Learning How to Write Traditional and Digital History (Fall 2011 version)
Creating a robust historical work has long been an exercise in extensive research, careful interpretation, and the crafting of arguments with tight prose and a solid evidentiary base. Cast as an objective enterprise in the nineteenth century, doing history has since become infused with research approaches and theories of scholarship that span the humanities and social science disciplines.1 Yet, historians have largely remained solitary researchers and writers, often developing idiosyncratic but fruitful methods of research, analysis, and writing in their production of knowledge.2 Learning how to “do history,” particularly at the graduate level, can feel like learning through osmosis. The training is often oblique with little direct instruction, but with multiple opportunities to practice archival research, “document analysis,” historical conversation, and writing. One eventually figures it out through seminar type class discussions on historiography and projects that each class member has undertaken. But until one has read enough of the secondary literature, spent scores of hours doing archival research, and writing mini-monographs that peers read and critique, the history experience is frequently one of consumption. Even when one transforms from a knowledge consumer to a knowledge producer, the exposure of one’s work to the outside world is quite limited. That is, unless the burgeoning historian publishes their work digitally in public spaces such as on blogs, on Wikipedia, and on their own websites. With this in mind, I set out to develop a course on the histories of education that featured student work in old and new media. Their experimentation is the substance of the discussion that follows.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 With the emphasis of historical thinking4 being on how to source evidence, develop inquiry questions, weave context, and evaluate historical significance, I designed Histories of Education to begin with two important questions: 1) when did education begin in the Americas?,5 and 2) how have historians of education framed the field of study? The readings assigned for discussion in the first two course meetings were selected to jar students’ preconceptions about who constructed education and how they went about it—formally and informally—beginning with a close reading of Urban and Wagoner’s survey text, American Education: A History. The final segment of the course was devoted to reading autobiographical accounts of individuals’ educations.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Though reading and discussion were a large part of this course, this essay focuses on the written work students created. They experimented with three different platforms for historical discussion, and in turn, three different forms of writing. The first piece of writing students produced was an analytical critical review in which they evaluated two scholarly articles or books in relation to one another against the backdrop of a common question or theme. Students were to look in academic journals and The New York Review of Books for examples of compelling reviews on at least two pieces of historical writing. The second piece of writing students created was a brief contribution to Wikipedia. This assignment had two purposes: to situate students as knowledge producers who publicly share what they have learned with the world and to evaluate Wikipedia as a source of information.6 The third piece of writing that students produced was an online, publicly available digital history on a topic of interest which students began researching with their Wikipedia contribution. Unlike their Wikipedia contributions, though, students did original research for the digital history project and had to develop not only the textual history, but also the online environment in which readers would experience that history.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 This study examines the written work of five students in the class.7 In preparation for the critical review and the Wikipedia contribution, the class read and discussed examples of published work. After students submitted each piece, the class debriefed the research, writing, and revision process, articulating challenges and breakthroughs. In every class meeting throughout the semester, students reported on the status of their long-term digital history projects and offered each other ideas for possible source material or ways of analyzing what they had found. By the time class members presented their digital histories at the end of the semester, the degree of familiarity they had with each other’s interests and research afforded a hearty discussion about the construction of each digital history project. An anonymous follow up survey was sent out to participants via Google Docs8 several months later to gather more information about each student’s writing and revision process; of the five, two students responded. This sample is small and should not be taken as representative of the student population at American University or in history of education classes. But the sample does reveal practices, considerations, and points of confoundedness that other historians, student or professional, might well experience as they move from platform to platform and audience to audience.
