Instructor: Matt Price
Email: matt [dot] price [at] utoronto [dot] ca
Tel: 978-8472
Office Hrs: SS 3077 M 12-2


In the year of your birth, the World Wide Web was an obscure technical work-in-progress buried in the depths of a vast research institute. Today, it permeates almost every aspect of our lives, including every stage in the production of knowledge. You have been living through a fundamental transformation of knowledge; and yet the modes of communication you’ve learned and explored at University (the essay, the article, the scholarly monograph) belong to the world that came before. There are good reasons for this. The standards of our discipline were formed carefully over hundreds of years, in a determined quest to uncover and communicate truths about the past to our colleagues and the wider world. Even so, historians need to explore the digital media of our present and future. The books and other writings of old will not disappear, but they will be supplemented by the new media of the web. In this class, we will explore those new media as tools for the transmission of historical knowledge, culminating in an intensive group project in which you will build a historical website in close collaboration with a community partner. The community partnership is a key element of “Hacking History”, and a source of many of its pleasures and challenges.

Along the way, we will learn about the history of digital media, and their place in the development of the public sphere; and we will also study the history and politics of “engaged” and “public” scholarship. We will also spend a substantial amount of time acquiring the technical skills needed for a project like this, e.g., the fundamentals of HTML and Javascript, as well as just enough PHP to work with the WordPress Content Management System. No prior technical knowledge is required for this, but you will need to be willing to challenge yourself to learn a few tricks and principles of web programming. The payoff for that effort is huge: a chance to contribute in a meaningful way to historical discourse beyond the walls of the University, and to explore the frontiers of historical communication in the process.

Course Structure

First Semester

In the first semester we will meet on a weekly basis to discuss the week’s readings (“Readings” in the outline) and work together on a technical or interpretative task that will be defined in advance (“Lab” in the outline). In advance of the class meeting students will (where not otherwise noted) be expected to produce written responses to the readings in the form of blog postings, and to respond to the postings of at least two other students. If at all possible, you should bring your laptop or (not as good!) tablet to class for the lab portion.

In certain weeks there are also other types of assignments; these are noted in the outline and referred to in the course requirements. In general the aim is to foster an atmosphere of collaborative and self-directed learning in which all work is focused on building the analytic resources, technical skills, and confidence to create really great projects in the second semester. Though the assignment structure is fixed, readings may change based on student interests. The semester culminates with group presentations of your proposed projects.

Second Semester

In the second semester it is expected that students will spend most of their time working directly on their project with the partnering organization. We will meet most weeks to discuss specific technical questions raised by the projects themselves, and will discuss additional readings as needed. Importantly, students will continue to make regular postings about their progress, and comment on each other’s writing. Projects will be submitted to community partners for review in the second to last week of classes, presented to the class in the final course meeting, and handed in to the professor immediately before the beginning of finals period.

Course Requirements

In this project-based class, we have relatively few readings and instead focus on active learning through a variety of assignments, all of which are intended to help you build towards your final, collaborative group project.

The class has 5 kinds of assignments:

  • 19 Weekly Blog Postings (both semesters, 20%)
  • 4 “Short Technical Assignments” (STA’s, first semester, 10%)
  • 1 Website Review (First Semester, 5%)
  • One Written Paper (7-9 pp, Jan 10, 10%)
  • The Final Project (website, ongoing but due April 4, 45%)

with the balance of 10% for on- and off-line participation, which includes comments on other students’ blog posts, contributions to online resources, and discussion.

Blog Postings are thoughtful pieces, 300 words or so in length, posted to the course blog by noon the day before class meets (so, noon each Wednesday). You will be expected to read your colleagues’ postings and respond to them, both online (using the blog’s comment function) and in class. In the first semester, these postings will primarily be responses to the weekly readings. In the second semester, they will instead generally take the form of progress reports in which you discuss your final projects and your interactions with partnering organizations, or of short written pieces from your project site (see below). In the event that I want you to focus on something else, I will inform you one week in advance in class. Some informality in tone is acceptable, but these are to be serious, thoughtful engagements with the course materials. Think of them as a cross between a regular blog post and a review or response paper. Citations of online sources should use hyperlinks; other material should be cited as in printed assignments (I recommend Chicago Manual of Style, but we will discuss this at greater length during the semester). You are expected to blog each week of class, with the exception of the first and last week of each semester, and the week of your website review. I will comment on individual blog posts as much as possible, but will give out marks only twice a year (approx. Nov. 29 & Apr. 3).

Short Technical Assignments (STA’s) are designed to give you the technical skills you will need for your website development work in the second semester. Approximately every 3 weeks in the first semester, you will complete a short on or off-line assignment for a pass-fail grade. The lab assignments will cover basic web skills and other technical topics, which will always have been covered in the third ‘lab’ hour of class.

The Website Review has two parts: a written review of a historical website posted to the course website at least 24 hours before class, and a very short in-class presentation. We will have one or two website reviews each week in the first semester, except for Nov. 29. The written portion is posted to the course website in lieu of that week’s blog post (see the review assignment for more details).

The Paper is due shortly after the beginning of the second semester. Approximately 7-9 pages long, its format is that of a standard course paper: a well-researched thesis, supported by evidence garnered from primary and secondary sources. Students are expected to write on topics related to their Final Projects (see below).

