to Become Producers of
New Historical Knowledge on the Web
of American History, 88 (March 2002): 1471-76.
do a relatively poor job of explaining their work process to others. Perhaps
this and the ahistorical bent of our culture explain why my undergraduate
studentseven history majorsknow astonishingly little about
historical methods. Too many students think the study of the past consists
of reading secondary works and reporting on them. At most they might evaluate
a few primary sources. Yet the exceptions to this rulestudents who
write honors thesesshow that undergraduates are capable of more
serious work. We can coax them out of the box to become producers of new
1997, in an undergraduate seminar for history majors at the State University
of New York, Binghamton, I began a project that rewarded students' efforts
with publication of their term projects on the course Web site. Binghamton,
one of four university centers in the SUNY (State University of New York)
system, attracts a very diverse and highly motivated population of students,
primarily from New York City. Partly because we have a strong graduate
program in U.S. women's history, we also offer an array of undergraduate
courses in U.S. women's history. Focusing on "women and social movements
in the U.S.," this seminar had no prerequisites and included nonmajors
as well as majors. Students in this and subsequent seminars came to see
how their course projects could open exciting new windows onto American
history for high school and college students. It is a lot of workfor
them and for mebut by becoming historical practitioners themselves
my seminar students have gained a much more complete understanding of
how historians work. In the process they have also acquired useful skills
that help them evaluate information, interpret evidence, and construct
not let the technology scare you; college teachers do not need to be Web
wonks to do this. I was not yet on e-mail when I began using Web-based
technology in that seminar in January 1997. My conversion to the new order
occurred during the first week of class, when I attended a funding panel
at the Library of Congress. Meeting with librarians, professors, and teachers
of kindergarten through twelfth grade classes, I found myself in the company
of colleagues who were creating the vanguard of history Web technologyEd
Ayers of the University of Virginia, Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University,
and John McClymer of Assumption College. I noticed that U.S. women's history
was dramatically underrepresented among the submitted proposals and realized
that this absence symbolized a growing gender digital divide in U.S. history
on the Web. There I also learned from high school teachers that what they
needed most from the Web were sites where information was focused in such
a way as to permit students to learn something significant in an hour.
Browsing the Web might be a way of life for many students, but learning
meaningful history is rarely achieved by simple and undirected Web browsing.
This made me wonder how the need for pedagogically effective resources
in U.S. history could be met by women's history materials, a strategy
that would simultaneously address the needs of U.S. history teachers and
the gender digital divide.
to my senior seminar, where I had organized a number of likely research
topics for students based on microfilm sources, I offered students the
alternative of creating document-based projects for the World Wide Web
(WWW). Every student chose the new alternative. The shift from using microfilm
for research papers to using microfilm for document-based editorial projects
for the Web was easier than I could ever have imagined. Web technology
is a perfect match for teaching about history because it permits us to
democratize the availability and analysis of documents. The technology
boosts our capacities as teachers by giving our students a front-row view
of the documentary record of historical change. Moreover, it allows us
to teach students how professional historians work with such records.
This happy conjuncture of new technology with the possibilities of the
history classroom has enormous potential for improving the way we teach
history. But to develop that potential we need to design effective models
for the classroom use of the new technology.
"Arresting the Girl Strikers for
Picketing," Reprinted from the International Socialist Review, Jan. 1910. Part of an editorial project by Deirdre Doherty, State Univerrsity
of New York at Binghamton, May 1998.
model I developed in the spring of 1997 and continue to employ has three
features. First, it treats students as the producers of new historical
knowledge by requiring them to produce a project containing new historical
knowledge. Second, it prescribes a very specific form that the projects
must follow, a form that facilitates Web-based learning by offering historical
knowledge in units that can be explored in an hour's time. Third, it helps
students place their projects on the course Web site, where others can
learn from their work.
course is divided into three parts that reflect these three components.
