Blog Post

Digital Tools and Pedagogy – UB-SIM Workshop

[Feel free to view & download the slides here too:]


Welcome to the University at Buffalo, Singapore Institute of Management workshop on Digital Tools and Pedagogy. An hour doesn’t feel like enough to dig into both technology and how we teach, but we’re going to give it a go. Ideally this will be just the start of a collective, collaborative conversation about how we integrate our teaching concerns and practices with spiffy, useful, exciting digital tools. Here’s what we’re up to today:

  1. Introduction of Topic
  2. Goals for the Workshop
  3. Definitions: Pedagogy & Digital Tools
  4. Thinking Critically & Enthusiastically about Digital Tools
  5. Individual Reflection
  • What makes us enthusiastic about digital tools?
  • What makes us hesitant about using digital tools?
  1. Networking Our Knowledge
  • Padlet – on the web or via the app using this QR code:

Additional Resources

Digital Tools I’ve Used/Can Teach/Have Heard Of


This Teaching with Twitter online course is how I got started, but there are lots of other resources out there.

The course has a fee ($400), but there are generous discounts for students & contingent/adjunct faculty (I think I paid $150 for the 6-week course)

Padlet (online corkboard; app or web-based)

Google Slides, Forms, Docs, and Sheets

Slides has an option for students to submit questions via a link, which could be helpful for participation

I’ve used Forms for long surveys, quizzes, and quick questions during class

My classes used Docs for submitting assignments – I can comment and they can write back in real time if they choose

I use Sheets for grading and share student grades via a web app (courtesy of this nifty tutorial)

Keynote slides

Apple only, alas, but very attractive layouts

I supplement with Toolbox for Keynote; paid, but worth it, I think (useful for tracking how many students/participants have clicked a link)

Squarespace (blogging platform)

WordPress (blogging platform; self-hosted and free versions)

Zotero (research organization program)

Zotero has a little bit of a learning curve, but is a flexible and customizable way to compile references, articles, webpages, and notes for a research project.

Zotero databases are sharable, which means users can collaborate with other researchers – definitely useful for faculty or students.

Evernote (note-taking app)

Socrative (clicker app)

Today’s Meet (backchannel/forum/questions app, web-based) (web annotation, good for collective reading)


Learning/content management system

More flexible and inviting than UB Learns, I think.

Also free! Also open-source code, for any coders among us.


Data visualization tool

Sometimes called the “gateway drug” to data visualization 🙂

For Thinking Critically About Technology & Pedagogy

There’s no good app for teaching” (Laura Moorhead, 2014, TED article)

Is it okay to be a Luddite?” (Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris, 2014, Digital Pedagogy Lab)

Are apps becoming the new worksheet?” (Lee Skallerup Bessette, 2017, Digital Pedagogy Lab)

From Knowledgable to Knowledge-able” (Michael Wesch, 2010, TEDxKC talk)

The Digital Era: 50 Years of Technology” (Ben Myers and Erica Lusk, 2016, Chronicle of Higher Education, access available through UB Libraries)

Agile Learning (Blog by Derek Bruff; generally useful and inspirational stuff)

HASTAC (pronounced “hay-stack”; Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory)

Creative Uses for Digital Tools in the Classroom

Professors Assign Students to Post to BuzzFeed. You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next. (Gabriel Sandoval, 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Twessays and Composition in the Digital Age (Donna M. Alexander, 2017, Digital Pedagogy Lab)

Lying About the Past (T. Mills Kelly; this prof and his students “hoaxed” Wikipedia as a class project)

The Pedagogy Project (from HASTAC)

Business Strategy Game (used and recommended by a UB-SIM instructor, Paul McAfee)

Practical Advice/Resources

Ed Tech 4 Beginners (Neil Jarrett – practical stuff like apps and tools + some ideas for assignments/activities)

Teacher Tech (Alice Keeler – especially good for Google Apps)

This Week in Web 2.0 (Larry Ferlazzo – an ongoing series of recommendations for websites, apps, and cool things on the internet)

25 Awesome Apps for Teachers, Recommended by Teachers (TED-Ed blog, 2015 tho…)

Blog Post

Notes from #aha17: Day 2

A lighter day on my end – and in Denver, where the sun came out and I had a view of the Rockies from my window. Win.

My brain is pretty mushy from trying to figure out a bunch of digital history tools at the moment, but here’s the (briefer than yesterday) highlights:

Praise for a colleague

First and foremost, Jordan Reed, fellow Drew grad student and digital historian, was one of today’s most tweeted persons thanks to his presentation with SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing)! Woot!

#aha17 #s110: Collaborative Digital History

Great panel/roundtable from Stephen Robertson, Jim Clifford, Ian Milligan, Emily Merchant, and Myron Gutmann – and the audience, which was gain full of live tweeters. (Seriously – such a joy to tweet with other people!)

