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12. Playing into the Past: Reconsidering the Educational Promise of Public History Exhibits
Throughout its history, the public museum has been a powerful educational institution. As one of the most prestigious of public spaces where valued material objects serve as essential forms of evidence of art, culture, history, and science, the public museum mediates the knowledge produced by its exhibitions and displays with the various attending publics, as a means to define, educate, and impress its citizens. In public history museums, various objects, images, and narratives of the past are marshaled in the name of the nation, which collectively contribute directly to the construction and presentation of a specific history. Public history museums remain one of the most popular and trustworthy places from which our youth gain an understanding of the past, and as a result, they hold much influence.
Recently, public history museums are moving beyond the traditional museum displays to entertain new ways of displaying objects and information. The advent of digital technologies (notably the world wide web) has prompted public history museums to reexamine their specific knowledge paradigms. The opportunities offered by Google, YouTube, and Flickr, for example, have transformed the collections and information about the collections into a more open flow. Visitors may now attend museums that link their collection searches to Google, placing them in a wider flow of interconnected cultural, political, economic, and technological ideas and resources. Through these public spaces, visitors are able to garner knowledge within wider cultural and social contexts.
The last several years have witnessed the emergence of an increasingly robust collection of research and scholarship on museums and digital technologies. Page 258Several issues have emerged. The first, initially raised by Michelle Henning is whether history museums (like other disciplinary museums) are placing an increasing emphasis on their experiential and performative aspects in exhibitions, resulting in decreasing opportunities for public engagement with historical inquiry through identifying information from the objects, comparing and corroborating information, and analyzing information in order to understand issues associated with historical events. The second, as noted by Fiona Cameron, addresses the current mandates and authority of many museums, which continue to posit the bricks-and-mortar museum as a privileged symbol of the past, of culture, and of national identity, and simplify the information each object provides the public, when various available technologies could contextualize that information and support knowledge creation. Museums are presently deciding whether, and to what extent, to adopt web 2.0 platforms and practices. Adoption of these technologies could promote the public’s engagement with museum collections, and support feedback and relationships with those who have attended museums and those who share a common interest. At the same time, adoption of these technologies may mean that the museum no longer controls what knowledge is created, and is instead contributing to a more collaborative production and sharing of knowledge.
There is a moment when visiting history museums when the full measure of the intersection between the past and the present reveals itself. This relation occurs through displayed objects entwined with narratives that inform the visitor of what has passed. Images, objects, and narratives are selected to authenticate history and to represent interconnected and divergent past events. While this complexity comes across in a simplified and objective manner through which knowledge is to be gained directly from the object, history is considered something “taken in and taken home.” This didactic notion ignores the contemporary debates about how knowledge is interactively produced, consumed, and distributed in a museum. History museums grapple with contemporary debates about issues, including their public relevance and usefulness and knowledge production. The increased utilization of technologies raises questions for museums about how best to use social media in pedagogically sound ways that support their mandates, personnel expertise, and public expectations. It is not enough for museums to focus specifically on the idea of “if we build it they will come” but instead, to consider how to meld their various mandates with the increasingly prolific technologies.
When considering the playful nature of history by way of historical inquiry, as noted in chapters 6 and 7 in this volume by Sean Gouglas and Bethany Nowviskie et al., the digital media and computer technologies that Page 259may support such inquiry are often mismatched. Certainly, the increasing commitment by scholars and cultural heritage institutions (including museums, archives, and libraries) to democratizing history by encouraging people to participate in preserving and presenting the past has opened up increasing access to resources. What is often missing, though, is providing opportunities for youth to work with tools in order to gain meaningfully from these resources. I am often at a loss in understanding why displays and exhibitions revert back to a didactic transmission of knowledge even when the institution itself is utilizing various technologies and the youth attending are engaged with these technologies beyond the museum. Why do museums limit the playful engagement in understanding the past when history is a dynamic and playful discipline? There are two reasons. The first is that museums attempt to advance and achieve their broad educational mission with an obvious end goal of presenting factual knowledge about the past. The second answer is related to how history is defined in history museums: the traditional presentation of history in museums relies on objects and text panels. The objects serve as evidence that a past did indeed exist, while the text panels attempt to provide the narrative context of the historical event. The history presented in a museum is often one framed as the commodity to be taken from the museum. The knowledge gained from any object is often thought to be singular and truthful instead of multiple and open to interpretation. The public history museum’s role as a communicator of messages and the public as the recipients of those messages depend on the objects as “utterances”—instances of “speech” organized into a “grammar” through practices of collection and display. This dependence on an object-based epistemology, where “the focus is on what knowledge is gained directly from the object itself,” ignores what information can be attained within and beyond the museum through the utilization of technologies. The availability of additional information that contextualizes what is placed on display can extend the knowledge drawn from the exhibition itself. It seems as though the opportunities to engage in playfulness within the museum are limited in exhibits, where the materiality within the museum carries authority as evidence and knowledge. By utilizing various technologies that provide additional text, images, maps, and the like, museums can provide students with increased sources from which to understand what is on display, what relevance it may hold to historical understanding, as well as transforming the museum from an authority to a facilitator.
I have argued elsewhere that youth have the capacity to develop a historical consciousness and to question what historical narratives are proffered in public history exhibits and for what purposes. I have also argued that museums need to allow for, and invite, opportunities for our youth to critique Page 260the exhibit itself in order to advance the museum’s educational mandate. Can the knowledge gained from a history museum go beyond the didactic knowledge deemed essential? Can public history museums move away from being the sole authority of knowledge in order to advance their historical democratic sensibilities? In this chapter, I offer insight on how a group of students engaged the National Museum of American History (NMAH) in Washington, D.C., as they worked to understand the museum as an educational source. This research will serve as a call to educators to reconceptualize the museum as a pedagogical site, to invite our youth to advance their own learning about the past through the interchange between the museum and technology, and to utilize the technologies beyond the museum to return to the playfulness of learning. Here I present a brief explanation of a research project involving students developing a digital mash-up, a media project mixing various texts, graphics, audio, and video, to advance their own historical knowledge about war and its role in U.S. identity formation.
In the fall of 2005, I began a multiyear research project that involved working with a group of grade 8 students at a charter school in Washington, D.C. The large-scale project focused on how students came to understand identity formation, how identity is defined and by whom, and how individual and collective identities are advanced through specific public institutions (including schools, museums, archives, and memorials) and particular school subjects (including history, literature, and biology). This particular study also provided an opportunity to examine how various technologies were utilized to aid classroom instruction and student learning, which served to satisfy one of the charter school’s main mandates. A second feature of this study was the weekly off-site activities, also a school mandate, which included (in this case) a regularly scheduled day-long experience in several of the museums within the Smithsonian Institute organization.
During the three months I spent in the classroom, I observed the teacher working with the students to understand the association between history and identity, and the relevance of museums in defining both personal and collective identities through history. Each day I witnessed various teacher and student activities: the teacher providing directed lectures about working with source materials, the students attempting to understand what information the selected source material provided to their overarching focus, and both the teacher and the students engaging in discussions and debates about who defines what history is, when displayed in the public realm of a Page 261museum. As well, I observed how the students utilized various social media and web-based technologies in their own classroom learning opportunities, and how the teacher explained the ways in which technology served various pedagogical purposes.
The teacher’s own educational background as a historian and as an educator ensured that the students received instruction about history’s disciplinary elements (notably: close reading of the source, textual analysis, identifying corroborative information, and narrative structure and argument). She also provided learning activities she believed were pedagogically sound, which allowed the students to understand the art of history instead of solely learning historical fact (specifically the identification, analysis, and comparison of source materials to formulate an argument). This commitment was evident in various ways: in the classroom activities undertaken prior to the museum visits; the weekly museum visits that extended throughout the school day; and the post-visit classroom activities (which resulted in the production of a five-minute mash-up video that incorporated digital archival documents, music, altered photographs, and exhibition objects that highlighted the students’ representation of a collective U.S. identity). These mash-ups provided the students with an opportunity to present their own meta-narratives of the museum’s representation of a collective identity vis-à-vis war and military engagement. The students visited the National Museum of American History to understand its role in defining both personal and collective identities, with weekly dedicated time spent in The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibit.
Prior to attending the exhibit, the students debated the relationship between history and identity and the purpose museums serve to both. Several open and frank discussions about the learning that occurred (or not) within a museum also took place prior to and throughout the unit. The teaching directed the students to examine selected objects and “read” the information easily obtained from the label, consider how this information contributed to the larger exhibition narrative, and argue its broader application to identity formation. The teacher-student interactions also focused on how the students could use various technologies (Google, YouTube, Flickr, digital collections from the Smithsonian Institute, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records, for example) to gain information that would inform their mash-up videos.
Students were evaluated on their understanding of history at several stages during the study, including student engagement with digital technologies (as directed by the school’s charter-mandate), informal conversations between the teacher and students about their works in progress, written justification of selected topic and suitable sources, and the final mash-up. Page 262The students were assessed on basic historic information obtained from the exhibit, how their selected exhibition element (an object, theme, or narrative) aligned with their mash-up theme, and the support of their argument of the museum’s role in identity formation. The evaluation included classroom-based examinations and grading of the final project. While the teacher did not assume all students could engage with technologies to an equal skill and complexity level, she knew individual student abilities (and organized the student groups to ensure various abilities).
The NMAH, like other museums, is a “guardian of important things,” of objects and material goods displayed in order to advance their educational purpose of providing experiences from which the attending public can learn about the past. The objects assume an object-based epistemology; each is readily conceptualized and offers, as Henrietta Riegel noted, “a lesson at a glance, a confirmation of actual life as documented and preserved.” The physical objects serve as the evidence on which history depends for verification, and their presence in the museum provides the authority for museums to tell a their selected story of a past. Andreas Huyssen, for example, argues that “one reason for the new found strength of the museum in the public sphere may have something to do with the fact that it offers the material quality of the object.”
This point was not lost on the students. When asked about the museum’s educational role, a student named Stuart replied that this exhibit was “more than a collection of guns.” But he quickly followed up by saying that “you can learn more about guns, if you really, really want to.” He listed, and then showed, the various sites where he and his group obtained information and noted the ease of a Google search and the amount of sources from which he may draw. He acknowledged openly the necessity of objects as the basis of learning within the museum, but also noted the limited information provided by each object within the exhibit. His group used guns as a point of reference for their mash-up. He also spoke about how his group, when bringing in computers to the exhibit, would access sites to present immediate additional information, which would then have to be analyzed as to their relevance and dependability.
Stuart and his fellow group members (Lisa, Luci, and Paulo) spoke at length about the limits of the exhibit and the information gained from the objects. Lisa stated that the obvious knowledge gained from the object “depends on the label,” while Paulo noted that people bring their own Page 263knowledge to the exhibit. The exchange among the group members moved to how they used various technologies through their assignment. They included videos they completed of the exhibit itself, photos of the material objects displayed, pictures of the text panels and tags, and clips from movies that featured guns (specifically war movies and westerns). Their mash-up, which they called How the West Was One, centered on the idea of guns as a metaphor for bringing together and dispersing people.
Perhaps the most cogent point in the student discussions concerned how history is presented in the NMAH through the displayed objects found within a temporal 3D space organized around a time line. The students collectively highlighted how objects considered relevant to an exhibition were arranged near key dates to illustrate the points on the time line and to fit neatly into the chronology of events. Lisa pointedly argued, following Alun Munslow’s claim, that history is “assembled as a string of selected and linked events and recounted in the shape of a narrative.” The NMAH follows Munslow’s claim that the traditional exhibition standard is to “turn the displayed objects into something else [a narrative]—that which we call history.” Lisa echoed this point when she stated how “boring” she found the display of objects. She extended this point by noting how each object forms an “incomplete sentence in a historical narrative” and served to contribute to “an otherwise really, really boring exhibit.”
This expression of boredom about the exhibit is akin to the commonly held belief that history is a subject that is uninviting and dull. When pressed further about this detail, the four students spoke openly about their own knowledge of the playfulness of history, noting specifically how history “can serve as a game where you can learn without thinking that you are learning.” Paulo further explained, when pressed, that the element of play within history is “finding knowledge you never knew, is like going through a maze. . . . You know, when you hit a wall you have to rethink everything. You bring in more information to understand and get past the block . . . and then you have to decide if the knowledge is necessary or useful.” The students collectively suggested such playfulness was absent in the exhibit, even in those sections that had a technological base (such as the expansive television monitors featuring broadcasts of the Vietnam War). It was the mash-up assignment that provided the students with the challenge of engaging in the art of history through a commonly utilized media.
While many would consider the student mash-up videos to be a playful example of how students could advance their technological skills, I argue that it allowed the students to rethink how they learn about the past. Their interaction with various technologies worked to build an expression of their knowledge about the relationship between history and identity. The Page 264mash-up itself, while clearly an activity to engage the students, was effective because much of the content presented works through a combination of knowing something new (in the case of Stuart’s group, how the identity of American men is one of strength and hardiness) with a more interesting way of presenting the information. The mash-up presented a combination of aesthetic appreciation (including a sepia tone along with computer-created graphics of blood) and the cultural memories of the West as a nostalgic time and place. The mash-up included a sound track containing Western background music (from, no less, The Magnificent Seven and How the West Was Won), photographs of the students themselves inserted into the archival documents and exhibit, and the students’ physical presence in the museum exhibit. Accompanying the mash-up were images of guns displayed in the museum, transposed pictures of massive U.S. casualties from the Vietnam War, and a film clip of a confrontation between natives and non-natives. Will these students ever attend another museum and know that they can gain more information about what they see in front of them through the digital realm? I suspect so. And I also suspect that they have some sense that learning the past can be fun, and that museums do have a particular purpose. As one of them stated: “I know they [the museum] has all of these objects. I just don’t know what they want us to learn about the objects.”
Commentators have lately expressed concern about the apparent lack of historical knowledge held by our youth. In their arguments about the shortcomings of public education in the United States, education policy makers frequently use standardized test results (specifically the National Assessment of Educational Progress results) to show the limited knowledge students possess. The response to this lack of knowledge was a movement toward widespread utilization of primary source materials and the dependence on document-based questioning as the basis for history education. By using primary and secondary sources, it continues to be argued, students can develop historical knowledge by engaging in the act of history. The focus on the development of content knowledge (the “what” of history) and procedural skills (the “how” of history) can be included in the larger issues of asking why particular representations are presented within the museum. These students came to understand how knowledge is constructed in the museum, as well as how knowledge can be reconstructed using digital technologies. Their goal was to create a mash-up that included a narrative about history and national identity. They learned many new technological skills. They not Page 265only gained a rudimentary skill set related to the use of iMovie, but they also acquired and presented a mature understanding of where other information may be found. To formulate their arguments about history and museums, they identified and located additional information necessary for their argument. Although some students in this study saw the formation of identity through history in fairly narrow terms—that history itself was a static element without opportunity to change—most were engaged in a more critical process consistent with the concept of historical consciousness, that is, the ability to understand through critique how a particular historical representation serves specific purposes.
The use of technology within the public history museum appears to aid museums in achieving their educational mandates. Researchers within the museum studies discipline over the last five to six years have investigated how museums are utilizing web 2.0 technologies, including social media such as Twitter and Flickr. From the development of digital collections, to accessing information through museum dashboards, through specifically developed smartphone apps (to name only a few), museum personnel are identifying technology that may serve a useful purpose for the museum. But the students whom I studied expressed a critique of the technology used within the exhibit, which we should take as a warning about the educational potential of technology. The students gathered information additional to that presented by the exhibition labels and text panels by producing digital media files creating their own narratives about the exhibit. The additional information gathered allowed for a more open and flexible collection of knowledge specific to the interests of the students. When questioned by the museum personnel about their lack of engagement with the various technologies incorporated into the exhibit itself, the students cogently argued that the digital media within the exhibit reflected the museum’s current technological focus (which assumed such technologies would be a draw for youth to learning from the exhibit). Yet, the students also thought that the technology within the exhibits (limited to looped films and still photographs displayed on walls) did not specifically contribute to furthering their knowledge. The students realized that the History Channel and a local independent media company produced many of the media elements within the museum (individuals within the videos were actors and not “real” Medal of Honor recipients), and they spoke critically about the use of a perceived authentic award to gain an emotional tie to the exhibits’ larger message (of connecting the necessity of conflict to that of freedom). Although the museum did claim to engage with technology primarily in the form of media, such technologies were as didactic and directed as any of the objects, text panels, and labels. The students used other sources available online and drawn from other sites Page 266beyond the museum while wondering about the museum’s parallel online exhibit. The students considered the online exhibit a missed opportunity in accessing additional information about the exhibit, the wars included in the exhibit, and the objects constituting each display. Instead, the students’ awareness of the site was apparent during the research when they discovered it through an online search.
