History is a discipline that is founded on looking at changes over time, and for Sarah Purcell, Professor of History, data is an essential tool in measuring that change. More specifically, Purcell employs geospatial data to investigate historical change in both time and space for her Civil War & Reconstruction class, which focuses on the causes, progress, and consequences of the Civil War and Reconstruction with an emphasis on race, politics, economics, gender, and military conflict.
Purcell uses a stair-step approach in getting students exposed to geospatial data, first by using Google Maps to compare Civil War battleground locations to the locations of students’ hometowns, then investigating how other historians have used data, especially economic and demographic data, in tandem with historical narrative. Finally, Purcell has her students work with ArcGIS, an analytical map-making software, to visualize geographic trends in various historical data. For example, students in the class explore on black soldiers who enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Civil War in an in-class exercise (Figure 1) that encourages them to think critically about military data.
To Sarah Purcell, data is important due to its wide applicability: using data in the context of history teaches a valuable lesson about how data can enhance just about any discipline. Moreover, in the history field, there exists a broad array of different types of data to be utilized, both qualitative and quantitative. While Purcell admits that some students have easier facility with working with data than others, she stresses that the struggle is important in internalizing quantitative literacy and getting accustomed to confronting data, an essential skill. The amount of involvement with data students get in her courses has impacted her students in a variety of ways: some students have gone on to get further training in ArcGIS via formal coursework, and others have been able to secure jobs, citing that employers are largely attracted to data skills in historical work.