Writing rubrics is always a challenge for me, especially for projects. I have years of experience grading papers, so I’ve developed a basic rubric that I share with students. However, projects are a challenge. I suppose that’s one reason I rarely have students do projects, and when I have I’ve graded them pass/fail.
I am hoping to see if the group can help me think of how to assess student use of the transatlantic slavery database. I just figured I would have them write a paper based on the database and I would grade the paper like the others. But if there’s a better way to assess their work, I would love to hear about it.
As discussed in class, I have decided to use the transatlantic slavery database as a way to incorporate the digital humanities in my Human Traditions course. The amount of information on the site can be daunting for students, so I will use class time to introduce the database and for students to play and see what they discover. I think I will use an entire class session for getting acquainted with the site. At the end of the unit (approximately a month, students will have to write a report about what they find. I will have them investigate a broad question, and their report will have to address this question. For example, I might ask, how did the transatlantic slave trade affect the populations in Africa and Brazil. I will then scaffold assignments to help them get at the broader picture.
Assignment #1: What does the database tell us about where in Africa enslaved peoples came from between 1600 and 1888? What kind of questions should we ask about those places and why people were more likely to be enslaved there? How many people were enslaved and where did they come from?
Assignment #2: Where did people from the Gold Coast most commonly end up at the end of the Middle Passage? Based on what we already read, what kind of people did they encounter when they arrived?
Assignment #3: What periods saw an uptick or a decline in slavery imports to Brazil? What variables do you think led to these changes in slave importations?
The two thoughts that have preoccupied me regarding incorporating the digital humanities into my course on modern history (aka Human Traditions) are, How much of the course should be devoted to digital humanities’ work, and how complicated should the assignments be?
The course covers the period from 1492 to the present, with faculty given discretion over what themes we cover, what parts of the world we study, and how intensely we study the particular themes or places. For example, we might ask ourselves: should I cover the conquest of the Americas in one class session, one week, or one month. I cover the conquest, slavery in Africa and the New World, the industrial revolution, and then some fairly recent historical topic, such as protests against neoliberalism or the emergence of punk rock.
I am thinking that I will devote between two weeks to a month working with digital humanities and slavery in the New World. Instead of assigning a book on slavery, which I often do, I might assign several articles from academic journals or some slave narratives. Then I will ask the students to use the information from the database on transatlantic slavery to pose questions unaddressed in the readings, or add clarity or empirical nuance to some of the topics addressed in the readings. This way students can see how academics do the work of history, and how statistics help us better understand the slave trade.
Bean’s piece on exploratory writing reminded me of my work as a writing tutor as an undergraduate in college, when I first started thinking of writing as a process that begins with the imagination, continues in scattered forms as notes and memos,develops into rough drafts, and culminates in a finished piece of writing that is suitable to hand in to a professor. As an professional academic with a published book, I’ve come to realize that the writing never quite ends–I still rewrite sections of my book while I lay in bed or drive my car. As one professor in college put it, “there’s no such thing as a perfect book.” This fleeting comment left a lasting impression on me, freeing me from the naive notion that I could produce something impervious to critique. It was freeing because it freed me to make mistakes–in fact, to accept that logical inconsistencies, artless prose, poor word choices, etc. are part of the writing process. Since that time, I have come to regard the revision process as key to my writing. All of my writing is a work-in-progress. Ideally, I would stagger my writing assignments to encourage this type of thinking in my students. I do encourage rough drafts, giving students a rough draft due date and a final due date, but I do not make them mandatory. Maybe I should. Here is what I am thinking for my digital project:
Assignment #1: Explore the following website on the transatlantic slave trade:
Questions: What time frames does the database allow us to explore? What are some of the search options? What is some of the basic information that the database offers?
Assignment #2: Search the database for slaves who embarked in Africa and got shipped to North America between the 1520s and 1750. What does the database tell us about transitions–in other words, when does the shipment of slaves spike? Compare the number of slaves who went to North America to those that went to the Spanish Caribbean. What do the numbers tell us about the economic and social changes that took place in North America during this time period?
Assignment #3: Search the database for slaves shipped to the Spanish Caribbean and North America after 1789. Put those numbers in the context of the major changes that unfolded in Europe and the Americas at the time. How do these numbers help us understand these changes?
Assignment #4: Search the database for slaves shipped to the Americas between 1790 and 1888. What regions experienced the largest influx of slave imports? What do these statistics reveal about the development of the slave trade during this time period? What political variables led to the changes in the slave trade after 1790?