The public history museum continues to grapple with ensuring that its educational relevance continues as it addresses the challenges of incorporating various technologies into its public mandates. Not only are museums dealing with making information about their objects and exhibits open and accessible, they are also dealing with a public who comes to expect opportunity to find such technologies available within exhibits. This change challenges educators and museums to rethink how historical inquiry in public history museums can be supported through the use of technology. How can museums provide opportunities within their exhibition spaces (and on dedicated websites) to engage in historical inquiry that moves beyond text labels and objects? How can museums come to support exhibits that actively engage students to critique what is presented and develop an understanding about the importance of such a presentation? The challenge facing public history museums is working toward changing their own (and the public’s) conception of the museum as a knowledge authority. Instead, I suggest, there is a need for museums to consider themselves as brokers of knowledge and that such knowledge can come through engagement with technology within and beyond the museum.
Although previous research has demonstrated that our youth may be actively involved in appropriating or resisting particular historical narratives, many of those involved in this study were engaged in a more complex process. The four students I interviewed and observed clearly pointed out the limitations within the museum that inhibited their understanding about the past. The knowledge they developed in the classroom led them to seek additional information when in the museum, and they struggled to integrate new ideas they encountered in each. Although some of the students simply accepted the history narrative displayed in the museum, most were aware that the objects and the narratives were used for advancing a particular collective identity. By being aware that by utilizing various technologies, they came to appreciate the fact that their own education exposed them to the playfulness technology offered and appreciated the fact that technology could encourage Page 267a more critical historical perspective, particularly by exposing them to source materials beyond the museum. Even as they sought to expand their own historical viewpoints, however, they were willing to acknowledge the limited information presented by the museum. Both the highly contentious nature of historical representations in the United States and the factual emphasis of the school curriculum may contribute to students simply accepting or rejecting historical narratives based on personal experience, preferences, or prior knowledge. This points, then, to the value of historical study that focuses on students’ utilization of technology to gain experience working with tools (which may well be computer based) in order to enrich their own historical understanding through digital media. I am not suggesting that every student attending a public museum ought to be engaged in a mash-up experience. What I am suggesting is that we need to harness the interest students do hold in history to activities that will fashion a set of skills and knowledge. By asking our youth to be critical of the history presented in public museums is not to ignore the importance each institution holds in providing such information. Can our youth problem solve, communicate, or be creative and innovative by attending a history museum? I cannot say for certain. But I can suggest the need for public history museums to provide opportunities for those youth who are interested in knowing and learning more about the past, something that can easily be done within museums with the open web access many provide their public. Those opportunities can be vehicles for bringing these youth into rich conversations about our past, about museums and education, and about how their skills and knowledge are developed outside of the traditional classroom.
4. See, for example, www.museumsandtheweb.com, www.mcn.edu, and www.hastac.org, accessed November 28, 2012. Each of these sites provides an archive of scholarship and research that traces the utilization of technology by museums.
6. Scholars have examined how technology impacts the ways in which museums represent information. See, for example, Paul Marty, “Information Representation: Representing Museum Knowledge,” in Museum Informatics, ed. Paul F. Marty and Katherine Burton Jones (New York: Routledge, 2008), 29–34.Page 268
7. See Nancy Proctor, “Museum as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media,” Curator 53, no. 1 (2010): 36–42, for examples of institutions that have utilized web technologies for user-generated content, crowdsourcing, and collaborative initiatives. See also Nik Honeysett and Michael Edsen, “Philosophical Leadership Needed for the Future: Digital Humanities Scholars in Museums,” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 1 (April 2012), accessed November 28, 2012, http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/philosophical-leadership-needed-for-the-future/.
9. Fiona Cameron, “Beyond the Cult of the Replicant—Museums and Historical Digital Objects: Traditional Concerns, New Discourses,” in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse,ed. Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007), 49–76. As Simon Knell notes in Museums and the Future of Collecting (London: Ashgate, 2004), as museums have become knowledge institutions there has been a decline in the prominence of objects that were once feature attractions. See also Sharon Macdonald, “Collecting Practices,”in her A Companion to Museum Studies (London: Routledge, 2006), on changes to collecting practices of museums.
10. See, for example, Ross Parry’s Recoding the Museum: Digital Heritage and Technologies of Change (London: Routledge, 2007), and Museums in the Digital Age (Leicester: University of Leicester Press, 2010); Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, eds., Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010); and Loic Tallon and Kevin Walker, eds., Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience (Lanham, Md.: AltaMira, 2008).
15. The exhibit sought to provide a “comprehensive and memorable overview of America’s military experience and the central role it has played in our national life” (Smithsonian Institute, 2005). Although the exhibit closed on September 5, 2006, the online component remains a popular educational resource.Page 269
22. To see the extent of research utilizing various technologies, access the collection of online papers presented at the annual Museums and the Web conference, accessed July 31, 2012, www.archimuse.com.
13. Teaching History in an Age of Pervasive Computing: The Case for Games in the High School and Undergraduate Classroom
Historians have always been interactive with the content that we study, constantly challenging, reworking, and indeed, remixing information to “do history.” And we have incorporated that interactivity into our teaching, analyzing primary and secondary sources with our students in seminars, and helping students draw on those sources to craft their own historical narratives. The arrival of computer technologies has provided new ways to support interactivity in our teaching.
Our students require it: there has always been a world wide web for the undergraduates in our classes. Personal computers were first introduced en masse into primary and secondary education in the 1980s, and those students have already graduated from university. Computers went, in the span of a few years, from being a rarity to a commonplace. We now live in an age of “pervasive computing,” in which digital devices proliferate into every corner of our lives. Students interact with this technology less like a tool (something to get the job done) and more like a musical instrument (something with which to be creative). The key aesthetic of computing today is not keyboarding, or re-creating previous media in digital format, but rather, content creation, mash-ups, and remixes: in short, interactivity. Several years ago a 2007 Demos Report surveyed primary- and secondary-level students and parents in the United Kingdom and created focus groups to study the digital impact of new media on their day-to-day lives and especially their learning environments. The key finding was that for young people (today’s university Page 271students) the new media tools were used to strengthen existing social networks and to create expressive content.
How do we teach history in an age of pervasive computing, where interactivity with (rather than consumption of) media in the context of social networks (rather than in isolation) is key? Not through “websites” or “bulletin board forum posts.” These are interim technologies—what the historian John Sutton Lutz called the “horseless carriages” of the computer revolution. Instead, we need to progress to “the automobile.” One phrase expressed the new invention in terms of existing technology; the other coined a completely new idea to describe the technology. Just as the arrival of “the automobile” coincided with mass production and mass access, the new way of interacting with digital media has started to create its own idioms and metaphors. Social apps. Facebooks and Machinima. MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games).
These last two terms are connected to computer games, the most exciting, technically demanding, computing applications today. They are the digital media “automobiles” of the twenty-first century. Game technologies have driven the development and evolution of computer hardware, artificial intelligence, database management, and a host of allied technologies. Computer games are some of the most complicated and sophisticated simulations available, with design and development budgets that dwarf those of many movies, and certainly any Humanities Department’s research budget. As a result, game studies are growing, but the nascent discipline is dominated by computer science and psychology research; the humanities have had relatively little to offer.
While the humanities have shown limited interest in games, games have shown great interest in the humanities, and especially in history. A recent survey showed that 26 of the 133 PC-based games that have sold at least 1 million units have been based on a historic theme, or have employed historical tropes. Clearly, given that a fifth of the all-time best-selling computer games have historical themes, there is room for humanities- and history-based analyses of computer games, and consideration of how best to use this popularity to further the teaching and learning of history.
We intend to go further. We believe that the best way to teach history in an age of pervasive computing is through collaborative learning with computer games. This chapter is divided into four parts. We begin by suggesting that games should be used in our undergraduate courses in much the same way that we have used texts. History games are synthetic historical worlds, similar to the narratives on our class reading lists, except that these are expressed in computer code, not language. While the academic literature has championed games as a teaching “tool,” we take a different view: that Page 272these are artifacts that should be deconstructed, in the manner of historiography. But how do we know which history games to use? The marketplace has made claims for history games that must be challenged, and we propose a specific typology by which to understand the place of history games in our undergraduate courses.
In the second part of the chapter, we show how students can build on their analysis of games by creating their own histories through game “mods” (modifications of commercial games). The process is similar to that which sees students build on their analysis of texts to write historiographical essays and benefit from peer review. Examples from web forums, and our own experience, highlight the potential for peer review. In the third part of the chapter, we draw on our own experience to show how students can move beyond analysis, and modding, to collaboratively developing their own games, in much the same way that they write research papers. Finally, we reflect on our use of games for history to suggest how we might best assess the work of our students. In these ways, we show how historians can tap the potential, while avoiding the pitfalls, of learning with games.
Narratives and Games as Synthetic Worlds
A conventional history course requires that a student engage in the literature related to the topic. In both lecture and seminar courses, students read in preparation for small-group discussions, guided by an instructor or teaching assistant. Historians who want to use technology in an age of pervasive computing can use computer games in the same way that we have previously used books and articles.
Those books and articles are worlds that we have created, drawing on evidence from the past that has been preserved in the archives. The past is disorganized, meaningless, and exists beyond the rules of language. History is organized, meaningful, and expressed with the rules of language. Created by historians writing in the present moment and therefore occupied with present concerns, and written in narrative form, our histories follow an artificially linear path, with a beginning, middle, and end. We ask our students to immerse themselves in these synthetic worlds, and draw from them insights that they can apply to their understanding of the topic at hand.
In a similar way, as the game theorist Edward Castranova has pointed out, a game is a synthetic world. But where historians’ books and articles make a persuasive case through narrative, games are compelling because these practice “just-good-enough” virtual reality. As Castranova notes: “a game perspective focuses all thought and research on the user’s subjectivity Page 273and well-being. It insists on immediate usability. It thrives on widened access and multiple users. And it generates a willing suspension of disbelief, without which genuine immersion cannot happen.” If a game is effective, it immerses a player, so that she projects her mind—her sense of self—into it. From these experiences, as the linguist and game theorist James Paul Gee has pointed out, gamers learn a great deal. Indeed, according to Gee, games are one of the most effective teaching tools yet devised.
The challenge for historians is that, with a few notable exceptions, history games are not created by researchers focused on learning; they are built by gamers obsessed with fun. But that does not make them a waste of time. Just as we ask our students to assess “popular history,” so too can we use popular games for the purposes of learning. Indeed, our task in the age of pervasive computing is to reconcile these two kinds of synthetic worlds. But how do we assess the suitability of a game for history? How do we know which games to put on our “gaming list”? Presently, the term “history game” is used to denote many different kinds of experiences with computer media. If we are going to be clear about how collaborative learning with computer games can teach history in a new era of pervasive computing, we need to clarify what we mean by “history games.” Alas, the marketplace has only muddled the issue.
History Games in the Marketplace—The Genre Problem
The type of game (the way it is played, its structure) is how the vast majority of games are classified and marketed. Games are usually discussed via a comparison of one game to another or by reference to a genre. Genre in games usually refers to the gameplay mechanics from the point of view of the player, such as first-person shooter or role-playing game. These categories are not overly useful for understanding how historically themed games could be employed by a professor or student since many of these kinds of categories are artifacts of the technology used to deliver the game. First-person shooters evolved from video arcade games to home consoles such as the Sony Playstation; role-playing games evolved from text adventure games to home PCs. As these technologies have developed, taking on qualities of one another, the genre categories have begun to overlap as well. Most of today’s first-person shooters, for example, contain many of the attributes of role-playing games.
In a marketplace saturated with thousands of first-person shooters and role-playing games, game publishers have attempted to distinguish their products by covering the gameplay mechanics with a façade of content. As a Page 274result, we have first-person shooters set far in the future, such as the highly popular Halo series, and others based in the past, such as the equally successful Call of Duty franchise. Ask a 15-year-old if he plays history games, and he may catalogue the German soldiers he killed in his attempt to defend Chambois, ca. 1944. There is history learning here, but it is incidental. And any historian who attempts to use Call of Duty to teach history will quickly realize the limitations of the product. At the end of an hour, this history game is essentially about shooting people.
The frustration with history games that results from genre confusion is evident in discussions surrounding another popular franchise, and one that is marketed as specifically historical: Civilization. The first wave of research into history games for learning pointed to the potential of Civilization as a tool in the classroom. Kurt Squire has expanded this focus, with an emphasis on its effectiveness with elementary students in concert with other tools, such as encyclopedias. But other researchers have criticized the game’s implicit narrative of technological progress as the prime mover of history, and questioned its appropriateness for history education.
Civilization and other comparable games are, according to the conventional genres, turn-based strategy games, where each turn builds on the actions taken in previous turns. In the case of Civilization, the player guides a tribe of people from the Stone Age to the Space Age, conquering the world as she goes. It would be hard to imagine an alternative conception of historical process being built into a turn-based strategy game—the mechanics of the game are built for “progress.” Historical contingency has been determined by the formal rule system, which has been created by the computer programming.
The point, as other critics have noted, is that the game, or any computer game for that matter, is ultimately about mechanics, and not about content. The content is window dressing, and deep playing of a game such as Civilization teaches little about history, but everything about how to manipulate the complex algorithms that model the simulation. As Robert MacDougall points out,
Civilization’s game play erases its own historical content. Learning to play means learning to ignore all the stuff that makes it a game about history and not about, say, fighting aliens. One could easily program a different game with a different set of ideological assumptions—Galloway imagines a “People’s Civilization” game by Howard Zinn—and see precisely the same de-historicizing effect. Mastering the simulation game necessarily involves a journey away from reality towards abstraction, away from history towards code.
History Games for Historians—A Typology of Time and Space
If a so-called history game primarily teaches a player how to win, why bother? The answer is that there is much to learn about history through an understanding of the history game’s programming. As a result, those of us who are interested in using games for history learning need to focus on the computer code, rather than on the marketing hype or content façade. The code determines the rules of the game (the way it operates). And if the rules promote a particular way of looking at the world—if they make an argument in code for a particular worldview (what Ian Bogost calls “procedural rhetoric”)—then we need to understand which rules, which games, best embody the historical epistemologies we wish to teach. We also need to imagine the possibilities beyond Civilization, including modified games, or new games, which could manifest the epistemologies we want to express. Following William Urrichio, we need to “think of the rule systems that characterize various brands of history as constituting the potential rule systems for game play.” Addressing the criticisms that have been leveled at Civilization, he points out that “by embedding various historiographic epistemologies as structuring agencies rather than relying implicitly on Civilization’s narratives of truth, progress, and the American way, a new dimension could be added to play, more coherently addressing history.”
The first step to “coherently addressing history” in play is to determine which epistemology to teach. The possibilities are numerous, the focus of a rich vein of literature, and outside the focus of this chapter. Presuming that the historian knows what it is that he wants to teach, we can move to the second step: understanding the power of different games for addressing or reinforcing different kinds of history. To accomplish this, we need to replace the marketing hype and content façades with a clear and unambiguous typology. One such typology organizes games according to their relationships to goals.
On one side are games as goal-oriented challenges; the mental challenge provides the fun. Too easy, and the game is boring; too hard, and the game is frustrating; to be in the sweet spot between the two is to be in a state of “flow.” On the other side are goalless games such as The Sims, or heavy management simulations like RailRoads! For Jesper Juul, such “goalless” games, or games without set end-states, allow the player to push social norms (deviant behavior in The Sims)or express personal aesthetics (like making the most beautiful city in Caesar IV). Goal and goalless is still too broad and nebulous a foundation on which to build a typology because a single game might have aspects of both, and an effective typology must create unambiguous categories. Alternatively, Espen Aarseth et al. have developed a typology Page 276of games (not just computer video games) that considers games according to spatial movement. Broadly, this open-ended typology depends on classification of movement along five axes: space, time, player-structure, control, and rules. Each of those categories can be further broken down, but for our purposes we will concentrate only on the categories of space and time, as per table 13.1. By considering movement as the basis for the typology, Aarseth and his colleagues eliminate the possibility of overlaps, which is what a good typology must do. They also focus attention on how the game treats time and space. Historians are trained to move through time, if only in our minds. The narrative “synthetic worlds” that we produce out of our travels—books and articles—reflect those journeys. Historians who use games, these “synthetic worlds” supported by computers, which immerse the player in a “good enough reality” that mimics 3D space, must necessarily move through time and space as well.
