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4. Presenting: Capturing, Creating, and Writing History
Since Herodotus first began scratching out his Histories almost 2,500 years ago, historians have been writing about the past. Text and history have been inseparable companions for all the centuries since the Persian wars, and thanks to the Chinese, for almost 2,000 years, we have been writing those texts on paper. With a little help from Herr Gutenberg, for more than half a millennium we have been writing those histories in mass-produced books and other forms made possible by moveable type and the printing press. For much of the last hundred years or so, those books, articles, conference papers, and other forms of academic historical writing have followed a form easily recognizable to today’s readers. Books have a title and an author or authors, and usually have a table of contents, page numbers, (often) an index, and if the author uses footnotes or endnotes those notes adhere to one of several generally accepted formats (Chicago, MLA, etc.), and books are almost always divided into chapters. Journal articles, papers, and other forms of historical writing adhere to many of these same forms, leaving out only the organizational features such as the table of contents. Historians continue to write in these same ways, but we also now write blogs, e-books that were never intended for print, journal articles that appear only online, headnotes for database entries, have Twitter feeds, create music videos, and produce other forms of electronic historical writing that looks and feels quite different from the books and articles that have been the staple of the discipline for the past century. New online platforms that aggregate content from various of these sources into something not quite a journal, not quite a book, not quite a website. Increasing numbers of historians are embracing the possibilities of digital media for creating history when it comes to their own work, but there is not much evidence that these changes have worked their way into the history classroom.
While the forms of our writing about the past have begun to change only recently, the style of our writing evolved significantly beginning in the 1950s. For all the centuries up to the most recent one, historical writing was largely narrative in style, but since the Second World War analytical forms have mostly pushed aside narrative historical writing in the academy. Where once history was part of the humanities and historians were considered great writers in their own right, now the historical profession is much more likely to reward analytical sophistication over a good story. Of course, the market still rewards a good story and many an excellent historian has made a fine living writing in less analytical ways for a wider audience. But by and large, we demand from one another and from our students, written text that is precise, analytical, and that is embedded in the larger interplay of historical work we call scholarship. We are so used to writing about the past, we are so much a text-based professional culture, that we almost always expect our students to replicate what we do adhering as closely to the forms we know and are comfortable with as possible. History students write innumerable essays before they graduate from college, and if asked they will happily tell you that these essays are of a type. The content changes from course to course, but their professors’ expectation of the form of the five-, seven-, or ten-page essay is largely consistent across the curriculum. Is it any wonder some of them get bored, especially since the ways they “write” in the rest of their lives are so different?
Think for just a minute about the quotation from Richard Marius cited at the outset of this chapter. Is it really possible that “history and writing are inseparable”? Or that “We cannot know history well unless we write about it”? If that is true and Marius is right, the historical profession has two choices: change our ideas about what it means for our students to “write” about the past, or fade into irrelevance. If you do not believe me, consider the results of a survey 200 students in Michael Wesch’s Cultural Anthropology class at Kansas State University conducted on themselves in the fall of 2007. After analyzing one another, those students determined that in that year they would read eight books, 2,300 web pages, and 1,281 Facebook profiles. In the fall semester they would write 42 pages for various classes, but 00 pages of email. Now consider that these students surveyed themselves in 2007, not 2012. As ubiquitous as Facebook was in 2007, it had not yet achieved its current almost total capture of the American undergraduate student population. These data also do not capture the thousands of text messages the average college student will write in a single semester. As mentioned in chapter 1, a substantial fraction of those 2,300 web pages will offer up hundreds or perhaps thousands of hours of video they will watch on their computers. A substantial fraction of today’s students will have a blog; a Twitter feed; will publish and mark up photographs; will insert tags on images, videos, blog posts, and Facebook profiles; will create online videos; and will write entries for databases. And perhaps many will write comments ranging from a few words to many hundreds on content they find online.
None, or at least very little, of this “writing” they do on various websites and in various media has anything to do with what we call academic historical writing—at least from the standpoint of form. What they say may be said in precise, analytical language, but more likely it is going to be casual in tone and form. Does that make it less insightful? Perhaps, but not always. This chapter considers how, going forward from 2013, we need to think very carefully about how to teach students to organize, make sense of, and present history in the intermediated world they inhabit. My purpose is not to argue that the five-page essay is dead as a form of historical writing in the college course—even though to our students it may already be their version of Banquo’s ghost—dead, but annoyingly haunting. Instead, I suggest a number of ways to think about how students can and will represent the results of their historical investigations in a variety of forms, only one of which is the essay. Writing a solid historical essay is still a very important skill that students need to develop, but it is also incumbent upon us as their teachers and mentors to help them mine these various forms of presenting historical information for all they are worth, while helping them remain true to the values of our profession.
Before we proceed to the forms historical presentation is taking and likely will take in the future, we should first consider the purposes behind requiring students to present their analysis of the past in any form other than the spoken word. There are several very good reasons why we demand these concrete representations of the past from our students. The first of these is the one Marius asserts in the quotation cited earlier in this chapter. Whether it be writing, creating a poster, a website, a short film, a blog, an interactive map, or some other form of the representation of historical investigation, one thing we have learned over the years is that asking students to take the evidence they have gathered and put it into a form that makes that evidence intelligible to others spurs new ideas and reinforces memories other than those that take place during the investigatory stage of historical work. The act of figuring out how to organize the results of our investigations and analysis into a form that makes sense to other people forces us to think about our sources, our data, and the results of our analysis in different ways than we would otherwise. Because students must also consider their audience—whether it be the professor, the rest of the students in a classroom, or anyone online who finds their way to something the student has posted online—a certain amount of critical thinking must also take place about how the information contained in the presentation will be seen, read, and understood. Neuroscientists argue persuasively that there is a cognitive gain that accrues from the act of preparing information to be presented to others and so we are onto something good when we force students to represent their thinking in concrete forms.
