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From the Intersections: History and New Media forum in the May 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

Investigating US History at CUNY--Digitally

David Jaffee, May 2009

Historians have for some time extolled the wonders of the Web—all those digitized documents that have made it easy to locate primary materials at any time of the day, but also pose some significant challenges for us as teachers of history. The Investigating U.S. History project at the City University of New York (www.ashp.cuny.edu/investigatinghistory) was an effort to try and tackle some of those problems. Most of all, we asked: how do we locate first-rate historical materials on the seemingly boundless digital domain and even more, how do we structure engaging ways for our students to use those sources in a sophisticated historical fashion? We made some very interesting discoveries about ourselves as historians and teachers along the way to answering these questions and our work evolved into a three-year digital project funded from a materials development grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the CUNY Central Office.

What caught our attention in 2004 when we started planning for the project was the confluence of several developments: For over a generation, professional historians have revamped our understanding of the past by vastly expanding the bounds of U.S. history as they researched a wide range of individuals and cultures, and made available new sources and ways of looking at those materials. Meanwhile, constructivist pedagogies have promoted the active engagement by students in the understanding of the past by illuminating the power of students made into practitioners of the craft rather than consumers of a textbook account. Finally, the proliferation of digital sources posted on the World Wide Web has made possible a wealth of information once only available to intrepid professionals traveling to distant libraries or privileged undergraduates with access to research collections. Still, the problem remained of how to bridge the gap between the promise of hypertext history—to make use of that cornucopia—and how to change what we knew about their use by many faculty, primarily to deliver documents on the Web. Then there was the mantra of interactivity, which had come to mean in many instructional materials (and for many students) simply the clicking on a series of links embedded in a paragraph of text or in a list, reading that chosen material, and then producing a standard written response. We were well aware that technology by itself does not produce intellectual engagement.

Our intervention in the Investigating U.S. History project was intended to have students incorporate “history labs” into their survey courses in U.S. history. To this end we designed 12 interactive, multimedia modules or history labs—to parallel labs in science courses—to encourage students to “do history” with the growing amount of wonderful online archival materials. We wanted students to craft narratives out of fascinating new media (and old media) resources and to capitalize on the hypertext possibilities of multiple pathways and complex stories. More important, our goal was to have students gain an understanding of the complexity and depth of historical research and analysis. I was able to bring some of my experience in thinking about student learning and how to make student learning visible from my participation in Randy Bass’s Visible Knowledge Project at Georgetown University (http://cndls.georgetown.edu/crossroads/vkp), a project that pursued research on student learning in the humanities classroom along with promoting a discussion on faculty development in technology-enhanced environments. The project leaders promoted the use of new media and various kinds of techniques such as discussion boards, watching video clips, using visual and video materials, virtual exhibitions, and multimedia authoring, not as dogma or some flashy trend, but rather as items for a teaching toolbox that faculty would want to know about for their possible use as related to the pedagogical goals of their course and classroom.

What proved equally significant to the Investigating U.S. History’s 30-odd participants was the collaborative aspect of the project, that brought faculty together for sustained and intellectually rigorous discussions about what goes on in their classrooms and where they would like to go. Our mix of participants ranged across the university—graduate students and doctoral faculty, junior and senior faculty, two- and four-year schools.

The project built upon the strong faculty in the 17 CUNY campuses, and also on several ongoing university projects and institutions. Investigating U.S. History had followed upon the U.S. History Initiative begun by David Nasaw (Graduate Center); for that project, in two stages faculty had shared primary resources for the teaching of the U.S. survey and also started to make use of online teaching spaces such as Blackboard. The NEH project modules used enhanced versions of six initiatives of that project and also added six new topics.

We recognized that the module developers, though expert in their particular fields of historical research, would need ample technical assistance to put their ideas and expertise into hypertext form. We also realized that they would need some release time to give the necessary attention to these new projects.

