Blog Post, Process Blog

Harry Potter and the “History is Boring” Trope

Students think history is boring. They also read Harry Potter, which means means history has a PR problem. Because Professor Binns is deathly dull… But does history have to be so terribly uninteresting? 

In this Process Blog post, I take a look at the “history is boring” trope in a popular series (Harry Potter). I also examine student tweets produced for my class/research last semester that expressed similar ideas. Voila – tentative dissertation-y ideas.

The importance of Harry Potter

The Harry Potter books are, arguably, the defining cultural touchstone for the millennial generation – of which I and my students are a part. Most of us can tell you what house Pottermore sorted us into (Gryffindor) – and which we really feel affinity for (all of them). We wish certain spells existed (Accio, please) and punctuate our tweets with Hermione GIFs. The life and death of Severus Snape give us a better understanding of redemption.

It’s worth paying attention, then, to how this series deals with history – and how that might influence students’ perceptions of history.

History of Magic: “the most boring class”

Most of the teachers at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are competent individuals, well-loved by their fictional students and readers alike. But then there’s Professor Binns, the History of Magic instructor and the only ghost on the Hogwarts staff.

The rumor is poor old Binns died in his sleep after dozing off in the staff lounge. Undeterred by death, he woke up the next morning, left his body behind, and went to work as usual.1 Far from seeing this act as dedication to his craft, the students assume Binns has always been so uninteresting it didn’t make any difference to him or anyone else whether he was alive or dead.

A stylized Hogwarts crest featuring the lion, snake, badger, and eagle that represent the four houses.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, History of Magic is “easily the most boring class” on Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s schedule. Things do not improve by the students’ second year.2 In Chamber of Secrets, Binns lulls students into a stupor while he reads his lecture notes “in a flat drone like an old vacuum cleaner.”3 Indeed, Binns makes so little effort to engage his students that he’s genuinely surprised when Hermione raises her hand to ask about the legend of the Chamber of Secrets. He ultimately dismisses her question, declaring: “I deal with facts, Miss Granger, not myths and legends.”4

In short, Binns is so boring that he serves as shorthand for other exceptionally uninteresting tasks. When the odious Dolores Umbridge commands her students to read the first chapter of Defensive Magical Theory, Harry finds the reading “desperately dull, quite as bad as listening to Professor Binns.”5

Is Harry Potter really to blame?

J.K. Rowling did not originate the idea that history is boring and the Harry Potter series is by no means responsible for the “history is boring” trope. Before Professor Binns, there was Ben Stein’s brilliantly monotone performance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Stein portrayed an economics teacher, but his subject in the “Anyone? Anyone?” scene was historical change. Incidentally, if you Google “boring history teacher,” this scene is the the first hit.

However, my students never referenced Ferris Bueller. The inescapable Game of Thrones was the most mentioned series, but most references occurred in a single class period. Twenty-five mentions, out of the total twenty-eight tweets and six GIFs, appeared during the Medieval Europe class when I asked students to name their favorite book, tv show, movie or video game set in the Middle Ages.

By contrast, Harry Potter tweets and GIFs appeared throughout the semester. A total of twenty-four student tweets (out of 11,819) alluded to Harry Potter. Thirteen of the references were GIFs. Four tweets referred to Remus Lupin (thanks to our study of the Romulus and Remus legend in class.) Hermione Granger, Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter, Molly Weasley, Ron Weasley and Argus Filch also appeared in the GIFs or text of tweets.

All told, only 0.2% of the semester’s tweets allude to the series in some way. None of the tweets or GIFs referenced Professor Binns.

So again, I’m not blaming Rowling’s portrayal of Binns for students’ assumption that history is boring. I just think it’s interesting that the most widely referenced series in the tweets also contains a deathly dull history professor.

“History can be boring”

I suspect students often conclude history is boring due to experiences with instructors like Professor Binns. At the start of this semester, for instance, a number of students approached me to ask how much they need to memorize for the class. This is despite the fact that exams are open book and discussions take up more class time than lectures. Yet many students assume history = memorization. This implies much of their past experience with history took place in a classroom like the one run by Professor Binns. “History” therefore means a series of lectures, memorization, and grueling tests – not a place for relevant and engaging discussion.

In addition to anecdotal evidence, I know students think history is boring because last semester they tweeted the idea. To be fair, only one student explicitly stated, “History can be boring.” But the tweets produced for Class 5, our first workshop for the group blogging project, suggest students think it is difficult to make history interesting.