How can this typology help us determine which games we might “assign” to our students to play, and later analyze in class? Let us compare two games that were released within months of each other, and that we have used with students: Civilization IV (published in November 2005) and Caesar IV (a rival game that was launched soon after). Both of these games take us into a “synthetic world” loosely based on antiquity. Gamerankings, a highly popular website that ranks computer games and classifies them according to “genre,” treats these as essentially the same: Caesar IV is listed as “Strategy, City Building, Historic,” while Civilization IV is categorized as “Strategy, Turn-Based, Historic.” There is nothing mutually exclusive about these categories: a “City Builder” game could be “Turn-Based,” and Civilization IV can be played in a concurrent, non-turn-based mode, in its multiplayer version. The genre classifications make these games appear similar, and tell us nothing about their underlying epistemologies or procedural rhetorics.
When we break them down according to Aarseth et al.’s movement typology, the differences become clear (table 13.2). Caesar IV is a city-management simulation based in ancient Rome. In terms of space, the view is “Omni-present”; no part of the game environment is unknown to the player. In
|Space||Perspective||Omni-Present / Vagrant|
|Topography||Geometrical / Topological|
|Environment||Dynamic / Static|
|Time||Pace||Real-Time / Turn-Based|
|Representation||Mimetic / Arbitrary|
|Teleology||Finite / Infinite|
|Caesar IV||Civilization IV|
Civilization IV, in contrast, much of the early gameplay is built on exploration and discovery, and actions by other “civilizations” that occur off-screen can affect the player; the “Perspective” is “Vagrant.” In Caesar IV,the player interacts with the “Topography” by placing buildings or other structures in limited areas (“olive groves,” for instance, can only be placed on “farm land”), and so the topography is “Topological,” whereas in Civilization IV the player may move the game pieces almost anywhere, and so the topography is “Geometrical.” The “Environment” of both games is dynamic; it changes according to, but sometimes regardless of, the player’s actions.
Consider also what Aarseth and his colleagues call the “Pace” of time within both games: in Caesar IV, time moves forward regardless of the player’s actions, so the game is played in “Real-Time.” In Civilization IV time stops while the player moves his pieces around the board, so its time is “Turn-Based” (each player must wait for the other players to complete their turn, as in Monopoly). The “representation” of time, as Aarseth et al. frame it, differs in both games as well. In Caesar IV, if a player has the denarii, a brand-new Coliseum can instantly be placed within a city (time is “Arbitrary”), whereas in Civilization IV time is “Mimetic” (imitated), so it takes a number of turns, reflecting something of the actual cost in time, to build a Coliseum. Finally, addressing what Aarseth and his colleagues call the “Teleology” of time, Caesar IV is a finite game: it has a definite end point (when mission goals are reached). Civilization IV is also a finite game: famously, it ends when you launch a colonization mission to the stars (although other end-games are possible, including the annihilation by, or of, your foes).
An analysis of these axes can help us better understand when and how to use these games with our students. In the case of Caesar IV and Civilization IV, the different treatments of perspective and the representation of time suggest that Caesar IV would be helpful in addressing specific issues: exploring microeconomics of cities or the role of religious belief in urban life; rebuilding specific real-world cities, to contrast what the game suggests about how life was lived in the past versus current historical thinking, or the Page 278current understanding of the archaeological record. Civilization IV, on the other hand, would be better suited for exploration of large-scale issues: diffusionism as a theory in cultural evolution (and the historiography of diffusionism), the dynamics of Roman civil wars, or the emergence of city-states in different climatic conditions.
This kind of analysis, using a typology of movement, can also help students understand why and how a game forces them to think along certain paths. The game becomes, not a teaching tool, but a kind of artifact that must be studied to determine its procedural rhetoric, which can then be deconstructed in the tradition of historiography. In the same way that we teach our students to recognize an author’s viewpoint, and to analyze a text, we can teach our students to recognize implicit points of view in a game, and to analyze the rules encoded in the programming.
Modding and the Meta-Game
But we need to go further; we must use these technologies to help our students create their own representations of history. In this section, and the one that follows, we discuss two approaches to using digital games to help students create history: first, creating new content in the context of an already existing game, and second, creating an entirely new game, ex novo. Both of these operate at the level of what we call the “meta-game,” and it is here that we find the greatest opportunities for teaching history in an age of pervasive computing. Meta-gaming refers, in a limited sense, to game tactics that exploit bugs or features of a game in a way that was not originally intended by the game designers—like using a glitch in the game physics to scale walls that were meant to be impassable. We employ the term in this way, but we also use it in a larger sense, to refer to an outside-looking-in awareness of the game mechanics. This is a “gaming of the game,” in which students’ engagement with history games moves beyond treating them as artifacts that must be analyzed, to modifying and even building them for themselves. The task is similar to that faced by students in a conventional history course, in which they go beyond analyzing texts to engaging them through the act of writing. In these “literature reviews” or “historiographical papers,” students articulate a thesis, using the building blocks of professional researchers. The task is both creative—students are developing their own representation of history, and synthetic—they are drawing on the literature created by historians. In a sense, they are playing with the texts.
The most common application of meta-gaming to commercial games is to tweak, adapt, modify, or otherwise alter the original game. In the early Page 279days of computer gaming, this was often accomplished by exploiting bugs in the game’s programming. Savvy game publishers soon realized that there were commercial benefits to this activity, and many now provide in-game editors to allow the players to tweak the gameplay easily. The commercial rationale is straightforward: the more that players talk about the game, and provide additional content, the greater the “buzz” and the number of copies of the game sold. Some of these modifications (mods) become so popular that they eclipse the original game. Counterstrike, to take the most notable example, was a mod that became more popular than its progenitor, Half Life.
Civilization IV, to return to our earlier example, is one such modifiable game. Previous versions of the game allowed players to customize the map and starting conditions. The most recent version lets players change the actual rules of play, and in this way contest the procedural rhetoric of the game. Only a minority of players have the requisite skills to rewrite the rules; most settle for more cosmetic changes. Civilization IV distinguishes between these as “mods” (rule changes) and “scenarios” (customized starting conditions). There are a number of sites that help the player achieve these customizations, with CivFanatics and Apolyton among the most popular. Indeed, Apolyton even operates Apolyton University website, where players can study tutorials to increase their skill in play and modding. An informal poll of 111 participants on CivFanatics conducted in April 2008 found that 18 percent considered themselves to be “professional historians,” 25 percent considered themselves to be non-historians, while the majority saw themselves as “amateurs.” These were “amateurs” in the most literal sense, “amators” or “lovers” of history, debating and discussing in a manner not out of place in a university seminar.
Like undergraduate students, “Civfanatics” present their work to their peers (game mods, rather than essays), which their colleagues play, rather than read (for review). Feedback from the discussions that follows is used to guide further modifications and enhancements of the mod. For example, several “Civfanatics” in 2006 engaged in a meta-game of Civilization IV connected to a mod set during the Crusades. A participant who went by the name of “Holyone” began the discussion with a post outlining the period that he had modeled, an indication of the depth of his mod (his scenario would require several hours of intense gameplay), and the downloadable file. The forum post, written with the distinctive spelling, syntax, and grammar of the Internet, read as follows: “Holyone” posted: “The Crusades (European Middle Ages Mod). . . . The scenario is set in the Middle East during the time of the Crusades. The time period is 1100–1300 AD at Marathon speed, which means 1 year per turn. Playable civs: Kingdom of Jerusalem (Baldwin I of Boulogne); Byzantiine Empire (Basil II); Egypt (Saladin); Rum Sultanate (Alp Arslan); Tatar Khaganate (Timur Lenk).”Page 280
Within days, other Civfanatics had downloaded the scenario, played it, and offered their feedback and suggestions—peer review: “Drtad” posted: “Nice work Holy One, but shouldn’t you have the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia in their, do a Wiki search as they were important during the Crusades by letting the Crusaders pass.” “Holyone” replied: “Of course they were important! I also miss the Kingdom of Georgia, another important christian kingdom, but that part of the map is just way too crowded. Perhaps on a bigger one. I saw nice Middle East maps elsewhere, so maybe I will use one of them. But if anybody knows one, link it here, pls!” The feedback was not concerned with gameplay—after all, “Holyone” had not modified the computer code—but rather with historical accuracy: “Ohcrapitsnico” posted: “Wasn’t Salah al-din the king of the abbasids not just egypt? Secondly, are you planning for this just to be a scenario or like a mod?” “Holyone” pointed out that, given the limitations of the map (the game board, with its computer code) he could not include every “civilization” that had occupied the real-world territory. Like a student writing an essay with a predetermined page limit, he had to make choices: “Holyone” posted: “Yes he was, but it’s easier to have only one civ and leader for the different time period. Even in this short(?) 200 years there was a different Egypt when the Crusaders arrived in 1097–99, another one that is Saladin’s and when the mameluks took over is yet another story.” He justified his choice of Saladin by noting that “he is a rather emblematic figure of the Crusades (along with Richard I). But if you ask his territorial rule, in the scenario Egypt starts with the Nile valley and Mesopotamia (Baghdad, Damascus) under her rule. And also Mecca as it is the Islam holy city.”
The concern with historical accuracy continued, but with an additional focus on the need to change the game rules so that the period might be properly modeled: “Drtad” posted: “Nice work on the new map Holyone. But shouldn’t Lesser Armenia and Georgia be Orthodox? They surely were not Catholic.” “Holyone” replied: “I too thought about that, but there are sooo many branches of christianity especially that part of the world. Georgia for example is the first christian country, that time there was no orthodox or catholic christianity. Christianity in Syria, even today, is neither, but (you are right) more close to orthodoxy. The patriarch of Antioch and Alexandria had great dogmatic debate with the Patriarch of Constantinople, and they practically broke up. I did choose Catholicism because of the diplomatic relation bonus, but I can still change one of them (or both), if it suits you better.” “Drtad” answered with an admonishment: “Georgia was definitely not the first Christian nation of the world. That title belongs to Armenia. 301 ad if I am not mistaken. King Drtad adopted Christianity after St. Gregory cured him of a didease just by touching his forehead.”Page 281
“Holyone” responded by creating a new map and instituting several rule changes. Civilization models religious influence in a specific manner (civilizations with the same religion tend to be allies) so the debate concerning Orthodox or Catholic Christianity in Georgia was significant not just for historical accuracy, but also for gameplay. The debate over content forced a debate over the computer code, and a resulting alteration, which spurred further discussion. The act of creation and exchange was not unlike that which occurs in a university seminar. Instead of writing a historiographical paper using the publications of historians, “Holyone” created a mod drawing on the game Civilization IV. Instead of presenting it to a class, and engaging in a debate with his colleagues, he published it to the web, where his peers could respond, with passionate arguments, expressed in misspellings, emoticons, and other signifiers of the Internet age. “Drtad” was a significant player in this meta-game, and not just because he had taken the name of the king of the first country to adopt Christianity. As a result of his comments, and those of the rest of the community, “Holyone” modified and enhanced his scenario, resulting in a more persuasive product of historical play.
This kind of peer review is not unusual. In “The Rise and Fall of Rome,” another Civfanatics discussion, amateur historians, not historians or classic students, developed a historically “authentic” simulation of Roman culture. They explored the conditions behind the emergence of the Social War (the war between Rome and its Italian allies, or socii, during the early first century b.c.e.), and devised a way to allow for the possibility of the war to emerge out of gameplay.
These examples from the meta-game surrounding Civilization IV demonstrate how we envision teaching through gaming. As we showed in the first part of the chapter, the game itself becomes not a teaching tool, but rather a kind of artifact that we study to determine its procedural rhetoric, which we then deconstruct in the tradition of historiography. Students can then build on this analysis, as we show immediately above, and through modding and the meta-game, create their own representations of history.
Building a Game ex novo, and the Meta-Game
If historians understand computer code as another language through which to express historical thinking, we can move beyond tweaking the algorithms of an established game such as Civilization. Taken to its logical conclusion, the ultimate meta-game is the construction of a game ex novo, in which code is used to develop an original artifact. In the same way that students write a research paper, investigating primary and secondary sources and then Page 282assembling an essay in an effort to persuade the reader of a thesis, students can develop games, engaging the sources and then building a system to argue for a specific explanation of history.
Educators have long pointed out the benefits of building knowledge and understanding in this manner. Led by Seymour Papert, theorists have advanced the notion of “constructionism” (a term coined by Papert and Idit Harel, promoting the construction of knowledge in the mind of the learner). In the field of computing, Papert drew on the work of Jean Piaget to develop the Logo programming language for students, so that they could write and execute basic programming functions, including the programming of robots.
In the field of history, students can use computer code as a language to express historical thinking, through games. In a 2007/08 upper-level undergraduate course project taught by Kevin Kee at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, students opted to use C++, a general-purpose programming language, with Open GL (Open Graphics Library), a set of procedures enabling a computer’s operating system to produce 2D and 3D graphics. Programming in C++ is beyond the knowledge and abilities of the vast majority of humanities undergraduates, so the course project included upper-level undergraduate computing science students.
The history students split their time between conventional seminars, tutorials, and design sessions. The seminar required that they read and discuss the epistemology of history, the manner in which computers have provided new opportunities to express these epistemologies, the essential debates in the new field of games for learning, as well as project management and game design. The computing science students, for their part, split their time between traditional lectures, and joined the history students in the tutorials and design sessions. They focused on the challenges faced by computing scientists collaborating on software projects, including working as members of a team.
In groups of six to eight students, the history and computing science majors began by brainstorming a game concept, focused around the War of 1812 in Niagara. They next defined the goal of their game, and drafted a proposal that included the game description and an overview of the content. The proposal also incorporated documents relating to their work together as a team: a contract among the team members, a chart outlining the phases of their work, and a schedule of deliverables. A “Design Document” followed, specifying aspects of the game (such as its target audience and its technical requirements). Only after these steps were complete did they begin development. The final class saw them “launch” their games online, with family, friends, and colleagues in attendance.Page 283
The results of their work paled in comparison to a Civilization IV mod. The graphics were simple, and the gameplay restricted. But what these lacked in complexity and depth, they made up for in originality. Some of the games, such as Brigade: A War of 1812 Saga (see figure 13.1 above) addressed key battles in the war, enabling players to re-fight the conflicts from the American or British side. The results provided opportunities to examine counterfactuals, including how different battle strategies might have affected the outcome of the war. Other games addressed the economics of the war, including how merchants tried, and sometimes failed, to deal with a changing financial environment. Tavern Keeper (see figure 13.2 below), for instance, put the player in the apron of the proprietor of one English Canada’s oldest inns, in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Serving drinks from behind the bar brought the player into contact with battle-weary British soldiers, anxious merchants, and concerned farmers.
The students’ goal, one of the developers noted afterward, was to combine political history, with its focus on geopolitical events (the War of 1812), with social history and its concern with the lives of “ordinary citizens” (the tavern keeper). The end result was a game that provided an omnipresent perspective, allowing the player to see everything, and gain confidence in this new environment. The player had relatively little freedom to move around the tavern, and none beyond it—the space was topological. The environment was static—while the player could influence the environment (cultivating aPage 284
relationship with a patron, for instance) the object of the changes was altered in number only; the environment itself remained essentially unchanged. In terms of time, the game was turn-based: the player made a decision (for example, to reinvest profits into the tavern, or to use them to diversify the business and purchase land), and then awaited the consequences of her actions. The representation of time was mimetic; events occurring in the game mimicked the corresponding time in the real world—cultivating a relationship with an influential patron might yield valuable, insider information later in the game. Finally, Tavern Keeper was teleologically finite—the player eventually reached a final win or lose state.
