Teaching with the History Engine: Experiences from the Field

Lloyd Benson, Julian Chambliss, Jamie Martinez, Kathryn Tomasek, and Jim Tuten, May 2009

In early 2006, the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE) and the directors of the History Engine invited faculty from NITLE-member campuses to join in a new collaboration based on the History Engine project. The following year, professors and students from Kathryn Tomasek’s “The United States: A New Nation, 1776–1836” course at Wheaton College, Jim Tuten’s “Civil War and Reconstruction” class at Juniata College, Jamie Martinez’s “Rise and Fall of the Slave South” class at the University of Virginia, Lloyd Benson’s “America, 1820–1890” class at Furman University, and Julian Chambliss’s “United States to 1877” class at Rollins College initiated the first multicampus use of the project and the “episode” assignment. We saw the History Engine as an opportunity to test how digital technology might enhance our student’s encounters and engagement with the past.

The History Engine provoked deep reappraisal of our assumptions about how we should teach and how our students best learn. We have all experienced students who study using content-rich but guidance-poor resources such as Wikipedia and tools such as Google rather than lecture notes or assigned readings. The associated fragmentation of historical information—its reduction to randomly-gathered screen-sized miniatures—has been equally disorienting. Yet this unstructured fragmentation may more accurately represent the experience of history as participants lived and recorded it. The History Engine’s version of micro-history provides the flexibility, fluidity, and manageability students are drawn to in sources like Wikipedia while placing the diversity of the lived past and the practice of critical thinking and research at its core.

The question, “What if history were a database?” was central to our work, leading to discoveries and adaptations that none of us foresaw. The History Engine presented us new ways to teach the concept of historical significance, taking advantage of a process in which collaboratively produced content becomes as substantive as a professor’s lecture. For each episode students devote themselves to a single primary source, reading it closely, researching the context, and then writing their own summations. Students work with faculty and staff to become experts within this microcosm, telling the story from the perspective of the document, its creators and authoritative secondary sources. The structure requires them to be mindful in their selection, prioritization, and interconnection of facts, and to carefully revise their writing so that only the most valuable ideas remain within each episode’s closely-defined space. Once students have completed their episodes it has been especially exciting to see them realize that historical monographs contain primary source-based “episodes” too. For the first time, many of them “got the point of the footnotes.” Attentive writers have thus become more critical readers.

Students came to their primary sources in a variety of ways. Each of us worked closely with archivists and librarians, renewing our appreciation of the many collaborations that make such resources available. Many students greatly enjoyed working with original archival materials. Others worked with primary sources in digital formats, including historical newspapers online, the American Periodicals Series, the Making of America project, and materials from the Library of Congress’s American Memory collections, as well as digitized materials unique to our own campus collections. Each format provided opportunities to introduce questions about the levels of mediation that lie between the reader and the document. We came to appreciate the wisdom of knowing the primary sources in advance. Some documents are more suited for use in episodes than others, and archival help in targeting source collections can minimize student frustration. We also discovered, though, that giving students the initiative in document selection produced episodes with an astonishing variety of topics and connections. Moreover, by letting students follow their own interests when picking sources, we faculty have had to expand our own expertise. We are constantly striving to catch up as we help students to understand the sources that they have found, discovering for ourselves a rich body of secondary literature that has enhanced our own research as well as our teaching.

The number of episodes participants assigned varied. Some required one for the entire semester, the construction of which was broken down into a series of project stages. Others required several episodes with multiple drafts, peer review procedures and supplemental assignments related to the completed episode. Peer review proved very effective, producing major improvements in episode quality with a minimum of instructor intervention. Students often found it valuable to work with the History Engine as users before they began writing their own projects. Asking them to read all the episodes from one or two specific places or periods in time exposed them to the contingency and selectivity of lived experience in the past, especially in comparison to standard textbook narratives. The episodes revealed, for example, that not every South Carolinian in December 1832 was worried about Nullification and not every New Yorker in 1865 was transformed by the ending of the Civil War. Once the students made their own contributions the new episodes became the base for subsequent class reports, oral presentations, and take-home components of course examinations. Because each stage had implications for later assignments and would be seen by a larger public they approached their work with intensified pride and seriousness.

