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Part 3. Practice What You Teach (and teach what you practice)
When we initially proposed this book on our website, the first comments we received came from readers who demanded that we pay more attention to the teaching of historical writing. We listened and intentionally revised the scope of the volume to include essays on ways that new technologies affect how historians “think, teach, author, and publish.” Several contributors leaped at the opportunity to share insights on digital writing from their history classrooms, often with richly detailed class assignments and examples of student writing. Collaborators Thomas Harbison and Luke Waltzer explore tensions between content coverage and “doing history” more deeply with their students in a media-rich curriculum, in “Toward Teaching the Introductory History Course, Digitally.” Adrea Lawrence takes us into her graduate classroom in “Learning How to Write Analog and Digital History,” to compare how students’ authorship and understanding varied as they worked with both old and new media. Finally, Amanda Seligman explains why she is “Teaching Wikipedia without Apologies.” She challenges educators who oppose it, by integrating her expertise in historical encyclopedia writing into her undergraduate history class.
Toward Teaching the Introductory History Course, Digitally
Introductory history courses regularly aim to meet a specific set of learning goals: introduce students to broad historical themes in an area, expose students to the importance of the historical project, and sharpen students’ critical thinking skills around evidence gathering and argumentation. The last of these goals has been difficult for many instructors to achieve. Most survey courses have large class sizes and prioritize covering a vast range of material, and instructors lack the time and interactive space for all students to genuinely practice historical methods. Practical training is pushed to smaller, upper-level history courses where time can be spent discussing, researching, and writing about a set of topics drawn from a particular subfield.
This approach accepts that nonmajors—the large majority of students in introductory courses—can do without significant exposure to the skills at the center of the historical trade. Although thorough development of skills in historical methods and extensive expertise requires the time afforded by upper-level courses, all students can benefit from hands-on experience with critical historical inquiry and the effort to produce scholarship. The writing and thinking skills at the core of historical practice are transferable across the curriculum, and they help prepare students for a range of careers.
Rarely are introductory history courses built around the development of such skills, usually as a result of tension around coverage. Most of these courses are surveys, and they begin in a moment and promise to end in a moment. Schedules require quick and steady forward progress whether or not students have mastered a period’s complexity. Faculty members, especially new ones acclimating to the vocation (who teach a significant portion of the introductory courses offered at our college), are regularly plagued with guilt about oversimplification, leaving loose threads, and moving too fast. Students in these courses traditionally write a few research or synthetic papers, participate in class discussions, and prepare for exams. The reading load is heavy, and less time is usually devoted to written work.
Models other than the introductory history survey course do exist. For instance, at our college, students may elect to meet general education distribution requirements via a “themes” course, which is focused on a set of ideas, circumstances, or a period. Most of these courses still proceed chronologically, but students may linger on a particular subject for weeks at a time and explore it more deeply, reducing the coverage pressure so embedded in the survey.
Over the past three years, we have been exploring an approach to the introductory history course that we feel makes it a more immersive and, ultimately, a more valuable experience. Throughout the semester, students complete brief assignments that expose them to a range of research and analytical skills. Our goal is for students to emerge from the course not only familiar with the broad strokes of American history but also with a hands-on introduction to the skills necessary for uncovering, exploring, and understanding that history.
Such skills are valuable to students well beyond their study of history. Gardner Campbell has argued that general education curricula should focus on “generalizable education” and should provide “experience that stresses the kind of learning that stimulates persistent cross-domain thinking and imagining.” Our approach treats historical knowledge as valuable in its own right, but it also accentuates what is generalizable in historical methodology. Students conduct research with primary sources to deepen their comprehension of particular topics, learning about discovery, sourcing, and competing modes of interpretation. They enter into dialogues with existing analyses, to synthesize their own understandings and to practice integrating their perspectives and authority with others’. They revise conclusions in the face of new evidence and arguments, better grasping the contested nature of knowledge. They do this work on a small scale repeatedly and reflectively during the course. Ultimately, these experiences are valuable for both future historians being introduced to the field and students who will never study history again.
Given the increasing availability of digital tools, students in introductory history classes are able to engage with history in ever more intensive and dynamic ways. Over the past two decades, the Internet has made it easier to integrate additional goals into introductory courses. The combination of a scholarly “pictorial turn” and the explosion of primary sources on the web have injected introductory history courses with a more rigorous exploration of visual and aural resources. Readily available datasets and archival materials allow for sophisticated lesson plans that help students better comprehend the vivid and contested density of many pasts. Introductory courses, in addition to their traditional roles, can now more directly address the increasingly important information and media literacy components of a general education curriculum.
Our approach synthesizes four specific and related pedagogical processes. The methods of Writing across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines programs (WAC/WID) have helped us develop a wide variety of writing assignments that create a deep, sustained, and multimodal engagement with course materials. The Visible Knowledge Project has taught us that by engaging with course material publicly, students have the opportunity to see how their classmates make knowledge. Making knowledge visible also gives instructors more chances to intervene in the students’ learning processes and to produce data that they can use to redirect their teaching. The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement has expanded the source material we draw on in our teaching, moving us beyond a textbook, and has helped us play with the traditional definitions and boundaries of a “course.” The principles of networked learning tie the other approaches together, emphasizing for students that doing history is a collaborative and dialogic process. Together, these ideas have encouraged us to teach history in an open digital space that prioritizes writing-intensive, project-based learning.
Before delving into additional detail about the courses in question, we would like to share a bit about our collaboration. Since 2006, we have worked together at the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College at the City University of New York (CUNY), Tom first as a fellow for instructional technology and now as interim assistant director for educational technology, and Luke first as a CUNY writing fellow and now as the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning. We both earned our doctorates in history from the CUNY Graduate Center, and we each worked with the American Social History Project as graduate students. Luke has taught history at Baruch and Montclair State University; Tom has taught history at Baruch. The courses that prompted this essay were Tom’s, and each was taught using Blogs@Baruch, with Luke as a sounding board, adviser, and occasional participant both in class and on the course sites.
In the fall of 2008, Tom taught his first class at Baruch, an introductory U.S. history course. For nearly all of the students, this was their first class in history and was likely to be their last. Tom devoted roughly one-third of class time to historical methodology. Students used most of this time to work in groups to analyze photocopied primary source documents. Most students participated enthusiastically in these exercises, but their work was highly compartmentalized and constrained within small groups during the allotted class time. Students gained some experience practicing history, but not in the immersive, interconnected manner that Tom was seeking. Communication between instructor and students was limited to feedback transferred in a shuffle of paper; students were not seeing and learning from one another’s successes and failures in reading, interpreting, and writing about history.
In an effort to expand and extend the sharing process, Tom turned to digital technology. At first, this meant the college’s course management system, Blackboard. It provided students with a space to carry on discussions outside of class, where they could share conclusions from one day and pose related questions going into the next. Yet the system replicated many of the divisions encountered in the classroom and failed to break the call-and-response pattern in which students answered narrowly defined questions posed by the instructor. Because of its design, architecture, and the barrier between it and the open web, the system was hostile to student-published multimedia and student voices. Student work could not be shared beyond the class, and even within the class, it was difficult to create a web of knowledge that could be referenced, reorganized, and built on.