The omnipresent, topological, static space of the tavern limited the movement of the player, and concentrated her attention on a specific place. The turn-based, mimetic, finite timeframe rooted the player in the war period, while providing her with time to consider carefully her choices and grasp the complexity of her changing economic environment. In this way, the student leader noted, “the game showed a single individual merchant’s experience on a cultural and personal level and then put it into a large context by linking it to the War of 1812, showing why it is important. With a game we were able to show a nuanced, specific micro-history and make it relevant by incorporating a larger important historical event.”Page 285
The students accomplished this not by creating a narrative, as they would if they were writing a research paper, but by developing, and then programming, a specific rule set. By focusing on games as systems with rule sets, students can develop what this student leader called “a module to process preexisting historical data,” according to the choices of the player. The resulting gameplay experience provides new opportunities for students to express their own representations of history, in all of its complexity. As these students knew, distant geopolitical forces could turn what appeared to be a good decision into a bad one; in this case, a tavern keeper’s (player’s) attempt to diversify his business by investing in nearby farmland could result in bankruptcy if the British farmers (no longer able to sell their produce to their American customers) defaulted on their loans. These students had programmed caution into the computer code, and in this way rendered their judgment on the reasons behind the economic havoc of the war period. By expressing these historical events in computer language that was appropriate to the content, the students were able not only to capture these events, but also to provide opportunities to imagine how this story, and many others like it, might have turned out differently.
The developers of Brigade and Tavern Keeper responded to the challenge of creating a history game with enthusiasm. For young people who have grown up using digital technologies to create content and connect with one another, the opportunity to develop a game with a group of their colleagues is strikingly refreshing. But the excitement of the project’s initial phase was quickly replaced by anxiety. Students recognized that this assignment did not fit the conventions of a typical undergraduate humanities course, in which they separately write texts addressed to their professors. How could a team of students develop a game to be played by their peers?
These kinds of concerns are shared by students learning through games, whether they are playing, modding, or building ex novo; how, they ask, will this project be marked? The students in our courses have three main concerns: (1) How will they receive regular feedback on their progress? (2) How will they know what is being marked? (3) In the case of group projects, how will the instructors ensure that students’ grades reflect their participation in the group project? We shared our students’ first concern about feedback, but from a different perspective: how will we manage, and mark, the mass of material that is produced as a by-product? In the end, we have developed a marking scheme that ensured that the students received regular responses Page 286to their game development. In Kevin Kee’s third-year course, for instance, where the game counts for 30 percent of the student’s final grade in the course, each step of development is graded: the Draft Proposal, due at the end of November, out of 5; the Design Document, due at the end of February, out of 5; the report from the first round of testing, at the beginning of March, out of 5; the report from the second round of testing, near the end of March, out of 5; the final product, due in April, out of 10. In this way, students are given opportunities to work with the professors and teaching assistants to correct errors as they emerge.
Our students are also concerned with how their performance is being measured. In a first-year course taught by Shawn Graham, in which students played a scenario that had been built in Civilization IV, the assessment structure included a “game diary” that asked specific questions of the students at particular points in the game, forcing them to reflect on the anachronisms and other artifacts of the gameplay that corresponded or conflicted with their previous readings of history. The game diary was intended to replace one of the assigned essays, but in the end, every student opted to hand in a traditional essay. The reluctance to “play for marks” was partly one of academic culture, but also one of explication: the students did not know what was to be marked when they played the scenario.
The solution we propose is familiar to many teachers of technical courses: rubrics. These have the advantage of distilling the marking to a checklist of criteria. Students can see at a glance what the professor expects them to do to achieve a superior grade (see table 13.3).
For a project in which a student is developing a scenario in Civilization IV, the rubric defines expectations according to choice of subject, research, preparation for development, appropriateness of the subject to the medium, collaboration, recognition of the limits of the medium, and facility with the technology. The first criterion addresses the question: has the student selected a good problem to try to render in a scenario? (As noted above, Civilization IV has built-in assumptions about how history unfolds. Does the proposed scenario play to those assumptions, or does it challenge them?) The second criterion assesses whether the student has assembled the appropriate primary and secondary sources to ensure the authenticity of the scenario that she intends to develop (and a very good student will explore what makes for an authentic scenario). The next two criteria are aimed at the student’s preparation: Has the student addressed the key issues inherent to the content to be modded? Has she chosen, for instance, an appropriate place to map, with an appropriate geographical and time scale? The following criteria assesses whether the student recognizes the problems inherent to developing a historical mod. The “uses forum/wiki” criterion highlights thePage 287
|Criterion||Level 4||Level 3||Level 2||Level 1|
|Analyze Given Scenario||Analysis of given scenario provides thorough insight||Provides considerable insight||Some insight||Limited or superficial insight|
|Assess Research Information||Assessment of research information demonstrates thorough use of criteria||Considerable||Some||Limited|
|Communicate Design Ideas||Communicates these with a high degree of clarity||Considerable||Some||Limited|
|Create a Design Plan||Creates a design plan with excellent organization||Considerable||Some||Limited|
|Demonstrate Understanding of the Topic||Demonstrates a thorough understanding||Considerable||Some||Limited|
|Use Forum/Wiki to Communicate Information to Members of the Group, Teacher||Uses these tools with excellent success||Considerable||Some||Limited|
|Identify Design Issues||Thoroughly identifies design issues||Substantially identifies design issues||Adequately identifies design issues||Briefly identifies design issues|
|Manipulate Game Engine||Is able to use (or write) more complex programs or the worldbuilder to manipulate scenario with facility||With good success||With some success||With limited success|
|Use Appropriate Software to Document a Complete Project||Chooses appropriate software and uses special features to thoroughly document all parts of the project||Well documented||Is able to use a word processor to complete most of the documentation||Is able to use a word processor to complete parts of the documentation|
expectation that students will collaborate in the forum or wiki developed for them, and offer help to one another as they design their scenarios. The “identify design issues” criterion forces the student to demonstrate that she is aware of the constraints of the Civilization IV environment. And the last two criteria focus on the tool. Just as a student who is incapable of writing will be judged for his grammar and syntax, a student modding a game will be evaluated for the manner in which he uses the computer language that he, in this course, has been trained in.
The final criteria highlight the challenge for students who are not literate with the software, and the computer languages that make them operate. How do we incorporate traditional humanities students into these projects? From the other side of the academic spectrum, how do we include in these projects a student who has a strong grasp of C++, xml, or scenario building, but is weak in history? In Kee’s course, the solution was to assemble teams of students who together possessed the requisite knowledge and skills to develop a game. But this solution raised another problem: how, to highlight the students’ third concern, would the development of their project be assessed in a manner that was fair to each student, some of whom might take on a high degree of responsibility, and others of whom might decide to let their peers do all of the work? The solution, in this case, was for the instructor to acknowledge that the students were best fit to determine the participation of their peers, and thus to award a mark to the assignment—for example, 25/30, and then let the students divide that mark according to their assessment of one another. If there were 10 students in a group, they would be apportioned a total of 250 marks for this stage (10 students × 25 marks), which they could then award to each of the members of their team. A student who decided to opt out of the last two months of development might be relegated to a mark of 15/25, which would allow for a student who had devoted 40 hours a week to the project to be awarded 35/25 (an unlikely, but possible outcome). Each student’s total mark was then averaged (divided by 10) to determine the final mark (out of 25). The distribution of marks occurred anonymously, and anomalies (for example, involving two students who disliked each other, and awarded each other zeros) were easy to recognize, and if necessary, address.
New approaches to teaching history in an age of pervasive computing will necessitate inventive forms of assessment. And an innovative frame of mind will be needed as technology becomes more pervasive, and the manner in which we teach history changes further. For instance, the constant creep of computing into our daily lives is presently in the process of liberating gaming Page 289from the confines of computer monitors and tabletops, as augmented reality games bring together game-worlds and everyday life.
For instance, Kevin Kee’s Niagara 1812: Return of the Fenian Shadow and Queenston 1812: The Bomber’s Plot depend on smart-phone enabled GPS to provide clues to guide the player, via iPhone, around the historic core of the villages of Niagara-on-the-Lake and Queenston. In these environments, fictitious events occurring in the virtual world intersect with real-world space to create the game.
The challenge for teachers is that these games require students to be on-site in Niagara-on-the-Lake or Queenston, outside the safe boundaries of the school proper. More accessible to students in school are a new genre of games that treat the web like a physical space. The Nethernet (formerly PMOG) is a game that is played by clicking from website to website, following the prompts of a guide. While The Nethernet itself uses the metaphor of a “mission” to describe what is going on in the game (the idea being that other players will try to disrupt or enhance your movement through the Internet by laying mines that “blow up” your browser window, or portals that take you to unrelated websites), the players themselves often use the metaphor of a “tour” (with disruption kept to a minimum). Often, missions are really guided tours of specialty websites.
Unlike standard games, the environments that The Nethernet or Niagara 1812 are played in can themselves change the experience of the game. Websites are taken down, links become broken, it may rain in Niagara-on-the-Lake, or a street may be closed for repair. The game environments are outside the control of the game maker. Even so-called persistent world games like World of Warcraft have underlying structures controlled by the game maker. This means that for augmented reality games, the experience of the player, and the player’s response, can never be fully accounted for and so “gaming the game” is part of the main gameplay: the meta-game and the game intersect. Finally, there is never a point where you have won a game of The Nethernet. You may complete the mission, the tour, but you are rewarded with points toward gaining another experience level (which are in practice infinite). In Niagara 1812, the game ends once and for all when you have finished the story.
The act of playing these games in this manner causes the player to engage with the material in a way she had not before: she is looking at a series of related sites from the perspective of the creator of the mission. One could imagine a student of Roman archaeology creating a Nethernet mission on curse-tablets. The mission might begin as a simple show and tell. Other students could then play the mission, leaving mines on pages they think are “bad” (poor information, bad research, whatever) or portals to “good” sites: the environment of the gameplay changes as the players play (like the rink in a hockey game gets chewed up by the skaters, influencing the way the puck Page 290bounces or skips across the ice). Inserting puzzles into the mission would force a deeper engagement still, and completing a puzzle mission would constitute a formative assessment exercise. Afterward, since the game records the play, another part of the meta-game would come in classroom discussions.
In this way, students play the meta-game. Educators have long been concerned that students do not adequately analyze information they find on a website. The Nethernet asks the student to treat web pages not as tools, but as artifacts to be analyzed. We began this chapter by contending that students may benefit from analyzing games, in the same way that they decode texts, and that students must recognize implicit viewpoints in games, just as they do in essays and books. And we showed that students can learn to build their own theses, as they do in the writing of historiographical and research papers, through the act of modding and building a game. Given that the creation of expressive content is among the primary forms of digital engagement by our students, it is an appropriate way to engage technology in an age of pervasive computing.
1. “Pervasive computing” can also refer to the distribution of computing power across multiple platforms or devices (as in the SETI@home project, which divides up enormous computing problems into micro-chunks, and uses unused computing cycles in idle computers to perform calculations). We use the term to capture both ideas: that “pervasive computing” is distributed computing power across multiple devices and platforms, and into every corner of our lives.
2. Open Knowledge and the Public Interest (University of California at Berkeley, n.d.), accessed July 31, 2012, http://okapi.wordpress.com/2008.
4. “List of Best-Selling Video Games,” accessed November 15, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_video_games - PC.
11. Kevin Schut, “Strategic Simulations and Our Past,” Games and Culture 2, no. 3 (July 1, 2007): 213–35; William Uricchio, “Simulation, History, and Computer Page 291Games,” in Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005), 327–38; Esther McCallum-Stewart and Justin Parsler, “Controversies: Historicising the Computer Game,” in Situated Play: Proceedings of DiGRA 2007 Conference (Tokyo: Digital Games Research Association, 2007), 203–10.
12. Martin Ryle, “Humanist mailing list 2: 592,” n.d.; David Kushner, “In Historical Games, Truth Gives Way to Entertainment,” The New York Times, September 6, 2001, sec. Technology, accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/06/technology/in-historical-games-truth-gives-way-to-entertainment.html; Kacper Poblocki, “Becoming-State: The bio-Cultural Imperialism of Sid Meier’s Civilization,” Focaal—European Journal of Anthropology 2009, no. 39 (2002): 163–77; Uricchio.
13. Robert MacDougall, “Madness and Civilization III,” Old is the New New, n.d., accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.robmacdougall.org/index.php/2007/07/madness-and-civilization-iii/.
16. Jesper Juul, “Without a Goal,” in Videogame, Player, Text, ed. Barry Atkins and Tanya Krzywinska (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/withoutagoal/.
18. In a previous article (Kevin Kee, “Computerized History Games: Options for Narratives,” Simulation & Gaming 42, no. 4 (August 2011), Kee contended that history can be represented in different ways using this typology: with historical epistemologies that focus on history as the mastery of a singular narrative matching well with goal-oriented games, and historical epistemologies that focus on history as the act of discovery about the past matching well with goalless games. In this chapter we go further, focusing beyond the goals within games to how we learn not just within games, but with and beyond games, in an age of pervasive computing.
19. Espen Aarseth, Solveig M. Smedstad, and Lise Sunnana, “A Multi-Dimensional Typology of Games,” Proceedings of the Level Up Games Conference (Utrecht, Netherlands Digital Games Research Association, 2003), 48–53.
20. “Meta-gaming,” accessed August 1, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metagaming.
22. A notable example of blog-based peer review comes from Noah Wardrip-Fruin, accessed July 31, 2012, http://grandtextauto.org/2008/04/03/blog-based-peer-review-some-preliminary-conclusions-part-1/.
23. CivFanatics, accessed July 31, 2012, http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=187436.
25. The project website has been taken down, though the Interactive Arts and Science program’s page was available as of July 31, 2012, http://www.brocku.ca/humanities/departments-and-centres/interactive-arts-and-science.
26. Interactive Arts and Science, accessed August 1, 2012, http://www.brocku.ca/humanities/departments-and-centres/interactive-arts-and-science.
14. Victorian SimCities: Playful Technology on Google Earth
The best vantage point for viewing a landscape is from above. That is the premise of Google Earth, which opens from a vantage point high in space, and then zooms down through the atmosphere to a point on the earth. Nineteenth-century visual image makers also knew that high places offered the best perspectives on the landscape. In a pre-airplane era, they imagined how landscapes would appear if they were seen from the perspective of a bird, flying high in the sky, or from a balloon floating over the land. They developed their imagined perspectives in panoramic lithographic views, which are commonly called bird’s-eye views. When advances in photographic technology permitted, Victorian image makers perched on high buildings, whence they created a sequence of images that created panoramic photographs. These images—bird’s-eye views and panoramic photographs—offer a remarkable picture of urban landscapes of the past, and a fascinating perspective for historians. The images also provide an engaging platform where students can play with the past. When these images are deployed with interactive digital technologies, our muse Clio is more playful than ever before.
We are using panoramic views in conjunction with Google SketchUp, the popular 3D modeling program, and Google Earth technology to engage secondary school students and undergraduate history students and draw them into the work of history by literally asking them to draw history. We are focusing on the city of Victoria, British Columbia, ca. 1890, for our prototype, but as we will explain, the historical resources that we have deployed can be utilized in other cities. Students are invited to become historical detectives and by building up documentation and inferences, re-create part of the lost landscape of Victorian Victoria. The more they play, creating Page 293buildings with Google SketchUp and uploading them to Google Earth, the more we expand our SimCity—Virtual Victoria.
Our method is to present history as a mystery, and the recovery of past landscapes as a particular mystery that students can help solve. Our objective is to introduce students to broad topics in historical geography and urban history, and our premise is that students learn best when they can see and experience the urban places. We cannot transport students back to Victoria, ca. 1890, via a Holodeck, but we can facilitate a process whereby they deploy historical records in a way that will enable them to see a world that is now gone and engage closely with this past. Consider the process of a biographer, who reads extensively on his subject and manages to get “under the skin” or “inside the mind” of his subject. Or consider the words G. Kitson Clark, the distinguished Cambridge historian of Victorian England, used to exhort his students to read voraciously in order to connect to the historical period they were studying: “Read, read, read—until you can hear them [Victorians] speak.” Our students follow a similar regimen as they study and re-create buildings and streetscapes. At the end of the day, using playful technologies, we hope they will be able to experience the sights, sounds, and possibly the smells of a Victorian city.
We developed the project with encouragement of the new literature, which shows that students like digital technologies and are adept at acquiring and utilizing knowledge and skills in an electronic environment. A growing body of literature suggests that history students relate easily with primary documents in digital formats, and that students engage readily in self-directed learning activities when these opportunities are presented within a web environment. The literature also suggests that critical reasoning skills increase when students understand how different kinds of primary records are related and can be used to better understand historical questions or events. In such cases, students learn to “think like a historian.” The challenge of teaching undergraduate students to think like historians was a catalyst in the creation of The History Education Network, a consortium of some of Canada’s leading history education researchers. Studies completed by these and other scholars confirm our view that teaching is enlivened if we can turn students into researchers and learning is enhanced if we enable students to answer historical questions themselves. This pedagogy is sometimes called inquiry-based learning. Its growth parallels the exponential growth of primary sources that are available in digital formats online.
