Digital Tools for Teaching Early Medicine to a New Generation: Part 4

At the 2019 AAHM annual meeting in Columbus, OH, Emily Clark, Kathleen Crowther, Elaine Leong, and Lisa Smith convened a lunchtime panel to talk about using new digital tools to teach undergraduates early medicine. This post, the second in a series of four, will cover one of the methods discussed.

Teaching with the Sloane Letters Project:
Digital Literacy and Creativity

Lisa Smith

The question I’m often asked about teaching with digital tools is: do you need to be an expert? There are two assumptions underlying the question.

  • That students are expert at anything digital (and therefore you need to keep up with them).
  • That only techie-types can possibly do digital things.

Neither is true. Students may be great users of social media, but they are often uncritical users and lack basic research skills. And most academics do digital things every day, from in-depth internet searches to using scholarly databases. We overestimate our students’ digital literacy, while underestimating our own. If we reframe the idea of “doing digital history” to “introducing digital literacy into the curriculum,” this is something we all can do.

But where to begin? Although my examples come from working with The Sloane Letters Project, similar activities can be done with a range of digital resources already out there. Digital literacy needs to be woven throughout a curriculum rather than isolated in a single module. Digital scavenger hunts are a great introductory activity. Recently, I led a workshop at a Digital Arts Festival aimed at fifteen-year-olds. My goal was to show them how a seemingly dull database might contain snippets that could lead to great stories. Before the workshop, I identified several letters in the Sloane Letters database that might appeal to teenagers, then compiled a list of search terms that would lead them to juicy stories. One group was so intrigued by a letter about Elizabeth French, a horned woman, that they searched the internet for other references to her; two other groups searched for medical conditions that might cause horns.

Elizabeth French, a woman with horns. Pen drawing. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

Many humanities academics treat undergraduates as passive recipients of knowledge, rather than researchers-in-training. This is connected to our continued reliance on essays and exams as the main assessments. But with Sloane Letters, my research team is comprised of students. The Social Sciences and Research Humanities Council of Canada, who funded the project, encourages student training. When I moved to the UK (giving up my SSHRC funding), the primary way of keeping the project going was to work with students, as the University of Essex has several work and research experience programs for students.

As a result, I consider students—either on projects or in the classroom—to be researchers, which shapes my teaching in fundamental ways. First, I can’t expect new researchers to leap straight into data analysis until they learn how data is constructed. Once they understand database searches, I teach them about data construction. They interrogate database categories to consider what is included or omitted and how those terms might shape what they find. They do data entry, realizing that choices are made at every step: how do you decide what to tag, or what categories to use? Students become critical users of digital resources, aware that databases are constructed by people with assumptions and specific purposes. 

Digital teaching also encourages space for creativity. My third-year students have turned in podcasts, Instagram series, and online exhibitions. They did not suddenly know how to do this, but were able to do it because I set aside time in my classes at all levels for them to experiment with tools or creative activities. This comes at the expense of coverage, but allows learning through play, allays student anxiety, and encourages confidence in risk-taking.

For example, my second-year unicorn hunters also turned fossil explorers. To prepare for class, they read my transcription of Sloane’s catalogue of human fossils (which I was in the process of categorizing) and articles on ekphrasis and scientific drawing. I brought my rock and fossil box to class, as well as a supply of paper, pens, pencil crayons, and pastels. The students spent two hours in small groups examining fossils, drawing and writing poetic reflections and scientific descriptions.


Some students played a ‘rock or fossil’ guessing game, while others tried early modern illustration methods. When we discussed the different ways of seeing in early modern Europe, students had gained insights into assumptions that lead us astray, representation rather than exactness in scientific drawing, and trained observation as a genre of writing.

Deep subject learning occurred through play, but they also had space to practice risk-taking and creative thinking. The students may not have used digital tools, but the exercise was inspired through my usage. Most significantly, the activity was also part of teaching digital literacy; although scientific (and digital) knowledge might seem to be facts, it is never neutral.

You do not need to be an expert to use digital tools. All you need is a familiarity with a favorite research database. Activities like digital scavenger hunts or analyzing database categories familiarizes students with research tools and methods and critical thinking. Playing with databases offers opportunities for creative thinking and inspiration, such as how to build stories from small parts or digging deep to understand context. Teaching with digital tools is for anyone who wants to encourage their students to be creative, critical, and digitally literate researchers.

Lisa Smith is a lecturer in the department of History at the University of Essex. Her main areas of research interest are gender, health, and the household in England and France (ca. 1670-1789).  She has developed an online database of Sir Hans Sloane’s correspondence (The Sloane Letters Project) and is a co-investigator on the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective. In addition, she is a founding editor for The Recipes Project and tweets as @historybeagle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s