The takeaways for me:

Digital history can be learned as projects are in-progress.

Woot! Every collaborator – even/especially grads and undergrads – deserves reward/credit for work

Because history is always-already collaborative – we just don’t tend to make that explicit

Do need to take care as we consider how to treat student collaborators, though. What work should be public? What work should be withheld? How are we ensuring that students have a clear and respected say?

Odds and ends about who we write for and what digital projects mean for securing jobs and/or gaining tenure

#aha17 #s117: Digital Drop-In

Pretty much sums up how I feel about this session:

Digital history is still a new community for me – but it is a community as far as I can tell. And a remarkably supportive, interested, and creative one in which resources are made to be shared.

Jeff McLurken welcomed me at the door, listened patiently to my project description and skills needs, and then pointed me to two different digital historians/humanists who had great suggestions for tools to use for data analysis.

I had the chance to speak with Ian Milligan again and he kindly re-demonstrated some of the web scraping tools from yesterday (Voyant and DocNow). I’m still putzing around with these tools and figuring out how to make them work for my needs, but I’m feeling on firmer ground with the dissertation after the drop-in session.

Blog Post

Notes from #aha17: Day 1


It’s 4° F in Denver. So obviously one of the most shared images on Twitter this morning was Jon Snow. This sort of thing might be what led to these shenanigans on Channel 9 News: History Buffs Tweet About Snow, Hilarity Ensues.

It is my intention to write a brief summary of each day at #aha17 (American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting) in Denver – but goodness knows I never finish series of blog posts. So this might just be a one-off thing. Here’s the highlights from today. Readers, beware. Herein lies an excessive number of links…

Personal Odds and Ends:

I was so grateful when presenters shared links to slides today! It meant I could happily toggle between tweeting, exploring the digital projects discussed, and browsing slides and links.

Okay. I give in. I’ll start providing slides before class. (It’s good to be a pseudo-student sometimes…)

#aha17 #gsdh: Getting Started in Digital History

Link to AHA Program

I attended the session on Web Scraping, led by Ian Milligan (@ianmilligan1). If you’d like to browse the slides and links, Ian was good enough to provide all of the materials for the session on his website.

Web scraping, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, means pulling all sorts of basic info off of a website. For instance, if you use a web tool (like on a website like a database of song lyrics (such as this example from Ian this morning), you can run a URL with the web tool and it will extract information like song title, artist, and relevant links from the webpage. This information can then be exported into a Comma Separated Values (.csv) file – pretty much an Excel file with a different ending. That data can then be run through any number of analysis tools (we used Voyant Tools) to study things like word frequency, spikes in popularity, and the context of specific words, people, or places.

For me, I plan to apply similar tools and methods for my social-media based dissertation. We spent some time practicing web scraping social media using Doc Now, which lets you run a hashtag on a given day, pulls all of the tweets and related RTs, and then allows you to export the data for analysis. Super useful given that I’m hoping to analyze upwards of 200 tweets per class meeting this semester…

After the Web Scraping Workshop, we broke out for lunch and “table talks” hosted by faculty and alt-acs who shared their experience in public history, choosing digital humanities tools, sustaining digital projects, and funding digital projects, among other digital humanities (DH) topics.

I attended the informal talk on DH jobs led by Rebecca Wingo who offered helpful advice about what jobs were out there, what degree programs might be most useful, and what additional certifications/experience would be useful for pursuing a DH job. The takeaway for me was a confirmation of the usefulness of George Mason University’s DH certificate program (which I may be looking at in the future) and her suggestion to attend digital history training opportunities to acquire skills and experience as needed including:

For the second round, I headed for the Grading Digital Projects table led by John Rosinbum.  We talked about timeline assignments, rubrics, and citations and – good news for the next round of #hwc111 students – I’m more thoroughly convinced of the necessity of rubrics. So, rubrics coming for Spring 2017 blogging project! Also probably and more thorough and interactive conversation about why and how to cite sources on the web. Spread the news, dear students…

#aha17 #s22: Historical Sources as Data: Opportunities and Challenges

Link to AHA Program

Wowsa. When you attend a #dighist session, everybody live tweets! Which was a great thing because the presentations given by Kalani Craig, Lauren Tilton, and Brandon Locke were brilliant and useful and challenging.

All three presentations challenged listeners to consider how best to reach wider audiences in clearer ways by:

  • Bringing information out from behind paywalled collections (i.e., only available to institutions with money, like Proquest or JSTOR) in legal, but accessible ways through the use of good old copy-and-paste, data compilation, and natural language processing
  • Shedding light on lesser-known, but exceptionally important figures and places in history through network analysis and comprehensive metadata for images and sources
  • Making transparent our methodologies and sources so other scholars can assess and help us grow our process and data can remain reusable.