In our own work we have observed that students find the past intriguing, are motivated to solve puzzles, and given a choice prefer to work on assignments that have real-world applications. They also put more effort into projects where they will be seen by a wide audience and for which they can claim Page 294some credit for the creation. We have designed our Victorian SimCity project to capitalize on all these motivating factors. While providing a background to the project we want to introduce four elements that link homo discens (the learner) to homo ludens (the playful). These elements involve detecting spatial perspectives, researching biographies of historical structures, re-creating lost urban environments, and repopulating historical landscapes.
The projects described in this chapter began a few years ago with a project called Virtual Victoria: View from the Steeple. We had discovered a collection of photographs in the British Columbia Archives offering a panoramic view of Victoria. The photographer was unknown and the images were not dated. After some detective work and close analysis of the photographs we determined that Richard Maynard, a well-known photographer, had created them in 1891. By studying foliage, shadows, and other details in the photographs, we were able to pinpoint the date to May 1891 (see figure 14.1).
But this was only part of our CSI: Urban History (!) exercise. We needed to determine the photographer’s vantage point. After further research, we realized that Maynard had taken the pictures from the top of the nearly complete
Roman Catholic cathedral on Blanshard Street. Since the pitch of the cathedral roof was very steep, we concluded that Maynard had taken the pictures when the nave had been completed and covered but before the roof was installed. Building records indicate that this would have been around May 1891, thus confirming our earlier deduction about the date of the photographs. Later, we were able to determine where the photographer stood on the roof. We could do so because the cathedral caretaker allowed us to climb up to the cathedral bell tower. The top platform of the bell tower was level with the top of the roof and so offered nearly the same vista as Maynard experienced back in 1891.
While we do not advise students to engage in this form of extreme history, this kind of detective work is easily replicated by providing students with panoramas or even single images and asking them to identify the approximate year (which they can do by looking at other dated photos), the time of year (leaves, shadows), and the time of day (shadows), and then having them locate the perspective of the photographer.
Biographies of Lost Buildings
Comparing a photograph taken today with a photo or an artist’s rendering of a city a century ago reveals that many buildings have gone missing and have been replaced in the ensuing years. What have we lost? In this stage of our project, we get students to solve that mystery one building at a time. There are two often overlooked wake-up resources that allow groups of students to work on collective projects, with the intention of publishing their work to the web: panoramic photos and panoramic lithographic views.
Panoramic lithographic views, commonly known as bird’s-eye views, occupy a kind of middle space between maps and photographs. They were very popular in the United States and Canada from the mid-nineteenth century to the early years of the twentieth century. They were often commissioned by chambers of commerce and newspapers, which sold them to local subscribers. They depicted a community as it might appear from above.
Itinerant artists usually created these images. The artist would systematically walk every street, making sketches of all the buildings and distinctive landscape features he or she encountered. The artist then determined an imaginary vantage point and rendered all of the sketches into a perspective panoramic image. The images were printed as lithographs and sold to the public, usually in the community they represented. Since local residents knew exactly what their community looked like, at least from the ground, the images had to be accurate. And, for the most part, they were. True, they often exaggerated local commercial or industrial activities. In bird’s-eyePage 296
views, harbors are always crowded with vessels and railway yards are always bustling with freight trains taking locally manufactured goods to distant markets. But they are accurate in showing the layout of streets and the location of major buildings, including schools and churches. Although the bird’s-eye views usually focused on city centers, they frequently depicted residential homes in the suburbs. We have checked details on a bird’s-eye view of Victoria published in 1889 with contemporary photographs and have been favorably impressed with the high degree of accuracy (see figure 14.2).
Archivists and map librarians have long appreciated the informational value of panoramic maps. Curiously, though, urban historians and historical geographers have devoted very little attention to these records. But as the Cornell University historian and urban planner John W. Reps has noted, there are “a number of ways scholars can use images of North American cities produced during the era of urban lithographic viewing.” Reps suggested several lines of inquiry in his magisterial survey, Views and Viewmakers of Urban America: “An individual city can be examined in detail to show many aspects of its land use and development. A view can also provide many helpful clues to the architectural character of a community. Views from two or more cities can be compared for a variety of purposes or as sources for images depicting such things as works of municipal engineering or maritime activities.” Moreover, as Reps remarked in Panoramas of Promise, a study of urban views of the Pacific Northwest, nineteenth-century lithographs are compelling and emotionally appealing. Even a casual observer can connect Page 297readily to the images. “Whether scholar or not, we can with the aid of these views take ourselves back in time to the early years of the towns and cities in the Pacific Northwest and in our imagination approach their outskirts, walk their streets, admire their buildings, and appreciate the richness and variety of the urban scene in this region a century or more ago.”
Although we could have used the 1889 bird’s-eye view of Victoria, we started with the 1891 Maynard panoramic photos described above and were able to “stitch” them together to re-create the photographer’s panorama. We afterward created a website—entitled Virtual Victoria, 1891: View from the Steeple—where we tried and tested some simple, but playful, digital technologies. History students were assigned to write biographies of the more prominent structures in the photographs. To complete such an assignment, students conduct research using nineteenth-century city directories. These publications, which were compiled for every major city in the country, offer a wealth of information on urban landscapes. The directories were usually organized in two sections, comprising an alphabetical directory and a street directory. The former was a list of adult residents and householders, with information about the person’s occupation, place of work, and residence. Street directories provided information about commercial, industrial, and residential places; they identified buildings according to their geographic location and placed them in relation to neighboring buildings and intersecting streets. Theodore Hershberg, the American historian and sociologist, utilized city directories to create his innovative “interdisciplinary history” of Philadelphia, and Sherry Olson, the eminent urban geographer and historian at McGill University, has used directories to create a social ecology of late nineteenth-century Montreal. We are building on their work in this project. Directories for towns and cities in British Columbia, including Victoria, have been scanned and posted online by the Vancouver Public Library. We have made information for Victoria even more accessible on our Vancouver Island digital archives, viHistory. Resources on this website include a searchable database of the 1892 alphabetical directory of Victoria and Victoria City property tax assessment records. The viHistory website also provides links to contemporary newspapers and indexes that enable researchers to identify architects, contractors, and other information about Victoria City buildings.
In our prototype we annotated the Maynard 1891 panoramic images by creating image maps, with “hot spots” and pop-up windows (see figure 14.3). Admittedly, this was a “low-tech” exercise, but it was also very gratifying, as students enthusiastically engaged with the assignment. By consulting city directories, newspapers, and other contemporary records, students were able to chronicle the buildings in great detail. At this point we appreciated the value of creating building biographies.Page 298
The next step in this exercise was to use the sequence of panoramic photographs to create the illusion of motion and a sense of virtual reality. We accomplished this by using Apple QuickTime. With this application, the sequence of historical photographs is presented as a video. Using their mouse buttons and the Control and Shift keys, viewers can make a full 360-degree flight around the city, and they can zoom in to buildings or streets at any time to have a closer look at the environment.
Rebuilding the Past
The faux-video flyover that we created was rewarding; students and members of the general public continue to access it on our View from the Steeple website in large numbers. But while our vantage point on top of the Page 299cathedral gave us a remarkably clear view of Victoria in 1891, our perspective was nevertheless limited. We could only see what the photographer saw. We could see the façades and roofs of downtown buildings, but we could not see the sides of the buildings or façades of buildings that were obscured by other structures. To mitigate these limitations, we determined to create a digital model of the buildings in one of the panoramic photographs. For this exercise, we selected a photograph that depicts a downtown city block bounded by Yates Street, Douglas Street, Johnson Street, and Blanshard Street. From the photograph, we could see the façades of buildings on Yates Street and the backs of buildings on Johnson Street. We could see portions of the buildings on Douglas Street and Blanshard Street. We wanted to see them entirely. We wanted to create an application that would allow us to walk around this downtown city block and inspect each of the structures. We wanted to explore the backyards of the buildings and fly over them. With these objectives in mind, we began to plan our 3D Virtual Victoria to see if we could get students to build the city with us. In this respect, we are following the work of John Bonnett, the Brock University historian and communications theorist who has created a 3D model of Sparks Street in Ottawa. He built his digital model with Vectorworks, the robust computer-aided design (CAD) software program. But professional programs like Vectorworks can be rather daunting to students and require a relatively steep learning curve. After discussing our objectives with heritage architectural designers and educators, we decided to use Google SketchUp. We are very pleased with our decision because SketchUp is readily accessible, free, easily extensible, and already structured for Google Earth.
We searched the photographic collections of the provincial and city archives to locate photographs of the streetscapes and buildings we wanted to re-create. We used fire insurance plans to position the buildings precisely. Fire insurance plans or maps were produced by fire underwriting firms to assist in assessing fire risk. The plans were drawn to a scale of one inch to fifty feet and so are very detailed. They provide information about the size, shape, and structure of buildings. Fire insurance plans for Victoria, published by Charles E. Goad & Company in 1891, were particularly helpful in creating our 3D building models.
The next task was to find a research assistant who had some expertise with SketchUp. Fortunately, a senior student at the University of Victoria, James Strickland, was available. He had a background in computing science and an interest in nineteenth-century architecture. He was ideal to help us embark on this project. Using historical photographs and fire insurance plans, James created a foundation and framework for several buildings. In one of his progress reports, he explained his methodology as follows:Page 300
I grab a portion of the  fire [insurance] map, rotate it as necessary to account for the non-perfect scanning (and original drawing), then import it into SketchUp as a 2D base, scaled to the correct size. The determination of the “correct” size could probably be improved, but the street dimensions I’ve calculated from the fire maps match the street dimensions shown on the [present-day] Victoria CRD [Capital Regional District] maps and Google Earth to within 1% or 2%. I then trace the 2D outlines, converting them to 3D according to the best sources I can find. Sources include: a) current photographs, modified as necessary to account for changes over the years; b) archival photographs (including photos from the Virtual Victoria, 1891: View from the Steeple website); c) the 1889 bird’s-eye view of Victoria on the viHistory website; d) the number of floors indicated on the 1891 fire insurance plan—using approximate heights and roof shape according to the plan.
He exported one of the models to Google Earth and the results were very encouraging (see figure 14.4). But the project proved to be very labor-intensive and more time-consuming than we anticipated. Still, thanks to his work, we had a better idea of the magnitude of the task.
The project resumed in the autumn of 2008 at Vancouver Island University with a new research assistant who had the technical skills and creative vision that we wanted to bring to the project. Andre Serin specializes in computer-designed floor plans for building contractors and interior designers. Andre built on the foundations that James had created and used a similar methodology. He developed the designs in more detail and ultimately modeled an entire city block in downtown Victoria, ca. 1891. He created the streetscape using archival images and fire insurance plans, and with the measurements he made of the 1891-era buildings that are still standing. Having the actual specifications of certain buildings, he said, enabled him to estimate the specifications of buildings no longer extant. In this way, he was able to create a very accurate representation of this particular “lost landscape” of Victoria (see figure 14.5). With his SketchUp model, viewers can fly over and navigate between the buildings. They can maneuver around the block and see the distinctive corner entrances of structures that faced street intersections. They can see the diverse styles and relative scales of the buildings. Altogether, we are delighted with what we have achieved. Eventually, we intend to “landscape” the block by re-creating some of the trees and bushes that occupied the space in 1891.
With this experience the next step is to have students actually conjure up the buildings they have studied out of thin air and Google SketchUp, borrowing from playful technologies and digital games, particularly from SimCity. This popular computer game was first released in 1989. In the game, players create and manage a city, which becomes increasingly complex as the game proceeds. In the first version of the game, now called SimCity Classic, the urban environment is shown as a flat, top-down map. In the next version, SimCity 2000 (1994) developers used an isometric model for the city and added a rotation feature that enabled users to view their city from different perspectives. The visual landscape was enhanced in SimCity 3000 (1999), which also used an isometric model for the city and 2D sprites to simulate 3D buildings. SimCity4, a more recent version of the game, uses 3D modeling and animation. In their own way, the nineteenth-century artists who drew the lithographic views used 2D sprites to suggest a 3D environment. We are using a SimCity approach with our bird’s-eye view of late nineteenth-century Victoria. We have started to create 3D models of a few buildings and a few city blocks as prototypes, but eventually we hope to expand the digital landscape to as much of the city as possible with student-built structures. Basically, we identify historical buildings on panoramic photos and bird’s-eye views and invite students to create SketchUp models of the buildings. We have commenced with modest residential bungalows built pattern-book designs in Victoria neighborhoods like James Bay. Having modeled one of the bungalows, we can readily re-create neighboring structures in this part of the city (see figure 14.6). Similarly, many
warehouses and office blocks in late nineteenth-century Victoria were built to standard and relatively simple designs and can be modeled quite easily. And as our SketchUp skills increase, we will tackle more challenging structures, such as the city’s architecturally ornate churches and cathedrals. Models of the structures can then be examined in desk-top viewers or uploaded to Google Earth. As more structures are modeled and placed online, our Virtual Victoria will expand, in the same manner as a SimCity expands and develops in the course of the game.
Repopulating Historical Landscapes
As part of a next phase we want to link the SketchUp models to a geographical information system (GIS). Essentially, GIS is a method of representing and analyzing geographically referenced information. In its simplest form, GIS is a way to link attribute data (information about people and events) to spatial data and points on the earth. Our attribute data are derived from city directories and nominal census records. We have detailed census records for the entire population of Victoria in 1891 and with this information we can repopulate the historical landscape of the city. When we associate the census data to our 3D models of historical buildings, viewers will not only be able to zoom over and walk around the buildings. They will be able to virtually knock on the building doors and, through the census information, meet the occupants! Ultimately, we can see a time in which an avatar of the researcher will meet and interact with avatars of Victoria’s 1891 population. In this respect, we are developing an application that William G. Thomas anticipated in his essay on digital humanities and the historical imagination. He encouraged historians in the field of digital humanities to use GIS and other technologies in order to achieve “highly interpretative and imaginative digital creations.” By extending historical GIS, he suggested, historians “might attempt to recreate ‘lost landscapes’ in ways that fully allow readers to move and navigate through them.” The goal of our Virtual Victoria project is to re-create the downtown core of Victoria in 1891 in 3D and to link each building to all the census, directory, tax assessment, cartographic, photographic, and anecdotal evidence that exits of it. Researchers will be able to query the spatial organization of the city and armchair time-travelers will be able to wander the streets and meet occupants.
The prototype of much of what we are developing might readily be adopted and developed in other communities because many cities in Canada were documented in bird’s-eye views. To offer a few examples, exquisite lithographic views were created for Brantford, Ontario, in 1875, Halifax (1879 andPage 304
1890), Sherbrooke (1881), Winnipeg (1884), Montreal (1889), Ottawa (1895), St. Thomas, Ontario (1896), Vancouver (1898), and Dawson City (1903). The images are freely available on Library and Archives Canada’s Living Memory website and the U.S. Library of Congress’s American Memory website.
As far as photographic panoramas, Toronto is documented in a remarkable set of photographs created in 1856. The photographs, thirteen in all, provide a 360-degree view of the city. They were taken from the top of the newly opened Rossin House Hotel (later called the Prince George Hotel) on the corner of King Street and York Street (see figure 14.7). The panoramic photographs of Toronto could be treated in the same way as the Maynard images of Victoria. They could be annotated as image maps and presented in a QuickTime faux-video application. That would be a very useful, and fun, exercise.
A recent study on heritage and social media considered the proliferation of computer-generated visualizations of historical landscapes and raised questions about the “seductive misuse of digital technologies.” The authors were worried that “virtual” historical landscapes, which sometimes appeared to be “realer than real” on fixed video screens, could mute rather than stimulate, critical reflections about the past. “For a public increasingly accustomed to the passive consumption of historical content,” they wrote, “there is a dangerous illusory aspect of which digital archaeologists, humanists and Page 305heritage professionals need to be aware.” Digital historians will appreciate their concerns. But the digital applications described in this chapter involve creation, not consumption; they call for critical scrutiny, not a passive gaze. If the past is indeed “a foreign country,” as L. P. Hartley and David Lowenthal have famously suggested, we are going to travel there as building contractors and detectives, not tourists! And as we observed in a recent forum on pedagogy, since the past is not boring, the discipline of history can only appear to be dull if we, history teachers and practitioners, present it in a boring way to our students. “History becomes dull when we take the mystery out of it and deprive students of the real work of the historian: finding clues and solving puzzles.”
