Friday, April 04, 2003

Doing History

I'm at the Organization of American Historians conference in Memphis, TN. One of the things I'm hearing in sessions and conversations is the distinction some historians make when they teach. Instead of teaching history --i.e. telling students about history via lectures-- there's an effort to have students do history --having students engage history the way historians do. So there's a growing emphasis on primary documents, on field work, on historical thinking, while at the same time trying to have students read and learn history.


Yesterday I attended an excellent session: "Reaching with Technology: Approaches to Increasing Involvement through Instructional Technology."


The session opened with Bradley Austin, of Salem State College describing a teacher outreach project he worked on while at Ohio State. The Goldberg project is designed to have college historians work collaboratively with high school historians, with an eye toward helping both groups improve the teaching of history. Technology played a role in outreach --a WWW site was used for online meetings, file sharing and so on. What Bradley showed, however, was how things don't always go as planned, and talked about what the Goldberg team learned from the first year to the second of the project. And really it came down to discovering a better model of hybrid teaching -- part face to face and part distance. The first year, there was too much distance and the beginning face to face was overwhelming, with too much technology training. The second year, the program was reorganized, with more face to face, and more direct contact from teacher to teacher in the program. Everything Bradley described as working with colleagues also holds true when teachers work with students, and many of the teachers are taking the kinds of online activities and interactions they had with one another and are doing the same things with their students. So this was a tale of obstacles overcome. The Goldberg project WWW site is at


John Tully from Ohio State described how he uses not only primary documents, but primary artifacts --posters, art, and other images (which are plentiful on the WWW --see for example, that National Archives at Instead of just reading a textbook, and gliding by an image or map that might be in the book, he gives students primary sources and asks that they "read" those, that they think critically about them. He provides them the kinds of questions historians ask. The process has students investigating the images and not passively reading what someone else thinks of the image. John found that this process, which takes advantage of the multimedia age students grow up in, has helped students become interested in history and wanting to read about it. Their questions and thinking about the images spark their interest and curiosity. And their work on the images is part of the course's grading economy; students get tests and assignments where image analysis plays an important role.

David Stricklin of Lyon College described a very neat project where students did fieldwork, interviewed people, did historical research, and then worked together to create a radio documentary. Why that? The idea was to get them to synthesize and present all their data and research in a format that required them to think carefully about how to present the information, to think creatively. But radio was used instead of say a WWW site because they had access to a some cassette editing equipment and some tape recorders, but not a computers for doing a WWW site. It was a great assignment --students produced their show and played it for the community -- and an ingenuous reminder that multimedia doesn't necessarily have to be WWW-based and with images. A lot can be done with just voice, sound, and recording.

Peter Rutkoff lead us on an overview and tour of North by South, an ongoing research project that follows African American migration patterns from south to north. Students visit a southern city, and then the northern city that African Americans migrated to. They do interviews, visit sites, and look to see how the movements affected African American culture. Very cool, very smart. And with a very nice WWW site at Peter focus on the field trips, and he takes students to places he hasn't been, to explore things he doesn't know yet. By doing this, it's clear to student that they're co-investigators, explorers. Peter, like David in his project, are more coach and consultant than fonts of all knowing. But here's the kicker: Peter doesn't know a thing about building WWW sites, HTML, or any of those things. However, his students do. So he comments on the site's design, but the entire site was designed and built by students, who again, like David's students, made very sophisticated and smart decisions about how to organize and integrate and present intelligent very detailed and complicated research.

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