Tag Archives: HIST 698

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.

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.