In the summer of 2010, Tom taught the survey again. This time, he made use of the college’s open publishing platform, Blogs@Baruch, which Luke runs and organizes faculty development around. During the first couple weeks of class, when student contributions to the blog were limited, students referred to the course site as a resource. They expected that it would spit out information that they needed or desired: the syllabus, readings, lecture slides, and, ultimately, a grade. Over the course of the semester, there were indeed many times that the site operated as a tool for the transmission of such information, and it did so effectively. But after about three weeks, students began to see the site as more than that. They recognized that it was, above all, an active workspace that both encapsulated and propelled the majority of the work for the course. During the semester, it became clear that using an open publishing platform expanded the opportunities for a range of student work and created conditions for pedagogical experimentation that simply were not present in a more traditionally structured introductory course.
In the following paragraphs, we detail some of the pedagogical opportunities that emerged during our integration of Blogs@Baruch into seven introductory history course sections taught in 2010–11. We highlight six characteristics of our sites that explain why they propelled us toward our pedagogical goals. We aim to retain these attributes in future online learning spaces, and we believe that the methods and skills they nurture in students should be in the forefront of any college’s general education curriculum.
To challenge students’ preconceptions that successful history equals memorizing content, we require them to constantly engage with a range of sources and write in a variety of modes. Students are required to visit the site between every class meeting and to contribute something new in response to a writing prompt. The prompts encourage students to specialize their knowledge in narrow topics of their choosing, positioning them to challenge historical treatment of that topic in the textbook, lectures, and discussions. This prepares students to teach their classmates about their topic and to field questions about the turf with which they have just familiarized themselves. There is not enough time for students to exhaustively research topics, but they get a strong taste of what it means to develop expertise and of the process by which a community of learners strives for this goal.
The degree to which students develop deeper understanding is made visible via a series of “micromonographs,” three- to four-paragraph essays that elaborate on very narrow topics. We find that many students, once they begin such investigations, thrive in the role of detective, particularly when assessing the accuracy of information. For instance, when students were asked to fact-check Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York using a series of digital archives, most were able to effectively offer narratives that replaced and corrected those conveyed by the movie, expounding on their findings with embedded images, videos, and texts from both primary and secondary sources.
Such activities set up reflective conversations in class about the processes in academia and commercial publishing by which monographic works are produced, interpreted, and synthesized. In this context, students began to evaluate their own work as a secondary source. This prepared them to practice modifying their historical narratives and conclusions as they answered their peers’ questions and gathered new information. Assignments immersed students in the process that is so common to the work of humanists: constructing an argument and adjusting it recursively in the face of questions and new evidence. By doing so, they experienced firsthand the evolving and contested nature of historical understanding.
Through these types of activities, which range from flurries of informal discussion to synthesized research subject to revision, students constantly grapple with competing sets of ideas. This type of exploratory learning is closely in line with our belief that students learn best and acquire generalizable skills when they are producing knowledge.
In the open environment of the course site, students routinely view and respond to classmates’ historical arguments. In class, we review model critiques, guiding students toward the practice of constructive criticism. Students’ quick access to new information from digital archives across the Internet enriches our online conversations. In addition to helping classmates by asking questions and offering critiques of blog posts, students often voluntarily share sources with one another. The course sites extend and tie together our face-to-face meetings: sometimes work on a site helps set up in-class conversations by establishing questions and lines of argument; at other times, it serves as an extension of debates and investigations that germinated while we met.
The social dimension of Blogs@Baruch became more pronounced when we incorporated BuddyPress in the fall of 2010. This WordPress plugin allows students to build profile pages, track their work across the system over their career at the college, and interact with other students on the platform. The simple act of linking their account to a profile picture gives students a stronger attachment to the course site, as their picture shows up every time they leave a comment in the system. The front page of Blogs@Baruch shows an activity stream of recent publicly posted work, increasing the likelihood of serendipitous connections within and beyond the system.
During the fall of 2010 and spring of 2011, Tom had students from two simultaneous course sections share a single web space. Many of the most probing questions and constructive criticisms were launched across sections. The extra social and physical distance between the students worked as an advantage more often than not, with shy students more likely to speak freely from a somewhat more anonymous position. The additional voices in the conversation intensified the rate at which ideas were exchanged and gave each class more material to consider.
Students at Baruch are introduced to Blogs@Baruch in their Freshman Seminar courses, and more and more students are using the system in their classes. We are exploring ways to develop curricula that take fuller advantage of the networked nature of this publishing. We have seen what can happen when we link a couple of sections of a class that share a professor and a syllabus; we would like to explore how the curriculum of the college can be impacted by experiments around interdisciplinary exchanges and co-teaching across departments, with the expectation that such a learning community has great potential to teach students the value of collaborative and cross-disciplinary production.
Blogs@Baruch has granular privacy control: sites can be open and indexed by search engines, open and not indexed, open only to Blogs@Baruch users, open only to users added by the individual site administrator, or open only to administrators. Beyond that, individual posts and pages may be password protected, and an author may publish under an alias. Much of the faculty development and instruction done around the system is oriented to equip users to best navigate these options given their needs, and such instruction regularly extends to the classroom. The default setting on all course sites on the system is open, a choice we have made to urge members of the community to think through the possibilities of openness.
Everything the students contribute to our sites, unless they themselves choose otherwise, instantly becomes visible across the web. On a few occasions, students have received comments on their posts from professional historians. In one case, a photo archivist from a presidential library asked a student about the provenance of an image he had posted. Apparently, the image the student had used was pervasive on the Internet, but the original source information had been lost. The student did not have the answer to the archivist’s puzzle, but the situation prompted a series of valuable teaching moments about the implications of open publishing, the work of the archivist and the historian, and the complex issues that surround questions of intellectual property in the digital age. Such conversations help students better comprehend both the power and ethical implications of researching information on the Internet, as well as the evolving nature of historical knowledge.
A learning environment as open as this also profoundly improves students’ ability to imagine audiences for their writing. Before using an open publishing platform in the survey course, students wrote primarily for us as the instructors, with some peer review sprinkled in. When students publish to an open platform, indexed by Google, the stakes are immediately raised. We spend significant time in class discussing the implications of openness on writing and review processes. Such diversity of audiences and intensive peer review—core WAC/WID principles—sharpen students’ writing and their historical thinking.
Institutions and instructors doing coursework on the open web should be aware of but not hamstrung by concerns about FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). Though FERPA has not adapted to new communication realities, such pedagogical experiments do require thought and ethical consideration. FERPA alone is an inadequate guide to such consideration. Sharing student work publicly is not a violation of FERPA, but students need to know that this is happening and need to have control over their work, including the ability to remove or restrict its viewing if they so choose.
Though users should be aware of the risks, we believe that the pedagogical benefits of open learning far outweigh any potential downside. Using an open system for student production makes learning processes more transparent, promotes dialogue between students and source materials across the web, and drives home to students the reality that they are engaged in making actual knowledge.