Context for Class 5: Workshop 1

In the first workshop, I focused on helping students begin their work for Post 1 (of 2). The basic description of the assignment for Post 1 read:

Post 1 is a text-based, relatively traditional blog post. The post should be 1000-1500 words long. Use of images and engaging writing style are encouraged.

The grading rubric I provided for this assignment included:

  1. Core Elements (25 points): thesis statement, use of specific examples, clear statement of the topic’s importance
  2. Engagement (15 points): engaging writing style, use of media, potential inclusion of personal relevance
  3. Use of other creators’ material (15 points): paraphrasing, citations, use of Creative Commons images, references list
  4. Writing (10 points): grammar/spelling, presence of introduction and conclusion, organization of content
  5. Attention to detail (10 points): formatting of the blog post, use of categories and tags, word count minimum/maximum

Upon their arrival in class, I asked students to tell me either something they found challenging/daunting about the blogging project OR something they thought was exciting about the project. The students produced 165 tweets related to this question for Class 5.

A column chart showing the number of tweets in which students expressed something challenging, exciting, or challenging/exciting. There is also an uncategorized category.

Thirty-three of the tweets included something the students thought was exciting. One hundred and ten stated something a student found challenging/daunting. Four contained both an exciting and challenging element. I left eighteen of the tweets uncategorized. Uncategorized tweets typically were too vague, asked a question, or seemed unrelated to my original question.

What did students find challenging?

The chart below details what students considered challenging or daunting about the project. For the most part, their responses closely mirrored the rubric. Concerns about working with others and dealing with the amount of information in their sources also surfaced.

However, making the post interesting and engaging to readers was clearly the greatest concern.

A column chart showing what students initially found challenging/daunting about the blogging project.

Why were they concerned about engagement?

I suspect students took both the rubric and the medium of their writing into account when they considered the challenges of the assignment.

The rubric certainly impacted their concerns, but I don’t think it was the main reason for their concerns. It’s telling that elements from the Core Elements and Use of Other Creators Material categories showed up less often than Engagement. These categories were worth a greater or an equal number of points.

Students also may have expressed anxiety about this aspect of writing history precisely because they were tasked with creating a blog post. Blog posts are, after all, a social medium readers expect will be enjoyable and interesting to read. One student suggested as much when they tweeted:

Trying to make the blog post engaging seems like it’ll be challenging (since we’re used to academic writing)!6

Here, the student highlights the difficulty of shifting from one mode of communication to another. In this case, the difficulty of making the post engaging lies not in history but in the student’s unfamiliarity with public writing.

The tension between informative and engaging

Few other students worried about the medium, though. Instead, many students noted a tension between informative historical content and engaging historical content. Interestingly, the reasons for this tension vary. A closer look at a few examples helps highlight the diversity of reasons students see a tension between informative and engaging content.


In sum, the content of the tweets makes clear that students do think history can be boring. The tweets also highlight the tension students’ perceive between informative and engaging historical content. Their reasons for this perception include (but are not limited to) concerns regarding:

  • the ‘deadness’ of history
  • the dullness of past texts
  • the flexibiity of the concept of “interesting”
  • the usefulness of personal bias and opinion in engaging and audience and
  • the difficulty of condensing large amounts of information

The students’ tweets speak to many of the difficulties faced by professional historical writers. More specifically, the students articulated difficulties related to how historians communicate history.

I think consideration for how to communicate history well might even be the overwhelming concern. I would argue the tweets about interest/engagement, important/relevant, simple/understandable, and word limit tweets could be better thought of as sub-categories of “communicating history.”

How we communicate history matters

How we communicate history matters. It takes a great deal of skill and practice to (publicly) communicate history in a way that is rigorously attentive to evidence, accessible to a broad audience, and both visually and intellectually interesting to a wide variety of people.

Rowling recognizes this in her penultimate reference to Professor Binns. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, readers find Harry in History of Magic for his last year of study (since Harry ultimately fails his History of Magic O.W.L exam):

Today they suffered three-quarters of an hour’s droning on the subject of giant wars. Harry heard just enough within the first ten minutes to appreciate dimly that in another teacher’s hands this subject might have been mildly interesting, but then his brain disengaged.7

Students, the public, and historians alike recognize the need for skillful communication of history. Yet historical communication isn’t typically listed as a form of “historical thinking” – perhaps because that term implies an internal process.8 Various definitions of historical thinking support this by emphasizing the concepts central to the historical discipline – context, continuity and change, historical empathy, historical understanding, historical significance, etc.. These are all concepts that students of history are expected to know and communicate9 – but not necessarily to communicate well.

