Student Reflection: Rob Farr with a student-teacher’s perspective on Teaching Hidden History

Rob Farr is pursuing his Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on Film and Video Studies. He also teaches the History of World Cinema (FAVS 225). Rob’s particular area of interest is silent film, particularly early comedy, and he has published several articles on this topic.

Having completed the first Teaching Hidden History, I am very enthusiastic about using it in my History of World Cinema class. THH was made for teaching media studies.

Many pre-20th Century modules use artifacts or paintings as gateway object to introduce readers to a subject and in some ways it seemed as if I were reading a book or paging through a web site with well-chosen illustrations and room for student responses at the end of each section. When I discovered that I could embed high-resolution film clips, THH took on whole new possibilities. The ability to embed audio and video clips into the pages is a dynamic way of leading the student through the progression of a film movement or the arc of a performer’s career. I learned in class to keep them short (5 minutes is probably too long). And it is important that the chosen clips be relevant and at the same time impactful. In the THH model, the course designer can choose clips that lead the learner to the subject through back doors and side alleys.

Film is common currency to a wide age-range of learners. Media studies can be adapted to students from middle school through graduate school. My Charlie Chaplin module was geared for high school students, but it could also serve undergrads who were being introduced to film studies for the first time. I used several clips from his 1940 feature, The Great Dictator. Being a satire, it assumes some awareness of Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. THH is flexible enough that it is easy to insert clips better suited for younger learners.

I realize I’m showing my bias as a media historian, but I think that film studies and THH is the perfect marriage of subject matter and learning technology.

Student Reflection: Peter Jones on “the clue” and Teaching Hidden History

Peter Carr Jones is a graduate student in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University. His research explores the impact of Cold War military contractors on the American landscape.

This summer I enrolled in Teaching Hidden History, a course which had the not insignificant goals of providing a new model for online historical learning, while also requiring original research and writing. I knew the course would provide challenges. I have taken pedagogical courses in the past, but the final product in that course was a sample syllabus. THH’s online module was a very different ultimate goal.

Though I have almost no experience with online classes, virtual discussion did not pose the biggest challenge of Teaching Hidden History. The 4VA telepresence room worked very well and other students generally provided helpful feedback. The most difficult aspect of the class was creating the final module. In part, this was a project that required an academic perspective on a period or event in history. It also needed to be written in a clear and concise manner for a high school or general audience. Finally, the module leveraged the web’s strengths in presenting visually based information to connect students to the past.

I had trouble thinking about how to create this particular framework, even with the many good example modules. My inspiration came when reading about digital textual analysis for another course. A prominent scholar in digital humanities, Franco Moretti, once compared dozens of detective and crime novels with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series to examine why they were special and how “the canon” of literature was formed. Moretti focused on the visual clues that Holmes’ character was particularly adept at identifying. Readers enjoyed making the connection between past crimes and present clues, and thus Sherlock Holmes is still in libraries while thousands of other boilerplate crime novels never survived.

The clue works well as an introduction into historical method. Historians are often compared to detectives and charged with discovering history’s mysteries, and indeed there are many parallels to historical research. Channeling Doyle, I sought to introduce “the clue” of each of my digital objects. Many of the modules in THH rely on seemingly mundane everyday objects to teach history as well as give an introduction to the historical method. By seeing my job as identifying “the clue”, my writing became less academic and more accessible. The clue gave each of my objects a specific focus they previously lacked. I directed students to the “clue” by first providing historical context to the object. Then, using the socratic method, I asked questions that might lead them to think about the object from a different perspective or “read” it in a new way.

Without formally using the module in a teaching situation, I can’t comment on how effective it would be in promoting online learning. For my own pedagogical development, it was a very unique way to think about teaching. My previous experience in creating sample syllabi was very helpful in thinking about overarching course goals. Creating an online module was different. Not only has it become a useful addition to my digital portfolio, Teaching Hidden History gave me specific ways of promoting deeper connections to history among our students. These lessons will be useful in teaching, as well as my future public history writing.

Student Reflection: Caleb Myatt on Teaching Hidden History

Caleb Myatt is a second-year MA student at George Mason University. His particular area of interest is New England religious history in the early republic.

As someone with little knowledge of educational technology beyond PowerPoint, I was a bit apprehensive over how I was going to integrate historical analysis into an online forum for public use. Moreover, I had never attempted to use historical images or objects to communicate a historical narrative; as most students of history know, historical analysis is largely communicated through writing.