We want our students to be literate, to be knowledgeable about the past, to be able to present the results of their research in clear and precise ways, and we believe, the papers we ask them to write and the other forms of representation we demand will help prepare them for various forms of writing and presenting they will have to do after they graduate. It is true that unless they go on to graduate school, few of our alumni will ever write another five-page essay. Nevertheless, it is also the case that any number of professions expect some form of writing, and so we comfort ourselves with the knowledge (or the assumption) that those many papers we require will help students in their future careers. If employers are to be believed, then we are not wrong in these assumptions. A January 2010 study published by the American Association of Colleges and Universities surveyed employers in the United States about their views on the role of higher education in preparing students for success in the new economy. At the top of the list of intellectual and practical skills that employers wanted students to gain in college was “The ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing.” Also near the top of their list were critical-thinking and analytical-reasoning skills, the ability to collaborate with others, problem-solving skills, the ability to innovate and be creative, and complex research skills (finding and evaluating information from multiple sources). The employers responding to this survey also placed great emphasis on the need for students to complete some sort of significant project in their major prior to graduation that makes use of the skills of their discipline, to take part in an internship or field-based research experience “to connect classroom learning with real-world experience,” and to learn both research skills and the ability to engage in evidence based analysis. What the employers surveyed specifically did not stipulate, is how these various skills should be acquired. Given that so few of them expect their employees to write analytical essays, I think it is fair to say that students need a diversity of writing experiences prior to graduation to prepare them for the world they will face after receiving their diploma.
In today’s workplace, how often do professionals have to commit 1,000 or more words to paper or pixels? Attorneys, intelligence analysts, and others certainly write many pages of text each year. But how many words does a high school teacher, a web-content manager, or an advertising professional commit to paper or pixels from year to year? Those who find themselves in these roles are much more likely to have to write smaller chunks of text for websites, company blogs, for examination review sheets, or for an annual report. Anyone who has written for the web knows that web writing is very different from the sort of writing I am doing now as I write this book. Where books, articles, and five-page papers put a premium on spinning out an argument in detail, writing for the web—as more and more of our alumni will do once they graduate—depends on being able to create a “chunk” of text that is pithy, informative, and short. These chunks may someday be assembled into something published, such as a book or an article, but the much more likely result of the web writing our alumni do will be little more than a disconnected corpus of chunks of text. This reality then begs the question of whether the five-page paper really helps students prepare for the world they will live in once they graduate? My belief is that it does not. The longer we insist that students represent the results of their research in a form that was as ubiquitous in 1977 when I was a college freshman as it is today, the more likely it will be that we will be stewards of a profession increasingly out of sync with the realities of the lives students lead, or plan to lead, after graduation. In an educational world driven increasingly by cost-benefit analyses, clinging to increasingly traditional forms of representation such as the five-page paper as the primary way students represent the results of their learning seems riskier with each passing year.
One reason why writing remains important as one of the many ways students can provide evidence of their learning is that there is an important evaluative component to the writing we assign. We demand that students write about their work so we can evaluate their efforts and understanding in ways we are very familiar and comfortable with. By the time most teachers hit the classroom as the teacher/professor of record, they have had some significant experience with grading student essays. From what the student wrote, most of us can answer questions such as whether the author’s research was thorough? Is the analysis based on evidence or mere conjecture? Did the author embed his or her analysis in the preexisting conversation among historians? Does the conclusion proceed clearly from their data and analysis, and so on. By answering these questions we can evaluate their efforts and their understanding of the lessons we want them to learn. The feedback they receive from us helps to reinforce lessons learned during the investigatory and representative phases of their work. This submission/feedback loop also makes it possible for us to assign a grade for the students’ work.
Until recently, the submission/feedback loop in history education was a very private matter. Students turned in their work to their professors, and the professors evaluated the work and gave it back with comments and a numeric or letter grade. Sometimes the rest of the class might engage in group evaluation of one another’s work, but those instances have been exceptions rather than the rule. In the world students live in now, they receive all sorts of feedback on a daily basis. Friends “like” items posted on Facebook pages, they comment on photographs or videos posted on various websites, they rank contributions to databases, and generally engage in a constant back and forth with one another over the things they post online. Research on student success in college indicates that the more they collaborate with one other (rather than with their professor) in the learning process, the more likely they are to be successful. When we ask students to create historical work in a digital environment, we create the possibility for greater collaboration between the students in the course and, depending upon the digital environment we choose, with others not enrolled in the course—students in other sections of the course, students enrolled at other institutions, or the public at large. However, simply creating the opportunity for such online collaboration does not ipso facto mean student work will improve. In fact, instructors who create collaborative environments for students and then just expect the students to take full advantage of those opportunities, are often quite disappointed with the results. The reason for this disappointment is not difficult to find. As mentioned earlier, today’s students are adept users of technology, but they are only rarely adept learners with the technology. As a result, we need to teach them how to make the best use of the opportunities we create for them—how to comment constructively on one another’s work, how to create tagging systems that make sense, how to build communities of practice, not just friend networks. Similarly, our students need to learn how to act and react, how to write and rewrite, when the boundaries of the classroom expand to take in the world at large. This expansion of the classroom happens, at least potentially, every time they post some of their work online in a place others not enrolled in the course can see it.