4. Media Rich
In addition to linking to a vast network of media, students on Blogs@Baruch can easily combine video, audio, and images with their text composition. WordPress enables them to elegantly combine multiple media forms. Many assignments call on students to present and interpret evidence represented in a variety of formats, introducing students to the power of multimedia to represent (or misrepresent) historical ideas. This brings them face to face with particular methodological challenges that accompany the use of visual and aural sources, and it offers them a sandbox in which they can practice distinctive techniques for reading such sources. As they embed images, students consult online tutorials for analyzing visual evidence (such as those provided on History Matters) and write up their findings.
The aesthetic richness of the site is achieved primarily through the work of the students. They use multimedia to illuminate points in their own writing. At times, they are given an opportunity to contribute to site design. For example, in one assignment early in the semester, they uploaded images that they deemed representative of important turning points in U.S. history. For the remainder of the semester, their images rotated in the course site’s header. This encouraged students to see themselves as producers with a significant degree of control over their learning space. Students have remarked that seeing their work profiled prominently on the site gives them a sense of ownership over the space.
As students work through the challenges of reproducing and interpreting visual and aural evidence in support of their arguments, the past becomes more vibrant and recognizable, and they learn valuable and broadly applicable media literacy skills.
Our writing assignments regularly encourage students to categorize and prioritize their arguments. When we drafted the general architecture of the web space, we structured the space with a flexible categorization system that brought order to the content as it accrued over time. We created two types of categories: major themes of the course and out-of-class assignments. We intentionally left the taxonomy loose, leaving much of the classification work to the students.
Before adding any text or media to the site, students must think about the most appropriate placement of their new information, deciding whether to write a new post, respond with a comment to an existing post, or reply to a comment in a threaded conversation. Students also gain experience classifying knowledge after they have finished composing a post. When they tag a post, students must extract the three or four key ideas present in their discussion, implicitly defining their work relative to the larger themes of the course. Their choices contribute to the building of a folksonomy of the content of the course. Tagging organizes the roughly five hundred posts authored by each class during the semester in archives using WordPress’s built-in taxonomical structure. This eases assessment and review, as students and instructors can review a portfolio of contributions arranged by theme, and the dominant tropes of the course emerge.
As the class brings order to an increasingly complex web of information over the course of the semester, we reflect on the process together. Students witness how new ideas and concepts emerge as layers of meaning develop. The abilities to manage and create taxonomies and regroup, rearrange, and reinterpret knowledge are valuable skills both within and beyond the discipline of history.
Many existing history teaching modules that employ technology punctuate single units alone. Our course sites on Blogs@Baruch build over time and reveal to students major themes and connections across a course in a way they can easily grasp, engage with, and revisit. The publishing environment enriches the class as a laboratory does in the hard sciences. It gives students hands-on experience with the skills of the historical trade, especially analyzing primary documents. Thanks to digital archives and such projects as The Lost Museum, Picturing U.S. History, and The September 11 Digital Archive, we witness students grappling with historical questions while navigating a sea of sources. During assignments that require them to engage with these types of complex datasets, students visualize the tension between breadth and depth in the study of history, engage a range of methodologies, and develop a sharper awareness of historical perspective.
The Blogs@Baruch space also immerses the teacher deeply in the pedagogical experience. As the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP) has demonstrated, digital tools can foster transparency of processes that allow teachers to better assess not only their students’ learning but also their own teaching strategies. Documentation of student learning in an open publishing space on the web forces important questions about teaching to surface. Some of those questions follow:
- How can student work outside of class be seamlessly integrated with face-to-face experiences in the classroom?
- On what types of writing should students spend their time?
- How tightly should instructors scaffold research and writing assignments?
- How frequently and bluntly should instructors redirect communication from and between students?
- To what degree should larger research and writing projects be assigned across the semester, relative to smaller, daily tasks?
- How often should students practice and reflect on methodology and historiography, as opposed to historical content?
- What factors determine whether students should work independently or in groups?
These pedagogical puzzles do not disappear with the implementation of an open publishing environment, but they are more routinely foregrounded in the preparatory process, and in order to make the space an effective one, the instructor must grapple with them. While projects like VKP have exposed the “intermediate thinking process” in particular projects and course units, publishing platforms like WordPress now make it possible across not only an entire course but multiple iterations of the course. Both students and faculty can navigate the sites conducting the type of “socially situated learning” promoted and prized by VKP as “intrinsic to the development of expert-like abilities and dispositions in novice learners.”
Assessment and Moving Forward
When Luke asked Tom’s students how they felt about their course blog, one student responded, “I don’t like it because it keeps the class always on my mind.” To a faculty member, this is praise with faint damnation. We all want our students to be absorbed in our course, even if we would prefer they be less resistant to such absorption than this student. We have not yet designed a formal assessment to measure student learning within this type of course, though it is something we would like to find the time and resources to implement. Students in these classes are certainly writing more frequently and voluminously than they have in previous courses that we have each taught. In earlier iterations, students wrote on average three five- to seven- page papers, or roughly four thousand words, over the course of the semester. In these recent courses, students are writing about twice that, just in shorter and much more varied bursts.
The course sites are highly effective assessment tools. They paint a more complete, richer picture of student performance and understanding than does a traditional midterm/essay/final exam model. A significant portion of the final grades (at least 30 percent) is determined by the quality of students’ work on the course website, where they are judged on creativity, effort, attention to instructions, and the timeliness of contributions. Instructors can respond to students as frequently as they wish, although we found it to be most manageable and effective to concentrate on redirecting student writing with general advice aimed at guiding revisions. If we detected historical inaccuracies or improper sourcing, we intervened immediately with a detailed response, but we otherwise tried to judge student contributions generally and in the context of the broader conversations in which they were engaged.
Some faculty members may fear increased workload and thus refrain from implementing a course site like that outlined here. Yet such concerns are often overblown. After the additional labor of reconceptualizing a traditional syllabus and crafting the writing prompts, the workload during the semester was similar to what we faced when teaching with minimal technology. As we read student posts in advance of class meetings, we were aided in both assessment and preparation, since the material enabled us to hone in on struggles students were having with certain concepts.
Questions of scale and efficiency inevitably arise around teaching with digital tools. Like most public universities, ours is under significant pressure to cut costs. Two methods that are being explored are dramatically increasing class size to save money on labor and offering online instruction to save money on space. Technology is necessarily implicated in both of these processes, and we have been insistent that Blogs@Baruch and the services of the Schwartz Institute not become regarded as “efficiency” tools at the college. But faculty members are increasingly caught in a situation where they are forced to teach courses much larger or different in structure than what they would prefer, and the experimentation around questions of pedagogy and curriculum development that we are doing can provide guidance and models through this transition. Small introductory history courses at large public universities are simply not on the horizon anytime soon. This context increases pressure on faculty to stress coverage, because assigning reading and delivering lectures appears to be more manageable and measurable than having students produce a significant amount of work in their own words.
We have not yet attempted this model in a class with more than fifty students, but we feel as though it could be adapted, with some modifications toward group work and co-creation, to a course of any scale. We are eager to try such an approach. Our experiments suggest that courses that embrace and build on the idea of “the student as producer” can invigorate introductory history instruction, as well as introductory courses in other disciplines, while pushing back against the passivity and anonymity that prevail in larger courses. It is important that we not eschew factual knowledge, but we need not be limited by concerns about coverage. At their best, these courses not only provide a baseline for our students to know about the past but also teach our students what is to be gained by doing history.
