Teaching History in the Digital Age

Professional historians are innately aware that the truth of history is in the eyes of the beholder. History can be told from multiple perspectives and with as many interpretations as there are people. The advent of the digital world has created an environment in which the past is ever more malleable. Although unsettling to standardized history curriculum advocates, this malleability is a great strength of the discipline which educators can utilize to teach and encourage deeper engagement.

The internet, especially social media, has raised awareness among the general public that there are several versions of the past, perhaps even to the point of being taken for granted. Although in 1994 Peter Seixas demonstrated that students take modern interpretations of history at face value, and only question their assumptions when faced with conflicting narratives, I wonder how true those observations are today in an age when “alternative facts” and “revisionist history” are Facebook hashtags. Already students enter the class room at least aware that narratives of the past exist other than their own.  As educators, we can directly address the “jagged edges” (to borrow Sam Wineburg’s term) of history that our students encounter on the web and brush aside.

The malleable past also encourages empathetic and personal readings of the past. Interactive online exhibits, for example, facilitate placing ones self in the past. The questions, “Why should I care? What has this to do with me?” can be more easily answered. As educators, we can direct our students to more complex understandings of histories (purposely plural- the many memories and narratives of the past). Students come to class with their own comforting narratives of the past, and as teachers we encourage deeper engagement by directing students to confront the uncomfortable jagged edges where their personal histories conflict  with divergent accounts. Struggling with both empirical knowledge and emotional bagged, I think, actively engages students towards thinking historically.

Despite Google’s and our browser’s personalization filters, multiple versions of the past molded for particular purposes find their way on our screens. In 2016, Sam Wineburg asked students if they believed that President Obama was born in Kenya. When they stated they did not, despite an interview with his grandmother claiming she was present, Wineburg took the opportunity to explore a source students already doubted. I don’t think students are shocked when history professors reveal that historians, politicians, activists, and the general public all shape the past for a variety of purposes. I think many students come to history classes to learn the “real story,” because they have doubts about popular stories.

The built-in skepticism allows history teachers to more easily deconstruct narratives of the past than the pre-internet age. The reign of the textbook is over. No longer do students learn about the past from a single authoritative textbook which presents a seemingly self-evident narrative. Rather, students pick up bits of history from Facebook, their browser home page, and YouTube, along with the history taught in school. Good history education, moving forward, will be putting these many histories in conversation with each other with the goal of forming students who actively engage with intellectual conflict, rather than brushing new information aside.

Texts Referenced:

Seixas, Peter. “Confronting the Moral Frames of Popular Film: Young People Respond to Historical Revisionism.” American Journal of Education 2, no. 3. (May 1994): 261-285.

Wineburg, Sam. “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.” History News 71, no. 2. 2016.

Historical Thinking in National Parks

Daniel Coslett and Manish Chalana published “National Parks for New Audiences. Diversifying Interpretation for Enhanced Contemporary Relevance” in November of 2016. In the article, the authors discuss how two national parks- Whitman Mission and San Juan Island- have responded to calls for more complex history education and declining visitor numbers. Although Coslett and Chalana never use the term “historical thinking,” I think the term can be applied to many of the activities and goals they describe. The image, text, and interpretational changes at these two parks incorporate similar issues that my class, Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age, has discusses.

One of the most important elements of teaching historical thinking that we’ve been discussing is the interpretation of evidence. Both parks have complex and contested histories, and both are trying to engage an increasingly multi-cultural audience by presenting evidence of the past from previously ignored perspectives. At Whitman Mission, the Native American story is now being more fully articulated. As we have discussed in class, good history starts with good evidence from multiple perspectives. Native American guided tours directly challenge the image of white pioneers discovering open land and visitors must face challenging questions.

The authors also discuss the power of images in the parks. At Whitman Mission, a savage illustration of the “massacre” is located in front of the foundation of the building. Although the audio associated with that location provides an even-handed interpretation the massacre, the image resonates much more dramatically with the audience. The authors also draw attention to the laundress plaque at San Jun. Although women are depicted elsewhere in the park in many roles, the laundress’ house has the only written text, narrowing the audience’s view of women on the island. The authors applaud attempts by the parks to integrate minority interpretations of the past, and draw attention to places where this integration is wanting.

