Course Syllabus

This course is designed to provide you with an introduction to the field of digital scholarship and a basic grounding in digital methods for historical research.  The class is intended for complete beginners – no previous knowledge is assumed.

The class is built around the idea that the only way to learn about digital scholarship is to actually do it.  The class, therefore, is built like a lab and will be different from other graduate courses you’ve taken.  Most of your time in this class, for example, will be spent experimenting with digital tools, as you learn first-hand how to explore historical records with some basic coding (programming), text analysis tools, and data visualization interfaces.

Together, we will use these digital tools to tackle a particular historical problem:  What can we learn about slavery and enslaved people from the runaway slave ads published in Texas newspapers during the 1840s and 1850s?  As the western-edge of the American South, Texas held nearly 200,000 enslaved people by the eve of the U.S. Civil War.  Hundreds of those men and women ran away every year from Texas plantations and farms, prompting their masters to advertise in newspapers for their capture and return.  Because these ads often provided physical descriptions, motives for escape, and speculation about where each fugitive went, they offer scholars a window into the harsh realities of Texas slavery that is available nowhere else.

These runaway slave ads are now available through UNT’s Portal to Texas History newspaper collection.  Each of you will be responsible for a particular year of the runaway slave ads, which you will collect, digitize, and analyze using various digital tools.  The idea is to provide you with a real-world historical research problem that will guide your efforts to learn new skill-sets that you can apply to your own research.

Digital projects are invariably built by collaborative teams – a very different model than the “monk scholar” tradition of historical scholarship – and the course is therefore structured to walk through the various steps of constructing a digital project.

The heart of the course, then, will revolve around our collaborative project to use technology to answer historical questions about these runaway slave ads.  Together we will debate and decide how we want to collect, digitize, and analyze these historical records – the class will therefore be built entirely around collaboration and team effort, as you and your classmates work as collaborators rather than as competitors.

And we are not alone in this project.  Throughout the semester, we will also be working with a concurrent class at Rice University.

The Rice team will be analyzing runaway slave ads during the years leading to 1848, and our class is responsible for 1848 (end of the U.S.-Mexico War) through 1858 (essentially the eve of the U.S. Civil War).  Each of you will be responsible for a particular year, as we work together to see whether technology can provide new windows into critical questions about these runaway slave ads.

Over the course of the semester you will be doing many different things, all geared toward four specific goals:

  1. You will learn how to do some basic coding (programming) in a language called “Python.”  We will be using two online resources specifically geared for complete beginners:
  2. You will be exploring and evaluating various digital tools and online projects as you become familiar with the three most prominent methods for digital scholarship among historians:
    • Text-analysis (identifying and analyzing language patterns)
    • Data and text-visualizations (creating visual patterns to make sense of your dataset)
    • Digital mapping (plotting your data across both time and space)
  3. We will collectively explore and evaluate what various digital tools and techniques can and cannot show us about our runaway slave ads.  The idea is to learn both the potential and limitations of different digital research methods.
  4. We will work together as a team in order to give you first-hand experience in collaborative research.  As such, we will be regularly sharing our work – both in-class and through blogging on our research site – as we discuss both progress and challenges in the project.

Before each class, I will hand out a specific set of assignments to complete.  Each week, for example, there will be a coding (programming) assignment, a reading assignment (ranging from traditional journal articles, to blog posts, to online digital projects, and everything in between), and a specific set of discussion questions to prepare.  There will also often be a specific project assignment geared toward our runaway slave ad project (such as collecting ads, transcribing them, or evaluating various tools we might use to analyze them).

Over the course of the semester, you will work toward two final products:

  1. Producing a 5-7 page report evaluating what we can (and cannot) learn about these slave ads using digital methods.  (I will provide a detailed guide to writing this report following spring break.
  2. Writing a mock proposal to the NEH for a full “Texas Runaway Slave Ads Project,” using the NEH’s guidelines for a proposal to the Office of Digital Humanities for a Level 1 Start-up Grant.  (Details to follow spring break.)

The grading will be simple, and geared toward rewarding steady work and effort:

  • Participation (60%).  This will be the heart of the class and grade, and will be based on your contributions to in-class discussions, informal reports and blogging on assigned projects and tools, your contributions to our slave ads project, and the like.
  • Completing the programming work and assignments (20%).  This is a straight-forward completion grade, focused on rewarding you for putting in steady effort to become familiar with digital methods.
  • Final report and NEH proposal (20%).  These will be your opportunity to synthesize what you have learned over the course of the semester.


  • Learning new skills requires practice and a willingness to try to figure things out.  As we work our way through new things, I expect you to approach the assignments with both an open mind and a willingness to work through challenges when they arise.
  • I do not, however, expect you to become an expert in programming, or any particular digital technology.  Your goal is simply to become familiar with these methods and technologies, and to become competent enough to apply them to our runaway slave ads.
  • I expect you to be an active and supportive participant in class discussions, presentations, and our team efforts to understand the runaway slave ads.  You will need to be both a good communicator and a good teammate.
  • I expect you to talk to me and your classmates when you need help.  We will all get stuck on a problem or challenge at points in the semester, and we will work as a team to overcome those challenges.

Because it is impossible to predict the pace of our project work on the runaway slave ads, I will hand out the individual assignments each week (so that we can easily adjust as needed over the course of the semester).  That said, there is a clear overall set of themes and tasks that we will complete over the course of the semester, which is outlined in the course schedule below.

January 15:  Introduction
January 22:  Orientation to Digital Scholarship
January 29:  Our Research Problem: Runaway Slaves in Texas
February 5:  Capturing Data
February 12:  Digitizing Sources: OCR, Transcription, Metadata
February 19:  Text Analysis
February 26:  Text Analysis
March 5:  Text Analysis
March 12:  SPRING BREAK!  No class!
March 19:  Topic Modeling
March 26:  Data Visualization
April 2:  Data Visualization
April 9:  Data Visualization
April 16:  Complete final reports and projects
April 23:  Complete final reports and projects
April 30:  LAST CLASS – Final reports and projects due

This course itself is an experiment.  I do not pretend to have all the answers, and we will learn mostly by doing.  That means we will all experience dead-ends, frustrations, and the like.  That’s part of learning anything new, and comes with the territory when you do scholarship.  But the payoff at the end of the semester, I believe, will be well worth the efforts!

The University of North Texas makes reasonable academic accommodation for students with disabilities. Students seeking accommodation must first register with the Office of Disability Accommodation (ODA) to verify their eligibility. If a disability is verified, the ODA will provide you with an accommodation letter to be delivered to faculty to begin a private discussion regarding your specific needs in a course. You may request accommodations at any time, however, ODA notices of accommodation should be provided as early as possible in the semester to avoid any delay in implementation. Note that students must obtain a new letter of accommodation for every semester and must meet with each faculty member prior to implementation in each class. Students are strongly encouraged to deliver letters of accommodation during faculty office hours or by appointment. Faculty members have the authority to ask students to discuss such letters during their designated office hours to protect the privacy of the student. For additional information see the Office of Disability Accommodation website at You may also contact them by phone at (940) 565-4323.