Creating Community with the History Engine: Connecting Teachers, Librarians, Students, and Scholars

Kathryn Shively Meier and Rachel Shapiro, May 2009

The History Engine (described in the article by Andrew Torget and Scott Nesbit) began as an attempt to reimagine undergraduate research and essay writing by harnessing the possibilities of the new digital world.

Once we began to implement the History Engine in college classrooms, however, we realized that the project had the potential to do more than merely change the nature of assignments. It could transform the traditional classroom experience, moving beyond the student-teacher relationship, to engage the entire academic community. The process of creating student “episodes” would involve students, teachers, and librarians within a single university, but would also link people from institutions across the country who are using the project. Over time, this increased collaboration among students, teachers, librarians, and archivists became a crucial component of the History Engine experience. In short, the project became an “engine of community” in the digital age.

Engaging librarians and archivists with the History Engine had a second important result: it mitigated some of the problematic effects of current web collaboration projects. Sites like Wikipedia have shown how contributors from around the country (and even the world) can work together and learn from each other, but many of us remain skeptical of using web resources that have not been evaluated by academic experts. Because librarians and archivists identify sources during the project planning stage and supervise student research, History Engine collaboration actually aids rather than hinders the academic integrity of student episodes.

Most important, these two key elements of the History Engine experience—increased collaboration and high academic standards—are part of every stage of the classroom project. Collaborative possibilities begin as early as the planning stages of a course, continue throughout student research and writing, and finally leave behind a database of episodes and citations for future students and teachers, as well as scholars who seek glimpses into rare historical documents.

Collaborative Assignment Planning

Teachers begin by looking through the web site’s resources to visualize how the History Engine project can accomplish class themes and assignments. The project is designed to give instructors the flexibility to mold their project to suit individual needs, from academic discipline, to course subject, to source type. Yet the web site also allows teachers to see how others have used the History Engine and provides access to classroom tools—such as the Teacher’s Guide, writing guides, and peer review worksheets—that their colleagues have designed and used. The Teacher’s Guide is a particularly beneficial tool for first time users, because it was written by teachers who have actually used (and continue to use) the History Engine in their classrooms. It contains both an overview and a step-by-step explanation of the planning, implementing, and digitizing process, so that teachers can develop a timeline of assignments and anticipate the work ahead. Particularly important is the explanation of how to upload episodes to the database, as some instructors may be newer to the digital side of the project.

Once the teacher has a research topic in mind, collaboration outside the traditional student-teacher experience truly begins. The History Engine encourages each instructor to consult with librarians and archivists at his or her institution, or even other local repositories, to help design a project that best uses available primary sources. At this stage, it may be useful for the teacher to download the Librarian Guide, a question-and-answer format worksheet, which explains to the library staff how they might support the project during the development and research stages. The guide illustrates how librarians can play a role throughout the History Engine project, an opportunity they often relish.

The librarians’ expert knowledge of holdings is, in fact, crucial in helping teachers determine which primary sources best suit the needs of a course. For example, when Edward L. Ayers used the History Engine for his class on the American South at the University of Virginia, he wanted to develop an assignment that focused on the daily experiences and culture of average Southerners. To do so, he had to be sure that the university libraries could support his students’ research needs. He worked closely with librarians and archivists to locate appropriate sources, such as southern plantation records, southern newspapers, state and local politicians’ collected papers, and other documents. Together, they were able to craft an assignment based on the strengths of the university library.

A New Research Experience

Once the professor and librarians have identified appropriate research materials and crafted a focus for students’ episodes, the project is ready to take to the classroom. Students begin by learning about the History Engine from their teachers, but also by interacting with the episodes entered into the History Engine database by previous participants. Some teachers require students to write short papers early in the term that are based solely on the database to give students a taste of what successful episodes look like. Teachers also prepare students for the primary research ahead, often asking librarians to make classroom presentations on how to use their archives.

Teachers again depend on librarians and archivists when students set out to do their own research. Librarians appreciate the opportunity to oversee students as they conduct primary research for the first time. In fact, many librarians take the opportunity to educate students about using fragile documents in historical collection libraries. Some work one-on-one with students to teach them to discern what biases documents may contain and how to interpret primary and secondary sources.

Students also appreciate the librarians’ help. For many undergraduates, the History Engine provides their first opportunity to explore an archive and actually speak with archivists. And because of the initial careful planning among teachers and librarians, students are able to conduct “real” historical research without the potential disappointment of coming away from an archive empty-handed. As one student later explained, “My favorite part of the assignment was that I felt like I was doing real research. I was a real historian. It was the first time I actually had to find the primary documents myself, instead of being handed specific documents to read to coincide with the class.”

Throughout the research process, students rely on more than just their instructors and librarians. The History Engine project also provides the perfect opportunity for collaboration with their peers. During the research phase, students may be assigned to work in groups that investigate similar topics, geographic areas, or time periods. Students in Ayers’s class, for example, were divided into various regions throughout the South—ranging from a single county in Virginia to the entire state of Florida—depending upon the number of primary sources available for each area in the university library. Some students researched in pairs and the groups often traded secrets about where to find the best documents for their region. Students also helped each other tackle the difficult task of finding appropriate secondary sources to help interpret their primary findings.

Students also work together during the writing process. The History Engine provides a peer-review component, giving the students the opportunity to read and critique each others’ work. As a result, students work as a team to navigate the challenges of crafting short, reliable, and readable episodes. But this process also benefits teachers, who get to read drafts that have already undergone a round of editing.

An Interactive Result

Upon completion of the episodes, students initiate a level of collaboration not possible without the internet. They upload their episodes onto an online database that is searchable by keyword tags, dates, and county-level locations across the United States. While only registered students may contribute episodes, undergraduates from any institution can view and learn from fellow students’ work. In fact, scholars at every level will enjoy the benefits of this searchable database, which grants them access to a wealth of historical documents taken from repositories all over the country. Student-written episodes emphasize individual documents, such as a letter from a family collection or a newspaper clipping, so the database also provides a unique resource for discovering primary documents. And because librarians and teachers play a crucial role in vetting student episodes, scholars can trust that the episode citations are academically sound. Several teachers who have used the HE project in their classroom have even reported finding new documents for their own work.

Ultimately, the History Engine provides opportunities for all members of the academic community to engage with undergraduate work in a useful and meaningful way. Student episodes help lift the barriers between researchers and students, while teachers and librarians ensure that database entries maintain their academic integrity. This is one of the promises of digital history at large—to unite branches of academia in the learning process, providing the richest research experience for all involved. We hope that in facilitating communication and collaboration throughout the academic community, the History Engine will lead us to new frontiers in classroom learning.

—Kathryn Shively Meier serves as a project developer and Rachel Shapiro as the project manager on the History Engine. Both are completing their PhDs in history at the University of Virginia.