This has started to change and I suspect the turn toward public history and digital humanities has aided that shift. The interdisciplinary History Communication syllabus, collaboratively developed by “historians, science communicators and media scholars,” is very encouraging. The course specifically addresses the intersections of history communication and media. That’s a useful and important effort in a world that prizes digital, social communication over more traditional forms


I’d like to revise my opening statement. Students don’t think history is boring. They recognize the reality that history can be boring – but doesn’t have to be. They also acknowledge that crafting interesting and informative historical accounts is difficult and takes skill, effort, and practice. The beautiful thing is that this gives educators room to try – and fail – at the difficult task of creating engaging history. Our students are willing to learn alongside us.


1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Kindle Edition (2015), 132-133.

2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Kindle Edition (2015), 132.

3. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Kindle Edition (2015), 148.

4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Kindle Edition (2015), 148.

5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Kindle Edition (2015), 240. This is the last reference to Binns in the series.

6. Protected Tweet. ID: 831352590797398016

7. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Kindle Edition, p. 228

8. It’s possible I haven’t run across literature that more fully incorporates historical communication OR I’m not giving sources fair credit. Corrections in this area are welcome.

9. University at Buffalo, for instance, lists “write a well-organized historical argument” and “present research and findings in clear and compelling fashion” as learning objectives for undergraduates.

Blog Post, Process Blog

Four Thoughts on Working With Twitter Data

My digital dissertation on historical thinking, social media, and the digital age primarily utilizes Twitter data to answer questions about students’ understandings of the significance of the practice and content of history. Working with Twitter data is new territory to me but I have a few thoughts on the process of cleaning and organizing the data thus far.

1. Twitter is a Hydra

Hydra: A mythological beastie with many heads. When someone lops off one head, two more appear. Also apparently exhales poisonous fumes. Heracles (Hercules) was only able to destroy the monster with the help of his nephew, who cauterized the stump of each head to prevent new ones growing.

The Greek hero Hercules battles a many-headed, fire-breathing, serpentine monster called the Hydra
Hercules, John Singer Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I didn’t know Twitter was going to be a Hydra, partly because the initial collection of tweets was super easy thanks to Ian Milligan, who generously set up and hosted a dnflow server for me this semester.1 (Because digital humanities people are awesome about helping new-to-DH scholars realize their projects.)

My students and I used a class hashtag (#hwc111) to organize our tweets and, once a week or so, I entered the hashtag into a search box on dnflow. The program created analytics regarding the most popular tweets, common images, and the number collected and I downloaded this data into a neat Google Drive folder.

The original data set was comprised of 10,486 tweets – but I knew that wasn’t all of them. Dnflow had trouble collecting retweets 2 and quoted retweets 3. Plus no one (myself included) tags their tweets perfectly all the time.

My initial, optimistic workflow looked a bit like this:

A young Bette Davis walks through a door, closes it, and collapses in hysterical laughter

  1. Compile all tweets from dnflow requests into a single spreadsheet.
  2. Review individual feeds.
  3. Add missing tweets.
  4. Categorize tweets based on which question in class, if any, the tweet responded to.

Simple, yes? Hilarious is more like it.

The second task “review individuals feeds” became an additional four sub-tasks and “add missing tweets” turned into adding not only un-tagged tweets, but also all replies by students because I decided halfway through that I wanted to explore whether a network existed among students and, if so, what it looks like. I also added new tasks as I started reviewing the data, such as creating a column to describe the media (GIFs, images, quotes from class readings) attached to tweets.

For this sort of work, the experience and assistance of other people is clearly beneficial. Something like Jessica Otis’s workflow for examining a conference network with Gephi would have been exceptionally helpful at the start of this process (and certainly will be helpful as I experiment with Gephi). To that end, I’ve documented the workflow that emerged for me (really, it’s more of a task list), available via Google Drive. Ideally, this will help other Twitter -data newcomers avoid similar pitfalls in the future.