If the five-, seven-, or ten-page essay is no longer to be the primary standard expectation of history students, then what else should we expect of them, and what should they expect from us, going forward from 2012? In chapter 1, I offered a list of historical thinking skills that we want to inculcate in students before they graduate. When we think about the goals of history education, we typically combine a list such as mine with a list of content knowledge that we think every history major should know (or every student in a particular course should know). Most historians agree in general terms on lists of thinking skills, but debates over what content to teach and/or emphasize are and will remain quite lively. I submit that we need to include a third list—practical skills—that give students the opportunity to make use of the historical thinking skills they are learning in a digital environment conducive to the making of history. Such environments can include gallery or museum exhibits (analog or virtual), oral histories, the creation of historical websites or videos, public presentations at conferences or other similar venues, group projects that result in a tangible product—something that lives on beyond the end of the course—or a database of historical information made available to a wider audience. For example, in 2009, one of my students created an art exhibition from a series of photographs taken in Berlin as the Berlin Wall was being built. This exhibition, Halt! Grenze, taught her not only how to create a historical exhibition from primary sources, but also how to present that work online as part of a larger project on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the wall. This list does not exhaust the possibilities of the practical work students could be doing, but rather is intended to suggest some of the ways we can help students “make history,” rather than just write it. Making history in this way has many tangible benefits to students over and above any learning gains that might accrue. History making gives students the opportunity to explore tangible creative historical products that they can show graduate admissions committees and future employers.
Students certainly derive a sense of satisfaction from the completion of (and grade from) a well-written historical essay, and are almost certainly better for having written such an essay. But what happens to that essay once the graded version is handed back by the professor? Do students publish those essays online for others to read? Do they hand out copies to their friends? Most often, they file the graded essay away, and at some point later in life recycle the paper. The process of writing an essay, handing it in, having a grade assigned, and receiving it back from the professor is most often a project that involves only two people and is almost entirely private. No one benefits from the process but the student writing the essay. By contrast, if the student creates history in the ways that historians create history (other than writing books or articles), entering his or her work into the public discussion about the past, then the work the student does is no longer part of a binary and private exchange with a professor. Instead, he or she has done what we insist our colleagues do—make the work public so that others can use it or comment on it. This sort of public back and forth is certainly possible in other ways—making multiple copies of a paper and passing it around to others in the room—the technology available to us now simply makes the process easier.
For example, in the spring 2011 semester, I rewrote my Historical Methods course with the specific intention of creating more opportunities for my students to make history while they were learning about history. Several developments intersected to prompt this rewrite of the course: my conviction that the way we most typically teach methods to students is not especially interesting to them or to us, does not sufficiently take into account the changes that digital media have wrought on our profession, does not place enough emphasis on real, archival research, and, because my research expertise is in Central and Eastern European history, few (if any) of my students could do any original research in the sources I use in my own work. For all these reasons, I decided to create a version of the methods course that would get my students out of the classroom and into the field, would force them into the archives, and would require them to “make history” as a condition of completion of the course. To put it another way, I rebuilt the course around the idea that the best way to teach historical methods was to have students be historians. In doing so, I was responding, in part, to a 2001 critique of history education by the Canadian historian Chad Gaffield.
In the history courses I took in school in the 1960s, we read about history, talked about history and wrote about history; we never actually did history. If I had learned basketball in this way, I would have spent years reading the interpretations and viewpoints of great players, watching them play games, and analysing the results of various techniques and strategies. Instead, though, I was soon dribbling a basketball and trying to shoot it into the hoop after just a few instructions. In my history courses, by contrast, I did not begin to do any historical research until the end of my undergraduate years, and even in master’s seminars, the focus was still on learning about the various viewpoints of historians, rather than directly coming to grips with the past. In basketball terms, I began in earnest to play the sport only at the doctoral thesis level.
While Gaffield, currently the president of Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council, is describing the history classes he experienced as a young student in the 1960s, it is not an exaggeration to say that historical methods is still largely taught this same way on most college campuses.
In an attempt to break away from this style of teaching the methods course and to give my students a chance to “play the sport” of history, I created a new version of the old methods course and called it “Dead in Virginia.” In creating this new course I took advantage of several opportunities available to my students near my university—George Mason University—located in Fairfax County, Virginia. In Fairfax County, there are more than 400 family cemeteries, and in the surrounding region the number probably approaches 1,000. These cemeteries range in size from a single headstone or marker, to large plots with a few dozen graves. They are in various states of repair or disrepair, and some are more accessible than others: some were within walking distance of campus, others were much farther away; some were located on public lands; others were on private property, but all of them were available for my students as sites of research. In addition to this physical landscape of the past, the local public library’s Virginia Room contains vertical files on all of the known family cemeteries in Fairfax County, giving my students access to a real historical archive within walking distance of our campus. Finally, my students were able to connect with representatives of a local historical society—the Fairfax County Cemetery Preservation Association—and so learned the value of the work being done by historians outside the academy. One of the best lessons they learned was that the members of the association had very detailed knowledge of local history, but did not always have equally detailed knowledge of the broader historiography of eighteenth-, nineteenth-, or twentieth-century America.