Acknowledgments: We would like to thank Mikhail Gershovich, the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute, and the Baruch Computing and Technology Center for their support of Blogs@Baruch. We would also like to thank all those who commented on our essay during the open-review process, particularly William Caraher, Jonathan Jarrett, Andrea Nichols, Bethany Nowviskie, Charlotte D. Rochez, Amanda Seligman, and William G. Thomas.
1. Gardner Campbell, “Integrative Learning and the Gift of New Media: General Education for the 21st Century,” Gardner Writes, August 29, 2010, http://www.gardnercampbell.net/blog1/?p=1394.
2. Michael Coventry et al., “Ways of Seeing: Evidence and Learning in the History Classroom,” Journal of American History 92, no. 4 (2006), http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/textbooks/2006/introduction.html.
3. Visible Knowledge Project, Georgetown University, 2009, https://commons.georgetown.edu/blogs/vkp/.
4. According to a 2010 fact sheet, 78.2 percent of Baruch undergraduate students intend to study a field within the Zicklin School of Business (http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/about/factsheet.htm).
5. Blogs@Baruch, http://blsciblogs.baruch.cuny.edu.
6. See illustrations in the web version of this essay, at http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu.
7. Sam Wineburg has shown that students of history process new information in a more sophisticated and productive way as their expertise in a field deepens. See Samuel S. Wineburg, “The Cognitive Representation of Historical Texts,” in Teaching and Learning in History, ed. Gaea Leinhardt, Isabel L. Beck, and Catherine Stainton (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994), 85–135.
9. See “Making Sense of Evidence,” History Matters, http://historymatters.gmu.edu/browse/makesense/.
10. American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, CUNY Graduate Center, The Lost Museum, http://www.lostmuseum.cuny.edu/home.html; Picturing U.S. History, http://picturinghistory.gc.cuny.edu/; Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, The September 11 Digital Archive, http://911digitalarchive.org/.
11. See Visible Knowledge Project, https://commons.georgetown.edu/blogs/vkp/themes-findings/.
12. For more on “the student as producer,” see the project website of Mike Neary and Joss Winn at the University of Lincoln, http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/.
Learning How to Write Analog and Digital History
Creating a robust historical work has long been an exercise in extensive research, careful interpretation, and the crafting of arguments with tight prose and a solid evidentiary base. Cast as an objective enterprise in the nineteenth century, doing history has since become infused with research approaches and theories of scholarship that span the humanities and social science disciplines. Yet historians have largely remained solitary researchers and writers, often developing idiosyncratic but fruitful methods of research, analysis, and writing in their production of knowledge. Learning how to “do history” can feel like learning through osmosis. The training is often oblique with little direct instruction but with multiple opportunities to practice archival research, “document analysis,” historical conversation, and writing. One eventually figures it out, but until one has read enough of the secondary literature and spent scores of hours doing archival research and written mini-monographs that peers read and critique, the history experience is frequently one of consumption. Even when one transforms from a knowledge consumer to a knowledge producer, the exposure of one’s work to the outside world is quite limited, except when burgeoning historians publish their work digitally in public spaces, such as on blogs, on Wikipedia, or on their own websites. With this in mind, I set out to develop a course on the histories of education that featured student work in old and new media.
Design of the Course and the History Signature Pedagogy
In the fall of 2010 at American University, I taught, for the first time, a graduate seminar entitled EDU/HIST 596: Histories of Education. Though this course attempted to survey the histories of education in North America over the last five hundred years, the primary emphases of the course were to evaluate the historiography of education history and experiment with different historical research and writing methods and formats.
With the goal of helping students learn how to think historically by sourcing evidence, developing inquiry questions, weaving context, and evaluating historical significance, I designed my Histories of Education course around two questions: when did education begin in the Americas, and how have historians of education framed the field of study? The readings were selected to jar students’ preconceptions about who constructed education and how they went about it, beginning with a close reading of Urban and Wagoner’s survey text: American Education: A History. The final segment of the course was devoted to reading autobiographical accounts of individuals’ educations.
Though reading and discussion were a large part of the course, this essay focuses on the written work students created. They experimented with three different platforms of historical writing. First, students produced an analytical critical review of two scholarly articles or books against the backdrop of a common question or theme. Students were to look in academic journals and the New York Review of Books for examples of compelling reviews. Second, students created a brief contribution to Wikipedia to situate themselves as knowledge producers in order to publicly share what they learned with the world and to evaluate Wikipedia as a source of information. Third, students produced an online, publicly available digital history on a topic of interest that they began researching with their Wikipedia contribution. Unlike their Wikipedia contributions, though, students did original research for the digital history project and had to develop not only the textual history but also its online environment.
This study examines the written work of five out of the nine students in the class. After students submitted each piece, the class debriefed the research, writing, and revision process, articulating challenges and breakthroughs. In every class meeting throughout the semester, students reported on the status of their long-term digital history projects and offered each other ideas for possible source material or ways of analyzing what they had found. By the time class members presented their digital histories at the end of the semester, the degree of familiarity they had with each other’s interests and research afforded a hearty discussion about the construction of each digital history project. An anonymous follow-up survey was sent out to participants via Google Docs several months later to gather more information about each student’s writing and revision process. Though this sample is small and should not be taken as representative, it does reveal practices, considerations, and points of confoundedness that other historians, student or professional, might well experience as they move from analog to digital platforms and audiences.
The Critical Review
The critical book or article review is a staple not only in the history profession, as numerous academic journals illustrate, but also in the graduate training of future historians. Learning how to write an analytical, pithy review hones one’s ability to evaluate texts in terms of their argument and use of evidence and to place a text in relation to the broader field of study. In crafting an analog critical review for the class, students evaluated two texts that we had read or that they had found on their own, appraising the significance of each piece within the history of education or another subfield of history. Students submitted their reviews (twelve hundred to fifteen hundred words) in standard essay format through Google Docs, and several published their reviews on the course website after revision.
Students reported that writing the critical review was a very familiar process. Analyzing texts was almost automatic for them, and they were also comfortable taking a comparative approach. Most spent two to four hours initially drafting the review, and most revised their reviews twice before submission, with a day’s lag time in between each revision. The speed of the initial drafting and the structure of students’ reviews bears out their stated familiarity. (See a visualization of Student 5’s critical review structure in the web version of this essay at http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu.) Students typically introduced the authors and central arguments of the secondary sources examined within the first two paragraphs of their reviews. The structure of the reviews then oscillated between descriptions of the authors’ arguments and use of evidence, each student’s own analysis, and citations referencing specific ideas or phrases in each source. The sequence of each student’s analysis varied, but each critiqued the two sources in relation to one another, identifying commonalities, gaps, and shared or disparate evidence. Students also explained each author’s research and/or reporting methodologies, many of which could only be uncovered through an extremely close inferential reading. Students closed their critical reviews with statements about the significance of each author’s contribution.
