Early American Library History and Digital Humanities Using Hamilton

PALS Note: This week PALS is pleased to present a series of posts with reflections on teaching approaches for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical in various classroom contexts. We hope that these posts are a fruitful spark for continued discussion on ideas for teaching Hamilton in the classroom. (Here are the links to the other posts in the series: Teaching Hamilton: An American Musical as Contemporary American Drama, Teaching Revision through Hamilton: An American Musical, and Teaching Hamilton: A Wrap Up; and, here is the initial post that inspired the series: Teaching Hamilton, the Musical.)

In the first post of the series, Laura Miller, an Associate Professor of English at the University of West Georgia, shares her experiences with teaching Hamilton in an introduction to digital humanities course that was taught online. Miller’s post provides a framework for helping students think about Hamilton and the digital humanities through a class project introducing students to the City Readers, a wonderful online resource from The New York Society Library.

In Summer 2016, I piloted an online introduction to digital humanities course under the umbrella “XIDS 2100—Arts and Ideas” at my university. This course counts for Area C: Humanities, Fine Arts, and Ethics in our Core Curriculum, so it is a course that draws undergraduate lower-division students from diverse majors. When I design this class (as a digital humanities class or otherwise), I make the assignments and texts relatively accessible so that we do not belabor content comprehension. I taught it during the July session, with nine discrete sections that students completed over an intensive 3.5-week period. Major assignments included Wikipedia editing, an XML markup assignment, and a text-based online game based on one of the works encountered in class. We did not have a textbook, but I used Johanna Drucker’s online syllabus from UCLA as a resource, as well as material I had developed previously, articles, and new materials I developed for this class.

The first sections of the class –Classifications, Ontologies, and Metadata—showed students how digital humanities work is used to organize and categorize information. We then analyzed ways that humanities projects, such as the English Broadside Ballad Archive, What Middletown Read, Transatlantic Slave Trade Voyages, Old Bailey Online, the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, and the American Antiquarian Society’s Historical Game Collection digitize the cultural record.

We then proceeded to the Wikipedia editing assignment, in which students were expected to participate in the public humanities through producing or revising a Wikipedia entry on one of several underresearched eighteenth-century readers from the New York Society Library City Readers Project.

City Reader Burr
Aaron Burr’s Reading Records, The New York Society Library. City Readers: Digital Historic Collections at the New York Society Library.

However, in order to contextualize this assignment before launching students into a database of eighteenth-century reading records, I needed to help my online students immerse themselves in late eighteenth-century New York. Because they were going to be writing biographical entries, I wanted to humanize the people they would be researching. To that end, I enlisted Hamilton, and assigned the students the soundtrack to listen to, as well as several questions for our discussion board:

The culture of early New York is in the news a lot today, in part because of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit Broadway show, Hamilton, which traces the rise and fall of Jamaican immigrant and founding father Alexander Hamilton using contemporary music styles and a predominantly nonwhite cast. Miranda shows us American—and New York—history using a cast that reflects the diverse America of 2016. We’re going to listen to the soundtrack and discuss it, to learn a bit more about this period and its resonance today, before we proceed to our next major assignment on the New York Society Library.

Listen and make some notes about the kinds of themes that emerge. It’s stream-able on Amazon Prime (with membership) and Spotify (for free). Then answer the following questions in short paragraphs (3-4 sentences) before responding to at least two other students’ posts.

Q1: Who are the main characters and what are they like? What about them might resonate with audiences today?

Q2: We are going to be writing about the same culture in which this musical takes place. What does New York culture seem like from this musical? How does information seem to circulate? How does power seem to work?

Q3: What surprised or interested you about the musical? Why do you think it won so many awards?

Most students enjoyed the musical and developed greater understanding of issues that would surface later in the class—the importance of writing chief among them. We proceeded to the next stage of the assignment, in which students evaluated and then wrote about the City Readers site: Hamilton, Burr, and several other members were shareholders and members of the NYSL. Students were then able to see the readers as part of a network of New Yorkers whose stories remain to be told.

The_Room_Where_It_Happens
“The Room Where it Happens,” Hamilton: An American Musical

Using the musical was especially effective in an online forum, where material can seem flat and too much textual interface can overwhelm students. Several wrote that they were surprised that they liked a musical so much. After this exercise, students were more enthusiastic about working with digital library records from the eighteenth century, and they demonstrated more interest in focusing on individual readers for their Wikipedia assignment. The students’ Wikipedia entries became part of a larger project of popularizing the lives of early republic New Yorkers in which both they and Miranda participated.

The final project for the class was to design a text-based adventure game based on one of the works we had encountered in our class. The majority of students chose Hamilton for their projects.

Contributor Bio:

Laura Miller is Associate Professor of English at the University of West Georgia, where she teaches classes in eighteenth-century literature, critical theory, and digital humanities. Her first book, Reading Popular Newtonianism, 1670-1792, is under contract with the University of Virginia Press. Follow her on Twitter.

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