To complete their work, the students in my class had to select one of the family cemeteries in our local area, go to it, and learn everything they could learn at the site itself—geographic location, orientation, size, condition, number of headstones, number of depressions that might indicate the presence of a grave, information inscribed on the headstones, and so on. While there they had to draw an accurate map of the site and photograph it, along with each of the headstones. Once they had gathered all the information they could at the site, they had to go to the local library and begin their archival research on the cemetery and the people buried there (or suspected to be buried there). Following their archival research, they then turned to online genealogical resources such as Ancestry.com and other primary sources (online and analog) such as newspapers from the time when the people buried in their cemeteries were alive, property and trial records at the local courthouse, and other similar archival sources. Many of the students also tracked down descendants of those buried in their cemeteries and interviewed them, which required them to learn oral history techniques and about university standards for human subjects research. All the source material they gathered then went into a database that would eventually be made public for general use.
Up to this point, their work was decidedly not digital, but from this moment in the semester, their work shifted to almost completely online. In that database they not only had to create individual items for each source they collected using proper archival metadata (built on the Dublin Core standards), they also had to wrestle with all sorts of issues including the definition of fair use; how to resize photographs to dimensions that work on the web; how to geolocate their sources; and how to write descriptive text for the web that is brief, pithy, accurate, and useful to other researchers. Once all their entries were in the database, they then had to investigate the historiography of our area to see what historians have had to say about what was happening when the people buried in cemeteries lived and died. Their final project was to create an online exhibit from their entries and present it to the class in a ten-minute talk. While their final presentations varied in quality (as one would expect in an undergraduate course), one piece of evidence that my students took to being historians while learning historical methods is that while each student was required to place 10 entries in the database, the 19 students in my class created not 190, but 742 entries during the course of the semester. At the time of this writing, two of my students have found additional opportunities to be historians as a result of the work they did in class. One student was asked to write up her work for the June 2011 newsletter of the Fairfax County Park Authority, and another had planned to work as a summer intern at the Virginia Outdoor Foundation to work on the history of a nineteenth-century cemetery recently discovered on land owned by the foundation until a paying job came her way. All of the students spent fourteen weeks being historians—an opportunity we give them too rarely—and because the work they did in the class is now public, that work will live on beyond the grade they received at the end of the semester. The most important outcome of the course, from my perspective anyway, is that the students in my class now understand better what it means to be a historian—everything from how we conceptualize a research project, to how we do the research necessary to complete that project, to how we embed the results of our research in a discussion among scholars, to how we make our work public for others to use. This much more active approach to historical learning and history making—more active anyway than writing a series of essays—generated much more enthusiasm for historical methods than I have ever seen, and led to some very in-depth conversations about what otherwise might have seemed to be arcane rules or practices of the historical profession. Did they learn more about historical methods than they might have otherwise? They may or may not have learned more or learned “better.” What I do know is that they learned differently
This redesign of the historical methods course followed a process that Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe call “backwards design.” In their book, Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe provide a simple model for rewriting any course to refocus it on understanding rather than coverage, arguing that the best way to engage in such a redesign is to begin at the end of the course and then work one’s way back to the beginning. This “backward design” approach requires the instructor to very clear in his or her mind about is what students should know and be able to do at the end of the semester. Once the instructor is clear on the desired outcomes of the course, then he/she decides what will constitute sufficient evidence that the students have achieved those results. Only when the desired results and the acceptable evidence are clearly defined should the instructor plan the learning experiences with those final outcomes and evidence in mind. Too often, we plan our courses based on a desire to make sure our students know all they should know about, say, nineteenth-century Europe, without first pausing to ask what they ought to understand about nineteenth-century Europe? Once we know those things, then—and only then—can we decide how to teach these things and how students will demonstrate their mastery of the concepts, information, and skills that we have built our course around. I think it is safe to say that very few history teachers who made such a list would have “Be able to write an effective five-page paper” at or near the top of their list. However, a five-page paper may well be one of several ways students demonstrate their mastery of the subject. But in the digital world students live in today and will work in tomorrow, we need to be alive to the possibility that there are many other ways they can demonstrate that mastery than yet another essay.
What, then, are some of those ways students can demonstrate mastery of a historical event, development, controversy, person, or other piece of the larger subject matter in a course? Writing about the past remains central to our discipline, but in the digital world students live in, “writing” takes many forms. As Michael Wesch points out in his video “The Machine is Us/ing Us,” in the world of Web 2.0, driven by XML rather than HTML, form and content are now separated from one another. In the world of written/printed text that generation after generation of historians has lived in, text was a linear thing—words on a page in a specific order defined by grammar and printing conventions. But in the digital world, that linearity has broken down. First HTML introduced the idea of hyperlinking texts—allowing users to jump from one web page or block of text to another without respect for the rules of grammar, printing, or reading. But, as discussed earlier, with XML, data—whether images, text, census data, video, sound files, or other forms of historical information—can now be stored in a database and used in whatever way the user chooses. So, for instance, the students in my historical methods course placed 742 items in a database devoted to family cemeteries in our local community. Each student created an online exhibit drawn from his or her own entries that presented his or her family cemetery to the rest of the class. But because the data in the database is freely accessible to all, my students could have used one another’s items in their exhibits, or could have created an entirely different exhibit—one that focused on graves of children, or on the graves of Civil War veterans, or any number of other possible choices; just as easily, they could have incorporated items from the database into a video presentation, an essay (online or on paper), or a poster presentation. Because the content and the form were separate from the very beginning of their project, the possibilities for presenting the past were not quite endless, but certainly much more varied than was possible twenty or even ten years ago. What follows are several examples of ways historians have begun to use digital media to expand the options for their students to make history from the raw material they find in their classes, in their reading, and in their research.