Though the structure of the students’ reviews follows convention, crafting such reviews is no easy task. To contextualize a piece, assess its significance, or identify gaps in a study, it is necessary to have read widely and to engage a synthetic understanding of a research area. It is not surprising that most students aligned their critical reviews with their digital history project topics and Wikipedia contributions, opting to search for and select articles for review rather than to examine those already read for class, so that they could build a body of factual and interpretive knowledge source by source throughout the semester. Through this process, students were thinking historically by sourcing the materials they examined, developing a complex set of questions to further probe each source, and weaving together a contextual backdrop based on authors’ normative and descriptive assumptions as well as students’ own positionalities.
The Wikipedia Contribution
Unlike the critical review, contributions to Wikipedia, the online, crowdsourced encyclopedia, are not (yet) staples in the professional training of historians. Over the last decade, Wikipedia has grown to include nearly four million articles in English. For many, it has become the default source and starting point for learning about something. In his 2004 study of Wikipedia as a secondary source, historian Roy Rosenzweig noted that this reference tool confounds many of the assumed trademarks of historical scholarship, such as singly authored, detailed works; individual recognition for scholarly work; and cogent narrative analysis that evaluates a subject’s historical significance. Original research and presenting a particular point of view—practices that are valued among historians—are eschewed on Wikipedia, which promotes, instead, secondary research and descriptions of others’ arguments. Even with these practices, Wikipedia is widely visited and widely edited, offering transparent discussions between editors about why particular sources were chosen and presented in a particular sequence or manner. Working with Wikipedia from the inside as a contributor can thus expose students to debates over source material and their interpretations.
The “Wikipedia Article and Tracking Report” assignment in my Histories of Education course is modeled on the one that Jeremy Boggs created for his students. I assigned the Wikipedia contribution to my students for two reasons: to demonstrate that students could be and were knowledge producers and to have students critically examine Wikipedia as a secondary source that purports to publish descriptive, fact-only material. Students in my class had to conduct research, including finding a topic that ideally corresponded to their digital history project and was a desired article on Wikipedia as noted on the education stubs page, which lists articles that the editors wish to see expanded. Like Boggs, I asked my students to write a five-hundred-word article or contribution that included footnoted references to two books or scholarly articles, two external websites, and two internal Wikipedia pages. Once they had posted their contribution, students were to share the URL with me and do everything possible to prevent their contributions from being deleted. After a month, they were to describe their experience through a tracking report, detailing how many edits the post received, what types of edits they were, discussions they had with other editors, and efforts they made to prevent their article from being deleted. Students also reflected on what they learned, from an insider perspective, about Wikipedia as a source.
Of the five student contributions examined here, three students created their own unique articles on Wikipedia, while two students added content to existing pages. As with their critical reviews, students structured their Wikipedia articles in a manner that toggles between the presentation of another’s idea, argument, or set of facts, on the one hand, and citations to supporting secondary sources, on the other. Rather than provide their own analysis, however, students described the debates or arguments that others had on a given topic.
Acutely aware of their own limitations as emerging scholars in a discipline that has idealized the lone historian researching and writing exhaustively on a subject, the thought of historical collaboration and intellectual ownership of historical writing with other anonymous contributors felt unnatural to seasoned history students. Students were surprised that people looked at and presumably read their contributions. Students’ doubts about anyone reading their work were unfounded, as shown in table 3. Even the most modest number of total views since the article posting—925—reflects a readership that is much more extensive than what students could expect to receive in a classroom setting. In general, the number of edits to a page since students posted in October 2010, suggests a sustained interest in the page topic. So, too, does the fact that all but one of the articles were flagged for further development, with editor requests for additional citations and revisions that attend to Wikipedia’s policy of maintaining a neutral point of view. All told, the number of page views of Wikipedia articles students created or contributed to totaled 70,244 between October 2010, when students made their posts, and August 5, 2011, when this essay was drafted. Though these data are limited and should not be considered representative, they confirm Rosenzweig’s contention that Wikipedia is an important source for people who want to learn more about a topic and share their research with others, despite the elements that run counter to the practice of professional historians.
When debriefing this assignment, students reported not only that they viewed Wikipedia as a secondary source worth consulting but also that they began viewing secondary sources altogether more critically. Most students began fact-checking other pages on topics about which they considered themselves to be proficient, and well after the assignment for class was due, students made concerted efforts to present material in a convincing and verifiable way to avoid having their posts deleted. Contributing to Wikipedia became, effectively, a series of self-sustaining, creative intellectual acts.
|Our Movie Made Children||Urban Teacher Residency||Living History||Federal Involvement in U.S. Education||Dame Schools|
|Date page||20 Oct. 2010||21 Oct. 2010||13 Nov. 2002||21 Oct. 2010||13 Jan. 2005|
|Number of editors||7||5||98||6||59|
|Total number of page views since student edit||925||2050||38,694||1879||26,696|
|Average page views per month since student edit||84||186||2251||171||1651|
|Total number of revisions since student edit||16||7||171||98|
The Digital History Project
Building on students’ experiences writing conventional critical reviews and more unconventional Wikipedia articles and posts, the digital history projects that my Histories of Education students undertook sought to explore whether the medium did, in fact, become the message or if the message itself might help a creator construct the medium. As students reported weekly on the development of their digital history projects and continued to build their research expertise, the shape each project took was formed inductively from the research content. Indeed, one of the primary concerns that emerged was how to capture and present their research in ways that were true to their inquiry experiences and methods.
For most students, creating a project in an online, public environment was new and intimidating; only one student had taken the graduate-level digital history course offered at American University. Others had blogged, but creating an academic, historical work online felt entirely new to them. The constraints students faced in creating a digital history project were typical of those faced by historians doing analog history. Like professional historians, students reported that they spent much of their time trying to figure out how to cull their research and hone in on the emerging story. How do you know what is important? How do you analyze the sources in relation to one another in a systematic and valid way? How do you know your interpretation is reasonable? How do you tell a story—how do you craft a history—that is interesting and significant?
These questions were not resolved in writing for Wikipedia; they were magnified. The digital aspect of the project likewise brought forth an existential predicament: what if people do not want to read long-form history online? As one student said, “Websites aren’t supposed to be wordy.” If this is the case, what does it mean for the stories and narrative analyses that historians create? How are they to be organized and told? What does it mean for the profession, let alone individual projects? The project’s digital aspect also brought forth an epistemological conundrum—the realization that people do not necessarily read in a linear fashion online as they presumably do with an article or book. Students grappled with these issues head-on in developing their digital histories, and their experimentation and final project products are instructive in highlighting the ways in which digital histories are different from analog articles and monographs.
Creating a traditional five-thousand-word essay was not terribly appealing to students, particularly when the online environment allowed them to provide a range of primary, multimedia sources to readers, instead of just citations. So students created websites and interactive time lines that attended to their curiosity in playing with different ways of doing and presenting history while meeting customary scholarly expectations. As is common with analog histories, students organized their digital history content thematically or chronologically. Though each website features a welcome or home page that explains the central questions and scope of the given study, students generally chose two different methods of organizing their projects: a series of stand-alone essays or a disassembled linear essay.