By challenging students to solve the mystery of the missing buildings, to identify and do a life history on the buildings when found; and then, using fire insurance plans, old photographs, and lithographic views to reconstruct them, we are asking students to deploy a wide range of historical skills and learn a new one, the use of Google SketchUp.
With the mystery of the photographer’s perspective, the challenge to identify landscape features, and the quest to bring them back into being, we have presented three ways of playing with visual representations of the past that exploit the puzzle-solving element that is the essential element of game-based learning. But unlike games, these playful historical strategies have real-world outcomes of interest to both the student-creators and a much larger audience on the world wide web. They offer us a new perspective on the past—the view from outer space as we zoom into 1890s Victoria on Google Earth.
1. Our reference is to the virtual reality facility featured in the popular television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–94). In the series, officers aboard the twenty-fourth-century starship Enterprise used the Holodeck as a portal to the past and a vehicle for exploring, among other places, Victorian London, the frontier American West, and 1940s Hollywood. Holodeck historical episodes are described in Denise Okuda and Debbie Mirek, The Star Trek Encyclopedia (New York: Pocket, 1994).
3. Robert A. Scheider, “Improving Student Achievement by Infusing a Web-Based Curriculum in Global History,” Journal of Research on Technology in Education 36, no. 1 (2003): 77–93; David Hicks, Peter Doolittle, and John K. Lee, “Social Studies Teachers’ Use of Classroom-Based and Web-Based Historical Primary Sources,” Theory and Research in Social Education 32, no. 2 (2004): 213–47; Cynthia Hynd-Shanahan, Jodi Patrick Holschuh, and Betty P. Hubbard, “Thinking Like a Historian: College Students’ Reading of Multiple Historical Documents,” Journal of Literary Research 36, Page 306no. 2 (2004): 141–71; Richard Van Eck, “Digital Game-Based Learning: It’s Not Just the Digital Natives Who Are Restless,” Educause (March–April 2006): 16–30.
4. John W. Saye and Thomas Brush, “Scaffolding Critical Reasoning about History and Social Issues in Multimedia-Supported Learning Environments,” Educational Technology Research and Development 50, no. 3 (2002): 77–96; and A. M. Shapiro and D. Niederhauser, “Learning from Hypertext: Research Issues and Findings,” in Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, ed. David H. Jonassen, 2nd ed. (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004), 605–20.
5. The History Education Network is “a collaborative network across the diverse fields of history, history education and school history teaching in Canada. It brings together people from across Canada and internationally to inform, carry out, critique, and implement research into history education.” Like many scholarly organizations in Canada, it is a bilingual body, known in French as Histoire et Éducation en Réseau. Its acronym is THEN/HiER and its website, accessed October 15, 2012, is http://www.thenhier.ca.
6. Peter Seixas, “A Modest Proposal for Change in Canadian History Education,” Teaching History 137 (December 2009): 26–32; Ruth Sandwell, “Reflections on the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History Project: A Pedagogical Perspective,” Canadian Diversity / Diversité canadienne 7, no. 1 (2009): 88–92; Peter Seixas, “What is Historical Consciousness?” in To the Past: History Education, Public Memory and Citizenship Education in Canada,ed. Ruth Sandwell(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 11–22; Ken Osborne, “Teaching History in Schools: A Canadian Debate,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 35, no. 5 (2003): 585–626. There is a large and growing literature on this, which is perhaps best summarized in Keith Barton and Linda Levstik’s Teaching History for the Common Good (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004).
8. The imagery of urban lithographs is discussed in Richard H. Schein, “Representing Urban America: 19th-Century Views of Landscape, Space and Power,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 11 (1993): 7–21. Schein discusses a shift in the perspective provided in these popular images and how the shift represents a late Victorian “industrialist-capitalist order.” The images are also examined by Isabel Thompson Breskin in a Ph.D. dissertation on the history of art entitled “Visualizing the Nineteenth-Century American City: Lithographic Views of San Francisco, 1849–1905” (University of California, Berkley, 2002).
9. In 1976 the Public Archives of Canada organized a major exhibit of lithographic views and published an informative exhibit catalogue. See Canada Public Archives, Bird’s-Eye Views of Canadian Cites: An Exhibition of Panoramic Maps (1865–1905), July to November 1976 (Ottawa: Public Archives of Canada, 1976).
10. John W. Reps, Views and Viewmakers of Urban America: Lithographs of Towns and Cities in the United States and Canada, Notes on the Artists and Publishers, and a Union Catalogue of Their Work, 1825–1925 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984), 78.
11. John W. Reps, Panoramas of Promise: Pacific Northwest Cities and Towns on Nineteenth-Century Lithographs (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1984), 63. See also idem, Cities on Stone: Nineteenth Century Lithographic Images of the Urban Page 307West (Fort Worth, Tex.: Among Carter Museum, 1978), and Bird’s-eye Views: Historic Lithographs of North American Cities (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998).
13. Theodore Hershberg, ed., Philadelphia: Work, Space, Family, and Group Experience in the Nineteenth Century. Essays Toward an Interdisciplinary History of the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981); Sherry Olson, “Occupations and Residential Spaces in Nineteenth-Century Montréal,” Historical Methods 22, no. 3 (1989): 81–96.
14. Vancouver Public Library, British Columbia City Directories 1865–1947, accessed October 15, 2012, http://www.vpl.ca/bccd/index.php.
15. Victoria city directories and an extensive array of other historical records are accessible at our viHistory website, accessed October 14, 2012, http://www.vihistory.ca. This website, launched in 2005, is a joint venture by the University of Victoria (UVic) and Vancouver Island University (VIU). A database of building permits, issued for the City of Victoria, 1877–1921, was added to the viHistory website recently. Historical material about Victoria, British Columbia, is also available at the Victoria’s Victoria website, which features digital research projects, mainly by undergraduate history students at UVic. It was accessed on October 17, 2012, and is located at http://web.uvic.ca/vv/. Victoria’s Victoria includes an index to the Victoria Daily Colonist newspaper. The online edition of this newspaper, 1858–1920, was accessed October 15, 2012, and is available at http://www.britishcolonist.ca.
16. See John Bonnett, “New Technologies, New Formalisms for Historians: The 3D Virtual Buildings,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 19, no. 3 (2009): 273–87; idem, “Mediating the Past in 3D, and How Hieroglyphs Get in the Way: The 3D Virtual Buildings Project,” in Mind Technologies: Humanities Computing and the Canadian Academic Community, ed. Raymond George Siemens and David Moorman (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006).
17. On the function and value of these spatially related records, see Diane L. Oswald, Fire Insurance Maps: Their History and Application (College Station, Tex.: Lacewing, 1997). See also Jason A. Gilliland and Mathew Novak, “Positioning the Past with the Present: The Use of Fire Insurance Plans and GIS for Urban Environment History,” Environment History 11, no. 1 (January 2006): 136–40.
18. The Victoria Capital Regional District (CRD) has posted geo-referenced maps for Victoria on its Regional Community Atlas, accessed October 16, 2012, at http://crdatlas.ca. The CRD Atlas features a wallpaper image of an 1878 bird’s-eye view of Victoria.
19. This work was supported by two SSHRC Image, Text, Sound and Technology grants awarded to Kevin Kee (Brock University): “Simulating History: The Collaborative Development of Best Practices for History Simulations and Serious Games” (2006) and “The Poetics of History Simulations” (2007).
20. Students and faculty who have access to a site license for ESRI products might like to investigate their recently released (2012) CityEngine software, which allows the creation of highly detailed and generic 3D buildings.
21. We have benefited greatly from the expertise of Nick Ward, a digital design engineer and consultant based in Cumberland, British Columbia. He has provided guidance in transforming historical bird’s-eye views into SketchUp models, which are Page 308accessible on Google Earth. He is developing lesson plans suitable for secondary school courses in history, geography, and anthropology using SketchUp modeling software. His work is described on the Rebuildcanada website, accessed October 15, 2012, http://rebuildcanada.org/rebuild/tiki-index.php.
22. Nominal census records, created during the 1891 census of Canada, are preserved on microfilm and available from Library and Archives Canada. Records for the city of Victoria were transcribed in 1998 as part of the Canadian Families Project. We are grateful to the project directors, Peter Baskerville and Eric Sager (History Department, University of Victoria), for sharing portions of their database with us. Census data for Victoria and other Vancouver Island communities, ca. 1871–1911, are available on viHistory.
23. William G. Thomas III, “Computing and the Historical Imagination,” in A Companion to Digital Humanities, ed. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 56. Thomas, professor of history at the University of Kansas, was the director of the Virginia Center for Digital History and co-editor of the award-winning Valley of the Shadow website, accessed October 18, 2012, http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu.
24. The Library and Archives Canada images are available at their website, accessed October 18, 2012, http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/website/index-e.html; the Library of Congress images are available at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/pmhtml/panhome.html, accessed October 15, 2012.
25. The panoramic photographs of Toronto were discovered some years ago in the British Public Record Office in London. Apparently, they had been submitted to the Colonial Office by municipal officials in Toronto to bolster the city’s bid to be selected as the permanent capital of the United Province of Canada. The images, accessed October 15, 2012, are posted at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Panorama_of_Toronto_in_1856.
26. Neil Silberman and Margaret Purser, “Collective Memory as Affirmation,” in Heritage and Social Media: Understanding Heritage in a Participatory Culture, ed. Elisa Giaccadi (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 18.
27. The reference is to the frequently quoted opening lines in L. P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953): “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” and to the influential study by British historical geographer David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
15. True Facts or False Facts—Which Are More Authentic?
It is a safe bet that every History Department in North America requires undergraduate history majors to take a course in what is most typically called “historical methods.” In such a course students learn a variety of skills—how to distinguish between primary and secondary sources, how to do research in libraries and archives, how to analyze source material, and how to write analytical or narrative history. Many History Departments, mine included, also attempt to introduce students to historiography at the same time they are learning historical methods on the premise that one cannot write good history without knowledge of methods and of historiography.
I have taught our historical methods course several times over the past few years and have become increasingly dissatisfied with the results. My students do not seem to be really learning the lessons I have tried to impart. For this conclusion I have evidence both from my classes, but also from colleagues who taught my students in later semesters and report that some of my students still could not tell the difference between a primary and a secondary source. That feedback alone would have been enough to convince me that I needed to try a different approach to the course. Given how important it is that our students are well grounded in historical methods, even a few students who could not tell the difference between a primary and a secondary source was too many. But in addition to worrying about the results my colleagues were seeing from my teaching, I was also dissatisfied because of all the courses I teach, my methods course was the one where my students seemed the most disengaged despite what I thought were Page 310some very interesting readings and learning exercises, and despite the very strong end-of-semester ratings my students gave the course and my teaching. It was clear to me from their comments on the end-of-semester surveys that they had enjoyed the course, but my own observations of their level of engagement did not match what they told me in those comments. They just seemed less connected to the material than I wanted them to be. So, I did the worst kind of survey research—I asked a random group of colleagues at my institution and elsewhere how their methods course works and how it is received by students in their departments. The most common response I get is that the methods course is one of their least favorite courses to teach and, not surprisingly, that it is one of the least favorite courses among their students. At least I was not alone in feeling like a failure.
Given that historians care a great deal about historical methods and that history majors are presumably interested in the methods of their chosen discipline, how is it that the methods course could have become an apparent nexus for so much dissatisfaction from both faculty and students? After thinking about this problem for quite a while, I decided that there are two very likely answers to the problems I and others find with this course. The first possible answer is that when it comes to teaching historical methods, historians have lost their sense of fun, their sense of playfulness when it comes to our discipline (assuming we ever had such a sense of fun in the first place). The second possible answer is that in the increasingly intermediated world our students now live in, the traditional approaches to historical methods—in fact the traditional approaches to history itself—are increasingly disconnected from the lives our students live. Theirs is a world increasingly infused with mashed-up content—music, images, video, art, maps, text—blended together in new and different ways. And in that world new sensibilities about what is and is not authentic are emerging.
Take, for example, the recent interview in The New York Times with best-selling (and 17-year-old) German author Helene Hengemann. Her novel Axolotl Roadkill is a best seller, has been nominated for a major book prize, and is heavily plagiarized by almost any definition of the term one cares to use. Hengemann is unabashed by any criticism of her mixing in of content from other authors because, she says, this mixing and remixing is the point of the book, which is a meditation on youth culture in Berlin, especially the mash-up/remix culture she is a central player in. In a formal statement defending her approach to writing/remixing Hengemann argued: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” One can imagine poor Leopold von Ranke spinning in his grave at such words, but just how different is Hengemann’s position from Carl Becker’s 1931 essay “Everyman His Own Historian,” in which Becker said:Page 311
Mr. Everyman works with something of the freedom of a creative artist; the history which he imaginatively recreates as an artificial extension of his personal experience will inevitably be an engaging blend of fact and fancy, a mythical adaptation of that which actually happened. In part it will be true, in part false; as a whole perhaps neither true nor false, but only the most convenient form of error. Not that Mr. Everyman wishes or intends to deceive himself or others.
Or, for that matter, how far removed is Hengemann’s position from that of Thucydides, who explained his approach to recording the great speeches of his day thus:
With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.
It does seem as though our students’ increasing willingness to see history as more malleable than we might like has historical antecedents after all.
There are many ways one could approach a revision of the historical methods course to improve the degree to which students achieve the learning outcomes stated in the syllabus. Before revising the course I spent some time scanning other syllabi of other history faculty at my own institution and elsewhere and found that my version of the class was fairly typical. I had organized the class around group work, problem-based learning, and what I thought were some fairly innovative in and out of class exercises, and I thought the readings I had selected were fine. Given that I thought I was doing it right but still was not getting the results I wanted, I decided it was time to start over, from scratch. From the beginning I decided to challenge my students to have fun, to be playful, while they learned historical methods and, as we will see, did so in a way that is very atypical of historical methods courses. I offer the example of my revised course as one way that a full-scale reorientation of the course might be achieved, not as the only way. Others might include a course focused on conspiracy theories, or on foodways (with students making some of the food they study). I also recently taught another version of the course that uses local family cemeteries as the locus of the students’ learning—a course I call Dead in Virginia. While we will not be creating what the students in my Lying About the Past course dubbed “false facts,” Page 312I hope we will be having as much or perhaps even more fun as we learn. Creative historians can certainly come up with hundreds of possible options.
My decision to redesign the course around a playful approach to the past arose from two sources. Over the years I have become convinced that history as a discipline has become a bit too stodgy for its own good. It seems to me that we are taking ourselves a little too seriously of late (if there was ever a time when we did not). The second source for my decision to try to be more playful was an experience I had teaching a large group of fifth-grade students about historical research. While some might be tempted to argue that elementary students cannot do sophisticated historical research, I am in the Bruce Van Sledright camp and believe that fifth-graders can do some very sophisticated work when given the proper tools and context. During the one and one-half hours I had with approximately seventy-five fifth-grade students, I not only found that they could work with such primary sources as military service records from the American Civil War and pages from the U.S. Census, I also noticed how much fun they had while doing it, fun I do not see my own students having when I give them sources to work with. For instance, when it was time for them to start writing, those fifth-graders threw themselves down on the floor, self-organized into groups, started drawing pictures to go with what they were writing. They laughed, they chatted, they made faces as they concentrated. In short, they were kinetic, engaged, and as focused as 11-year-olds get. And they produced some really good history from the sources I gave them. What happens to young people, I wondered, between the fifth grade and university to convince them that historical research is not fun? Is it them? Or is it the course? Or is it me? I am almost never willing to blame the shortcomings of a course on the students taking the course, and am confident enough in my abilities as an instructor to not blame myself (too much), so I decided that it was a combination of the course and my approach to the course that was to blame. Part of my goal in the revision of my methods course was to recapture the sense of fun that those 11-year-olds demonstrated when they were doing their historical research.