If it seems to American college students that PowerPoint has existed their entire lives, that is because it has. The first version of what we now know as the world’s most dominant presentation software (slideware) appeared on the market as a product for the Macintosh computer in 1987, with the Windows version first available in 1990. Although alternatives to PowerPoint do exist (Keynote, Prezi, Open Office), the product Microsoft purchased from its developers for only $14 million dominates its market segment like almost no other software product. Moreover, these other packages, each of which has its own strengths and weaknesses vis-à-vis PowerPoint, share with Microsoft’s product a reductionist approach to information that is foreign to the ways historians think about and present their work. Only Prezi departs from the standard march of one slide after another by giving the user many different ways to organize his or her research on screen. Nevertheless, anyone who has spent any time in a high school or college classroom knows that PowerPoint has assumed a dominating place in the teaching and learning of history as well. One would be hard-pressed to find a high school or college history department where no one uses PowerPoint or other forms of slideware in their teaching.
If you have ever had the opportunity to wander the halls of a high school or college to peek in and see what is happening in the various history classrooms, when you found a classroom with PowerPoint in use, you likely would see a room full of students staring at a slide on the screen (probably a slide with bullet points), either taking notes or just staring at the slide while the professor talked. That classroom was probably devoid of activity other than the professor’s voice and the scratching of pens on paper, or the sound of keys being tapped on a laptop or two. Teachers who teach this way are not exceptions. How many meetings have you attended where someone spoke while clicking through PowerPoint slides? How active was the audience in that meeting? According to Edward Tufte, PowerPoint is the enemy of active learning, because it “elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch,” and imposes a cognitive style on the speaker and the audience that reduces complex ideas and information to a series of bulleted summaries. Given what has already been discussed in this book about the failure of lectures to elicit the types of learning we want from students, it should be no surprise that using PowerPoint (or other similar presentation software) further reduces the likelihood that the kind of learning we want is going to take place. For one thing, thinking like a historian requires a reasonably high degree of cognitive flexibility, largely because the amount of evidence we have to decipher and the multiple forms that evidences comes in, requires us (and our students) to be able to think across boundaries, to be comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction, and to be creative when marshaling evidence in our solutions to pressing problems about the past. PowerPoint presentations offer none of this flexibility, and do not admit themselves to ambiguity in large part because they are so linear. The professor using slideware to make a presentation in class is locked into the forward motion of the program, moving inexorably from one slide to the next, with little opportunity for diversion or digression without leaving the program to use some other software. If you have ever watched students using printed PowerPoint slides for the purpose of studying, you’ll see that they too move inexorably from slide to slide on the page, endeavoring earnestly to memorize the content of the bullet points or the images. Only the most skilled practitioners of PowerPoint can do more than arrange content in the linear manner dictated by the software.
The pedagogical assumptions built into PowerPoint also reinforce two models of history teaching that are detrimental to the kind of learning we want taking place. The first of these is the coverage model that, as Lendol Calder argues, works against students achieving understanding in a course. PowerPoint provides the instructor with the illusion that he or she is imparting piles of useful knowledge to students because that knowledge has appeared on a slide on the screen at the front of the room. Of course, just because information flashed up on the screen, was discussed briefly by the instructor, and then gave way to more information does not mean it was learned. Likely the opposite is true, but the illusion of learning is maintained because the students take notes and are nodding. The second problem with the pedagogical assumptions built into PowerPoint is that it reinforces the notion that there exists some number of “correct” answers to any historical question. Unlike the mathematical, physical, or life sciences, history does not admit to such notions except to a very limited degree. Historians agree, for instance, that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, or that Charles I followed James I as the second of the Stuart kings of England. Thus, “December 7, 1941,” is the correct answer if a student is asked on what date the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on an exam. But the more difficult question of why the Japanese decided to stage a surprise attack on the United States in December 1941 does not admit itself to one clear “correct” answer in the same way that nursing students need to know that humans have two kidneys and one liver, as opposed to the reverse. PowerPoint slides reinforce the notion that there are correct answers that simply must be memorized in order to do well in a history class.
Given these problems induced by the use of slideware in the teaching and learning of history, you might expect that I would argue that we should ban PowerPoint from our classrooms. As tempting as that would be, I think that as educators and as historians we have an obligation to our students to teach them to use PowerPoint and/or other slideware programs to present information to a larger audience, largely because so many professional contexts expect this skill. However, the best corporate uses of PowerPoint are not the slogging progression from one list of bullet points to the next. Instead, they are very, very brief, involve a great deal of motion and change on each slide, and are at least a bit more immersive than the standard-issue classroom PowerPoint presentation. For instance, several years ago, two of my colleagues and I were asked to prepare a presentation for a major telecommunications firm interested in the possibility of hiring our center to create what we would now call “history apps” for the mobile phones in their network. As we discussed the format for the presentation, the marketing manager we were working with said, “When you have your three PowerPoint slides ready, shoot them to me in an email so I can look them over before your presentation.” None of us had ever seen a PowerPoint presentation with only three slides, and at first had a difficult time imagining how we might construct something compelling enough to convince a big corporation to invest tens of thousands of dollars in our idea. The limit of three slides meant that we had to come up with something entirely different than what we had been thinking we would do. What we learned from that experience was just how important it is to teach students to develop much more sophisticated skills with slideware than we currently teach them.
