Digital Memories: 5 Photo Story

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History Curriculum in 2023

In Mills Kelly’s thought provoking series of posts “The History Curriculum in 2023” what resonated most with me was his characterization of history education in 2013 as still essentially passive.  Prof. Kelly explains that his accumulated experience with how history is taught in the English speaking world has led him to conclude “how history education negates the creative potential of students.” In an effort to address this lack of active learning in history education at the undergraduate level, Prof. Kelly proposes four ways those teaching history can engage students’ creativity and make use of the digital spaces that young people already inhabit; he terms these “making,” “mining,” “marking,” and “mashing”.  Prof. Kelly notes that young people increasingly use the web as a place to create rather than simply retrieve information.  Sometimes referred to as “Web 2.0,” this shift in what the web means for people who use it, argues Prof. Kelly, necessitates a shift in how we engage with students and prepare them for the world of 2023. These digital creations can take any number of forms including digital storytelling and digital exhibits, making use of data visualization tools such as Google n-gram, and creating mash-ups of multiple online sources to craft a historical argument.

I completely agree with the need to have students actively creating historical pieces.  My own background in special education makes me especially partial to the notion that students have to be actively engaged in learning.  As an educator, I have long been in the camp of constructivism which embraces the idea that learning is actively constructed by the learner rather than transmitted from teacher to passive student.

For my own project for this course, I have been thinking of ways to have students create digital history projects — using primary sources and available for public audiences.  I think the overwhelming challenge in this is how to include enough supports so that beginning undergraduates — students who are not yet history majors in a senior capstone course — can create a historical argument.  Rather than a fully developed argument in the form of a twenty page paper, I’m thinking along the lines of Prof. Kelly’s mashing.  Per our class discussions, I feel like clear articulation of the assignment’s goals will be key and I’m looking for different ways to express the kind of historical thinking I want to see students engage in using plain language.  Given all this I’m really looking forward to class and discussing our ideas for projects in an effort to work out some of these thornier problems.

History Site Analysis: History Engine, Beyond the Bubble

Last week we reviewed and critiqued digital projects created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media for Mills Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age.  Upon reviewing two sites, Children and Youth in History and Making History in 1989, I came to the conclusion that these projects do an excellent job teaching how to analyze sources and how to frame a historical question.  For this week, we are to look at projects that were not created by RRCHNM.  In particular, I was looking for projects that dealt in some way with finding and searching and creating a publicly available product — two aspects of historical research that were generally speaking not features of RRCHNM projects.

One interesting project is History Engine, initially created at the University of Virginia and now hosted by the Digital Scholar’s Lab at the University of Richmond.  History Engine allows students to engage in historical research on a smaller scale than the common 15-20 page seminar capstone paper that many undergraduate history majors require.  Students who use the History Engine create history “episodes” approximately 500 words in length.  These pieces utilize one primary source and only one or two secondary sources and they are explicitly characterized as historical “story-telling” and not historical arguments — a distinction I’d like to return to in a bit.  History Engine does a very complete job of instructing students and teachers in the parameters of creating these episodes — explaining in plain language that students should pick which “theme” of the primary source they’d like to highlight and providing concise instructions for relating the primary source to their secondary sources.

Students can save their drafts on the site and when their final version is completed their teacher can make them public.  Once uploaded and made visible these episodes can, of course, be read, but students also attach meta-data that allow users to begin to see a larger historical picture.  For example, each episode must have geographic and time data and History Engine then allows users to see a series of episodes mapped or displayed on a time line.  Here students can begin to see how historians make arguments from a collection of sources.  Perhaps, this allows for an exploration of how historical arguments are made, which I see as a flaw in the “episode” assignment.

Significantly,  students are real participants in a historical exhibit, which makes the History Engine a good example of authentic assessment.  Research has indicated the value of creating authentic projects — products that can be viewed by others and actually contribute to some kind of public activity.  History Engine constitutes an interesting exploration of what history products students might be able to build.

NOTE: Teachers must register to use History Engine, and seemingly must demonstrate their understanding of the project and their commitment to it. This is a key difference from RRCHNM sites which are allow for open use.