To respond to what I had seen during my day with that group of fifth-graders, I rewrote my historical methods course and taught the new version for the first time in the fall of 2008. The course title that fall was Lying About the Past, and the organizing focus was an exploration of historical hoaxes. In the first half of the semester the students did what students do in most history classes—they read books and articles, watched documentaries, discussed these materials both in small groups and as a class operating in seminar mode, and they wrote short papers analyzing information gleaned from the materials I assigned. The reading list, however, was fairly unconventional for an upper-level history course. The first article we read was “The Violence of Page 313the Lambs” by John Jeremiah Sullivan that appeared in the February 2008 issue of that stodgy academic journal GQ. This article, a hoax that ends with a brief paragraph in which Sullivan admits to making up most of the story, an admission he says he did not want to make but that his editor insisted on, signaled to the students that mine was not your typical history course.
I also told them, on day one, just how I felt about history and fun in the context of the course they were signed up for. The syllabus says:
I believe that the study of history ought to be fun and that too often historians (I include myself in this category) take an overly stuffy approach to the past. Maybe it’s our conditioning in graduate school, or maybe we’re afraid that if we get too playful with our field we won’t be taken seriously as scholars. Whatever the reason, I think history has just gotten a bit too boring for its own good. This course is my attempt to lighten up a little and see where it gets us.
Not surprisingly, the seventeen undergraduates in the course took to my approach to the course with gusto. There is not a single “serious” academic work on the syllabus—no Herodotus, no Thucydides, no von Ranke, no Foucault, no Nora. Instead we read works by popularizers you have probably never heard of, watched documentaries such as Český sen (Czech Dream) and faux documentaries like The Old Negro Space Program, and searched websites such as the Museum of Hoaxes and Snopes for useful information about historical hoaxes. In eighteen years of college teaching I do not think I have ever had a group of students be as consistently prepared for class, or think so critically as a group about the fundamental principles of historical research and scholarship and what it means when the public engages with the results of historical scholarship. Those students worked hard.
Up to the mid-point of the semester nothing we did in Lying About the Past was particularly controversial. I am sure that plenty of colleagues around the country might look a bit askance at the “soft” readings I assigned, but at least my students were doing research and writing papers. These papers all included the kind of research skills that a methods course is intended to teach them, including identifying a topic, creating a thesis they can support with research, then finding an appropriate set of primary and secondary sources to support their argument. All of these assignments will be familiar to anyone who teaches historical methods. It is instead what happened in the second half of the course that was unusual, that was generative, and that turned out to be a bit controversial in the academic blogosphere.
After the seventh week of the semester my students began building their own historical hoax, a hoax they eventually launched into the digital world Page 314with great pride and satisfaction, not to mention a fair amount of glee. After half a semester researching the history of historical hoaxes, the class had to decide on a hoax that they could construct and publish as a group. Using a consensus model, I asked everyone to come up with ideas for a possible hoax and as a class we winnowed the choices down to two finalists. The students developed the standards for what the hoax should be, including that it would have to be historical, that it would have to be somewhat plausible, that there would be a sufficient evidentiary basis for that plausibility, and that there would be a “hoaxable community” out there, that is, a community of people liable to buy into the hoax because it appealed to them for personal or professional reasons. As will be shown below, the hoaxable community turned out to be one the students (and I) did not expect—academic historians and educational technologists. The proposal that did not make the final cut was focused on the now extinct town of Joplin, Virginia, that offered a rather unusual explanation for the town’s extinction (involving economic crisis, mass hysteria, guns, and squirrels).
The hoax the class finally settled on, The Last American Pirate, was organized around the senior research project of a fictitious student the class named Jane Browning (so she would have a very common name) who uncovered her Virginia pirate quite by accident. This man, Edward Owens, was a Confederate veteran who, during the Long Depression that began in 1873, found that he could no longer support his family by oyster fishing and so turned briefly to a life of crime. He and his crew of two robbed pleasure boaters in the lower Chesapeake until the economy recovered, at which point Owens went back to fishing and clean living. He left behind a legend and, as luck would have it, a last will and testament detailing both his exploits and his guilt over what he had done. There really was a man named Edward Owens who lived along the lower Chesapeake at the time and my students chose his name for two reasons—he really did exist, and they could find no evidence that any of the millions of genealogists out there knew anything about the real Edward Owens. Also, the name Edward Owens was generic enough that a Google search would turn up too many possibilities to be sorted through in a timely manner. The platform the students chose for perpetrating their hoax was one they were very familiar with—a blog assigned by Jane’s professor as part of a senior research seminar (Jane was a history major at an unnamed university). Along the way Jane chronicled her search for a topic, her search for sources, her attempts to make sense of what she found, and finally her struggles with writing up the results of her work. In addition to the blog, she posted several YouTube videos, posted notices in social networking sites like Stumbleon, and created an entry on Edward Owens in Wikipedia. Before deciding on a student blog as the best way to perpetrate their hoax, the students also discussed Page 315creating a website, but in the end decided it would be too much trouble. As we will see, the choice of a student blog had important implications for who ended up falling victim to the hoax.
At the beginning of the semester I told the students that their hoax could run until the last day of class, at which point we would expose it ourselves (if someone had not found us out already). I think it is fair to say that the majority of the students, if not all, would have preferred to let the hoax live on until it was exposed by someone in the wider world, but I insisted that we shut it down at the end of the term. Had the students not exposed their hoax, it is an open question how long Edward Owens might have survived online. For one thing, the question of who the “last” American pirate was is not one that attracts a great deal of attention. Even with the publicity that accrued from the post-exposure controversy, as of April 30, 2010, only 7,500 unique visitors have been to Jane’s website. A primary reason why the students chose a pirate hoax was because they thought the pirate lovers of the world, especially those who enjoy “International Talk Like a Pirate Day,” represented a hoaxable audience. When the fall of 2008 turned out to be a period of intense media interest in piracy because of the activities of real pirates off the coast of Somalia, my students thought they had stumbled on to the perfect topic for their hoax. Alas, those with “piratitude” failed to take notice of Edward Owens until after the hoax was exposed.
Only a few days after the hoax appeared online, academic bloggers including history teachers and professors, instructional technologists, and librarians began writing about Jane’s blog as an exemplar of how undergraduate students could use new media to represent their research and writing in digital form. The hoax found its way into the academic blogosphere because two graduate students at my university’s Roy Rosenzweig History and New Media tweeted about it on their personal feeds—not as a hoax, but as evidence of an interesting research result from an undergraduate student: “This is incredible: A history student has found the last American pirate.” These two tweets found their way through the twitterverse to several academic bloggers who then wrote about Jane’s project on their own blogs. It is worth quoting one at length to provide a sense for how Jane and her project were embraced by academics enthusiastic for digital media:
I found not only a really cool example of the power of these tools for an individual to track and frame their own educational experience, but some absolutely exciting research about a 19th century Pirate (possibly the last US pirate of his kind) no one’s ever heard of: Edward Owens. This undergraduate took her research to the next level by framing the experience on her blog, full with images and details from Page 316her Library of Congress research, video interviews with scholars and her visit to Owens house, her bibliography, along with a link to the Wikipedia page she created for this little known local pirate.
What is even cooler is the fact that she not only framed a digital space for her research by getting her own domain and setting up a blog there, but she understood that she could also protect her identity at the same time by keeping certain information private. It is such a perfect example of the importance of framing your identity as a student/scholar online, and it really buttresses beautifully with the ideas we’ve been thinking about recently in regards to digital identity at UMW. More than that though, is the fact that this project was hers and she was fired up about what she had accomplished, and she could actually share that fact with others through her blog.
Academic victims also interacted with Jane directly, writing comments on her blog such as, “What you have done here in documenting your experience is an amazing example of the power of technology in aiding historical research. Well done.” That academics turned out to be the primary victims of the hoax generated some controversy in the academic blogosphere—a controversy discussed in more detail below. In the aftermath of the hoax’s exposure, the class received some media exposure and then, like all small stories, this one died away.
What then did my students learn from playing with the past in this way?
Historians are fond of saying that one of our main goals in teaching is that our students should learn to “think historically.” Such claims are even more common in historical methods courses because teaching students to think historically is the point of the exercise in such courses. What then do we mean by “historical thinking”? A brief definition that I am partial to is by Stéphane Lévesque:
Historical thinking is, indeed, far more sophisticated and demanding than mastering substantive (content) knowledge, in that it requires the acquisition of such knowledge to understand the procedures employed to investigate its aspects and conflicting meanings. . . . To think historically is thus to understand how knowledge has been constructed and what it means. Without such sophisticated insight into ideas, peoples, and actions, it becomes impossible to adjudicate between competing versions (and visions) of the past.
In his work, Lévesque distinguishes between content knowledge and procedural knowledge and it was the latter that my course emphasized. To Page 317be sure, my students learned some things about nineteenth-century Virginia history and about maritime history in general, but this content was incidental to the larger lessons about methods. First and foremost my students had to understand how knowledge is constructed in the digital realm, but also in the analog world. Their goal was to create a narrative built on enough “true facts” that the “false facts” would go unnoticed. To do that, they had to acquire a fairly sophisticated understanding of how such historical knowledge is created online and the digital skills necessary to make that happen. But to acquire the “true facts” they needed to make the “false facts” plausible—they needed to know how to find the information they needed on such things as the maritime history of the lower Chesapeake. When we teach historical methods to our students, one of the goals we generally espouse is teaching our students to do research in places other than the web. Much of what my students used for their hoax—the “true facts”—came from libraries and archives rather than websites, in part because the sources they needed just are not online. For me this was a very positive result of the course, but one that was largely coincidental to the topic they selected.
More important to my learning goals was teaching my students to be much more critical consumers of online content. Too often these days students search for plausible information using the “type some keywords into Google and see what comes up” method. When a reasonable source appears through such a search, they often use that source with almost no critical analysis of the quality of that source. In other words, they spend little or no time “adjudicat[ing] between competing versions (and visions) of the past.” Instead, they seem to employ a rough and ready plausibility test: “Does it look good enough? Okay then, I’ll use it.” In contrast to this attitude about finding and using plausible information, one of the students in the class wrote a comment in my blog as a response to an earlier draft of this essay:
I guess what I am trying to say in a very long winded and wordy sort of way is that we as historians, in this day and age of technology, should know better than to take anything anyone sends us at face value, I don’t care if someone tweeted about it, or if they updated their status on facebook. Not because everyone is out there to deceive [sic] us, but because in a day and age of technology it is so easy to create a story or an idea and cover your tracks.
The students who took this class will almost surely think twice before ever employing such a plausibility test with content they find online and, one hopes, historical content in any form given the amount of time we spent discussing the prevalence of what a colleague calls “zombie facts” in Page 318the historical literature. For instance, we devoted close to half a class period examining just how ubiquitous and tenacious H. L. Mencken’s fabricated story about the first bathtub in the White House has turned out to be. The profound skepticism my students acquired in this course will serve them well throughout the rest of their lives, not merely in their work as historians. That this skepticism has value beyond the history curriculum was highlighted in a comment on the course by Bill Smith of the University of Arkansas, who wrote that in a world where many believe that the moon landing was a fake, “A healthy skepticism is an important part of citizenship.”
One of the things historians tend to spend a lot of time on in historical methods courses is the nature of historical sources—which are primary sources, which are secondary sources, what sorts of tests should be applied to each category (primary, secondary) and each type within that category (text, image, film, artifact) and each subtype (text, novel, letter, government report, newspaper story, poem, sacred text, etc.). Because my students were going to create at least a few invented sources to set beside real sources from archives and libraries, they needed to think carefully and critically about the nature of each type of source, if only so we would know better how to fake them. One type of source that historians have devoted a lot of ink and many pixels to is photographic images. Students often like to think of photographs as being particularly authentic representations of reality at the moment the photographer snapped the picture. After all, the camera does not lie, does it? In this age of PhotoShop and digital image manipulation, many students are at least a little skeptical about some images, and the obvious cases like the Bert is Evil website are easy for them to figure out. But what about more sophisticated fakery like the amazing disappearing Leon Trotsky, in which Soviet publicists were required to excise Trotsky from all publications in the Soviet Union after he and Joseph Stalin had their falling out? The manipulation of images my students engaged in was not nearly up to Soviet standards. They merely made images too small to read so the reader of Jane’s blog could not see them clearly enough, or clipped out passages from a nineteenth-century will to support a particular version of the story they wanted blog readers to see. But they did learn how easy it is to lie with an image and so came away from the course as skeptical not only of text, but also of other sources.
In addition to skepticism about historical sources, what other historical methods did my students learn? Along the way they learned how to do archival research at the National Archives and the Library of Congress. They learned how to work with a variety of original sources, including naval records, census records, manuscript sources from the U.S. Cutter Service (now the Coast Guard), images, letters and diaries, maps, and historical Page 319newspapers. And they learned how to do something that von Ranke first insisted on—the use of multiple sources in order to check the consistency of accounts in each source. After all, if their “true facts” did not triangulate properly, then the hoax would be more easily exposed for what it was. They had to portray Edward Owens’s world as it actually was, even if he did not exist in that world. And it turns out, they liked doing this sort of serious historical research:
As one of the students that worked on the historical background of Edward (making sure there weren’t any anachronisms), it was a lot of genuine research—going through census records, looking up specifics in the regions we were placing Edward, and the like. I feel very knowledgeable in the ways of Coastal Virginia after the Civil War now. It’s not like we were filling our minds with information that was completely bogus. We were studying real time periods, real situations and real conditions in order to make this work. This was probably the most exciting part for me.
In addition to learning to work with this variety of sources and to use them for the purposes of triangulation, the students also learned that the creation of history is a collaborative endeavor. They worked together in class, but they also learned the value of calling on the expertise of others. Once they decided on their hoax they contacted one of our graduate students who is an expert in underwater archaeology and another who wrote her MA thesis on law enforcement in Virginia during the nineteenth century. Being able to ask these historians questions moved the project along much more rapidly than would have been the case if the students tried to do all the work on their own—a valuable lesson indeed. They also learned many new skills in the production of historical knowledge in the digital world. In addition to Jane’s blog (for which they all wrote drafts, but one student wrote in her own voice), they learned how to scan or download and then manipulate images, how to write and edit Wikipedia entries, basic video scripting and production, and how to find an audience, albeit a small one, for their work by visiting various websites and posting notices about Jane’s project. They also played extensively in the sandbox they were most comfortable in—Jane had a Facebook page and a YouTube channel.
How many historical methods courses take their discussion of ethics beyond a unit on plagiarism of the small and large variety? In such units, students are generally treated to admonitory lectures on student plagiarism (especially copying and pasting from websites) and on such bigger stories as the plagiarism controversies swirling around the work of such popular Page 320historians as Stephen F. Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. The message of such units is clear—plagiarism is bad, bad, bad, and should be avoided at all costs. Who could disagree? But such units do not really get to the heart of ethics in historical inquiry because they touch on only one, admittedly important, aspect of those ethics. My students had to grapple with much more difficult ethical issues, not the least of which was what it meant to create a lie and purvey it on their own website but also on the websites of others such as Wikipedia. After all, is not one of the primary obligations of the historian to tell the truth about the past? Much of the work of historians is directed at “setting the record straight” in the face of fantasy versions of the past that correspond to the evidentiary record to some greater or lesser degree. Historians set themselves and their work against myth and imperfect memory in the hope that somehow histories we have written will convince our audiences of the truth of what we say in the face of outright lies, exaggerations, shadings, and other less accurate versions of what happened in the past. If there is some sort of historians’ Hippocratic Oath compelling us to always tell the truth (or at least the truth as we know it), then my students and I violated that oath.
But the nature of “historical truth” is one that can certainly be debated—and is debated almost constantly by historians. For instance, is it “true” that daily life in medieval Europe was dominated by religious observance, or is this “truth” one we accept because the greatest store of evidence available to us about that daily life comes to us from a small circle of elite chroniclers who had a vested interest in playing up the importance of religion in daily life? Which account of the past is more “true”—the one that focuses on the accomplishments of leaders of a state, or the one that focuses on the accomplishments of the masses? Historians debate such “truths” constantly and students, who want to know which account of the past is “best” or “most correct,” struggle to understand how five historians can look at the same evidence and write five different books. Teaching them how to negotiate through this maze of competing truth claims is one of the goals of most methods and historiography courses, but many of the historians I have spoken with who try to teach introductions to historiography report that lessons about historiography are even more difficult to impart than lessons about types of evidence and how to work with them.
