One of the projects I’ve been most excited about this semester revolves around an effort to teach history students how to take notes using an online database. The central point of my own digital history project, Situating Chemistry, is that we as historians should be sharing notes, both to accelerate historical research and to model our practices for students. For this course project, I have built a Drupal database specifically for upper level undergraduates to take notes on primary sources related to Spanish colonial history.

I posted a while back about the original conceptualization of this project. Now, we have an operating site:

Screenshot of Spanish Borderlands

The students in Raphael Folsom’s Spanish Borderlands course read primary sources on a weekly basis. Rather than taking notes on 3×5 index cards as we did when I was a kid, the students take the same type of note in the Drupal system. They fill out some basic bibliographic information about the source, write a short summary of the source, and then take a note about an interesting facet of the text.

Screenshot of the Add Note Card form.

Once the student has completed their note card, they can duplicate it and take a new note on the same source without having to reenter the bibliographic information.

There are several reasons why I like this project. The first is that it puts primary sources and note taking at the center of the course. Rather than focusing on lecture or textbooks, students are doing the practice of history.

Secondly, it teaches students how to take notes. Raphael can give formative feedback on the note cards themselves and share best practices. Class time can also be used to discuss the ontology of historical evidence and the epistemology of critical reading and constructing valuable notes.

Screen shot of the CardStack in Spanish Borderlands

Finally, when it comes time to draw on the notes, students can draw on the total Card Stack: the pool of notes for a given source, a set of sources, or even all the sources in the system. They cite each other as the originator of a thought about a source, emphasizing the communal construction of understanding about a historical event. They also cite the original source itself preserving the bibliographic practices at the center of traditional historical practice.

Developing skills is a key part of upper-division courses, but one that can be a bit opaque for history and other humanities courses. We have students read, but actually modeling note-taking and the synthesis of source material can be difficult. This project centers students in the making of a digital resource and the remolding of history into an open and collaborative practice.

Please note: For more information on some of the technical crafting of the site, please read Digital note-taking, part 2. Currently, the course site is behind a login wall to give the students some time to get comfortable, and give us, the designers, some time to work out the kinks. It will be made public later in the semester.