Two students developed websites using the WordPress platform, creating a series of interlinked, distinct essays. Both of these sites have discrete pages for each essay, which students wrote with a general audience in mind. Each site also has derivative pages, or “child pages,” stemming from several of the primary pages and featuring particular essays oriented around a theme. The pages on each site can be read in any order, and both sites use customary methods of documentation, through footnotes or parenthetical notes. The author of one site gives the reader permission to “click around, explore, and gain a better understanding of how exactly we did get here.”
The second method of organizing the digital history projects was through disassembly, or carving up a linear essay into distinct pages that include the same content: a title, a statement about the argument, and the corresponding section of text to support that argument. The introductions of these websites read as introductions to cohesive essays, each providing a strong argument and grounding research questions. Each site features multiple pages that comprise sections of the overall essay. While two students acutely felt the challenge of not being able to control the order in which the viewer reads the pages, as their sites utilize a horizontal navigational bar across the top linking each discrete page, another student found a possible remedy through the use of the vertical navigation bar. Students’ concern with the order in which viewers read pages originates in the epistemology of their projects as disassembled yet potentially cohesive essays interspersed with primary source evidence. They constructed their text and analysis in a particular way and hoped that they would be read as such.
The question of how to present an argument and a cogent narrative in a digital, multimedia format is a daunting one for historians, and seemingly few shared protocols exist such that they might be considered mainstream or stable in a relatively new and dynamic online environment. One student embraced this. Matthew Henry, who created the Hollywood Made Kids digital history project, also used the Prezi presentation tool to design a nonlinear, motion-driven companion time line, titled “Censorship, The Payne Fund Studies and Hollywood’s Influence on Children.” Using the forward and backward buttons, the viewer can zoom in to a predirected portion of the screen. The section shots, so to speak, have the capability to show embedded video and audio files, and the presentation creator visually moves the viewer from section to section. In effect, the one-line headings and still or moving images become figuratively superimposed on one another, telling a story that the presentation creator has constructed.
Related to the presentation of a clear historical narrative was the issue of opening up the historian’s constructive processes for public comment. One of the most interesting conversations that emerged during the final presentations revolved around whether or not to leave the comments feature of the websites live. Having experienced open commenting and editing on Wikipedia, students seemed to have faith that comments posted on their sites might well be insightful and constructive. One student was hesitant for aesthetic reasons—she did not want to clutter her site. Others were hesitant for fear of vandalism or extremist views or critique. The two students who had left the comments feature open on their sites countered that it might be a good idea, noting that the comments have the potential to provide an opportunity to rewrite, correct errors, and engage in a public discourse about a topic that greatly interested them, as they experienced on Wikipedia. Such transparent conversation and attention to writing and its organization were complemented by the visual environment.
The student work examined in this essay affords a fertile view into the nature of the construction of histories from the vantage point of emergent historians. Most fundamentally, students’ concern for the integrity of the historical narrative, its structure, its documentation, and its transparency or opaqueness surfaced, to a large extent, through discussions about audience. Students found that their love of the story conflicted with their intellectual desire to be open with possible readers. That students did not know who their possible readers were or how they would proceed through students’ digital histories suggests that the students learned the individualistic nature of historical scholarship early in their training. Students’ concern with the changing epistemological nature of historical construction intensified as they moved from a familiar analog environment to the ever-changing digital one. It is necessary to develop protocols for identifying readers of digital histories and to consult the emerging scholarship of cognitive psychologists and specialists in informatics and literacy. Additionally, the question of the long-term accessibility of digital scholarship remains unanswered. Finally, students’ experimentation with writing for general audiences and creating a digital history suggests the need for explicit training in both public history and web or graphic design. The orientation of students’ scholarship in my Histories of Education course was that of a public good; their experiences underscore the changing forms and norms of doing history.
3. Adrea Lawrence, Histories of Education, Fall 2010, American University, Washington, DC, http://www.adrealawrence.org/courses/edhistory/fall2010/.
4. Bruce A. VanSledright and Christine Kelly, “Reading American History: The Influence of Multiple Sources on Six Fifth Graders,” Elementary School Journal 98, no. 3 (1998): 239–65; Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).
7. This assignment is based on Jeremy Boggs, “Assigning Wikipedia in a US History Survey,” ClioWeb, April 5, 2009, http://clioweb.org/2009/04/05/assigning-wikipedia-in-a-us-history-survey/.
8. Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History 92, no. 4 (2006): 1358–70, http://jah.oxfordjournals.org/content/92/4/1358.
9. In this volume, see Shawn Graham, “The Wikiblitz,” and Robert Wolff, “The Historian’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia.” See also Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (2006), 117–46, paras. 1–3, 13, 39–41, 62, 70, http://jah.oxfordjournals.org/content/93/1/117; Lisa Spiro, “Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities: Exploring the Digital Humanities, September 1, 2008, http://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/2008/09/01/is-wikipedia-becoming-a-respectable-academic-source/.
11. “Category: Education_stubs,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Education_stubs.
14. Matt, at Cold War Society and Education, http://coldwarsocietyanded.wordpress.com/about/.
15. Matthew Henry, “Censorship, The Payne Fund Studies and Hollywood’s Influence on Children,” December 2010, http://prezi.com/rdkntzm6spjz/censorship-the-payne-fund-studies-and-hollywoods-influence-on-children/.
Teaching Wikipedia without Apologies
April 20, 2008: If I can get the technology set up before the students in my undergraduate historical methods class arrive, I will play a clip from The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert has discovered Wikipedia; he demonstrates to his audience how easy it is for individual actors in the 21st century to create the “truth,” or at least “truthiness.” He alters the Wikipedia entry on elephants so that the population of African elephants has miraculously tripled in the past six months, a position on environmental degradation roughly consistent with his conservative persona. I have moments when I think that the only reason for this lesson is to create a pretext for convincing the students that I am cooler than I really am. In fact, however, my purpose is to teach students to think about authority, authorship, and argument in tertiary sources.
Yes, I teach Wikipedia. And I teach Wikipedia without apologies.
Historians are notoriously skeptical of the value of encyclopedias. When we discuss this topic in class, my students tell me which colleagues have forbidden them to cite any encyclopedia in their papers. Wikipedia has come in for particular criticism due to its common production. It lacks authority because anyone—you, me, or Stephen Colbert—can change any entry. Most famously, perhaps, the Middlebury College Department of History adopted a resolution in 2007 informing students that “Wikipedia is not an acceptable citation, even though it may lead one to a citable source.” This injunction effectively limits the use of Wikipedia to what one librarian commenting on an earlier version of this essay called “presearch.” Most observers perceived this policy as an outright ban; what are students to do with information they locate only on Wikipedia? Moreover, college instructors have developed bitter feelings about the ease with which students plagiarize assignments by cutting and pasting from Wikipedia.