The Final Project is a major collaborative effort to build a historical website in service to an organization outside the University. Students will work in groups of 2-4, collaboratively building a substantive site which balances scholarly merit with the interests of the sponsoring organization and accessibility to the general public. We have assembled a list of Partnering Organizations which have expressed interest in working with you, and you should carefully examine their proposals and discuss them with your peers. See the [http://./][Project Guidelines]] for more detailed discussion & marking breakdown.

Late Policy

Blogs: blog postings are due by noon the day before class. Late blog postings will not be marked.

STA’s: 5%/day late penalty for the first 4 days, after which they will not be marked.

Paper: 3%/day.

Final Project: It is essential that you complete your final project on time in order to get feedback from the sponsoring organization and organize the handoff of the project. The various deadlines for the project (see Project Guidelines) are firm. DO NOT MISS THEM.

Project Timetable

  • 2012-09-27 Thu: Detailed assignment handed out with preliminary partner suggestions
  • 2012-11-01 Thu: Hand in preliminary (individual) project proposal.
  • 2012-11-29 Thu Presentation of Final (group) Proposal
  • 2013-01-07 Mon: Placement begins (approximate)
  • 2013-02-21 Thu: Intermediate Status Report
  • 2013-03-21 Thu: Submission to Community Partner
  • 2013-04-04 Thu: Project Open House/FINAL DUE DATE


All texts for this course are online, either in the public web or as pdfs. Most of them are publicly available. You may want physical copies of some books; these are available at Amazon or by special order from any sizable bookstore.

A sizable collection of links is also stored in a Zotero database, having been merged with the course bibliogrpahy.


We’ll be using a number of important software tools, some of them very easy to use, some of them harder. All of them are free (as in beer, and usually as in speech) and most run on all three major platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux) or on the web. See the Tools page for more details.

Outline for Semester 1

2012-09-13 Thu Hacking History//what is digital history?

Why we should write history, why everyone should do it, and why that means we need the Web. Hacker cultures, collaborative learning, knowledge sharing, non-expert culture.

Lab: Technical Introduction

  • WordPress & the course site.
  • Blogging & social media review.
  • Preliminary listing of potential NGO partners.

2012-09-20 Thu Language of the Web

The Web is written in a language called HTML, with some help from other lanugages called CSS and Javascript. The nonlinear and interactive properties of these languages afford new possibilities for storytelling. We explore how the Internet works, and what that means for historical narrative.


Lab: Understanding HTML

2012-09-27 Thu The Wisdom of the Crowd

The new kinds of collaboration that the web makes possible, and the intellectual challenges they create.


Lab: Wikipedia Tracking

A look at the inner workings of the world’s biggest crowdsourcing project.

Assignments: STA1 Handed Today (Wikipedia)

2012-10-04 Thu Public History

A basic introduction to the questions surrounding the production of “public” history.


Lab: Getting Started with WordPress

Assignments: STA1 Due Today

2012-10-11 Thu Working with Communities

The ethics of working with laypeople, and the promises & pitfalls of collaborating with non-academics.


Lab: WordPress Themes

Assignments: STA2 Handed Out (Theming WordPress)

2012-10-18 Thu Search and Filter (Information Abundance)

In the past, access to information was one of the historian’s most fundamental challenges. today, it is more often a problem of filtering information.


Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, August 2008. William J Turkel, n.d. Going Digital William J. Turkel, “Research 24/7.”

Lab: Scholarly Search

Assignments: STA2 Due

2012-10-25 Thu Oral History

One remarkable possibility opened up by the web is abundant oral history.


  • “The Voice of the Past”, “What Makes Oral History Different” and “Learning to Listen in The Oral History Reader

Lab: Art of the Interview

Assignments: STA3 Handed Out (Oral History)

2012-11-01 Thu Piracy, Plagiarism, Citation

Ethical, Legal, and Technical Questions around Copyright


Lab: What is a WordPress Plugin?

Assignments: Proposal 1 due

2012-11-08 Thu Designing Digital Projects

A crash course in website design


  • Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen, Chapter 2: “Designing for the History Web,” in Digital History (2006).
  • Dan Brown, Communicating Design Ch. 2 (Personas) and 10 (Wireframes)
  • Bill Buxton, Sketching User Experiences (excerpts)

Lab: Design exercise (Personas & Wireframes)

Assignments: STA3 Due (you get 2 weeks for this one)

2012-11-15 Thu Maps and Graphs: Visual History

Thinking about the visual presentation of information


Lab: Google Maps and Javascript

Assignments: STA4 Handed Out (Historical Google Map)

2012-11-22 Thu Immersive History: Games & Simulations


Lab: How Javascript Works in WordPress

Assignments: STA4 Due

2012-11-29 Thu Proposal Presentations

This is your chance to wow the class with your final proposals. Good luck!

‘Outline’ for Semester 2

In the second semester, we will meet mostly to discuss your progress on the project and to address specific issues you are encountering as you work. You will be working pretty intensively on research, design, and writing/creating, so we will usually not have class readings, except in cases where a background reading will obvously be of assistance to most of the class in addressing some issue. The particular topics we take on will be defined by your needs, but some potential ones include:

  • Refining your project goals
  • Social Media in a community website (Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc)
  • Data Capture and Metadata
  • How Databases Work
  • The Digital divide: Design Implications
  • Copyright Issues
  • Accessibility
  • WordPress Content Types
  • New HTML5 tags (canvas, audio/video, microformats)
  • Video on the Web: HTML5 & dynamic events
  • Semantic Web Technologies
  • Audio Post-Processing
  • Website look and Feel

Our final meeting will be a Project Open House in which you share the final products of your labours with the class.

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