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The Critical Review
The critical book or article review is a staple not only in the history profession as numerous academic journals illustrate, but also in the graduate training of future historians. Learning how to write an analytical, pithy review hones one’s ability to evaluate texts in terms of their argument and use of evidence and to place a text in relation to the broader field of study. In crafting a critical review for the class, students were to evaluate two texts—articles, chapters, or books—that we had read or that they had found on their own.9 In their reviews, students were to summarize and explain the authors’ central arguments and use of evidence as well as appraise the significance of each piece within the history of education or another subfield of history. Students submitted their 1200-1500 word reviews in standard essay format through Google Docs.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 Students reported that writing the critical review was very familiar—analyzing texts was almost automatic for them, and they were also comfortable taking a comparative approach. Most spent two to four hours initially drafting the review, and most students revised their reviews twice before submission with a day’s lag time in between each revision. The speed of the initial drafting and the structure of students’ reviews bears out this familiarity. Within the first two paragraphs of each review, students introduced the authors of the secondary sources under examination and the central arguments of each piece (see Figure 1). The structure of the reviews then oscillated between descriptions of the authors’ arguments and use of evidence, each student’s own analysis, and citations referencing specific ideas or phrases in each source. The sequence of each student’s analysis varied, but each critiqued the two sources in relation to one another, identifying commonalities, gaps, and shared or disparate evidence. Students also explained each author’s research and/or reporting methodologies, which in many cases, could only be uncovered through an extremely close inferential reading. Students closed their critical reviews with statements about the significance of each author’s contribution.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Though the structure of the students’ reviews follows convention, crafting such reviews is no easy task. In order to contextualize a piece, assess its significance, or identify gaps in study, it is necessary to have read widely and engage a synthetic understanding of a research area. Understanding this, it is not surprising that most students aligned their critical reviews with their digital history project topics and Wikipedia contributions, opting to search for and select articles to review rather than examine those already read for class. In other words, many of the students conscientiously built a body of factual and interpretive knowledge source by source throughout the semester. Through this process, students were thinking historically by sourcing the materials they examined, developing a complex set of questions to further probe each source, and weaving together a contextual backdrop based on authors’ normative and descriptive assumptions as well as students’ own positionalities.10
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The Wikipedia Contribution
Unlike the critical review, contributions to Wikipedia11, the online, crowd-sourced encyclopedia, are not (yet) staples in the professional training of historians. A source that is often suspect in academic circles, Wikipedia over the last decade has grown to include 3,710,548 articles (as of August 15, 2011) in English since its launch in 2000. For many, it has become the default source and starting point for learning about something. In his 2004 study of Wikipedia as a secondary source, historian Roy Rosenzweig noted that Wikipedia confounds many of the assumed trademarks of historical scholarship, such as singly authored, detailed works; individual recognition for scholarly work; and cogent narrative analysis that evaluates a subject’s historical significance. Original research and presenting a particular point of view—practices that are valued among historians—are eschewed on Wikipedia, which promotes instead secondary research and descriptions of others’ arguments. Even with these practices, which counter customary practice among historians, Wikipedia is widely visited and widely edited, offering transparent discussions between editors about why particular sources were chosen and presented in a particular sequence or manner.12 In this way, working with Wikipedia from the inside as a contributor can expose students to debates over source material and their interpretations.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Jeremy Boggs, also known as ClioWeb, has written pointedly about why he began assigning a 500 word Wikipedia contribution in the undergraduate U.S. history survey he taught at George Mason University: “It shows students the difference between fact-only writing and analytical writing, it provides an introduction to research methods, and it gives them more insight into the working of Wikipedia, so they understand why they should or shouldn’t use it for various situations.”13 In addition to highlighting the differences between descriptive and analytic writing, I assigned the Wikipedia contribution to my students for two additional reasons: to demonstrate that students could be and were, in fact, knowledge producers and to have students critically examine Wikipedia as a secondary source.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The assignment in EDU/HIST-596: Histories of Education is modeled on the one that Boggs created for his students. Students in EDU/HIST-596 had to conduct research, including finding a topic that ideally corresponded to their digital history project and was a desired article on Wikipedia as noted on the education stubs page.14 Like Boggs, I asked my students to write a 500 word article or contribution that included footnoted references to two books or scholarly articles, to external websites, and two internal Wikipedia pages. Once they had posted their contribution, students were to share the URL with me and do everything they could to prevent their contributions from being deleted. After a month, they were to describe their experience through a tracking report, detailing how many edits the post received, what types of edits they were, discussions they had with other editors, and efforts they made to prevent their article from being deleted. Students also reflected on what they learned about Wikipedia as a source from an insider perspective.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Of the five student contributions examined here, three students created their own unique articles on Wikipedia, while two students added content to existing pages. Like their critical reviews, students structured their Wikipedia articles in a manner that toggles between the presentation of another’s idea, argument, or set of facts and citations to supporting secondary sources. Rather than provide their own analysis as they did in the critical review, however, students described the debates or arguments that others had on a given topic. In other words, students’ work was primarily descriptive in their Wikipedia contributions (see Figure 2).