Although Cosset and Chalana call attention to several opportunities for improvement, they don’t offer solutions. In my experience of our National Parks, the curators and guides just throw information at you, but don’t really give patrons an opportunity to think. I think both Whitman Mission and San Juan Island could better serve diverse audiences by providing their visitors with mental exercises. Perhaps this is offered during the special events they glaze over, but such opportunities should be a permanent fixture. Now, what do I meet by “mental exercise?” Basically, an assignment, but without the language of obligation.

The park staff have assumed that by offering multiple perspectives of historic events, they will resonate with a more diverse public. It is a nearly impossible task, however, to anticipate what will make history engaging to every individual. By encouraging visitors to think historically for themselves, engaging a diverse audience becomes a much more attainable goal, because individuals will actively seek these connections, rather than expecting the park to supply them.

Park staff, however, know that visitors will not automatically ask historians’ questions. The ability to do so is one of those “threshold concepts” I discussed many posts back. So, staff need to offer these questions.  Integrating them into guided tours would be a good start. “How might Native Americans remember this mission house differently from the pioneers?” Space for these mental exercises can be made on signage as well. I can imagine adding a QR code to the laundress’ plaque offering the task, “Although the laundress’ quarters is the only building still standing that women worked in, find other evidence of women throughout the island.”

People often visit National Parks to learn, but not to think. By inviting them to engage in historical thinking by supplying them with questions or offering a task, patrons will be more engaged and learn how to think historically without ever hearing the term.

Teach Them Where They Are

Sam Wineburg wrote last Semptember, that “What once fell on the shoulders of editors, fact-checker, and subject experts now falls on the shoulders of each and every one of us.” Increasingly, I think the general public is beginning to feel exhausted and overwhelmed, constantly having to question the truthfulness of everything we see. As history educators, I think we need to arm our students with the ability to determine a source’s validity without really thinking about it.

I am thinking back to “threshold concepts.” The ability to evaluate information is a skill that takes practice, but can become almost second nature. Although the internet has made this issue more complex, I think we can find solutions there as well.

In my classes, I’ve often thought of “the public” as an amorphous blob of faceless people. So, when thinking about how historians can help “the public” understand the past more accurately, this seemed like an impossible task. Then I realized that I interact with “the public” everyday in  the persons of my family, friends, and neighbors. My most frequent interaction with non-professionals in Facebook. I think Social Media is one of the strongest tools at our disposal to promote historical thinking.

I am remembering one occasion in particular. A friend had posted her research about Petroglyphs in Georgia, and someone commented, “What’s a petroglyph?” To which she responded, “I can’t help you if you don’t educate yourself.” I was appalled. What on earth did she think her friend was trying to do by asking her?! I’ve seen this response from archaeologists, historians, political scientists, and many other professional friends. In situations like that, I see it as a golden opportunity to educate the elusive public. We might share a link, and briefly explain why it is trustworthy (A. Guy, a professor at Awesome U and at the top of the field explains it really well here: www.address.com).

If research shows that people put their trust in news and history they hear from their friends on social media, then bring that accurate history to where they are! No need to wait for undergraduates to file into class or a family to wander into our museums, we can encourage historical thinking with our social media friends, their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends. Wineburg claims that, “If our curriculum has any pretense for career preparation, it is for the vocation of citizen.” Agreed. But let’s teach by example.

For full article see: 

Wineburg, Sam. “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.” History News 71, no. 2. 2016.

Pulling in Text

From William Stearns Davis, ed. Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), Vol. II: Rome and the West, p. 289. Accessed 05/23/2017 through Paul Halsall, The Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University 1998, <http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/250sacrificecert.asp>. Certificate of Having Sacrificed to the Gods 250CE:

To the Commissioners of Sacrifice of the Village of Alexander’s Island:

From Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the Village of Alexander’s Island, aged 72 years: —scar on his right eyebrow.

I have always sacrificed regularly to the gods, and now, in your presence, in accordance with the edict, I have done sacrifice, and poured the drink offering, and tasted of the sacrifices, and I request you to certify the same. Farewell.