Given that corporate uses of slideware are so different, what must we do to teach students how to make the most of this resource that they likely must use after graduation and that we are not very good with? The answer lies in our century or more of experience with the five-page paper. Over the decades, historians have evolved a reasonably well-accepted set of notions about how a good history essay should be constructed and most of us teach those notions to our students. What is needed now is a similar set of notions about how PowerPoint and other slideware should be used to communicate to an audience about the past. Rather than relying on the built in templates or “wizards” provided by the software, we should teach students to create their own templates—templates that use no bullet points, that do not summarize crucial information in ways that trivialize the content, that highlight the ambiguity, the conditionality of that past. As Tufte argues, “Presentations largely stand or fall on the quality, relevance, and integrity of the content.” We need to teach students how to focus on the quality, relevance, and integrity of the content of their presentations, and then how to use the tools provided to them by the software to create a few dynamic slides that communicate that information in ways that are engaging, thought provoking, and useful to their intended audience, rather than doing something like reducing the Gettysburg Address to a few slides.
Blogs and Microblogs
Blogs and microblogs such as Twitter are increasingly popular forms of social interaction online for college students and, albeit to a significantly lesser degree, their history professors. Blogs—a platform for writing in reverse-date order—first appeared on the Internet in their current form in the late 1990s. Once several free and easy-to-use blogging platforms (Blogger, Wordpress, LiveJournal) became widely available, blogging took off as a form of communication to the point where blogs have become ubiquitous in a variety of contexts—especially news, politics, and entertainment—even as they retain their primary appeal as a form of individual communication with the world as an online journal. No one knows just how many blogs exist, but according to the website blogpulse.com on October 12, 2010, there were 148,156,488—of which more than 80,000 had been created in the past twenty-four hours, and these blogs had generated more than 1 million distinct posts in that same twenty-four-hour period. While Facebook’s wall and status fields are not the same thing as a blog, they serve many of the same purposes—updating readers on events, ideas, and feelings of the person whose page is being read. Microblogging platforms such as Twitter, once the province of the over-twenty cohort, have made significant inroads into the younger population in the past two years.
Faculty in a variety of disciplines use blogging software in their courses. The most common purposes for such blogs include communication and interaction between the professor and the students, communication and interaction between the students, requiring students to engage in online writing as a means of teaching them the genre and what it means to make one’s thinking visible, teaching students to work with online materials in a critical way, and introducing them to what it means to be part of a community of practice. These lofty instructional goals are only rarely realized when the pixels meet the road. Unless the reasons for asking/requiring writing in a class blog are made very clear, too often students will see the blog as just one more assignment to complete. This instrumental approach to the requirements of a course results in situations where professors must require X number of postings in the blog over the course of the semester, and Y number of comments on other posts; otherwise, very little of substance actually happens on a class blog. A second reason that student blogging only rarely lives up to its potential is that there is often little concrete payoff for the students, other than completing a requirement in the syllabus. What do they get from their online writing other than a grade? Do their blog posts show up somewhere else as well? Are others, outside the classroom, connecting with them through their blog posts? Because the answers to these questions are most often “no,” most class blogs go silent the minute the semester ends. That class blogs die at the end of the semester should be no surprise, because students so rarely see any benefit to a class blog beyond the grade they earn in that class.
A different approach—one that helps students see blogging as being more relevant to their lives as students, citizens, and humans, and that takes advantage of the fact that they already spend a great deal of time as creators of online content—can yield better, or at least more long-term, results. If, instead of contributing posts to a class blog that goes up at the beginning of the semester and dies at the end, students are required to create their own personal blog that they can use for any number of purposes—not just class assignments—then instructors tend to see a much higher level of engagement in the online writing process. The vast majority of students already have some sort of online identity when they walk into our classrooms. If the blogging they do for a class supplements that preexisting identity, they are much more likely to invest the time and effort we expect from them, and we can stop requiring them to participate in the class blog a certain number of times each week. Some may choose to simply feed what they write on a personal blog onto their other online presences (Facebook, Tumblr, etc.). Others may establish more formal presences online as historians. With an RSS feed, their contributions to their own personal blogs can then be fed automatically into a class blog that aggregates what the students are writing in their own writing spaces. As my colleague Dan Cohen writes in the syllabus to his graduate course, Clio Wired, students are expected to “think of this class not as meeting once a week but as an ongoing conversation that is active all semester.” If students set up an RSS feed to aggregate content from the blog they create as history students into their other web presences—Facebook, a personal website, and so on—that is a clear sign they are seeing their class work as part of who they are online. As a result, they begin to write more carefully (because what they write shows up elsewhere in their digital lives, not just on a class page), and often with more energy and enthusiasm. We already know that a significant share of students—perhaps as many as one-third according to a recent EDUCAUSE survey—write in a blog as part of their daily lives, so asking them to do so as part of their educational lives is not much of a stretch.
