Digital Vikings

The Viking AgeAt University of Toronto Press, we are always interested in how our books are used in the classroom, and in how students respond to the material that we publish. We were thrilled this past fall to learn about a new digital humanities project at Wilfrid Laurier University that was based around one of our popular textbooks, The Viking Age: A Reader, edited by Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald. The course instructor, Alicia McKenzie, has graciously provided us with a summary of how the digital humanities project started, the challenges that arose during the course of the semester, and the lessons that were learned. To start 2015 on an inspiring note, we are very pleased to share her experiences with you!

This past term, I had the pleasure of teaching a course on the Vikings for the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University. A very large class with no tutorials, HI299J did not easily lend itself to the sort of intensive focus on primary sources that any serious study of the Viking Age requires. Having selected UTP’s The Viking Age: A Reader as our text, I had a dazzling variety of sources to work with. But the question of how to give my students meaningful hands-on time with the documents persisted.

It struck me that a digital humanities approach might be the best solution. As a new member of WLU’s part-time faculty in History and Medieval Studies several years ago, I was first introduced to the digital humanities by Dr. Chris Nighman’s Electronic Manipulus florum Project. The idea of experimenting with new tools and methods has always appealed to me, and when the History Department adopted the Omeka web publishing platform for classroom use, I saw a potential solution to my Viking problem beginning to take shape.

In the end, I assigned a digital humanities project with multiple stages. Drawing on one of the highlights of my own undergraduate experience, I first asked my students to select and annotate a document from the Viking Age reader. These annotations would explore the context and details of the document—people, places, events, objects, and concepts—with the goal of enhancing a reader’s understanding of the text. There is no better way to learn how complex and layered a medieval document can be. Still, the vast majority of my students had never done anything like this before and perplexity seemed to be their dominant reaction, at least for the first few weeks. The great variety of documents also posed a challenge; the approach that worked for someone annotating an excerpt from a set of annals did not necessarily work for a poem or sermon or saga.

In the second stage of the project, students who had annotated the same document got together in small groups to produce a digital exhibit using Omeka. Unlike the annotations, which were highly detailed and entirely text-based, the exhibits were meant to include only the best and most significant material, packaged to appeal to the “new reader” with multimedia enhancements as appropriate. The challenge of synthesizing the material from their individual annotations was not inconsiderable, but despite the usual alarm with which university students regard group work, there were relatively few problems. In fact, they were amazingly creative with the format and content of their exhibits. Some students created their own images, maps, and diagrams, while the most adventurous produced videos, quizzes, and even a "live" Twitter-feed of the Battle of Maldon that later went viral on the Facebook page of a major medievalist blog.

The third and final stage of the project was a short response paper where students were able to reflect on their experience over the course of the project. Though they were not always enthusiastic about Omeka or the process of group work, many mentioned the satisfaction gained in presenting a piece of history for public consumption. Others enjoyed the "detective work" of the annotations, or the creative latitude the exhibit allowed. “I felt like a real historian!” or phrases to that effect showed up again and again. On that basis alone, I would have seen this project as a success.

But the Viking Stories site is more than just a successful class assignment. It’s also a testament to the collective creativity and mental flexibility of today’s undergrads. My students showed me that they are more than able to step outside their comfort zone, to move beyond the research paper and explore new ways of approaching the medieval world.

A few other lessons I learned, mentioned because they may be of use to other instructors considering this type of assignment:

Your assignment instructions are a work in progress. The first time through, this type of assignment is an experiment for you as well as your students. You will never foresee all the potential questions, and unforeseen complications (both of the technical and non-technical variety) are inevitable. In many cases, you may only be a few steps ahead of your students in mastering a particular digital tool.

Millennials are not as technically adept as the popular press would have you believe. Countless students informed me in their response papers that they were “not computer people,” and the level of student frustration inspired by even a user-friendly platform like Omeka was sometimes worrisome. Instructors need to work to inspire a spirit of experimentation and persistence in students working with new digital tools. Trial and error is not always the most time-efficient approach, but it is usually the most effective.

You’re all in this together. This sort of project is a journey, and you should make sure that your students know you’re right there exploring this new territory with them. Let them know that their feedback is important to you and will help you develop a set of best practices for such assignments. After all, collaboration is at the heart of the digital humanities.

-Alicia McKenzie, Wilfrid Laurier University

Visit vikingstories.omeka.net to fully explore the work done by the students of HI299J!