Despite the skepticism surrounding encyclopedic writing, however, some historians continue to edit, write for, and consult specialized scholarly encyclopedias. A portion of my own career is staked on the intellectual value of encyclopedia writing. While in graduate school, I worked on the staff of The Encyclopedia of Chicago at the Newberry Library. In addition to writing entries, I developed and ran the fact-checking process for the project, encountering, in the process, an astonishing array of specialty encyclopedias on topics I never imagined anyone would bother to compile: they ranged from an encyclopedia of serial killers to one about American first ladies. My work for The Encyclopedia of Chicago deepened my nascent historical skills and understanding of the site of my dissertation research, persuaded me of the value for humanities scholars of scientists’ graduate education apprenticeship model, and built into my career an assumption that encyclopedias are legitimate sites of scholarly productivity. Having written some four dozen encyclopedia entries since 1995, I am now planning an Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, a National Endowment for the Humanities–funded project that my collaborators and I hope to launch in print and online in 2017.
Thus, when I started teaching the undergraduate history methods course at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM), it seemed to me only natural to include tertiary sources in the curriculum. In contrast to other instructors who forbid the citation of encyclopedias, I believe that it is a mistake to hide my head in the sand and pretend that particular sources of information and ideas do not exist. My job as a professor of history is to teach students how to critically evaluate the sources they encounter—wherever they find them. We all know that our students’ first stop for information in the digital age is on the Internet; for many, the first stop is Wikipedia. If my students are going to turn consistently to Wikipedia for their research, I am going to contextualize Wikipedia for them by embedding it in a larger set of lessons about the utility of tertiary sources for historical research.
Much of my history methods class centers on introducing students to the basic resources of our library. My goal is to ameliorate their fear of the library’s mysteries by taking them to all of the major departments where they might find themselves conducting historical research: at UWM’s Golda Meir Library, this includes Research and Instructional Support, Archives, Special Collections, the Media and Reserve Library, and the American Geographical Society Library. At each stop, a librarian orients the students to the department’s physical and intellectual features.
For their part, students develop short papers imagining how they might use each department’s sources to craft a research paper. Later in the semester they pick their favorite topic and do preliminary work identifying relevant historiography and contextualizing information such as is readily found in tertiary sources like encyclopedias. This task used to involve a lengthy tour of the Reference Room. We walked through the historical section and pulled from the shelves a variety of tertiary sources, examining their contents and marveling at the range of information at our fingertips. In 2009, however, UWM’s Golda Meir Library underwent what has turned out to be a typical and wildly successful 21st-century renovation. To make way for several hundred computer stations, high-tech classrooms, and a coffee shop, 90 percent of the reference collection was dispersed to the stacks. To keep the reference collection accessible, the library subscribed to Paratext’s Reference Universe database, which enables subject and keyword searching within more than 20,000 reference sources. Many of these tertiary sources are available electronically and linked right from the database; for some sources, however, students must still go up to the stacks and pull a book from the shelf. Although I regret the loss of the hands-on, sensory-oriented approach that allowed for serendipitous discoveries of the riches of evidence available, I applaud the capacity to zero in quickly on desired information. In either case, the initial reference assignment has been the same: using Reference Room or database sources, write a list of 12 questions and answers. The assignment reads: “For each of the three research projects, produce a list of four factually based questions. Using the library’s tertiary sources, find answers to those questions. Turn in a list of the questions and their answers. Each answer should conclude with a precisely footnoted citation (including page numbers) where those answers can be found.”
Simultaneous with the visit to the Reference Room, I introduce my students to Wikipedia. I assign the late Roy Rosenzweig’s pioneering 2006 essay “Can History Be Open Source?,” which concluded that historians should contribute to Wikipedia. Rosenzweig acknowledged some of the most important reasons for historians’ reluctance to write for Wikipedia, including challenges to their information from other contributors, the site’s prohibition on using original research, and the role of expertise in determining historical significance. The most important problem, he saw, was that historians earn no professional credit for contributing to Wikipedia, precisely because of its basic, collectivist premise: anyone can contribute to it, so there are no authors. A historian might work very hard to include information he or she knows, from his or her own painstaking research, to be correct, only to find that someone else deletes it.
The purpose of the classroom discussion of Wikipedia is to make sure that all my students are “on the same page”—to use a metaphor originating in the days of print culture—in their understanding of how Wikipedia works. It is a tertiary source; anyone can contribute to it, subject to a certain increasing range of restrictions; and what appears in an entry one day might be gone or changed the next. As an authoritative reference source, then, Wikipedia has advantages and disadvantages. It is often current, and a crowd of dedicated, volunteer editors constantly defend its contents against controversy and vandalism. But some topics are mysteriously given short shrift, while fans and boosters lavish attention on their favorite topics.
The next step on my pedagogical tour of Wikipedia is to ask students to compare its contents to those of a more conventional tertiary source. My syllabus instructs the students:
Part I: find three articles on historical topics on Wikipedia.org. One article should be good, one article should be bad, and one article should be excellent. You should use your own best judgment in deciding what counts as bad, good, and excellent. List these articles, indicating which you think was excellent, good, and bad, including the date and time you accessed them. Print the first page of each article and turn it in.
Part II: for each of the three articles, find a corresponding (as close as you can get) article in a specialty print encyclopedia (such as those found in the reference room). Try to avoid general reference encyclopedias; part of the point of this assignment is to familiarize you with the breadth of tertiary sources available to you. Make photocopies of these articles and on the photocopies write citations indicating where they came from.
Part III: write a short paper (2–3 pages) comparing the Wikipedia articles to those from the specialty encyclopedias, in answer to the question: “What qualities make a tertiary source good and useful for historical research?” Use specific examples from the articles you have selected. The focus of the paper should be about what works and does not work in all six articles; the paper should not try to answer a question about whether Wikipedia articles are better or worse than those that appear in specialty encyclopedias. In writing this paper, you should think about such issues as the interpretive power of the article; the accessibility of the prose; the level of factual detail; the visual layout of the information; and any other issues that strike you as relevant. Turn in copies of the print articles (with citations noted on the copy) with your paper.
In class, we discuss the merits of the various tertiary sources at their disposal. My students tend to notice things like the convenience of the Internet over the library, how long entries are, how much detail they offer, whether they answer the particular questions that they had in mind, and whether they are comprehensive in scope.
Yet no student has hit what I consider to be the crux of the matter: how well the tertiary sources convey their arguments.
“Whoa!” someone might reply here, “Encyclopedias are not supposed to have arguments. They are supposed to convey factual information without bias.” Wikipedia enshrines this claim with its philosophy that all articles must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV). When we seek out an encyclopedia article on a topic, we are (theoretically) looking for a basic introduction to the topic, an introduction that is balanced. We are not looking for the cutting edge of a scholarly debate. If we wanted argument, we would go to the monographic literature on the topic. Among the virtues of Wikipedia (and other tertiary sources) is the ease of locating just that quick hit of information that we need to write a lecture.
I suggest, however, that even in a brief encyclopedia entry, argument—whether coherent or not—is unavoidable. In his article “A Place for Stories,” environmental historian William Cronon explains the impossibility of NPOV. Cronon conducts a thought experiment: describe the history of the Great Plains. Cronon argues that the only “pure chronicle would have included every event that ever occurred on the Great Plains, no matter how large or small, so that a colorful sunset in September 1623 or a morning milking of cows on a farm near Leavenworth in 1897 would occupy just as prominent a place as the destruction of the bison herds or the 1930s dust storms.” Choosing which details to include and exclude is implicitly an act of argument, prioritizing one facet of an experience over another. Similarly, in his essay “The Wikiblitz” in this volume, Shawn Graham suggests that NPOV is itself a point of view that enables certain kinds of rhetoric but not others.