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 2 Students were surprised that people looked at and presumably read their contributions; they were also surprised by the degree to which other editors amended those contributions. In one case, an editor invited a student to work collaboratively on a separate article. In another case, an editor flagged and then removed a suspected vandal attack from a student-created article. Students’ doubts about anyone reading their work were unfounded as shown in Table 1. Even the most modest number of total views since the article posting—925—reflects a readership that is much more extensive than what students could expect to receive in a classroom setting. In general, the number of edits to a page since the student posting in October 2010, even when infrequent, suggests a sustained interest in the page topic. So, too, does the fact that all but one of the articles were flagged for further development with editor requests for additional citations and revisions that attend to the neutral point of view policy. All told, the number of page views of Wikipedia articles students created or contributed to totaled 70,244 between October 2010, when students made their posts, and August 5, 2011, when this article was drafted. Though these data are limited and certainly should not be considered representative, they confirm Rosenzweig’s contention that Wikipedia is a hugely important source for people who want to learn more about a topic and share their research with others in spite of the elements that are anathema to the professional practice of history.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 When debriefing this assignment, students reported that they not only viewed Wikipedia as a secondary source worth consulting, but also that they began viewing secondary sources all together more critically. Part of this stemmed from their experience in creating a post that others could freely edit. Students wanted to make sure they presented material in a convincing and verifiable way to avoid having their post deleted. And most of the students began fact-checking other pages on topics about which they considered themselves to be proficient. This became a delightful and distracting side effect of being assigned to write a Wikipedia post. Contributing to Wikipedia became, effectively, a series of self-sustaining, creative intellectual acts.
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The Digital History Project
Building on students’ experiences writing conventional critical reviews and more unconventional Wikipedia articles and posts, the digital history projects that the Histories of Education students undertook sought to explore whether the medium did, in fact, become the message,15 or if the message itself might help a creator construct the medium. Students also continued to build an area of research expertise. As students reported on the development of their digital history projects every week, the shape each project took was formed inductively and organically from the research content. Indeed, one of the primary concerns that emerged was how to capture and present their research in ways that were true to their inquiry experiences and methods. As the semester proceeded, students consulted with Alex Hodges, the education librarian at American University who also teaches EDU-519: The Uses of Technology in Education, on both research and platform queries.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 5 For most students, creating a project in an online, public environment was new and intimidating; only one student had taken the graduate level digital history course offered at AU.16 And while others had blogged, creating an academic, historical work online was a whole other endeavor. The constraints students faced in creating a digital history project were existential in nature and typical of those faced by historians doing analog history. Like professional historians, students reported that they spent much of their time trying to figure out how to cull their research and hone in on the story that was emerging. How do you know what is important? How do you analyze the sources in relation to one another in a systematic and valid way? How do you know your interpretation is reasonable? And, how do you tell a story—how do you craft a history—that is interesting and significant? The digital aspect of the project brought forth an existential predicament: what if people don’t want to read long-form history online? As one student said, “[w]ebsites aren’t supposed to be wordy.” If this is the case, then what does that mean for the stories and narrative analyses that historians create? How are they to be organized and told? What does this mean for the profession, let alone their own projects? It also brought forth an epistemological conundrum—the realization that people don’t necessarily read in a linear fashion online as they presumably do with an article or book. Students grappled with these issues head on in developing their digital histories, and though they might not have been fully resolved, their experimentation and final project products are instructive in highlighting the ways in which digital histories are different from scholarly articles and monographs.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 2 Creating a 5000 word essay was not a terribly appealing option in an online environment to students, particularly when the possibility of providing a range primary, multimedia sources—not just their citations—was a viable option. So, students created websites and interactive timelines that attended to their curiosity in experimenting with different ways of doing and presenting history while meeting customary scholarly expectations.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 2 Like many analog histories, students organized their digital history content thematically or through periodization. Though each website features a welcome or home page that explains the central questions and scope of the given study, in general, students chose two different methods of organizing their projects: a series of stand alone essays or a disassembled linear essay. Two students developed websites using the WordPress17 platform, creating a series of interlinked, stand-alone essays. Both of these sites have discrete pages for each essay, which students wrote with a general audience in mind. And each site also has derivative, or child, pages stemming from several of the primary pages that feature particular essays oriented around a theme. The pages on each site can be read in no particular order, and both sites use customary methods of documentation through footnotes or parenthetical notes. In fact, the author of one site gives the reader permission to “click around, explore, and gain a better understanding of how exactly we did get here.” (See Figure 4).