This session was, I swear, more compelling than I’m making it sound. I highly recommend checking out the projects driven by the presenters for a better sense of how innovative and important their work is:

#aha17 #s31: A Retrospective on Tuning: Where Have We Been and Where Should We Go?

Link to AHA Program

Yup, all the live tweets for this one are mine. Because when you don’t go to a #dighist session, sometimes you’re the only one tweeting. Ah well.

I’m still processing this one. I like the ambitions of the Tuning Project. The idea is to host, coordinate, and focus conversations about what faculty want history majors to be able to do when they finish the degree.

The aim of the three-year project has been to help establish guidelines useful to history departments across the United States and to foster a more natural language surrounding historical skills so students have a fuller stake in course assessments and outcomes. The project is faculty (not admin) driven, it has increased the AHA’s emphasis on teaching, and the panelists today seemed committed to bringing a wider variety of educators into the conversation in the future.

The focus of the project is also shifting from majors to introductory courses, which I (selfishly) think is a great move given that this is what I teach.

I’m not totally sold though. The project itself still requires a lot of explanation – at least for those of us who aren’t really part of history departments. I don’t know that there are a ton of resources or training on site for new college and university teachers to implement the suggested Tuning outcomes in effective ways (though Anne Hyde did note the increasing presence and usefulness of centers for teaching and learning on campuses). I’m also still not certain how much students value the language of transferable skills in general education courses… But then I haven’t really asked how they feel about it. (Maybe I will in the near future.)

It was a thought-provoking session one way or another and I’m grateful for the conversations led by Elaine Carey, Anne Hyde, Elizabeth Lehfeldt and Daniel McInerney in the field of history education.


I finished out the day at the grad student reception (met a Masters student from University at Buffalo and chatted about pre-modern China) and the Twitterstorians/bloggers reception. It turns out that if you hang out long enough, you meet people who recommend awesome medieval Tumblrs, Baltimore tours, and scholars of history teaching and learning. Also they had Denver-brewed beer. Win.

Blog Post

Small Steps Shattering Ceilings

Celebrate the small steps?

I teach ancient and medieval history. Gender equality is not a thing in the civilizations my students and I study. Ever. Women are always at a disadvantage – biologically tied to childbirth, socially valuable primarily as wives who bring property or wealth or labor to a family, and economically dependent due to inequitable inheritance laws and educational/occupational limitations.

But that is an exhausting story to tell over and over again. So I spend the semester trying to convince my students to look for ways that women claim agency and societies as a whole take small steps toward greater fairness. In ancient Egypt, women could initiate marriage and divorce. In Han China, Ban Zhao wrote history and pushed for equal education (at least in the aristocracy). In the Roman Empire, gravestones and graffiti women owned property and had a wider variety of careers than many contemporaries. Women hosted church meetings for Roman Christians and missionaries too.Rome Spring 2016.001.jpeg

According to the traditional narrative of early Islam, Khadijah convinced Muhammad of his prophetic calling. Women gained new rights to inherit and control their own property (one wonders if Khadijah the merchant had a say in this). In medieval Europe, the abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote soaring melodies, medical texts, and mystical devotions while she led a community of women dedicated to holiness and simplicity.

In the absence of greater transformation, I say, we must celebrate the small steps.

No. Shatter the ceilings.

My students typically reject my careful narrative in favor of a focus on kickass, exceptional the world over. Their blog posts, this semester and in the past, have focused on:

  • Wu Zetian, the first female emperor of China
  • Tomyris, the Scythian warlord responsible for the death of Persian king, Cyrus the Great
  • St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, often credited with ending the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire
  • Matilda, contender for the English throne and mother to Henry II
  • Artemisia, a satrap (ruler) under the Persian king, Xerxes, who led her navy in battle against the Greek navy in the Greco-Persian Wars
  • Joan of Arc, the medieval mystic and eventual saint
  • Cleopatra, ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt and one of the wealthiest, most educated persons of her time. (Quite possibly more educated and powerful than Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, thank you very much).
  • The Trung Sisters, who led Vietnamese military resistance against China in the first century CE.

I think I know why they choose these women over my midwives, laborers, property owners, and holy women. These women are triumphant, inspiring, and terribly alive. They are #unstoppable, #fierce, #girlpower, #nastywomen in the best possible ways. Heck, I want to cheer when I read the celebration apparent in their posts.

My students, understandably and beautifully, gravitate towards stories that defy oppression and seem to offer hope in the midst of their study of broken social structures and massive inequality. They seek stories of radical, rapid success in the hope that these women’s stories signal progress for everyone.

