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.

THH: Off and running

The Teaching Hidden History pilot course began on May 26 and in less than two weeks the first group of students will present their modules to the class.  Both in person and online we’ve had great discussions about what goes into an effective module — what kinds of objects can be best used to tell a “hidden” history, how we can model historical interpretation and even historiography through online modules, and how these specific questions lead to larger issues at stake when teaching, history, and technology intersect.  The projects themselves show an impressive range. We have modules from the Revolutionary War all the way up to the twentieth century.  While most the projects deal with U.S. history, we also have global approaches including one that examines the origins of Scottish nationalism through the embrace of the tartan as national symbol and another that explores the connections made between Korean women and American female missionaries.  The students are also considering a wide range of audiences for the project — while some are addressing college undergrads or upper-level secondary students, others are considering a more general public audience who might visit a museum or a historic site.  Since the original Hidden in Plain Sight was created for K-12 teacher professional development, this exploration of new audiences for these modules brings up interesting possibilities. One theme the class has discussed in depth is how to make historical interpretation visible to students as well as to visitors to sites of public history.  What these modules attempt to do is make the work of the historian more visible, to show that the past is being actively interpreted rather than consisting simply of the passive gathering of historical facts.  Given this goal, as one student remarked the main object around which each module is based “has to do a lot of work”. This is a challenge that the Teaching Hidden History students have embraced and the instructors are greatly looking forward to how the projects turn out and what reflections the students have on the entire process.

Teaching Hidden History and 4VA out in the world

On May 1-2, I presented a poster on behalf of the project team at the Teaching History: Fostering Historical Thinking Across the K-16 Curriculum conference held at UC Berkeley. The poster session was scheduled for lunchtime both days, and I had interesting conversations with people who stopped by to take a look.

Photo of Celeste next to the posterClick on the image for the full poster. Warning: it’s a large file.

My goal for the poster was to show the evolution of the courses we’ve developed from the teacher professional development courses Hidden in Plain Sight and Virginia Studies to the newest iteration in Teaching Hidden History (THH). A 3 column design worked well for that (I believe) and passersby asked a wide range of questions about the project. Some examples included:

  • A high school teacher from the Bay Area asking how Virginia educators approached and dealt with sensitive and contentious historical topics that have such strong local connections, like slavery.
  • Two educators in graduate programs at UC Berkeley were interested in our choice of Drupal as the platform for all of our courses. We talked about the merits and challenges of the CMS, and I was able to demo how we’d set up the backend of the course for them.
  • A professor from Western Michigan University asked about our experiences collaborating across multiple institutions. He presented on a program that uses historiography as the central link in connecting high school history education with pre-service teacher training in the university, and the challenges he faced with forging a team of collaborators.
  • Two visitors were struck by our point of communicating process (through this blog, among other avenues), including our “productive failures,” a favorite and guiding phrase from Kelly Schrum.

What struck me at this conference is that while many K-16 collaborations are happening across the country, ours seemed to be the only one that I came across that centers on digital technologies to bring people together and as an important medium for history education. Not only are more historical artifacts digitized and available online, but students increasingly turn to web searches, online databases, and websites for information. It’s important to us to introduce and guide students–be they K-12 educators or graduate students in history and education–through additional skills/practices that are important for teaching and learning history in the digital age. The emphasis on online and digital teaching and learning is integral to this project: our professional development courses are conducted only as online asynchronous courses, and much of the work for THH will be conducted online and asynchronously too. The presentations that I saw showed how collaboration can occur and impact history education at many levels, and it seems to me that THH is an important experiment in opening up alternative ways for collaboration and instruction to happen.