—–Handed in by me, Aurelius Diogenes.

—–I certify that I saw him sacrificing [signature obliterated].

Done in the first year of the Emperor, Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, second of the month Epith. [June 26, 250 A.D.]

This text is from a papyrus found in Oxyrhyncus, Egypt. It is an example of a certificate of sacrifice, or libellus, which was a legal document proving the carrier observed Roman religious traditions. These libelli are the physical witnesses to Decius’ 250 persecution of Christians and other non-conforming peoples. They demonstrate the rigor with which Decius enforced his decree, but also that Christians were not the only group targeted by this program.

At this early stage of project development, I imagine showing this text, along with other examples of libelli, to demonstrate the Roman empire’s view of Christians in the 3rd century and how they acted upon those views. I would like to pair these documents with Pliny’s letter to Trajan, about 100 years earlier (in which Pliny isn’t sure how to deal with Christians), to prompt the question: “How did Romans’ attitude towards Christians change? How did it stay the same?” As intermediate questions to answer, “Why were Christians a concern at all?”

Thinking with Images

I have been asked to select an image which I might work with in my final project. My mind immediately leapt to a graffito from the Palatine Hill in Rome known as the Alexamenos Graffito, or graffito blasfemo (blasphemous graffiti):

The image, scratched into a plaster wall, depicts a man standing below a crucified person with a donkey’s head attended by the description “Alexamenos worships [his] god.” Modern Christian viewers  correctly identify this image as a jest against a Christian. This image, however, is much more complex than simply calling Jesus an ass, and implying that Alexamenos is a fool.

The same symbol which renders the image recognizable is the same that leads to misinterpretation: the cross. Today, the cross is the universal ubiquitous symbol of Christianity. This was not so in third century Rome when this image was produced.

In Roman culture, the cross was immediately recognizable as a symbol of criminal  otherness. Only non-Romans were crucified, so by virtue of this alone the artist is making claims about the person of Jesus- he was not a Roman, therefore not authoritative. The artist was not content to let the cross alone speak to this characterization and drew in the horse’s head, the connotation of which persists. Crucifixion was also reserved for severe crimes, such as being a traitor. This artist communicates that Jesus was not a Roman, and also a most deplorable criminal. It would be akin to symbolizing a modern day advocate for peace with a noose.

Selecting an Audience

As I learned last semester, selecting and catering to the needs of an audience is, I think, the most important part of creating a successful product. I want to create a lesson about how early Christians resisted the Decian Persecution. Now I have to think- who would be interested in this subject?

My audience of last semester, Sunday School teachers and retirees, are probably not the ideal audience. The content of this lesson isn’t appropriate for children, nor leads them towards the goal of understanding their faith tradition. Retirees might find it interesting, but from my experience these people want to  find fun, interesting fact, rather than harsh realities.

In light of this, I think my primary audience is hypothetical students in a  Early Christian History college course.  These courses are typically surveys, which would benefit from an exercise in reading primary sources. Additionally, these course tend to be very text heavy, and rely on old clunky translations that make the content difficult to access. College students come with a preexisting set of technology skills that will help them understand my material.

A secondary audience would be Christians in the general public. The idea of Christianity as an oppressed religion in modern America is currently popular among fundamentalist Christians. I hope that the topic will draw them to the site, but that the content will leave them questioning their experience of so-called oppression when confronted with evidence of violent persecution and resistance. I do not, however, intend to cater to this audience. I think their preexisting prejudices are far too ingrained for this project to confront.