When it’s not enough.

I had hoped to invite them to cheer with me last week as I announced the election of the first female president of the United States. That wasn’t what happened, of course.

As my colleagues and I watched the results of the presidential election come in, I expressed anger and sadness and frustration at the results. Expressed is the wrong word. I burst out in tears and anger as my hope that we would see our first female president was obliterated. A friend, more gracious than me, offered perspective, “But she ran! On the ticket of a major party. And nearly won. That’s a huge deal. Plus Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris, Ilhan Omar…” To which I angrily proclaimed (yelled? I might have yelled…), “That’s not enough!”

I didn’t want small change. I wanted big change. Now. Not just the change that brought with it the election of a female president, but (ideally) the sort of change that ushered into power a president who would listen to the diverse group of people who comprised her electoral base.

We can talk about whether or not those hopes were misplaced some other time. (No really, we can – I’m not trying to put you off forever.) For the moment, I need you just to hear: This was my hope. And it hurt like hell when that hope was crushed.

How do I teach this?

I’m wondering now how best to teach the sort of gender-inclusive history that is so near and dear to my heart in this world that is clearly so desperate for big change, not small celebrations.

How do I present triumphant, resilient, energizing female warriors and rulers – but still communicate to my students the limitations of those exceptional people? Because the historical reality is that these women were awesome, but didn’t always creating lasting change for other female-bodied people. Their reigns or battles didn’t usually create conditions in which other women could achieve the same success. [See Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh; only two women (maybe) officially ruled after her in the next millennium before Ptolemaic rule and all the Cleopatras]. They often perpetuated the worst abuses of their class (which included slavery, conscripted labor, taxation to fund lavish spectacles…pretty standard stuff for the ancient world).

How do I tell them about the inequality that pervades history without leaving them feeling helpless and lifeless? Because the historical reality is that many ‘ordinary’ women lived significant, even remarkable lives. Women’s household labor and craft in China made possible the initial silk production that fueled international trade for the powerful Han dynasty in China. Women have steered new humans into the world on a daily basis in every culture since forever. Women navigated ships in the perilous Mediterranean, they created diplomatic ties between nations through marriage alliances, started new religious movements, and staged anti-war demonstrations.

This is what it takes.

Now that my initial anger has (mostly) passed, I want to find ways to leverage the sort of discontent that makes me and my students desire radical change BUT I also want them to understand that, historically, we have proven ourselves a stiff-necked species, slow to truly disrupt the status quo. I don’t love that about us, but I think it’s true. I wish it wasn’t for the sake of my friends and loved ones who are less safe, more tired, rightfully more frightened than me.

I don’t want to assume how silk makers, midwives, ships captains, demonstrators, political wives, rulers and warriors felt about their work or, in many cases, their minority status in work and the world. I want to give them the respect of not projecting my own agenda onto their lives. But I also want to acknowledge that whether or not they felt like they were working for the betterment of women and of humanity, the lesson of their lives – the thing I want my students to know – is this thing that echoes across the writings of all sorts of workers for justice this week:

It takes difficult, constant, persistent, everyday working, living, and being to create greater freedom of movement, economic freedom, occupational opportunities, and inclusion in religious communities for the populations left out of the best things in society. 

It shouldn’t but it does. Also sometimes change happens by accident. And sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. But those are other posts, I think.

I don’t know what this means for my syllabus yet and there are always the limitations of time, institutional expectations, and my own knowledge gaps to deal with. But this is what I’m thinking about. If you’re thinking about that too, leave me a comment or come find me on Twitter. Let’s get to work together.

Blog Post

Truth. History. Hitler. (With apologies for the clickbait title.)

The Article

In his NYT article, “No, He’s Not Hitler. And Yet…,” philosophy professor Justin E.H. Smith explores the nature of history and the consequences of our conceptions of the past in light of the upcoming U.S. election. Smith’s writing is inspired by the equation of certain political leaders with Hitler in the current election cycle. At the heart of his argument, though, is a discussion of the nature of history and the ways we talk about history in the public sphere.

Smith begins by rejecting two simplistic conceptions of history. First, that history is simply “one damn thing after another” and second, that “history repeats itself.” Smith argues that both positions present difficulties for how we understand the impact of historical events and persons on our present circumstances:

If it is just one singular thing after another, then we can derive no general laws or regularities from it, and so we would seem to have no hope of learning from it; but when we do try to draw lessons from it, we lapse all too easily into such a simplified version of the past, with a handful of stock types and paradigm events, that we may as well just have made it up.

Smith offers a compelling articulation for why historical events, persons, and ideas should not be viewed as entirely bound to specific times and places (one damn thing…) or as completely generalizable, trope-ish, and repetitive.