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 3 The second method of organizing the digital history projects was through disassembly, or by carving up a linear essay into distinct pages that include the same content: a title, a statement about the argument, and the corresponding section of text to support that argument. The introductions of these websites read as introductions to cohesive essays, each providing a strong argument and grounding research questions. Each site features multiple pages that comprise sections of the overall essay. Two of the sites utilize a horizontal navigational bar across the top linking each discrete page; one site has a vertical list of pages in the right sidebar. While two students acutely felt the challenge of not being able to control (or have the perception of control) the order in which the viewer reads each page, another student found a possible remedy through the use of the vertical navigation bar.18 Students’ concern with the order in which viewers read pages originates in the epistemology of their projects as disassembled yet potentially cohesive essays interspersed with primary source evidence. They constructed their text and analysis in a particular way and hoped that they would be read as such.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 2 The question of how to present an argument and a cogent narrative in a digital, multimedia format is a daunting one for historians, and seemingly few shared protocols exist such to the extent that they might be considered mainstream or stable in such a relatively new and dynamic online environment. One student embraced this. Matthew Henry, the author of Hollywood Made Children, created a non-linear, motion-driven timeline through Prezi.com, entitled, “Censorship, The Payne Fund Studies and Hollywood’s Influence on Children.”19 Using the forward and backward buttons, the viewer can zoom in to a pre-directed portion of the screen. The section shots, so to speak, have the capability to show embedded video and audio files, and the presentation creator visually moves the viewer from section to section. The one-line headings and still or moving images, in effect, become figuratively superimposed on one another, telling a story that the presentation creator has constructed.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Related to the presentation of a clear historical narrative was the issue of the opening up the historian’s constructive processes for public comment. One of the most interesting conversations that emerged during the final presentations revolved around whether or not to leave the comments feature of the websites live. Having experienced the open commenting and editing elements on Wikipedia, students seemed to have faith that comments posted on their sites might well be insightful and constructive. One was hesitant for aesthetic reasons—she didn’t want to clutter the site. Others were hesitant for fear of vandalism or extremist views or critique. The two students who had left the comments feature open on their sites countered that it might be a good idea, noting that the comments have the potential to 1) provide an opportunity to rewrite, 2) correct errors, and 3) engage in a public discourse about a topic that greatly interested them.20 Such transparent conversation and attention to writing and its organization were complemented by the visual environment.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 4 The visual aesthetics of the digital history projects that students created varied from site to site. The student who had taken a digital history course, created a website that is quite striking in appearance (see Figure 6). The student’s attention to the impact the background image of the map, the script of the title, and the color and texture of the textual space was designed first to arrest the viewer and then draw them into each page with the promise of primary source images and a readable, footnoted text. When the student opened her page to present her project, the class literally gasped and immediately began asking questions about how she created such a look. This response illustrated to all present that the visual content and arrangement of digital scholarship needs to be accessible, navigable, and interesting. The visual appearance can, in fact, become part of the analysis, particularly when still and moving images are employed, as another student did with slideshows of images she took while doing research for her project.
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The student work examined above affords a fertile view into the nature of the construction of histories from the vantage point of emergent historians. Most fundamentally, students’ concern for the integrity of the historical narrative, its structure, its documentation, and its transparency or opaqueness surfaced, to a large extent, through discussions about audience. Their love of the story, they found, conflicted with their intellectual desire to be open with possible readers. But not knowing who their possible readers were, while simultaneously knowing that their readers might not read a carefully crafted narrative in the way the author intended, suggests that the students learned the individualistic nature of historical scholarship early in their training. When confronted with open conversation, as they were on Wikipedia, however, students responded favorably to the perceived opportunity to improve their work. Finally, students’ experimentation with writing for general audiences and creating a digital history suggest the need for explicit training in both public history and web or graphic design. The orientation of students’ scholarship in Histories of Education was that of a public good; their experiences underscore the changing forms and norms of doing history.