Teachers who assign this sort of online writing have to make a number of decisions about the rules of the game. In a class blog where all students contribute to something created by the professor, it is much easier to set strict rules for such things as tone (formal vs. casual), attention to the rules of grammar, syntax, and spelling/capitalization, what can and cannot be embedded in a blog post, and so on. But when students are creating their own blogs/microblogs, these are their writing and self-presentation spaces and so if the rules of the course are too strict, it is reasonable to assume that their engagement with the assignment to do online writing for their history class will be less than it might otherwise be. This is not to say that instructors should waive all rules when it comes to the work students submit from their blogs to a class blog. However, it is well worth considering what sort of leeway students can reasonably be granted in the service of generating broader engagement with, and active commitment to, the work of a class. Among the most important reasons for granting students greater freedom with their online writing spaces that are used for a class is that they take much greater ownership of the content when it is part of their online presence, rather than merely something they submit to a professor’s online space. When they begin to take that level of ownership of their work, students often produce much more insightful work and/or pay closer attention to such things as grammar and syntax (which historians care about as well as the level of historical analysis). If instructors are going to give students the freedom to write about and make history as they choose in their own online spaces, then it is incumbent on the professor to step back as far as he or she is willing to go and let students do what they think needs to be done, even if that means stretching as far as possible the limits an instructor places on the assignments for the course.
When I began writing my own blog in the fall of 2005, one of the first issues I addressed was what history teachers should make of the growing ubiquity of Wikipedia in the work students were submitting. Already in 2005, Wikipedia was becoming the “go-to” source for history students, especially because students using any one of the major Internet search engines to find information on a historical topic not only typically found a Wikipedia entry at or near the top of the search returns, but also found that same information repeated in numerous other websites that draw their content directly from Wikipedia. If a half dozen websites cite the same information, then it must be correct—at least in the eyes of the casual or inexperienced user. The initial impulse of many history teachers was to warn their students off Wikipedia at all costs, and some even banned the use of Wikipedia altogether. Telling students they may not use an information resource rarely has much of an impact, and so history teachers have little choice but to either (a) ignore the problem in the hope that it will go away, or (b) embrace the Wikipedia phenomenon as a teaching opportunity. After all, we do not want students to think that relying on encyclopedias—any sort of encyclopedia—is the right way to do historical research, so using Wikipedia as a tool to impart lessons about the strengths and weaknesses of encyclopedias can work very well. If the lessons students learn are hands-on, meaning they involve the actual manipulation of content on Wikipedia, then we are teaching them something else as well—how to work with wikis in all their complexity and variety.
How then might one best approach teaching students to work appropriately with Wikipedia? The simple answer is to have them write their own entries for the encyclopedia, or to substantially edit an existing entry that needs expanding. Although the editing syntax in Wikipedia is not particularly intuitive, it is clearly easy enough to use, given the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people who have created and edited entries there. Because so many others have figured out how to work with Wikipedia’s editing system, I provide my students with almost no training whatsoever. I simply point out that there is an “edit” tab on every entry in their favorite encyclopedia, then show them what the edit window looks like, and then I make a simple editorial correction to an entry so they can see how it is done. Then I leave it to them to figure out the rest. Before turning them loose on Wikipedia, however, I also engage them in a discussion of some of the most important epistemological issues related to encyclopedia writing. What does it mean to write something with a “neutral point of view”? Can history really be without bias, as Wikipedia’s editorial policies require? What does it mean to have a bias and how would we recognize it. Why would Wikipedia have an injunction against original research? What do they think of Wikipedia’s standard—verifiability, not truth? What makes a subject sufficiently “notable” to be included in the world’s largest encyclopedia? What does it mean for historians to try to write in these ways under these restrictions?
In addition to helping students begin to grapple with some of the thorny issues that encyclopedias raise, asking them to write for Wikipedia helps them to understand what it means to create history that is malleable, that can be changed by anyone at any time. What does it mean to have historical information crowdsourced? Can the collective wisdom of the crowd be reasonably compared to the wisdom of a scholar who has devoted years to the study of a particular historical topic? When this latter question is asked in that way, students typically agree that scholars with deep knowledge of a subject are generally to be trusted over the wisdom of the crowd. But then, if the context is changed and these same students are asked if a music critic with decades of experience listening to and writing about popular music should be trusted over tens of thousands of people who bought a song because they liked it, the question of crowdsourcing becomes a little less clear to them. As my colleague Roy Rosenzweig asked in 2006, can history really be open source? Once students begin to confront some of the central issues related to this question, writing for Wikipedia turns out to be an intellectually challenging task.