The more provocative portion of his article, though, appears in Smith’s definition and criticism of history as “narrative.” “Until very recently,” he laments, “it was common to hear from skeptics (in academia and elsewhere) that history is a ‘narrative,’ and that we must not expect the facts to dictate to us what version of history we ought to adopt. The facts are inaccessible, it was said, so let us tell stories, and create our reality.” Smith sees this definition of history  as relativistic and prone to misuse. This conception of history, Smith argues, has given us creationism, birthers, and, ultimately, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign promise to make America “great again.”

The problem with these movements, writes Smith, is that they are founded on “a conception of truth that does not require any basis in fact.” His proposed solution is “a bit of von Ranke’s hardheadedness.” Leopold von Ranke viewed the study of history as an effort to establish “how it actually was,” a phrase Smith takes as a call to pursue truth, not stories.1 To do so, he thinks, we should avoid our quest for the lessons of history and turn our attention instead to the facts of history. History, he concludes, “may be rooted in storytelling, but we can summon it to be something more – the arbiter of truth against lies told in pursuit of power.”

Storytelling and truth in history

There’s a lot to agree with in this article. Smith challenges readers to think more deeply about popular platitudes surrounding history. (History professors everywhere can rejoice, having found a new ally in the fight against two eye-roll inducing platitudes about history.) He also invites historians to consider the consequences of our insistence that history is, at its core, interpretation, not truth (or “the way it actually was).2  Has the equation of history with narrative opened the door for politicized storytelling, more bound to ideology than to evidence? These are worthwhile considerations and Smith’s insistence that public claims be backed by specific evidence rings true to the values of the historical discipline.

I worry, though, about Smith’s portrayal of historical narratives. He seems to equate narratives (“storytelling”) with things that are made up, mythological, ahistorical, and potentially dangerous. By contrast, Ranke’s “how it actually was,” coupled with an insistence that the past can be known, forms the foundation of Smith’s definition of truth. While these definitions might work for dispelling the notion that Obama was born anywhere other than Hawaii, this divorce of “storytelling” and “truth” is potentially detrimental for a broader evaluation of history as it is used in the public sphere. The division is problematic, I think, because it carries the promise that historical truth and untruth are easily distinguished from one another. I do not always, or even often, find that to be the case.

Searching for truth in history

Okay, so a quick primer on the nature of historical evidence. Historians write or speak history based written records, oral histories, and/or artifacts (objects, photos, trash heaps) created during a person’s life or specific event. This evidence is sometimes abundant and sometimes scarce, and both abundance and scarcity make it difficult to determine causes and effects, worldviews and values, or even the chronology of an event or person’s life. Abundance results in contradiction; there’s no way to say simply “how people felt” about Prince’s death, for instance, because lots of people felt lots of different things and expressed that in tweets, blogs, and editorials. Scarcity results in uncertainty; there’s solid evidence that Hatshepsut’s rule in Egypt ended in 1458 BCE, but it’s unclear whether she died or was killed. Historians also remain uncertain whether her inscriptions were removed out of bitterness by Thutmose III, her nephew/stepson/heir, removed by builders reusing cut stones for a different building at a later date, or some other event entirely.3

The complexity, contradiction, and missing pieces of the past make it difficult to know, or to fully know, how things actually were. True, we might glean estimates of the size of armies or information about where a person was born (assuming the authors of a particular text are trustworthy, but that’s another issue). Those factoids, however, are very little help in the face of more complex questions like cause and effect: Why did the terrorist attacks on September 11 occur? How did politicians justify their support for the Iraq War?

When it comes to big questions for which we only have partial or contradictory evidence, historians work instead from a position of what Calder and Steffes call “limited relativism.” This is a position that is neither “simple certitude (proof and inevitability” nor “easy relativism (every view is equal),” but rather a consideration of what is “plausible-implausible, acceptable-unacceptable.” Yes, those ideas are uncomfortably flexible, but plausibility, in its most basic form, requires evidence. For instance, plausible explanations for the end of the western Roman Empire include political divisions, financial difficulties, and invasions by Germanic tribes. An invasion by an army from China is implausible. Given the distance between the empires, the difficulty of the terrain of central Asia, and political division in the Chinese empire at the time – and, of course, the absence of written records and artifacts suggesting such an invasion.

As a final note on limited relativism, it’s worth acknowledging that historians, consciously or not, sometimes (often?) divide “acceptable” and “unacceptable” explanations based on their own convictions, values, education, political leanings, and (yes) emotions. I will speak only for myself here – I am not an unbiased readers of records and I select evidence based on what I think is important, influential, or neglected in historical writings. In short, I’m bound by my own perspectives. No surprise there, but worth highlighting in a discussion of limitations and relativism.