The next project I looked at comes from Stanford University and was directed by psychologist of historical thinking, Sam WineburgBeyond the Bubble, aims to create rubrics designed to assess the principle components of historical thinking.  Beyond the Bubble is similar in many ways to Historical Thinking Matters (a RRCHNM site Wineburg helped create) except that the activities are shorter and it is explicitly focused on assessment.  Students are given one or two primary sources and asked a question that forces them to make what Wineburg’s research has identified as the most important thinking skills involved in creating history:

1. Evaluation of Evidence (Sourcing, Contextualization, and Corroboration.

2. Historical Knowledge (Information, Significance, Periodization, and Narrative)

3. Historical argumentation

Rubrics are then provided for teachers to identify the extent to which a student has demonstrated this skill (Proficient, Emergent or Basic).  Wineburg’s approach in Beyond the Bubble is familiar to me from my background as a special education teacher — targeted assessment like this can help teachers engage in what’s known as direct instruction.  Direct instruction is the process of breaking down an activity into its constituent parts and teaching these parts or skills explicitly.  For example, when teaching children to read most can learn by just watching an adult read and following along.  The children who can’t simply learn by watching need direct instruction — in reading this is typically a phonics-based approach.  In other words, these students need the component skills of reading taught directly — what sounds  the letters make (especially vowels) and in what context — which in English is actually incredibly complex.

I like Wineburg’s approach for this reason and I think it’s quick enough that teachers could use it periodically throughout a course to test aspects of historical thinking and explicitly focus on those skills that students are struggling with.

My takeaway from these two projects and the RRCHNM is that I would like to focus on having students create a publicly-viewed product that demonstrates the historical thinking skills articulated by Wineburg.  The big challenge, it seems to me, will be to also make sure that the project conveys a sense of context in a specific area of history so ably communicated by Children and Youth in History and Making History in 1989.

History site analysis: Children and Youth, 1989

As a part of the course taught by Mills Kelly, Teaching and Learning History the Digital Age, we have been discussing how history learning happens, what pedagogy best suits history and specifically how can digital tools be used to teach more effectively.  Our readings and discussion have focused on this problem and the course will culminate in the development and creation of a “web-based learning experience from a set of primary source. documents.”  

In service of this goal, Prof. Kelly asked us to choose two projects created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and review their strengths and weaknesses (FULL DISCLOSURE: I work as a graduate research assistant for the RRCHNM).  I chose two sites that wound up being rather similar in structure, Children and Youth in History and Making the History of 1989 — perhaps not surprisingly as they were developed almost simultaneously in 2008 and 2007 respectively.  

Both sites are built around sets of primary sources and both sites are very structured and controlled in the way those sources are presented.  Children and Youth in History has an extended introductory essay by Dr. Miriam Forman-Brunell, which has six sections each multiple paragraphs long explaining the approach of the site.  The essay’s section are headed:

“How do I study the history of children and youth?”

“How do I use child-related primary sources?”

“How do I interpret or “read” primary sources?”

What are the limitations of source material?”

Why study the history of children and youth?”

The essay does a complete and impressive job of laying out what it means to use primary sources and engage in historical thinking.  I do wonder whether the entire essay would be read by prospective teachers or students — it calls itself a “Students’ Guide,” for example, which seems optimistic.

 Making the History of 1989 also has a long introductory essay, but it also might be a bit more practical as its sections are based on geography — the nations that transitioned from communism beginning in 1989.  As with Children and Youth in History, I would be concerned that users might skip this essay, and the work it does in framing the site and its resources might not be communicated.  

The rest of these two sites are quite similar, as well.  Each allows users to browse its collection of primary sources which are organized by region.  Children and Youth in History  has a global scope and sources are organized by region while Making History in 1989 organizes sources by nation.  On both sites, each source comes with a detailed annotation framing the source into a larger historical context.  These annotations reinforce the stated goals of these sites to teach how to use primary sources to address historical problems — obviously informed by research into historical thinking.  

