Teaching History


January 2014

In January 2014 I taught a Master course on the history of computing at the University of Amsterdam together with my colleague Katrin Geske. Nine groups, consisting on average of five students, followed our course for a period of four weeks (from 6 January till 31 January). Most attendees were computer science students and did not have any other academic commitments in January, at least not officially. Our objective was to have each student think, read, and write like a historian of computing by the end of the month.

Katrin and I spent considerable time with each group, preparing the students to write a historical paper in the fourth week on a topic of their own choice. All groups also assembled in our plenary sessions on Monday and Wednesday morning to listen to a professional historian lecturing about the history of computing and to a librarian explaining how to search for documents on the Internet and in archives. The plenary sessions also served the purpose of having each team present its work in progress, and to discuss the secondary sources that it had found in e.g. the Annals of the History of Computing.

The major hurdle for most students during the first week was to distinguish between three conceptual levels:

  1. technological concepts (such as Windows 95),
  2. historical actors (such as Bill Gates), and
  3. institutes (such as Microsoft).

We repeatedly urged the students to stop reasoning solely in terms of their favorite technological concept and, instead, to think in terms of the historical actors who had helped shape the technology. Afterward, we advised the students to reflect in terms of the institutes that housed the actors.

Finally, the students were encouraged to formulate a research question across all three levels, as opposed to solely stating a question at Level 1 (as most groups did initially). For example, a relatively good historical question by the end of the first week was:

  • How did Microsoft and its competitors react to the launch of Windows 95?

This question encompasses all three levels: it not only mentions a technological concept (Windows 95), it also refers to institutes (Microsoft and its competitors) and, at least implicitly, to historical actors (such as Bill Gates). The original research question stated by the same students went as follows:

  • How did Windows 95 differ from previous and later operating systems?

Katrin and I expressed our dissatisfaction with the latter type of question because it does not refer to actors, nor does it mention any Level 3 concepts such as Microsoft. The question is posed at Level 1; that is, solely in terms of technology. Attempting to answer that question would amount to trying to write a long history of technological developments covering a time period that would typically span several decades. Most students had the tendency to think like this in the beginning of the course.

By the end of the first week, most groups were able to distinguish between Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 concepts. Some groups were already able to present a historical research question in terms of Level 3 concepts, even though they had time till the last week of the course to do so.

Most groups had difficulty differentiating between primary and secondary sources. In practice, many students found sources that were neither good secondary sources nor useful primary sources.

In the second week, we focused on mulitple primary sources. Specifically, we asked each team to find three or more institutes or actors who had had a different perspective on the technological concept under study. For example, in the case of Windows 95, not only Microsoft's role but also IBM's and Apple's reactions were taken into account by our students. They focused not only on Bill Gates and Microsoft but also on Steve Jobs's and Apple's reaction to the launch of Windows 95. Pluralism thus became the name of the game by the end of the second week.

Other pitfalls that we communicated to the students were: (i) avoiding anachronisms, (ii) presenting chronological accounts, and (iii) using the actions of the actors to tell the story.  

In the third week, the teams started writing their research papers. Each student received written and oral comments on their drafts from Katrin and myself.

In the fourth week, the students presented their final results in 10-minute talks. The quality of the presentations were beyond our initial expectations. Most teams had spent more than 40 hours a week on the project and were very enthusiastic about their research findings.

Some titles of the presented research topics were:

  1. Did Bruce Artwick's Flight Simulator Affect the Serious Games Market?
  2. The Rise and Fall of the LISP Machine
  3. The Napster Chronicles
  4. The Rise of Datanet