Spotting truth in history

Just for kicks, though, let’s assume that the past can be (fully) known and we should prefer history “how it actually was” to complex, partial, perspective-bound narratives. Could you distinguish a true historical narrative from a false one?

Try this webpage: Hitler Historical Museum.4 The “Ideological Statement” on the front page states:

The teaching of history should convey only facts and be free from political motives, personal opinions, biases, propaganda, and other common tactics of distortion. Every claim that is made about history should also be accompanied by documentation proving its basis. Only responsible scholarship and teaching should be permitted. Those who intend to support particular political interests and agendas should have their biased historical interpretations criticized for lacking proof.

That’s pretty much in line with Smith’s criteria – emphasis on evidence, free of political distortion, and critical of the biases of historical narratives. Solid historical work on the surface, but when T. Mills Kelly dug back through the Internet Archive to get a better sense of who runs the site, his digging (detailed here) turned up a “Happy Birthday Hitler” post and connections to neo-Nazi organizations.

Kelly and his students in turn perpetuated historical hoaxes in 2008 and 2012 as part of a course titled, Lying About the Past. The second hoax (the Reddit serial killer) was short-lived and quickly uncovered, but the first (on ostensible pirate Edward Owens) was initially reported as true on media outlets and by some historians.

The takeaways from the Hitler Historical Museum and the hoaxes are a) knowing the past and telling the truth of history is complicated and b) discernment is necessary and, encouragingly, possible – as evidenced by a Redditor’s rapid debunking of the second hoax.

In the end…

In the end, I’m not sure insisting that the past can be known or that we should focus on “how it actually was” is the most helpful way to deal with blatantly factless stories. Instead, I would call for the more difficult path of cultivating greater discernment when it comes to speaking or hearing history in the public sphere. Unsurprisingly, I think part of the solution lies in history education – in emphasizing the importance of evidence (over opinion), plausibility (over truth), and complexity (over simplicity) in the interpretation of history. History, as Smith notes, has an increasing role to play in how we shape our political conversations and national identity. The question is whether simple conceptions of historical truth will remain acceptable and what the consequences of those conceptions will be.



Other scholars differ on the meaning of the German phrase wie es eigentlich gewesen, as the savvy authors of the Wikipedia article suggest. (I don’t read/speak German, but I can confirm that the Wikipedia authors are citing good sources.)

See Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes’s concepts and competencies for the Measuring College Learning project, which I highlighted in a recent post, for a clear preference among historians for the interpretive definition of history.

3 See Susan Wise Bauer, History of the Ancient World (2007), p. 209.

4 I am not exhibiting Godwin’s Law; I am indebted to Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age (2013) for analysis of this website.

Blog Post

In which I spoke too soon…

So, I complained just yesterday that Calder and Steffes, the authors of white paper on history from the Measuring College Learning project, didn’t seem concerned with the application of historical concepts and competencies to general education courses.

Well, lo and behold, Calder chaired a panel/discussion about history gen ed courses at the January 2016 AHA conference. (Summaries of the papers are available via the link.) That is welcome news! I still would have liked to see some of that concern in the white paper, but clearly I spoke too soon with my critique…

Blog Post

A Missing Piece?: Historical Thinking Isn’t Just for History Majors

*See update on upcoming discussions of history in general education.

The very timely white paper, “Measuring College Learning in History,” authored by Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes and sponsored by the Social Science Research Council’s Measuring College Learning Project, is a welcome consolidation of the historiography and key principles of historical thinking.*

Calder and Steffes, with the input of other scholars and faculty in the field of history teaching and learning, distill historical consciousness into five essential concepts and four essential competencies:

A summary of the essential concepts and competencies outlined in the full white paper.

The author’s selections of concepts and competencies reflect the rich debate (which I’ve previously written about here) between scholars surrounding the definition of historical thinking, but handily narrow the focus to the most common and most teachable values and skills of historians. While careful not to suggest too specific a program for teaching these concepts and competencies, Calder and Steffes offer a helpful outline for structuring learning outcomes and assessing historical thinking in undergraduate history majors.

Here-in lies my only critique of the otherwise immensely useful summary and white paper: Calder and Steffes implicitly view the core history concepts and competencies  as the reserve of history majors. They appear to have little concern for how the suggested foci might function within general education history courses.

To be fair, Calder and Steffes point to the reality that not everyone is a history major and that the history major itself is a shifting (and shrinking) institution. They acknowledge the need to consider history’s role in “a moment of declining history enrollments, popular attacks on the humanities, and growing demands that a college education have practical utility and demonstrable economic benefits” (Measuring College Learning in History, p. 41). Beyond that, the authors are also keen to defend the continued benefits of introductory history courses and encourage history professors to work toward including the competencies and concepts in their intro courses (p. 66). In general, though, the white paper is explicitly about facilitating and assessing the learning of history majors.