Exploring Christians Online

At this point in the semester I’m leaning towards leading students through the question: “How did Christians resist oppression?” I think it can be narrowed down through preliminary research and I already have a corpus of documents and objects to present to the audience. I’m thinking a better formulated question is, “How did Christians resist oppression during the Decian Persecution.”
I think the digital environment will be an essential part of exploring this question. With a compendium of documents, Christian resistance seems like a letter writing campaign. Digital tools will allow me to show that the persecution was more than a flurry of strongly worded letters between gentlemen of differing opinion. It will also allow me to dispel the myth on the other side of the spectrum that masses of Christians were dragged out of their homes by the hair and tossed to the lions. A Digital space allows for a more generous exploration of archaeological material. Images don’t do objects much justice, even with scale bars next to them. I would love to incorporate 3D models and printer files into this project. By showing the graffiti, wall paintings, oil lamps and other objects in more tactile ways, I think students will be able to “read” them better.
The digital landscape also allows for documents and objects to be literally linked together. Clicking through pages of a website is like clicking through a stream of consciousness. I want to show that the persecutions were less about stamping out Jesus Christ, but more about competing identities: what was Roman? Could a Christian be Roman? Christians used the persecution to form negative identities (what we are not).
In this early stage, I envision a lot of primary documents with the interpretation of the documents demonstrated more through hyperlinks than actual accompanying texts. My thinking is that showing students material in a particular order will both encourage them to think for themselves, but towards the understanding I have in mind. It would be really cool if there was something like a digital notepad that went with them from page to page where they could note observations. Perhaps at the end I could provide an activity that utilizes this information.

Technology and Teaching History

Technology seems to be developing at a break-neck pace and everyone wants a ride on the bandwagon. Many historians are very excited about the promises technology offers to improve history education.  I have met few historians that resist the allure of technology in their classrooms (in fact just one, an elderly Roman history professor who didn’t even make use of the white board) and many seem to be early adopters.
Digitization projects seem to be the first foray into the digital world for most historians. Nearly all remark on the incredible convenience and analytical power of online databases and archives. Finding useful primary sources has never been easier. They are organized topically, something even hyperlinked together, and accessible from home. The large response from historians to this amazing access to nearly everything was most enthusiasm and hesitance. It seemed with every document of rigorous historic scholarship there were ten sites of dubious authority their students could access. The response was to educate students on how to authenticate digital sources. Some teachers are better at this than others. The most successful do more than just pass out a hand out with a brief lecture, they explore databases with their students.
Not long after historians started coding. TEI (the Text Encoding Intuitive) helped preserve important metadata about documents that might otherwise be lost in the digitization process. Mills Kelly reminisces fondly of coding his first syllabus for use on the web. In partnership with data analytics and coders, historians adopted data mining. For all these early adopters, however, were detractors. While data-mining produced interesting scholarship, there was concern that students might miss the skills of close reading.
In general, history educators have embraced technologies in their classrooms. With over twenty years of data, I think educators have enough data to assuage the Luddites’ fears that technology in the classroom is just a gimmick to get kids to pay attention in class. McClymer shows ample evidence that integrating technology into his teaching has enhanced his students historical understanding. By showing students how to use online data and preform their own digital scholarship, history educators are inviting students to grapple with difficult concepts in new ways.
The limitation of the general embrace of technology in history education is in assessment. Wineburg has very convincingly argued that not only is standardized testing a poor measure of student understanding, but that the tests are designed to fit students into a bell curve. Due to national standards, content teaching has long overshadowed procedural learning. Technology might provide a solution between providing students with the information they need to succeed in standardized testing and teaching them historical thinking. Databases, online exhibits, and other digital tools present both type of knowledge. Rather than depending on textbooks for homework, educators can rely on students having access to a computer. So instead of procedural knowledge limited to classroom time, students can now take it home with them.