I decided to tackle the problem of helping students sort through competing truth claims by having my students create their own (false) version of historical truth. To do that, they had to embed their work in existing histories that the students assumed to be as accurate as the authors of those works could make them. In this way they saw just how difficult it is to determine which truth claims should hold sway over others. Intentional fabrication is Page 321certainly very different from asserting that our version of the past was more correct or accurate than yours. Therefore, I challenged my students to think about whether or not we were crossing an ethical Rubicon that we really should not be crossed. To have this conversation at all we had to discuss the whole business of historiography and competing truth claims, if only to decide how far removed our project was from the debates among historians. Engaging historiography from the space of intentional fabrication turned out to be surprisingly productive. Because my students knew they were on one end of a truth-falsehood continuum, they could then move along that continuum to decide where the dividing line between deliberate falsehood and something one of them called “just competing interpretations” could be found. To put it another way, they knew they were lying, and therefore had to figure out how to tell where deliberate lying about the past ended and legitimate argument about the past began—a useful distinction to be able to draw. We never found that exact point, but discussed examples such as the denial of the Holocaust as exemplars of the distinction we were trying to draw. Once we were satisfied that we understood something about that distinction, it was still up to the students to decide how far to go in their fabrication of the historical record. Admittedly, I did not give them a choice about whether or not to create a hoax, but this aspect of the course is clearly stated in the syllabus and so students uncomfortable with the entire project could have dropped the class at the outset of the semester. To the best of my knowledge, no student dropped the class. This is not to say that students were completely comfortable with intentional fabrication of the historical record—some were, some were not. The important thing is that we talked about it a lot. And I am not a believer in the idea that education is supposed to be completely comfortable for students at all times, so the fact that my students were uncomfortable at various points in the semester was not a bad result from where I sat. In fact, ethical concerns were a part of our discussions in class almost every session once work on the hoax began. In the end, the distinction that made it possible for several students to feel more comfortable with the hoax was thinking of it as humor or satire rather than “serious history.” We never intended the hoax to last forever and knew we were going to expose our hoax as falsehood at the end of the semester, so it was not as though we were creating zombie facts and turning them loose forever. Knowing that the hoax would end made it easier to see the entire project as humor rather than a lie . . . more like what one might find in The Onion rather than what one would find in a book trying to convince readers of a deliberately false version of the past.
Once the class had debated the largest ethical issue—were we doing the right or wrong thing—then the students had to consider even thornier Page 322questions such as which subjects were out of bounds for their hoax, the specifics of copyright law, and responsible use of computing policies—subjects sure to elicit fluttering eyelids and perhaps even some drooling on the desk from the average student. I gave the students some specific limits about what they could not select for their hoax. For instance, one out-of-bounds topic my students readily agreed on was anything to do with medicine or health. Too many people rely on the Internet for information about health and health care and so there would be nothing funny about creating a hoax in this domain. In the end, our list of other topics unavailable for hoaxing included anything that might have caused someone to send us money (wire fraud under U.S. law), anything to do with national security (I had no desire to visit Guantanamo, Cuba), and anything to do with the American Civil War. Why the Civil War? This was a practical rather than ethical decision because the community of historians, professional and amateur, devoted to the study of the American Civil War is so large and their knowledge of the details of this conflict is so vast and precise, we decided that there was no chance of perpetrating a successful Civil War hoax. Anything the students tried to do would be exposed almost instantly. Finally, I insisted that any hoax created would not violate the university’s responsible use of computing policy, because I had no desire to be censured or fired as a result of a student project. This latter stipulation ruled out, for instance, any hoax that had to do with pornography or gambling. With the boundaries of the hoax firmly established, my students were then free to create any hoax they might think up.
That my students learned to think critically about such ethical issues is evident in what one student wrote in her personal blog:
Ethically, the only doubt I have regarding my own participation in this project is the e-mail I sent to the writer of [the USAToday blog] Pop Candy. I do not exactly regret that action, but I do question it every time I think of it. Though I did not personally know this woman, I purposefully set out to deceive her for my own gains, taking advantage of the trust she has in her readers. I apologize for taking advantage of her trust in such a way.
In the aftermath of the hoax’s exposure, another ethical issue arose that confirmed for me the importance of having cut the hoax off at the end of the semester so that we still had time to discuss the controversy that began to emerge as we dispersed for the winter break. Because ethical considerations were so much a part of what we discussed all semester, had we not had a little time to reflect on the response of those hoaxed once they found out Page 323they were victims, I think an important lesson of the semester would have been lost.
Finally, my students all learned that creating history, whether it is “real” history or a hoax, is hard and takes a lot of work. In the aftermath of the course the student just quoted wrote: “I would like to say that all the details fell into place, but they didn’t. We all worked and pushed them into place step by step. It was hard. Most definitely the hardest project I’ve ever worked on. We were entirely self-motivated in our groups. We had to figure out what needed to be doing before we could do it, and had to figure out entirely how to approach each step.” But from my perspective, the most important lesson they learned was that history can be fun after all. This was a class in which the students showed up for class early and stayed late, remained engaged throughout the class sessions, worked in small groups outside of class, and laughed throughout the semester.
The major issue that arose after the exposure of the hoax is less a part of the main story of the class and the student learning results. But given that a number of historians, librarians, and others argued that the class design was inappropriate to a university setting, the question of whether or not the class was appropriate seems worth describing here. The discussion of the course that arose in the academic blogosphere centered on what one author termed “academic trust networks,” the web of social networks (blogs, twitters, discussion forums, etc.) that academics and others increasingly rely on to help us find and evaluate information. “Online information increasingly exists in a context that provides us with a wealth of information about how that information is positioned within a larger conversation. When I find something of interest online, I do not only evaluate it’s face-value worth; I evaluate it in terms of who else I know is linking to it, talking about it, critiquing it.” Much of the criticism or support for the results of the course revolved around the issue of what my students’ work had exposed about the reliance of academics (and others) on social networks as trusted sources of information. At one end of the continuum of this conversation was the argument that by encouraging my students to create a hoax and then purvey it in these trust networks, I had violated a basic tenet or two of my own professional community. At the other end of the continuum was the argument that academics (especially academics) should know better than to accept what they find online at face value. One simple test anyone looking at Jane’s blog could have used was a Whois lookup of the domain registry for her blog, The Last American Pirate. Checking that registry would have turned up the interesting information that the domain did not belong to a student named Jane Browning, but to someone at George Mason University named Theodore Kelly, with the email firstname.lastname@example.org and the Page 324telephone number 703-993-2152, in other words, me. A more careful reader of the Whois data would indicate that the domain was created on October 22, 2008. Given that Jane’s first post in her blog was dated September 3, 2008, this more careful reader might have noticed something a little fishy. The question for those interested in the idea of academic trust networks is whether or not participants in those trust networks should be held to the same information literacy standards we expect from our students. Because the point of the class was to teach my students some things worth knowing about historical methods, I think I will let one of them have the last word on this particular issue:
I don’t regret the trust networks we violated only because those that we violated didn’t do their jobs as historians, they didn’t do their research, they didn’t check their facts, they took what we presented them at face value because they wanted to believe in the project that we had created. (Which in my opinion is why so many hoaxes work, just look at the Hitler diaries, reputations and careers were ruined because people wanted to believe.) Some of them claimed that they did not look at our hoax closely because they were looking at it not for its value as a history project, but instead because it was a techonology based history project.
In the spring 2012 semester I taught Lying About the Pastfor the second time. Because I had thirty students rather than seventeen, I broke the class into two groups and so there were two hoaxes. One hoax was the “Beer of 1812,” in which the students created a fictitious beer-loving history buff whose neighbor gave him an old beer recipe that, it turned out, was from Brown’s Brewery in Baltimore, Maryland, the site where the original Star Spangled Banner was sewn in 1812. Their beer buff then tried to promote his “find” to the craft brew community of Baltimore during the celebrations of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. Although the “Beer of 1812” hoax contained all the elements of a successful hoax, it never found much traction with the public and to the students’ disappointment, died a quiet death.
The second hoax produced by the students in the 2012 class created more commotion. Their goal was to convince the world that a person (they created) had found evidence that linked her great uncle Joe to the murders of several prostitutes in New York City in 1897. These were real unsolved murders and, at the time, there was some speculation in the New York newspapers that Jack the Ripper might have turned up in New York after he apparently fled London. The venue the students chose to promote their hoax was Reddit, on the serial killer “sub-Reddit.” For the first few minutes after Page 325their story appeared on Reddit, the participants in the “sub-Reddit” became very excited by the possibility of a new serial killer story. But less than thirty minutes into the hoax, one of the participants in the discussion noticed that the three Wikipedia entries created by my students about the prostitute murders (all 100 percent factually accurate) had been posted within minutes of one another from three different accounts. The timing of those postings raised the specter of “sock puppetry” in which one person creates multiple identities on Wikipedia to purvey false information. Almost instantly, the discussion on Reddit turned against the hoax and twenty-six minutes after it was launched, the hoax died.
After the end of the semester, Yoni Applebaum, a writer for The Atlantic, published a story about my class and the two hoaxes my students had tried to purvey. His story exploded across the Internet, becoming the most viewed article on the website of The Atlantic that month (viewed several hundred thousand times), and appearing in different versions on various tech blogs such as BoingBoing and TechCrunch, and on various discussion forums such as Mashable. I received many emails and blog comments, ranging from very positive to extremely negative (even one veiled death threat). That so many people showed an interest in the failed hoaxes of my students demonstrates, I think, just how much people care about history and how it is taught. As with the first version of the course, the students in the 2012 class emerged from their work deeply skeptical about sources they find online and with a much keener sense of how careful they must be when doing their work in the digital space. They also laughed their way through the entire semester.
If the results of the not very scientific random survey of available colleagues I did back in 2007 is correct, and historical methods courses do need a new approach in this age of digital media, Lying About the Past offers one possible approach to the recasting of this course. As mentioned above, I am not suggesting that a hoax course, or even a course that centers on being playful, is the only possible solution. But I do come away from this experience with the belief that any recasting of the methods course needs to retain the elements of historical thinking we hold dear, but also needs to bring them to students in ways that are more in tune with the lives they live now and will live after graduation. My hope is that the lessons of this course offer some inspiration to others, and that we will soon see many new and interesting versions of a course our discipline cannot live without.
1. Nicholas Kulish, “Author, 17, Says It’s ‘Mixing,’ Not Plagiarism,” accessed August 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/12/world/europe/12germany.html.Page 326
4. Bruce A. Van Sledright, “Can Ten-Year-Olds Learn to Investigate History as Historians Do?” OAH Newsletter, accessed July 32, 2012, [formerly http://www.oah.org/pubs/nl/2000aug/vansledright.html]. See also Stéphane Lévesque, Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 11. For a full description of what I did in that fifth-grade class, see “I’ll Go First,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.playingwithhistory.com/ill-go-first/.
5. For a more complete description of what happened with those fifth-graders, see T. Mills Kelly, “I’ll Go First,” Playing With Technology in History, accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.playingwithhistory.com/ill-go-first/.
6. On why blaming students is a bad idea, see Uri Treisman, “Studying Students Studying Calculus: A Look at the Lives of Minority Mathematics Students in College,” The College Mathematics Journal 23, no. 5 (November 1992): 362–72; and Carl Wieman and Kathleen Perkins, “Transforming Physics Education,” Physics Today 58, no. 11 (2005): 36–41.
8. The syllabus is available via this PDF document, accessed July 31, 2012, http://chnm.gmu.edu/history/faculty/kelly/blogs/h389/f08syl.pdf. The class blog, which the students stopped using in mid-semester once they started work on their hoax, is at Lying About the Past, accessed July 31, 2012, http://chnm.gmu.edu/history/faculty/kelly/blogs/h389/.
9. The books assigned in the course were John Mitchinson and John Lloyd, The Book of General Ignorance (New York: Harmony, 2006); Robert Harris, Selling Hitler: The Extraordinary Story of the Con Job of the Century (New York: Random House, 1986); Robert Silverberg, Scientists and Scoundrels: A Book of Hoaxes (Lincoln, Neb.: Bison, 2007); and Michael Farquhar, A Treasury of Deception: Liars, Misleaders, Hoodwinkers, and the Extraordinary True Stories of History’s Greatest Hoaxes, Fakes and Frauds (New York: Penguin, 2005). The video of The Old Negro Space Program can be found online, accessed July 31, 2012, at http://negrospaceprogram.com/blog/nsp-movie. For more on Česky sen, see the Internet Movie Database, accessed August 1, 2012, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0402906/.
10. “Joplin Virginia,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joplin, _Virginia.
11. Finding out about the real Edward Owens taught my students how to use genealogical databases like Ancestry.com. According to the U.S. Census of 1910, the Edward Owens who lived in the region was 57 years old and so would have been 12 when the Civil War ended in 1865. If anyone interested in the project had bothered to check this fact, the entire house of cards would have collapsed, but the students assumed, correctly it turned out, that no one would go to that much trouble.
12. “Hello World,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://lastamericanpirate.net/2008/09/03/hello-world/index.html.
13. The videos created by the class can be seen at “Jane Browning,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/user/janebrowning; their version of the Wikipedia entry, accessed August 1, 2012, is at http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Edward_Owens&oldid=256742352.Page 327
14. See the official website of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.talklikeapirate.com/.
15. See, for example, the blog of Jim Groom, accessed July 31, 2012, http://bavatuesdays.com/the-last-american-pirate/.
16. Twitter, accessed July 31, 2012, http://twitter.com/digitalhumanist/status/1036654663.
17. “The Last American Pirate,” accessed August 1, 2012, http://bavatuesdays.com/the-last-american-pirate/.
18. “Videos Index,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://lastamericanpirate.net/2008/12/03/videos/index.html - comments.
19. See, for instance, Jennifer Howard, “Teaching by Lying: Professor Unveils ‘Last Pirate’ Hoax,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 19, 2008, accessed July 31, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/Teaching-by-Lying-Professor/1420, and Jerry Griffith, Push/Pause, “Pirates,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RT9ZwlNLeY. For reactions to the hoax in the blogosphere, see the following posts in my blog, both accessed July 31, 2012, http://edwired.org/?p=418 and http://edwired.org/?pˆ=446. As a postscript to this particular controversy, had any of those taken in by the hoax bothered to look up the domain registry, they would have seen it belongs to me, not to Jane Browning. At Domain Tools, accessed July 31, 2012, http://whois.domaintools.com/lastamericanpirate.net.
21. Thomas J. Scott and Michael K. O’Sullivan, “Analyzing Student Search Strategies: Making a Case for Integrating Information Literacy Skills into the Curriculum—Technology NewsredOrbit,” Teacher Librarian 33, no. 1 (October 2005).
24. “How Do You Know It’s True?” accessed July 31, 2012, http://doctorbs.blogspot.com/2009/01/how-do-you-know-its-true.html.
26. Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” The American Historical Review 108, no. 3 (June 2003): 735–37. The website now lives at [formerly http://www.bertisevil.tv]. On the disappearing Trotsky, see “The Commissar Vanishes,” accessed May 25, 2010, http://www.newseum.org/berlinwall/commissar_vanishes/index.htm.
27. “Last Will and Testament of Edward Owens,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://lastamericanpirate.net/2008/11/12/last-will-and-testament-of-edward-owens/index.html.
29. On these two controversies, see “How the Ambrose Story Developed,” History News Network, n.d.; “How the Goodwin Story Developed,” History News Network, n.d., accessed May 25, 2010, http://hnn.us/articles/590.html.Page 328
34. See, for instance, Tech Therapy, “Wikipedia’s Co-Founder Calls for Better Information Literacy,” June 9, 2010, accessed August 1, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/Audio-Wikipedias-Co-Founder/65841/. In this podcast interview Jimmy Wales describes himself as “really, really, really” annoyed by projects such as those undertaken in this class. He does, however, admit to having been unfamiliar with the course until the podcast host posed a question about it.
35. Edwired, accessed August 1, 2012, http://edwired.org/?p=418 - comment-28716.
36. “discovery and creation . . . and lies,” info-fetishist.org, accessed July 31, 2012, http://info-fetishist.org/2009/01/03/discovery-and-creation-and-lies/, accessed May 26, 2010.
38. Comment by Kelly on “Was the Last American Pirate Authentic?” accessed July 31, 2012, http://edwired.org/?p=608 - comments.
39. For more on the hoaxes in the second iteration of the class, see Yoni Applebaum, “How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Was Caught by Reddit,” May 15, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/05/how-the-professor-who-fooled-wikipedia-got-caught-by-reddit/257134/; and Brendan Fitzgerald, “Here There Be Monsters,” September 14, 2012, http://www.themorningnews.org/article/here-there-be-monsters.