Teaching Hidden History at the AHA

On January 8, Celeste Sharpe and I had the wonderful opportunity to present a poster on Teaching Hidden History at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in Atlanta.  The session was well-attended overall, and it was especially gratifying to talk with a variety of people interested in creating digital projects that emphasize pedagogy in higher education.

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Celeste Sharpe and Nate Sleeter at the 2016 AHA Annual Meeting to present a poster on Teaching Hidden History.

Our poster included an overview of the project, including the role of the 4VA initiative in providing a chance to collaborate with Virginia Tech.  We also featured an interactive component, encouraging visitors to submit their “hypothesis” on how of a series of objects might be used in teaching and then a chance to “rethink” their hypothesis after they had reviewed the poster.  We also included two slideshow presentations available to view on laptops. One displayed the THH students’ final projects and the other presented the backend of the THH website to demonstrate how students constructed their learning modules.

We also answered several questions from attendees who were interested in the 4VA initiative and how it supports collaboration among public universities in Virginia. Overall the poster session was an excellent chance to highlight the potential for collaboration across institutions and demonstrate how web-based, “real world” projects can support student learning and reinforce best practices for teaching and learning.

Nate Sleeter talks with an attendee about the THH project.
Nate Sleeter discusses the learning modules created by students in the Teaching Hidden History course with a conference attendee.

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.