The omission of concern for history courses conducted for a broader population of students is, obviously, a personal concern for me. I teach a general education survey course in a program that does not have a history major. My students’ exposure to these concepts and skills occurs in three general survey courses (World Civ I, World Civ II, and American Pluralism – essentially the U.S. since 1945). This means I and my fellow instructors have a very limited amount of time (9 credit hours) in which to communicate concepts significant not only to our discipline, but also I would argue to students’ development as critical thinkers more generally. (Calder and Steffes would seem to agree – see p. 63).

The consequence of teaching a general education class and trying to incorporate historical thinking concepts and skills is that it becomes difficult to incorporate all of the core concepts and competencies within a given course in a given semester. At the moment, my course is explicitly focused on two concepts (history as interpretation, the “pastness of the past,” and historical significance) and two competencies (interpret primary sources and construct a historical argument – usually based on secondary, not primary sources). Ideally my counterparts and I would take up carrying aspects to complement one another, we aren’t that coordinated (yet).

My point, in short, is that I think deeper conversations about the role of historical concepts and skills in the context of a liberal arts education – and not just a BA history program – are in order. These conversations are necessary given the greater number of students who take history courses as requirements and electives, as opposed to selecting history as a major, and in light of the continued debate over whether or not history deserves to maintain a place in undergraduate education. To have those discussions, the literature of historical thinking should, I believe, broaden its focus to include a wider variety of courses in which students encounter history.


* The Measuring College Learning (MCL) project also produced frameworks for thinking about core concepts and competencies in Biology, Business, Communication, Economics, and Sociology.

Blog Post

Spreadable Media in the Classroom

I’m getting back into the swing of things with the dissertation this week and my book and website of the moment are Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, 2013).

NYU Press, 2011

The work is aimed at media/culture critics, communication scholars, and businesses (an exceptionally inclusive audience already), and I think there are some significant takeaways for my dissertation (which focuses on historical significance, i.e., value and meaning, in a digital world) and for teaching more broadly.

I especially appreciate the author’s exploration of “sticky” vs. “spreadable” media. According to the authors, sticky content, as first articulated by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point (2002), is created by a particular person or group and then placed in a single location on the web. The creator then makes an effort to attract the presumed audience to this location and counts the votes or views or purchases in order to measure the success of their strategy. Spreadable content, by contrast, is meant to be easily shared on a wide variety of platforms. In the creation of spreadable content, creators cede much of the control over the content’s virtual life to the audience.

Jenkins and Ford sum up the difference:

“Sticky sites often incorporate games, quizzes, and polls to attract and hold the interests of individuals. The participatory logic of spreadability leads to audiences using content in unanticipated ways as they retrofit material to the contours of their particular community. Such activities are difficult for creators to control and even more difficult to quantify” (p. 6).

For me, this resonates with much of the conversation surrounding ed tech at the moment. Some of the current literature focuses on “sticky” methods – How can we gamify our grading structures or activities so they hold students’ interest? If we introduce periodic polls or quizzes in class, can we get students to tune in to us (instead of Facebook) more frequently?

There is, though, also a strain of think pieces, books, and Twitter conversations more interested in “spreadable” methods – How can we communicate content (especially utilizing technology and digital media) in a way that leaves it open to multiple interpretations, remixes, and appropriations by our students?*

As someone who teaches a subject (ancient/medieval history) that isn’t always apparently relevant to students, I think I often find myself using “sticky” methods in the classroom. I give my most enthusiastic performances when students have the least energy, I utilize entry and exit quizzes, and I encourage the use of a Padlet for questions in class so we can take breaks to answer those questions. These are all tactics to attract and hold the interests of students.

I do use some “spreadable” methods as well. The student blogging project is perhaps the best example of this. I try to give students the historical, technological, and methodological tools they’ll need to write their posts and I provide some suggested topics and sources of information. What they do with a given topic or post format, however, is up to them – and out of my control.

That means when I suggested to a group that the best format for their topic might be a BuzzFeed-like listicle composed on our class website…they created an honest-to-goodness BuzzFeed article instead. Or when I asked that they only use Creative Commons/fair use/public domain images, they used GIFs to illustrate their post instead of or in addition to other images. (Do pardon the images not working in some of these posts. That’s a WordPress issue, not the students’ fault.)

Jenkins and Ford note that there is a place for both sticky and spreadable media in the digital world, but their preference is pretty clearly for the latter (p. 8). I think there is room for sticky and spreadable methods of teaching as well, but I want to think a bit more about when each is most effective for communicating content and helping students create meaning and value around their study of history.