Editors of scholarly encyclopedias recognize that their authors are making arguments. I learned this multiple times as my own encyclopedic career unfolded. My first professional publication was an encyclopedia entry about Canada’s Montagnais-Naskapi people. Native American study is far afield for me intellectually, so when I got to the point in my reading where I understood the essence of the anthropological debate about the Montagnais-Naskapi, I concluded that I had done enough research and should start writing. Although I did not know enough to intervene in the debate about whether the Montagnais-Naskapi were precapitalist or extracapitalist, my narrative structures an argument into the article by threading throughout it observations about how the European colonial encounter changed the name by which these small bands of nomadic people were known, culminating in the rise of their preference for the name Innu at the turn of the 21st century.
My work for The Encyclopedia of Chicago reinforced the lesson about the centrality of argument. Editor James Grossman explained to me that the reason authors’ names appear on their entries is that they are making arguments, sometimes controversial ones. For example, the editors anticipated that Joseph Bigott’s article on balloon frame houses would argue that this form evolved over the course of two centuries of white settlement in the continental interior rather than springing up de novo in Chicago—contrary to general belief in popular Chicago architectural history. The majority of my entries were about city neighborhoods. My goal was to make legible the history of each area as revealed in its modern landscape. The argument of each entry rested in its explanation for the neighborhood’s development over time. For some neighborhoods, this meant that the class origins of their initial subdivisions dictated their present condition; for others, periods of economic deterioration and overcrowding determined their future; for still others, deliberate interventions in the area, such as those wrought by urban renewal or community organizations, shaped a dramatic change in the neighborhoods’ statuses. Sometimes, editors treat length as dictating the capacity of an article to offer an argument. In addition to the 1,000-word entry on the Montagnais-Naskapi in The Encyclopedia of North American Indians, I wrote several unsigned, short, “factual” entries on US-Indian treaties. Because these pieces were supposed to convey only introductory information, the publisher chose to leave these anonymous. But at The Encyclopedia of Chicago, authors received credit even for entries as short as 100 words.
Students, I have found, have enormous difficulty detecting argument in encyclopedia entries. I am not sure why that is the case, but I have some theories. First, they operate on the implicit assumption that all encyclopedias are NPOV. Additionally, in the context of an authoritatively written encyclopedia entry, it is usually very difficult to discern the broader scholarly context that might allow a student to envision an alternative argument. Unless the author explicates the alternatives, the novice reader has no way of knowing what other lines of argument might be possible. That very novelty is probably what impelled the student to a tertiary source in the first place. Additionally, the emphasis on narrative writing in history makes it hard for students to grasp what arguments are present even in longer secondary sources. Historians do write dissertations that engage explicitly with the relevant historiography. But to compete with popular history for bookstore shelf space, we often drop our overt lines of debate while embedding the argument in the narrative structure of our prose. It takes concentrated training to get advanced graduate students to learn to unpack the arguments and debates of scholarship; asking the majority of undergraduates to see argument as an intellectual puzzle implicit in every act of writing, especially in the context of encyclopedia entries, is probably one of our greatest pedagogical challenges.
Maintaining the argument in a Wikipedia entry presents a special problem because of the collective character of authorship. Both the NPOV policy and the ability of “just anyone” to contribute to an entry make it enormously difficult to build and protect a coherent argument in this context. Indeed, the place of argument in the commons—not the issue of credit, as Roy Rosenzweig argued—is the fundamental problem for historians contributing to Wikipedia. We are trained and train our students to make careful and sustained historical arguments, considering both the interpretive sweep of our ideas as well as how small nuggets of evidence contribute to our points. Historians who want to participate in Wikipedia with the same seriousness that they bring to their individual scholarship need to commit themselves to a long-term relationship with the entries they want to improve. They must prepare themselves to consider whether changes made by others are consistent with the changes they themselves have introduced. As Martha Saxton’s essay in this volume makes clear, Wikipedia editors with “bots” at their disposal constantly “patrol” entries in their bailiwick, making it necessary for new contributors to prepare not only prose about their topics of interest but also defenses for the inevitable challenge to their planned comments—a state of affairs, incidentally, that neatly underscores Cronon’s point that the addition of even an apparently innocuous fact is a form of interpretation. Relatedly, contributing historians should consider whether evidence introduced by another Wikipedian challenges, enhances, or undermines their own arguments. Wikipedia’s collective character, I suggest here, complicates the labor involved in sharing one of our two greatest scholarly contributions (the other being close scrutiny and interpretation of primary sources). We should keep in mind that writing for Wikipedia is making a contribution, not being an author, that is, someone with the primary responsibility for the interpretive power and factual accuracy of the writing in question.
I do not mean to dismiss the value of either Wikipedia or other 21st-century experiments in commons authorship. I applaud the pedagogical creativity of the other authors in this volume who make Wikipedia contributions part of their classes. The model offered for the production of Writing History in the Digital Age assumed the capacity of an author (or coauthors) to offer a consistent, untrammeled interpretation, even while the comment feature allowed real-time peer review of the central argument—crowdsourcing to improve the overall quality of the content. The editors’ postings of the two versions of their book proposal to the University of Michigan Press and their response to the peer reviewers suggest that they did not entertain the possibility of including an unauthored essay made up of “contributions” from volunteer peer reviewers. They did, however, plan to “invite up to three of the most thoughtfully engaged online commentators to submit reflective essays for the conclusion.” This points to the salutary, I think, and unchanged assumption that historians in the digital age should aspire to clean and consistent lines of argumentation in our scholarship, even as we grapple with how real-time commenting pushes us toward having to continuously patrol our “published” work.
Herein lies the challenge of Wikipedia for teaching and writing history for the digital natives that make up our 21st-century student body. Our students now enter the classroom with a widely used model of unauthored writing as a standard resource. For their first (and often last) pass at obtaining information, they turn to an asynchronous, nonprofessional community that does not incorporate argument as a central goal. As historians, however, we continue to value sustained argument. The challenge that Wikipedia presents to 21st-century history pedagogy is persuading students of the value of embedding argument in historical writing. We must not only teach our students how to make a coherent argument; we must also persuade them of the value of the underlying assumptions about the character of our inquiry.
1. “The Word-Wikiality,” The Colbert Report, July 31, 2006, http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/72347/july-31-2006/the-word---wikiality.
4. Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman, The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 2005), http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org, and its print counterpart.
5. For a recent syllabus, see https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/xythoswfs/webview/_xy-30013072_1.
6. I take students to the Media and Reserve Library, which has recently absorbed the Microtext Library, for an introduction to microfilm and microfiche formats, because I want the students to experience the evolution of information storage.
9. During the fall 2011 open-review period for this essay, for example, Wikipedia incorporated the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi into his biographical entry before the New York Times had confirmed the news.
11. “Neutral Point of View,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view.
14. Joseph C. Bigott, “Balloon Frame Construction,” in The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/105.html.
15. “How this book evolved,” Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book ed., http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evolution/initial-proposal/ and http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evolution/revised-proposal/.