A local digital history project researched by Mercer University students and posted on Instagram has led Dr. Abigail Dowling, associate professor of history, to receive the first EXPy Award for excellence in experiential learning.
The award, short for Excellence in Experiential-Learning Programs, highlights the work of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty members who incorporate an experiential or engaged-learning component within their courses.
The winning project was part of Dr. Dowling’s independent internship, which explored the theories behind public-facing history, especially digital history. Students researched local history, created graphics, wrote copy, and posted the content to the Department of History’s Instagram account, @merceruhistory.
Posted Mondays on Instagram, “Macon Mondays” was less about having the students learn history and more about getting them to think about how historians need to package historical messages for the casual consumer, Dr. Dowling said.
“By asking them to identify topics of interest and do the research and write the copy, locate and provide images, the students had to engage with digital humanities on a fundamental level,” she said.
Because the project was done with a real audience in real time, students had to think carefully about who would be reading their posts, how much time people would spend looking at them and users’ interest level in the topic.
“It allowed students to not just read about public-facing history and the difficulty of doing it effectively but to try it out in a digital ‘lab’ that is Instagram,” Dr. Dowling said.
Alumna Adri Rosario, who triple-majored in history, Spanish and Southern studies, came up with the idea and published the first posts in fall 2021. Some early subjects included history of the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, Tattnall Square Park, the Tic Toc Room, Little Richard and the Allman Brothers Band.
“I learned a lot of Macon history that I didn’t know myself, and it also was a lesson for my career in terms of how to prepare things for public history, how to make them attractive to a popular audience,” Rosario said. “It was cool to see people engage with this material who just happened to go to Mercer or live in Macon and (didn’t) know some of these things that were just right around them.”
The Macon Mondays posts were among the most popular on the history department’s Instagram account, Dr. Dowling said.
Two students continued the project after Rosario graduated in 2022. She recently returned from Mexico City, where she worked as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She will be pursuing a master’s in history at the University of Georgia in the fall and hopes to get a career in education.
Digital media is affecting the way historians communicate with the public, Dr. Dowling said.
Most people connect with history through historical documentaries, historical fiction, and museums and other historical sites. But since the pandemic, fewer people have been visiting physical locations, which has intensified discussions among historians on how to present history digitally, she said.
“There is not a lot of research on digital history in social media, and these students are very much innovators,” she said.