Our own assumptions changed because of the project. Initially we thought that writing a short episode would require little more student work than a research paper of comparable length. Our initial math converted a 15-page essay, for example, into seven small History Engine episodes. In practice, however, all of us found that the episode format engaged and demanded much more from students than anyone anticipated. Whether at the freshman or senior level, issues relating to historiography, sources, and even the prose demanded intensive student attention. We learned from student journals and course evaluations that the research habits they brought into our courses were insufficient. Most reported spending much more time per paragraph on an episode than they had on any prior assignment.

After the initial semester each of us reappraised our assignments and pacing. The very beneficial increase in student engagement led to enhanced student-faculty interactivity. To leverage this we cut the total number of episodes assigned, trading these for strategies such as multiple drafts, more class time devoted to role-modeling research approaches and consideration of episode progress, more extensive peer-review assignments, additional time reviewing research journals and editing student’s written work, and more discussion of episode-like examples drawn from published articles and monographs. Because students were doing the primary source work of apprentice historians rather than merely paraphrasing existing content, students came to enriched understanding and appreciation of the historical art. Fewer assignments allowed more depth of analysis and care with methods.

Our collaborations suggest the History Engine’s potential for application to many academic levels and topics. In our introductory courses, the experience of writing episodes helped familiarize students with the basic procedures and vocabulary of historical research while making them conscious of descriptive and interpretive expression. In advanced courses, our students reported a deepened respect for the work of professional historians and refined understanding of the provisional nature of historical inference. The learning outcomes for our History Engine students generally have been quite positive. Students reported increased engagement with primary sources, taking interest not only in their own documents and those of classmates, but also paying more attention to the footnotes and bibliographies of published works. The quality of student writing also improved. The permanence and public nature of the History Engine led average students to undertake extraordinary efforts. At Juniata College, for example, a student asked after the final exam if he could revise a couple of his substandard essays, though aware that his grade for the course was already in the registrar’s hands. This student no longer cared about the grade; he cared about contributing to the project. Like many students in our experience, he developed a strong sense of ownership for his episodes.

We are very excited about the History Engine’s potential for intercampus collaboration. Our initial efforts have been deliberately modest in scope, limited to asking participants on multiple campuses to contribute a least one episode per student focused on a small set of shared dates. Assignments then drew on these common episode blocks, with the intention that all students on all campuses would be using the contributions from every other college. There was a great deal of interest and competitiveness among students about the submissions from other campuses. Students also became alert to the ways in which campus context and the differences in source availability guided episode choices. We also experimented with direct student-to-student communication using a Rollins-based blog, and anticipate that the expansion of social networking sites will enable even more productive crosscampus conversations in the future. Faculty-to-faculty collaborations have been especially fruitful. We have extensively borrowed assignments and strategies from each other, incorporating the best ideas from prior experience at other schools.

Our experiences with the History Engine energized our teaching and intensified our students’ encounters with the past. We discovered that conventional course structures needed modification if students were to be trained to study and write about primary materials at the episode level. We also found that such training, in turn, greatly improved their understanding of materials delivered using conventional lecture and discussion methods. By producing their own contributions for a public audience they developed a stronger connection to course content and deeper respect for the joys and challenges of historical research. The collection of episodes our students created provides an intriguing mosaic of the past whose elements can be recombined to suit a diversity of uses and collaborations.

—Lloyd Benson is the Walter Kenneth Mattison Professor of History at Furman University; Julian Chambliss is an assistant professor of history at Rollins College; Jamie Martinez is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke; Kathryn Tomasek is an associate professor of history at Wheaton College; Jim Tuten is an associate professor of history at Juniata College.