A second advantage of asking them to write for Wikipedia, or in any wiki space, is that wiki writing is so easily collaborative. A third is that the inherent malleability of wikis forces students to think about the various ways knowledge can be organized in a digital space. Wikis permit the organization of information in a whole variety of ways—the structure chosen by Wikipedia is but one of many. When students are asked how their work ought to be organized and are shown examples of various forms of possible organization, they are forced back on Michael Wesch’s point about form and content being separable in the Web 2.0 world. Data—in the form of text, images, video, or sounds—can be stored in wikis in various ways and then presented online in a form the student or students select. If the text created in a class wiki is one that all students have access to, then that text can be written, rewritten, and rewritten again until some consensus is reached about what, exactly, it ought to say and how that ought to be said. In this way, students can take part in an ongoing conversation about the construction of historical knowledge—much as professional historians do, but within the space of a wiki. Finally, the fact that wikis retain all versions of a particular text introduces students to the possibility of historical research that can be conducted on something they or someone else has written. How does the revision history reflect changing attitudes about a particular subject? What does it mean to reach consensus in a public space like a wiki? Are there “better” and “worse” versions of knowledge in a wiki that ought to be highlighted by historians? These are all historians’ questions, and asking students to grapple with them as they create historical knowledge online has many advantages. By forcing them to actively engage in public knowledge production—to help make history in the world’s most popular information resource—we can give them both an opportunity to be historians, if only for a brief moment, and to assume public ownership of their own work products.
To help my students get started with Wikipedia I tell them about my own first experiences as an editor of an entry in the encyclopedia. In April 2006, I read a story in the New Yorker about new work by historical archaeologists that cast some doubt on the claims that the Donner family had resorted to cannibalism to survive being snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Because Wikipedia had recently become a resource I was seeing students use more and more often, I thought I would see what the Donner Party entry had to say on this subject. The version I found read:
The Donner Party was a group of California-bound American settlers caught up in the “westering fever” of the 18s. After becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846–1847, some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism.
I created an account, and then edited the entry.
The Donner Party was a group of California-bound American settlers caught up in the “westering fever” of the 1840s. Accounts of the Donner Party’s journey traditionally claim that after becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846–1847, some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism, but recent research by historical archeologists now casts doubt on this part of the story.
That version of the opening paragraph lasted for five days, at which point someone changed it.
The Donner Party was a group of California-bound American settlers caught up in the “westering fever” of the 1840s. After becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846–1847, some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism, although this aspect of the tragedy has been exaggerated.
Since my original editing of the Donner Party entry in 2008, that entry has been edited more than 3,000 times by an uncounted number of users. On June 30, 2011, the opening paragraph read:
The Donner Party (sometimes called the Donner–Reed Party) was a group of American pioneers who set out for California in a wagon train. Delayed by a series of mishaps, they spent the winter of 1846–47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada. Some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism to survive, eating those who had succumbed to starvation and sickness.
I ask my students to work their way through the history of this entry, picking random moments in that chronology to access versions of the entry to see how the opening paragraph has changed over time. This exercise introduces them, in a simple way, to some of the most important issues of crowdsourced information. It also gives me a chance to discuss how entries in wikis, whether Wikipedia or any other wiki they might use, represent a series of compromises by a community of people interested in that particular entry. The June 2011 version of the Donner Party entry is not that different from the revisions I made more than three years earlier, but there is an important difference with the entry I found when I went to the page for the first time. In that version, the opening paragraph simply said, “some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism.” Over the years, a slightly more nuanced version of that simple statement has evolved from constant editing and reediting of this entry by the community of people interested in how the Donner Party is portrayed in Wikipedia. What has almost disappeared, however, is the information I added about the work of forensic archaeologists. In the version of the entry I examined on December 1, 2011, the only reference to their work is a sentence, far down in the entry, that reads, “Archaeological findings at the Alder Creek camp proved inconclusive for evidence of cannibalism,” followed by a reference to a more recent book on the party. Seeing how quickly my addition of a reference to work by scholars, work that challenged popular notions of the history of the party, disappeared from the entry helps students see both how malleable such entries are, but also how an anti-research bias often finds its way into Wikipedia entries. The point of this exercise is not to convince students that Wikipedia is somehow “bad,” but rather to teach them about the ways historical knowledge is created in public spaces.
Over the years, my students have almost all enjoyed writing entries for Wikipedia, and several have become very active in the Wikipedia editorial community, taking ownership of various entries. Being part of this larger community of writers and editors not only gives the students a clear sense for just how malleable information in their favorite encyclopedia can be, but also introduces them to being part of a community of historical practice, even if only in a very small way. They are often quite offended when someone changes something they have written in an entry, and are even more unhappy if one of the Wikipedia editing bots deletes something they have written for being insufficiently notable. Others are thrilled when “their” entry catches the attention of other readers, and people out there in the wilds of the Internet begin to change and improve what they have written. For example, in February 2007, one of my students wrote an entry on David and Catherine Birnie of Australia, the only known husband and wife serial killers. I did not really want to know why she was interested in the Birnies, but it was something she wanted to write about, and she did well. By the end of the semester, her entry had been edited many times by others, and she was quite proud of the form it had taken by May of that year. That particular student has gone on to become an active Wikipedia editor, and continues to work on various entries that she has an interest in or commitment to. Her experiences demonstrate the value of giving students assignments that require them to take active roles in the making of history online.
This final example speaks to a theme woven throughout this book—the need to engage students where they live—namely, in the digital space where they are creating content for others to see, use, and remix. The malleability of information is a notion that students are often much more comfortable with than we generally are. Our teaching strategies need to change to help them explore new ways to combine what they do daily—create online content—with what we do. By showing them how the practices of the professional historian can be adapted to the digital realm, we help them see the process of online content creation as something more than just fun or “what they do.” Instead, it becomes a way to be historians in the digital space, to analyze historical information, and then present it in ways that are useful to others, that have staying power well beyond the end of the semester and the awarding of a grade, and that have relevance to the lives they are living now and plan to live after graduation.