2. How to be a historian who thinks with machines?

I ultimately added 1,671 tweets to the original 10,486 – about a 16% increase in the data set. I’m not sure yet whether or not this is a significant amount. (Though I’m sure some students or colleagues with working knowledge of statistics can tell me…)

I’m used to thinking like a historian in an archive, where documents are rare and every particular piece of evidence matters. This isn’t that kind of project, though. Instead, I’ll be visualizing and analyzing the contents of hundreds of tweets at a time. Will 16 extra tweets make a difference when analyzing a batch of 100?

My guess is that the additions may not make much of a difference to any text analysis involving large segments of the data set. Added tweets might, however, make a difference in the composition of the network of students. The new tweets might also contain some zingy and insightful quotes that allow me to make a point with a bit more panache. Like this one from a student processing the perspective and bias of the Greek historian, Herodotus.

I suspect I’ll return to the question of how much data is worth saving, adding, and exploring. This is an important question in the broader practice of digital history. How should digital historians balance a disciplinary preference for the particularities of individual documents with a methodology that requires setting aside the particular, at least initially, in order to extract generalizations from massive sets of evidence? What will that look like for this particular project.

3. Backtracking is disheartening, but necessary.

While reviewing the individual Twitter feeds created by my students, I came up with a clever idea I believed would expedite the review process: Save the missing tweets to a Twitter Moment a place to store and then return to record the retweets after completing the initial review of the feeds.


I tried this method over the course of two individual feeds and it seemed to be working. I also double checked Twitter’s support pages to ensure there was no limit to the number of tweets one could add; no limitation was obviously stated. I continued adding tweets to the moment as I reviewed my next 30 feeds and then proudly showed off my “Tweets to Add” Moment Peggy Olson from Mad Men slowly lowers her head to a desk in my supportive spouse – at which point I discovered that approximately 50 of the most recently added tweets were in fact saved to the Moment.4


Paige Morgan and Yvonne Lam, who led the Intro to Data Wrangling workshop at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, warned participants that starting over is always a possibility. Paige also noted in a recent talk/blog post: “I say that I work with data, but in some ways, it feels more accurate to say that I work with various types of mess.”5

I wholeheartedly agree with acknowledging that starting over happens and that data is usually some type of mess or another. And I suspect this won’t be the last time that happens. Backtracking is disheartening and time-consuming and that emotional toll perhaps could be better acknowledged in DH work – even if it’s a necessary part of the messy digital process.

4. It’s okay to leave some things for later.

In a recent chat with Veronica Armour, an Instructional Designer at Seton Hall University, I asked her what project management training she acquired before moving into her current field of work.6 Her answer was “not much” (which seems quite common), but she did recommend some online courses – particularly those that favor “agile management” over “waterfall management.”

Streams from a waterfall run down a bright green cliffside.
Sean MacEntee, “Waterfall,” CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

My understanding of these models is quite basic, but here’s the heart of it. Agile models make it possible and even desirable to move forward even if all the pieces aren’t yet in place; the object is to continuously work toward goals by testing, seeking feedback, and testing again as new information or materials become available. Waterfall models, by contrast, require everything from one step of the project to be completed before moving onto the next.

I’m definitely a “waterfall” person when it comes to my own projects. I don’t like the feeling of incompleteness and I prefer to explore every possibility before moving on.

But that is shaping up to be an ineffective way to work with data – especially data that acts like a Hydra. With the next few stages of the project, then, I’m hoping to become more okay with leaving things for later.


Blog Post, Process Blog

#dh/#dhist: Party of One

Republished from Storify. This sentence is the link to the original publication.

A quick clarification of terms (with thanks to friend and colleague Paul McAfee who asked me to define on FB):

  1. DH is “digital humanities” – a broad umbrella term for projects that utilize digital tools and processes to forward research in one or more of the humanities fields.
  2. dhist is one of many hashtags for “digital history” on social media. Digital history is a subset of digital humanities in which digital tools and methods are used to explore historical content.
  3. Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you aren’t actually capable of doing what you’re supposed to be doing/have chosen to do – and that sooner or later everyone else will figure that out too. It doesn’t always (or even often) mean the person doesn’t know what their up to – it’s just a persistent, nagging voice in the head to the effect of “not good enough.”
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


I’ve used Twitter for two semesters of my course and the platform is a major part of my dissertation research. I’m pretty comfortable discussing the uses and challenges of Twitter in the classroom. It’s less daunting than you might think, but does take some patience and preparation.

In addition, 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.