Gradually the course propels students "outside the box." First, each students
selects a topic, explores related secondary literature, frames a new question,
and locates primary sources that will address the question. Second, the
student selects around twenty documents that address the question, writes
headnotes for each document, and writes a short interpretive introduction
for the whole project. Third, the student transcribes the documents and
mounts them with interpretive comments on the course Web site.
final projects are therefore pedagogic units that pose central interpretive
questions and provide about twenty primary documents that address each
question. Each project also includes footnotes to the introductory materials,
annotations of the primary documents, a bibliography, and a list of related
guide students through this demanding course I have relied on the able
assistance of Dr. Melissa Doak, a recent Binghamton Ph.D. in U.S. women's
history, who has developed an effective course Web site, <http://bingweb.binghamton.edu/~hist465>.
To produce new historical knowledge students learn about a wide array
of methodological issues, most of which we discuss on the course Web site
under "project guides." There we offer guidance on such matters as:
the distinction between primary and secondary sources;
compiling a bibliography of secondary sources and developing a
perspective on historiography;
learning what constitutes authoritative information (especially
on the WWW);
locating and selecting documents for inclusion in the project;
considering editorial practices to be employed in the transcription
citing documents and secondary sources properly; and
writing an interpretive introduction for the documents as a whole.
The course Web
site also offers HTML (hypertext markup language) tutorials written by
course meets once a week for three hours. Classroom discussions focus
on the week's assignment: how to frame a historiographically derived question;
how to locate documents capable of addressing one's question; how to evaluate
and interpret documents; how to create a story from a group of documents;
how to search for appropriate images to illustrate one's project; etc.
Throughout the course we schedule frequent individual tutorials to discuss
students' progress and problems. Early in the course students acquire
peer review partners with whom they discuss their work each week.
the end of the semester, we invite university administrators, librarians,
and history faculty to attend the final meeting of the class where students
give oral reports on their work and display the products of their labors
with large-screen projection facilities. This event rewards the extra
effort that most students have put into their course projects. It also
reinforces their identity as producers of historical knowledge.
help with the first stage of the course by preparing page-long descriptions
of possible topics, with suggested questions, secondary bibliography,
and microfilm sources. Some students prefer to work more independently
at this stage, but typically students use these descriptions to launch
their projects. My reward for this preparatory work is that students become
engaged in their projects early enough to complete them within fifteen
weeks. I also assume all responsibility for permissions, an extremely
time-consuming and arcane task that they could not possibly add to their
already-full plates, although I describe that work so they understand
that permissions do have to be obtained.
Burns (left) and Gretchen Becht (right), in a senior seminar
taught in the collaborative classroom, Fall 1999, compare notes on
their project on women's rights conventions of the 1850s.
Photograph by Kitty Sklar.
addition to posting their projects on the course Web site, students aspire
to have their work included in the Women and Social Movements in the
United States, 1820-1940, Web site that my Binghamton colleague Professor
Thomas Dublin and I co-direct with the assistance of Melissa Doak, <http://womhist.binghamton.edu>.
That site is visited by about ten thousand visitors a month from sixty
different countries. Before student work is placed on that site we revise
it in ways that render it fully authoritative and professional. Yet the
final products clearly reflect students' work, and we credit them as the
the larger Web site builds on student work, it is not an integral part
of this flexible classroom model. This model can be replicated wherever
students have access to primary sources that can be used to address historical
questions. Variations on the model might include group projects in which
students share the responsibility of completing a single project. My students
have worked almost exclusively with microfilm sources, but the course
could also use archival or even printed materials. The course could be
adapted to serve as a year-long framework for honors theses. Teachers
without supportive computer technology assistance might rely on my course
substantive interpretive questions in the selection and editing of historical
documents is a challenging task for students to master in a single semester,
as is the acquisition of technical skills, but most of my students have
risen to the occasion and done quite remarkable work in the short space
of three and a half months. The key to their success is that they become
energized by the goal of putting their project on the Web as a learning
resource for other students of U.S. history. Inspired by this goal, they
have been willing to learn the nitty-gritty features of historical scholarship
that otherwise might discourage all but the most dedicated. Students who
entered the class with little or no understanding of historical methodology
or technical Web expertise leave the class with a command of both. They
let themselves "out of the box" to become part of the process by which
history is written. And they have fun in the process.