like the other 300-level seminars offered in Geneseo’s history department, “Hacking the Middle Ages” is designed to introduce sophomore history majors and minors to the process of conducting independent research and prepare them for our upper-level seminars. Unlike those other classes, this class is explicitly built around a digital history project. The students collaborated to read Guillebert de Mets’ fifteenth-century Description de la ville de Paris and then used the information which it contains in order to build their own traveller’s guide to the city in the late Middle Ages.

A sixteenth-century guinea pig. Detail of “Three Unknown Elizabethan Children”, ca. 1580. London, National Portrait Gallery.

As I stressed to the students from the beginning of the course, this made them guinea pigs in a way—and put me in the very same position. The class was a new one for me to design and teach. The topic arose out of my own expertise in the history of medieval France, and my long-standing interest in digital humanities and spatial history, but I had not previously had the opportunity to teach a DH class. While some DH projects were underway at Geneseo before I and the rest of the Computational Analytics Cluster were hired last year (the Digital Thoreau project is probably the most prominent example), more robust and formal connections needed to be forged between the History Department and CIT to make sure that innovations in digital pedagogy and research projects were fully and consistently supported.

And then there was the really big structural issue: dealing with students’ anxieties about using technology. The term “digital native” gets bandied about a lot, but I find it a term that’s not just vague but actually harmful. Being born after a certain date doesn’t mean that you innately understand how computing technology works. (For all that my three-year-old niece can find her way around YouTube like nobody’s business.) “Digital native” doesn’t take into account the broad range of student socio-economic and educational backgrounds, or that in the age of the tablet and the smartphone app, students are more used to a passive and siloed use of technology than they are to the creative and experimental use of computers. It steers people—educators, administrators, policy makers—towards thinking that “the flipped classroom” or “the hybrid classroom” or whatever buzzword we’re employing this week will work simply because, well… millennials, right?

Olivier Truschet and Germain Hoyau, Map of Paris, ca. 1550. [Universiteitsbibliotheek Vrije Universiteit, LL.06979gk.]

In fact, many of the students in this class confided in me that they actively dislike computers and technology, and had signed up for the class not understanding what the terms “digital history” and “digital humanities” in the course description actually meant. (“I thought you just meant ‘hacking’ like with a longsword,” said one.)

I had built some flexibility into the course timetable, but soon realised that I needed to increase that as it became clear to me that the prospect of undertaking a digital project felt scary to students in ways that writing a more traditional research paper did not. Sure, it’s intimidating to be asked to scale up from writing a 3-4 page paper to one that’s 18-20 pages long, but the fundamentals of the task are still familiar. Asking students to get comfortable with Omeka or Neatline or Fusion Tables is asking them to learn a whole new toolkit before they ever start to construct an argument or think about their prospective audience. We ask students to read primary sources; we rarely ask them to think about the metadata choices that let us find and access those primary sources in the first place.

So I made a deliberate choice to engage with the students where they were: to openly acknowledge that they were grappling with something new and that I acknowledged that it was difficult; to stop and consider my own assumptions on a regular basis. (My Irish convent secondary school in the late ’90s insisted that all students learn how to use word processing and spreadsheet programs; American students in the No Child Left Behind age can graduate high school never having opened Excel and without grasping the distinction between a footer and a footnote.)

And, with so many of them anxious about being asked to acquire both content knowledge and skills in one fell swoop, I was as explicit as I could be, as often as I could be, that their tastes and interests would have primacy in shaping the resulting website (which they dubbed Mapping By the Book). I ditched most of the parameters I’d planned to ask them to include in the final project, and stripped it down to “base it on Guillebert’s text, include a mapping component and a scholarly bibliography, go nuts.” At first that seemed infinitely more overwhelming to them; I think there was widespread suspicion that there was some unknowable Platonic form of a mapping project that I was just expecting them to intuit. I had to stress that yes, they had agency over their own intellectual output—I wasn’t interested in seeing them blandly copy the kind of website I would build.

Mapping medieval churches on a georectified version of the Truschet and Hoyau map.

Once they realised that I really was giving them their head, their work blossomed. They tried new things, taxed Interlibrary Loan with the volume of books they called up about Parisian churches and the travels of Philip Augustus, got frustrated because they had experimental ideas that Omeka and Neatline wouldn’t let them accomplish, and seemed to spend half of their class time teaching one another how to recreate this cool new things they’d discovered. Classes got noisier, less predictable, and students were proud to claim ownership of their work. Did we get to everything I’d wanted to cover in the course originally? No. But it was an excellent reminder that sometimes giving up a little bit of control results in better scholarship and better pedagogy.

Over at the Geneseo History Department blog, the “Hacking the Middle Ages” students have written about their project this semester, and shared what they thought was most valuable about the exercise of making the Mapping by the Book website. Their enthusiasm and good humoured embrace of being the departmental guinea pigs means that I’m feeling much more confident about the next stage of digital history projects here at Geneseo: a series of student independent studies this summer that will be conducted jointly with CIT.

None of us are teaching digital natives. We’re acting as a tour guides for digital explorers.

A screencap of the students’ Neatline exhibit mapping the colleges of medieval Paris.