But this changed after going through one of the online modules myself. Titled “Porcelain,” the module started with an image of an ordinary porcelain cup— a luxury good in Revolutionary America. But after going through a series of images depicting colonial resistance to British taxation (Stamp Act, Navigation Acts, etc.), the porcelain cup becomes a symbol of political resistance as wealthy Patriots boycotted luxury items like this one, helping to create an American identity distinct from the British.

It was at this moment that I recognized the power of imagery in drawing out deeper meanings and themes of an historical event or time period. My historical interests lie with New England religion and politics in the early republic, so I expanded the scope of my topic until it became the Second Great Awakening. By a stroke of luck, I happened to start my research with Nathan Hatch’s notable The Democratization of American Christianity, whose cover had what would eventually become my central object, depicting a religious camp meeting taking place on the frontier.

As I debated the use of this object with instructors and classmates at both George Mason and Virginia Tech, I thought about what this project was really about; communicating deeper themes of the historical event and time period that would force the reader to think not in terms of dates or people, but larger themes that shaped the historical period. This understanding was the basis for how I structured my module, which included three sections that could all be drawn from my central object.

First, the preacher standing on a makeshift podium wearing common garb represented the anticlericalism and anti-authoritarian behavior of the revivals. Secondly, the tents in the background and wooded environment emphasized the itinerant nature of the revivals. And lastly, the preponderance of women in the image exhibiting signs of spiritual rebirth highlighted the role they played not only during the Second Great Awakening, but during the social reform movements of the antebellum era.

Taking a thematic approach to this project made identifying objects for the module far easier than it would have been otherwise. For example, the central object’s depiction of many women engaging in the revivals created an easy transition to these same women singing hymns outside bars a decade or so later during the temperance movement, which became one of my images.

Now that the class is over, I look at historical images much differently than before. For many objects, beneath the surface lie hidden themes that connect it to the larger historical narrative. The module allows you to find those hidden themes and allow the reader to truly learn why this event matters.

Reflection: 2 Takeaways from THH

Now that the first offering of Teaching Hidden History has finished, it’s time for me to reflect on the pilot course and think about two of the biggest lessons learned.

The value of open communication
This was invaluable on several fronts. First, on the instructional side, coordinating between two campuses and five instructors is no small feat, but open and frequent communication (email and Skype primarily) was key. We all wanted to be on the same page every step of the way, and so there was constant effort to keep lines of communication open and to check-in with each other frequently . On a week by week basis, we divided the instruction based on each instructor’s strengths and experience. Nate, Regan, and I went through each final project together, assessing them based on the rubric, talking through each component of each student project, and the progress we saw each student make over the course.

We tried to fold this into the class environment from the start by talking about how this course was new and an experiment in hybrid, collaborative history courses. The technology aspect was something we addressed early on, too. The 4VA telepresence rooms were quite different from the small classrooms typical of most graduate level seminars, and the final project was a digital history education module. To set the tone, we told students that we were all in this experience together, that teaching and learning with technology was inevitably going to run up against some technical hurdles but that we could all clear them together. And, by and large, I think we succeeded. By being honest with students and responding quickly to issues when there were technical difficulties, we avoided a good amount of student frustration along the way. Maintaining frequent and open communication isn’t easy, but I think it was the glue that kept everything together and well worth the effort.

The value of process
Teaching Hidden History was a course that we had the rare opportunity to take from idea to pilot over about a year’s time. It was a great learning experience for me to have the time and space to develop the course with Kelly and Nate, and later Regan and Mark, at this stage of my own education and program. Putting readings, discussion, and pedagogical frameworks into practice with students is a whole level up from crafting a syllabus for a hypothetical future class. From the beginning, we wanted the course to focus on the process/practice of historical thinking, on reflection and iteration rather than pushing out a standard research product. That led to some challenging questions: how do we breakout the final project over 8 weeks, and allow for self-reflection along the way? How do we model the collaborative and cooperative work of digital history? How do we assess process and development?

The compressed 8 week time span was a challenge–I think we all had ideas about what more we could do with a few more weeks. The final project presentations, though, were the most illuminating for me in encapsulating the work each student had done over the course. What stuck out most to me were the reflections on choices made: where to trim, where to focus, and how to frame the topics for their particular audience.

Like any good project, the course opened up more questions about how these lessons learned can be carried forward into future iterations of this and other classes. It’s a good place to be in, and I look forward to our continuing reflections and work on this.