The faculty module developers worked together in collaborative teams, three each semester, along with a skilled team of new media developers that included the CUNY American Social History Project’s Pennee Bender and our workshop leader Bill Friedheim (Borough of Manhattan Community Coll.). We field tested the modules in over 30 history classrooms throughout the City University of New York over the three-year duration of the project. Beyond the module developers, we added another ring of participants that consisted of U.S. history faculty who would field test the lab modules in their courses and provide thoughtful reflections on the experience, as well as recommendations for improvements. Each summer all the participants gathered for a multiday workshop that sparked a systematic conversation about what constitutes historical thinking. Our vigorous discussions focused on how we taught U.S. history, what we thought was important in a survey course, and the fascinating issue of how we determined what authentic student learning looked like in a history classroom.

The faculty module developers built scaffolding for student learning that enables students to see beyond the simple, to formulate provisional questions for inquiry, to encounter new sources, and finally, to revise their earlier assertions. In this way, we sought to help students learn the process of historical reasoning. The modules are quite varied in their approaches as well as their content. We didn’t offer defined models; nothing would have turned off faculty more than restricting them to rigid templates. We often looked at a digital database or archive together and thrashed out what sorts of pedagogical approaches might work best. The 12 modules offer a wonderful variety of ways of teaching and learning history; some are built around a single web site, such as Joanne Reitano’s (LaGuardia Community Coll.) The Triangle Fire: From Industrialism to Progressivism (www.ashp.cuny.edu/investigatinghistory/m9.html), while Megan Elias’s (Queensborough Community Coll.) To Conquer or Redeem? The Spanish-Cuban-American War (www.ashp.cuny.edu/investigatinghistory/m7.html) asks students to comb through a host of web sites and resources in order to construct a narrative of the war from the perspective of someone who lived through it. Jonathan Sassi’s (Coll. of Staten Island/Graduate Center) World Together, Worlds Apart: The Slave Society of Eighteenth-Century Virginia (www.ashp.cuny.edu/investigatinghistory/m1.html) features a tour of a virtual plantation and discussions about space and power relations in eighteenth-century Chesapeake. A module by Vince DiGirolamo (Baruch Coll.) The Big Strike: Labor Unrest in the Great Depression (www.ashp.cuny.edu/investigatinghistory/m10.html) provides multiple pathways—using music, photography, oral history, and others—to work with the documentary record of the 1930s, even asking students to create their own multimedia presentations.

The modules are quite complex and do take up valuable class time. Many field testers felt that they just couldn’t devote the necessary time for students to complete a particular module, given the constraints of a fast-paced survey. Recognizing that issue, we asked the developers to annotate their work online and indicate what the “core” of the module was. We realized that like most online pedagogical lessons, these materials would be encountered by teachers on their own, without the author or developer present to explain why certain decisions were made or any other information.

Clearly, while many modules provided creative opportunities for active interaction (through writing exercises, for instance) and made visible the intermediate steps of historical thinking, for some of the participants such constructivist pedagogy was not regular practice. They relied, therefore, more upon the traditional practice of having students read material and then answer questions and write essays. If we were to recast the project in today’s new media environment, we might ask students to create multimedia work, for example, or use the newer social networking technologies and other Web 2.0 technologies that were just becoming available at the time. We also came to think about alternative ways to teach the survey (or any history course); one field tester lamented how difficult it was for her and her students to “slow down” their learning and use these rich materials in a survey that demanded the opposite; and a “workshop” model for the course could have strung together a series of the modules and might have offered a much better way of “doing history” and learning the broad span of U.S. history.

What did come across in our project was the hunger for a discipline-based discussion among CUNY history teachers at all levels of career and institutional positions. We so often teach in isolation, encountering problems that in our research we would be glad to share with colleagues. The collaborative model was quite joyful a change for many of us. We held a public launch of the project entitled “Teaching U.S. History in the Age of New Media” in fall 2005 in which Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg addressed a packed auditorium on “Seeing Thinking” and the module developers displayed their work in the lobby and participated in breakout sessions to discuss the teaching of various eras of U.S. history. While a few early adaptors are inevitably captivated by learning about a “cool” new web site or a demonstration of discussion-board software, most historians were far more persuaded by a content-rich discussion of how the new technologies might enhance their goal—to teach history and have their students understand some of the messiness of working with historical texts.

—David Jaffee is a professor at the Bard Graduate Center.