In addition to being able to browse the sources, users can see how other educators use the sources as well.  In two different sections, “Case Studies” and “Teaching Modules” educators discuss how they would use selected primary sources.  The case studies are less structured and tend to be written by university professors who explain how they might use group of two or three sources in the classroom. What kinds of questions would they ask of students?  What larger history do these sources connect to and how do they relate to each other?

The teaching modules, by contrast, are developed by high school teachers, are more formally structured lesson plans, and also feature a document-based-question or DBQ like those found on the Advanced Placement Tests.  Both the case studies and the teaching modules function as further structure and framing for the collection of primary sources.  

With this structure and framing present at every “level” of the site Introduction-Teaching Ideas-Primary Sources, the clear strength of these sites is how they consistently reinforce what it means to use primary sources to engage in historical thinking.  Users of these sites will not only learn content, but also engage in analysis of primary sources and learn how historians use sources to pose historical questions.  These are two incredibly important skills when it comes to conducting historical research, but for my own project I’m also interested in what other skills are necessary to the work of a historian.  My thinking on this is far from complete but based on readings I’ve encountered, I think two skills especially are of just as important:

1.  Searching for and finding sources or evidence.

2. Creating some kind of publicly available product to communicate your historical argument.

Whether historians are working in a physical archive or searching on the web, the skills of knowing where to look for sources to analyze is of critical importance.  These sources don’t just present themselves to be analyzed as they are on Children and Youth in History and Making the History of 1989 — and it’s worthwhile to think about how this skill could be taught.

Similarly, historians don’t analyze sources and solve historical issues in private — they present it publicly as part of an on-going conversation.  In his excellent article, “Putting History ‘In its Place,'” Keith Erekson argues that historical research should be taught by teaching students how to find information and meaning “in the archive” but also how to evaluate and organize their findings for an audience “at the podium”.  Thinking about different ways students might craft a historical argument that others will view and potentially learn from seems to me just as crucial as any other component of historical thinking.  As I think about what my site will entail, I will be thinking more about these skills — especially given that the RRCHNM projects already do an excellent job of focusing on historical analysis and placing sources in context.    

Closing Time

As I reflect on the Clio Wired I course, I’m going to steal a technique from the online course I T.A. at the center.  In the course, the students are given a source — usually a photo of an item like a fence or some shoes — and then they are supposed to form a hypothesis as to how this item connects to a larger history.  After they go through the module, which teaches them some aspect of history, they are expected to reassess their hypothesis and then apply it in the classroom.  It’s a good way to get them practicing metacognition or thinking about thinking.  While I wasn’t asked to hypothesize what digital humanities might mean at the beginning of Clio I, at least I can go back to my first blog post and see if my initial impressions held up.  I wrote after our first class,

In our first class meeting, Professor Leon suggested that we view Clio Wired I as a sequel to a historical methods class.  Her point, I think, was that an introduction to digital history should integrate digital tools into the practice of researching and writing history.  The skills of the professional historian, then, what William Cronon calls the “values and intellectual leanings,” must still be present in conducting digital history — computers just allow historians new ways to find sources and new ways to bring historical scholarship to an audience.

At the end of course, I have to say that I understand better how it works as a methods course.  In my history methods course that I took as a master’s student — way back in the fall of 2009 — I learned about the annales, social history, cultural history and I read E.P Thompson, Benedict Anderson, Michel Foucault, and Natalie Zemon Davis among others.  After taking that class, I could not produce a piece of cultural history, but I did learn to recognize what historians who did write cultural history were doing, which was the first step to be able to actually research and write it — or at least something like it.  Similarly with Clio Wired I, I can’t write some python script that’s capable of scraping a digital document for the material that will inform my research question, but I can write this sentence.  And I can almost tell you what it means.  In addition, because of the things I have learned about in this course, I look forward to the day when I am certain of what I just wrote and can actually do it too.  For example, part of the my source material for my final project are digitized journals (about 15 years worth), government reports, and other sources related to mental disability in the Progressive Era.  In terms of paper it represents thousands of pages, most of which I can’t use.  Also, it’s not nearly enough to get at the questions I want to ask. I need much more to find enough of a base to get at the issues of disability and race that I wan tot explore.  With this class, I can see a way it might be done — just as with my first methods class I can begin to understand how my questions and queries could be framed.  As Martha Stewart used to say, it’s a good thing. 