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About the author: Adrea Lawrence is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education, Teaching, and Health and affiliate faculty in the History Department at American University in Washington, DC. Lawrence’s research extends from the policy histories of American Indian education to research methodologies that include historical, ethnographic, and spatial history methods.
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- Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press, 1988); John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History, vol. Revised Third Edition (London: Longman, 2002). ↩
- Jack Dougherty, Ansley Erickson, and Sarah Manekin, “How Historians Research, Write, and Publish” (presented at the History of Education Society, Boston, M.A., November 5, 2010); Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” The Journal of American History 93, no. 1 (June 2006): para. 1-2, http://www.historycooperative.org.proxyau.wrlc.org/journals/jah/93.1/rosenzweig.html. ↩
- Adrea Lawrence, “Histories of Education, Fall 2010 – American University, Washington, DC”, March 7, 2011, http://www.adrealawrence.org/courses/edhistory/fall2010/. ↩
- How one learns the epistemological tenets of history as a discipline has been the subject of intensive study over the last fifteen years. Cognitive psychologists, notably Sam Wineburg and Bruce VanSledright, have developed “historical thinking” as a field of research. See Bruce A. VanSledright and Christine Kelly, “Reading American History: The Influence of Multiple Sources on Six Fifth Graders,” The Elementary School Journal 98, no. 3 (January 1998): 239-265; Bruce A. VanSledright, “What Does It Mean to Read History? Fertile Ground for Cross-Disciplinary Collaborations?,” Reading Research Quarterly 39, no. 3 (September 2004): 342-346; Sam Wineburg, “Beyond ‘Breadth and Depth’: Subject Matter Knowledge and Assessment,” Theory Into Practice 36, no. 4 (Autumn 1997): 255-261; Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001). ↩
- Donald Warren, “American Indian Histories as Education Histories” (presented at the American Educational Research Association, Denver, CO, 2010). ↩
- This assignment is based on Jeremy Boggs, “Assigning Wikipedia in a US History Survey · ClioWeb,” Clioweb, April 5, 2009, http://clioweb.org/2009/04/05/assigning-wikipedia-in-a-us-history-survey/. ↩
- All nine students were invited to participate in this study. Six completed the informed consent document, but one student audited the course and only completed the digital history. Her work is not included in this analysis. Two of the five students were advanced undergraduates in history and sociology; the other three were master’s students in the History Department or the School of Education, Teaching & Health. ↩
- http://docs.google.com ↩
- Several of these reviews can be read at http://www.adrealawrence.org/courses/edhistory/fall2010/. ↩
- Calder, “Uncoverage”; Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, chap. 1-3; VanSledright, “What Does It Mean to Read History? Fertile Ground for Cross-Disciplinary Collaborations?”. ↩
- http://www.wikipedia.org ↩
- Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 21; Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source?,” para. 1-3, 13, 39-41, 62, 70; Lisa Spiro, “Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities: Exploring the Digital Humanities, September 1, 2008, http://digitalscholarship.wordpress.com/tag/wikipedia/. ↩
- Boggs, “Assigning Wikipedia in a US History Survey · ClioWeb”; see also Colleen A. Reilly, “Teaching Wikipedia as a Mirrored Technology,” academic journal, First Monday, January 3, 2011, http://www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2824/2746. ↩
- “Category:Education stubs – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”, n.d., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Education_stubs. ↩
- Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message (1966),” in Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (Cambridge, M.A.: MIT Press, 2003), 76-97. ↩
- Jeremy Boggs taught this student’s section. ↩
- WordPress offers free webhosting at www.wordpress.com and free software from which to run a website on one’s own server at www.wordpress.org. ↩
- In order to examine what, if any, effect this had upon the viewer, it is necessarily to track data on the order in which pages are clicked through via a system like Google Analytics. This data was not available. ↩
- Matthew Henry, “Censorship, The Payne Fund Studies and Hollywood’s Influence on Children by Matthew Henry on Prezi”, December 9, 2010, http://prezi.com/rdkntzm6spjz/censorship-the-payne-fund-studies-and-hollywoods-influence-on-children/. ↩
- “EDU-596 Digital History Presentations,” discussion with Adrea Lawrence, December 9, 2010. ↩