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.

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.

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.

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.