The Game’s the Game

For my practicum I played the game “Do I Have the Right?” designed to teach the amendments to the Constitution.  It was a well-designed game: you refer clients to lawyers based on whether their grievance really reflects a constitutional right.  The more cases you win, the more lawyers you can hire and the more clients you can attract, which leads to more wins and more prestige.

It was fun — and a clever way to get students to remember the amendments.  Of course it also separates the amendments from the historical context that led to their ratification.  And the pursuit of “prestige” is pretty shallow when we’re talking about civil liberties, but . . . who cares — why do historians have to ruin everything?

If I were to design a game, I would probably do something like this.  Something fun that helps reinforce some basic factual knowledge.  Since students have trouble distinguishing between primary and secondary sources, I think I would design a game that would teach the difference to elementary school and early middle school students to get them ready for some historical thinking in later grades.  Instead of a law office it could take place in a department of history.  Clients would come in with problems like “I need to know how early Americans felt about the Stamp Act.” The player could then ask the client a series of questions to determine what kind of source the client needs.  The number of questions would not be limited, but the faster you can help the client, the more clients you can help.  With your building academic prestige you can “hire” graduate students to assist clients further.  Will your institution ascend to the top of the U.S. News and World Reports rankings?  Play Source of Power today!

The Games People Play

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I’m very excited about the topic of games because now I finally get to be a curmudgeon.

For each of the digital topics we’ve covered in this course, I have been optimistic about their ability to enhance historical scholarship and teaching.  Making a connection back to the first day of class when Prof. Leon articulated her view that “Clio Wired” should be thought of as a sequel to the methods class and then the first group of readings in which the Bill Cronon eloquently explained the habits of mind that unite historians — the class topics we’ve covered seemed consistent with these core values of historians.  I can conceive of web design as argument. I see how crowd-sourcing can be both an innovative way to code data and a way to build powerful communities to support history.  I appreciate how data visualization and mapping can lead to new questions especially when linked with the ability to perform close reading.  I see how new media can facilitate scholarly communication both among each other and with a general audience.  I love the idea of making our research open source and I’m excited by the ways digital tools can bring historical thinking into the classroom.

But games?  Here is where I draw my line in the silicon.

There seemed to be a shift in the readings this week compared to those I’ve referenced above.  In the previous weeks’ readings, scholars convincingly argued that digital tools could help craft arguments and raise questions that advance historical scholarship.  The message from this week’s readings seemed to be that history can make an entertaining game.  Several authors seemed to admit that you have be flexible in the service of making a quality game.  For example, Zucconi, et al. report that in making adjustments to their small pox game they were forced to think game-first instead of history-first:

We redesigned our jigsaw puzzle: instead of starting with the content, and then somehow forcing it into a game, we started with the structure of the game, and asked ourselves, what kind of content would best serve its purposes?

James Paul Gee comes up with some principles for good game design that I think get to my concerns over whether you can learn much about history from a game as his last principle is “Performance before Competence” which reminded me most of Rock Band and Guitar Hero.  Both seem like great games (I have never played them — my last working game system was a PS2) but I doubt they help anyone learn how to play an instrument.  They stop at mimicking performance and don’t take players all the way to competence.  If they did, they would be better teaching tools, but at the price of being much worse games.

My suspicion of games as history stems from a general suspicion of entertainment as education.  I am convinced that you can’t really learn much about history from TV or movies.  I tend equate edu-tainment with low-fat ice cream.  Low-fat ice cream is neither healthy nor tasty.  If you want healthy eat whole grains and leafy green vegetables.  If you want tasty eat real ice cream (frozen custard is good too).  If you want to learn about history, read history.  If you want to play a great game, play a great game.