*I hearby promise to come back and add examples of these diverse conversations at some later date….

Blog Post

“This is hard. It isn’t very linear.”

Class Blogging and Non-Linear Storytelling

The World Civ I classes I teach are embarking on the final stage of their blogging project this semester. This is a thoroughly self-directed project. Students can choose any topic within the time frame of the course (10,000 BCE to 1500 CE) and they can present their topic however they choose. Thus far, I have tentative proposals for Instagram feeds, Pinterest boards, Tumblrs, fashion videos, and songs and I am pretty darn excited to see where things go.

I also have a few groups clearly struggling to figure out how digital storytelling works. During our last workshop for the blogging project, I was working with one group to define a topic, a takeaway, and a creative medium they would be comfortable working with. In the midst of the conversation, one member of the group encapsulated the difficulty of pinning down this project. “This is hard,” they said. “It isn’t very linear.”

That, I think, is exactly the difficulty of creating good digital material. It isn’t especially linear and when you’ve really only been taught to think of writing in linear ways (intro, thesis, body, conclusion), it can be incredibly difficult to think about organizing information in a way that is connective but not linear.

The student’s comment prompts a number of questions for me (which I’ll record here in the hopes that I can come back to them sometime):

  • What’s the purpose of trying to think in non-linear ways if it feels so unnatural?
  • How can I teach non-linear and creative thinking?
    • Is there more prep and introduction I can give students to this sort of task
    • Undoubtedly, yes – but what prep should I give? The 5 Photos exercise might be a good place to start…
  • How do I help students locate models and assistance (outside of the class and myself) for trying to think and create in new ways?

The Dissertation Project and Boundaries of Storytelling

The last question is especially pressing for me as I try to work out the purpose and shape of my dissertation project. My project currently centers on how students understand and express the importance of a particular person, event, or idea in history. My working hypothesis is that the default definition of “historically significant” for most students at the start of a class has to do with whether or not something or someone is relatable.

I suspect this definition is, at least in part, a product of the pervasiveness of social media platforms that encourage us (the students and myself) to react to or comment on everything. I’m wondering if this preference for interactive material prompts us to consider our own reactions to content as co-equal in importance to the content itself. I think that might cause us to filter all information (past and present) through that question of whether or not something is personally relatable.

This is all very tentative stuff at the moment. In order to understand whether that hypothesis is reasonable, I need to ask students what they actually think about history and how they use digital media. No surprise there; lots of historians concerned with what students think about history or digital media have asked them before.

I think, though, that I’d like to play with the linear way historians usually ask students what they think about history and digital media. In academic work about historical thinking (see the work of Sam Wineburg, the edited volume Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History, or the Perspectives series, “Thinking Historically in the Classroom“) or digital media (I’m thinking especially of Henry Jenkins and Mills Kelly here), the research model is usually pretty traditional. The researcher formulates a hypothesis, designs a study, collects the data, analyzes the data, and publishes her/his findings. In the case of works about pedagogy, the author of a book or article might simply reflect on what they’ve observed in their classes.

In either case, the researcher has the final word when it comes to interpretation. That makes sense given the short-term nature of many studies and the clear knowledge difference between, say, primary- or secondary-school students and a researcher with a Ph.D. This process also produces perceptive frameworks for thinking about how people think about history, many of which as a springboard for my own work, so I’m not by any means trying to overturn this model altogether.

I am wondering, though, if it might be worthwhile to interrupt the linear research model by asking for feedback from participants about the conclusions of a study. I’m planning to work with adults (most of whom aren’t much younger than me) who possess the self-awareness to tell me if I’m misinterpreting their written or spoken responses in an activity. I’d love to make them collaborators in this process and seek their input throughout the project. I am also unsure how to accomplish that in meaningful ways.

I currently lack a model for that sort of collaboration and there are a lot of questions I would need to address to do this sort of work:

  • Would students (participants even be interested in providing feedback about conclusions?
  • What would it take to get students to agree to provide regular and helpful feedback about my work? Would I need to incentivize their participation bribe them with extra credit or the possibility of putting a line on their CVs as collaborators or research assistants of sorts? What are the ethics of that?
  • How would I incorporate their feedback? Who gets the final say about the interpretation of a set of data – the students who provided the data or me as the researcher?
  • How might student feedback shift the trajectory of the research or the shape of activities that are part of the research? [That last question matters immensely since I need to seek the approval of an ethics committee – an institutional review board (IRB) – for every aspect of the project.]

These are hard questions. I don’t know if that will possible to come up with good answers in the progress of this project or if I will be able to put any ideas about these questions into practice. I do think I agree with my student about the difficulties of this unfamiliar territory: “This is hard. It isn’t very linear.”