Musing on Teaching: Post Script

Today, I was assigned to read “The History Curriculum in 2023 by Mills Kelly. In it he argues that the future of history education should include Making (3D printing, video, ect), Marking (coding), Mining (data analytics) and Mashing (combining media). In many ways this curriculum reflects the concerns and philosophies of past history professionals.
From the beginning of the article, Kelly situates himself in century-old conversation of how to teach history: “I’m not a fan of those who simply predict doom without offering possible solutions.” This statement immediately reminded me of the silences offer by Beard and Becker at the end of their impassioned speeches about the faults of history education when it came time to offer redresses.
In his introduction Kelly writes, “Just to be clear from the outset, I am not going to propose what the content knowledge of that curriculum ought to be.” Which immediately reminded me of Orrill and Shapiro’s description of history education philosophy. For many years, particularly after WWII, content knowledge dominated the class room with procedural knowledge taking a back seat. Continuing into the 1990’s, content was to be standardized. Although historians generally resisted this, policy makers demanded that K-12 students know basic historic facts. Much in the mode of pre-standardization historians Kelly argues that content should be developed on the local level, in direct opposition to the current educational environment of ETS testing.
The crux of his argument, however, is not between content and procedure, but about what students need to navigate their world. This aligns with Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian.” The job of history educators is not to fill their students with facts, but arm them with skills they need to navigate their lives. Although Becker’s arguments are far more esoteric, while Kelly is attempting to teach skills needed for placement in the American workforce of the future, Kelly is certainly an inheritor of this mentality. 
Agreeing with all of the literature so far surveyed, Kelly believes that students do not want to be in history class. He draws a contrast between excitement in science and the boredom in history. His solution to this lethargy is increased engagement with the process of history, which has been a recurring theme in these readings. His solution builds off McClymer’s guidelines in “Teaching and Learning with New Media.” McClymer advises that teachers integrated the digital world into the classrooms and Kelly offers a method.
The problem with Kelly’s four M’s is that of assessment. He is not in conversation with Wineburg’s “Crazy for History.” I can imagine that, like Wineburg, Kelly does not support standardized testing as a profitable way of measuring ability. His solution, however pragmatic it might sound, does not address how he, or ETS, would assess historical ability. Although I agree that learning to code will serve students very well in the future market place, it won’t serve them in passing the SAT history exam. 

Brainstorming: Creating a Learning Opprotunity

What I really want to teach is what it is that archaeologists actually do. My final project requires, however, that I create an online learning opportunity for students to work through and understand a historical question. My solution: ask a historical question that can be answered archaeologically.

As I thought about questions I might ask, I came to realize that at least I, if not archaeologists in general, are more interested by “how” than “why” questions. Although we most certainly want to know “why” something happened, we’re more fascinated by how something happened.  It’s probably because we frame reality as the result of interactive processes. Therefore, my first attempt at a “why” question was perhaps not very good:

“Why was Christianity successful in Late Antique Mediterranean?” The significance is almost self evident- Christianity came to dominate all aspects to European life for over a millennia. This is a huge question that entire libraries have been dedicated to, which I would not expect to even remotely cover in nine weeks. And this is also why students struggle understanding this process-  they think it’s just too big to comprehend.

As much as the world craves an answer, evidence of the first seeds of the great tree of Christianity are scant in both text and material culture. Therefore, a balanced use of both lines of evidence is absolutely necessary to arrive at any legitimate answer. For a short semester project, I might focus in on one aspect of the question: “Who was drawn to Christianity?” Typical answers are women and poor, but was it really true or just  wealthy men trying to blame traditional scapegoats with the uneasy change the aging empire was going through?

I didn’t really like this train of thought. So I decided to try out a “how” question:

“How did Late Antique Christians resist oppression?” “What were the most effective modes of resistance?” The triumph of Christianity over paganism is often taken as evidence of Christianity’s superiority and truth. Therefore, many people take Christianity’s prevalence in the modern world as a matter-of-fact and just assume that Christianity was destined to win. They often fail to see Christians as oppressed minorities, since Christians have long been the powerful majority in the western world. Seeing a dominate religious tradition, especially if the student belongs to that faith tradition, as vulnerable is therefore difficult.

This question lead me to a different kind of question altogether:

“To what extent did Roman culture influence the development of Christianity?” This question is difficult for students to answer because it’s pretty huge. And since  I have only a few weeks to formulate this learning opportunity, I’d better narrow it down. “To what extent did Roman funerary practices influence  early Christianity?” This is difficult for students to understand because they attempt to draw direct parallels between the two traditions, rather than recognizing nuances. Additionally, they project their own experiences of Christianity onto the past, assuming that all Christians have always believed  as they do.  

I find myself still struggling with the term “historical question.” I think it means a complex open-ended question about the past the requires the careful evaluation of primary sources. Hopefully, as we discuss these concepts in class, I will be able to formulate better questions.