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.

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