Teaching Students to Become Producers of
New Historical Knowledge on the Web

Kathryn Kish Sklar
S.U.N.Y. Binghamton

From Journal of American History, 88 (March 2002): 1471-76.


     Historians 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 students—even history majors—know 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 rule—students who write honors theses—show that undergraduates are capable of more serious work. We can coax them out of the box to become producers of new historical knowledge.

     In 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 work—for them and for me—but 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 arguments.

     Do 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 technology—Ed 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.

     Returning 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.


girl strikers

"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.


     The 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.

     The 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.

     Students' 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 Web links.

     To 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, <>. 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:

• learning 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 process;
• writing headnotes;
• 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 Dr. Doak.

     Our 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.

     At 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.

     I 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.



Jennifer 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.


     In 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, <>. 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 original editors.

     Although 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 Web site.

     Addressing 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.