The History Curriculum in 2023

I wrote this essay as a series of posts just before and during the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2013, hence my seemingly arbitrary selection 2023 as a point of reference. What follows, is a slightly edited version of that series—edited so that the texts all fit together in this long form way rather than being interlinked as a series of blog posts. If you want to read them as a series of posts, start here.

The History Curriculum in 2023
January 1-6, 2013

In my last post, I argued that if we don’t start making some substantial changes to the history curriculum, we’ll be in a world of trouble before too much longer. I’m not a fan of those who simply predict doom without offering possible solutions. Now that the semester is over and I have more than ten minutes to think about something other than the most pressing item on my to do list, I want to propose my own possible solution to getting us out of the corner we have largely painted ourselves into.

Just to be clear from the outset, I am not going to propose what the content knowledge of that curriculum ought to be. I think that faculty in high school and postsecondary history departments around the world will continue to make very interesting decisions about the content of their courses and their curricula. My thinking, that I’m going to lay out in a series of posts over the next few days, is about the procedural knowledge we need to be teaching our students so that they can prosper in the information and service economy they will live in once they graduate.

Also, I feel the need to stipulate that I am specifically not proposing that we discontinue teaching our students analytical writing about the past or traditional research skills (e.g., how to locate and analyze primary sources). These are essential components of the history curriculum. But, as I have argued previously, these cannot be the only skills we teach and it is not necessary that every course we offer be based, at least in part, on teaching these skills. There is more to success in the economy our students will live in than being able to write a really good five-page paper based on primary sources.

My proposal for additions to the history curriculum of the future can be summed up in just four words: Making, Mining, Marking, and Mashing.

In the essay that follows, I will elaborate on each of these for core concepts that I think will form essential foundations of the curriculum we ought to be developing in the coming years.  Yes, students will still be required to find and analyze primary sources, to form arguments, and to place those arguments (and the sources they find) into a larger conversation among scholars. But those skills alone will position our students ideally for the economy of 1993, not the economy of 2013, much less 2023. If we want to be true to ourselves as educators and true to our students’ needs and expectations, we need to admit that the skills we have been teaching them since the late 1890s are no longer sufficient preparation for the world those students will live in once they graduate.

You may not agree with me on the Four Ms of the future history curriculum, and if you don’t, I hope you’ll express that disagreement in very specific terms either online or in print. But I do think that you should at least consider that the very fact that we have been teaching history much the same way for more than 100 years is, in and of itself, a fact worth reflecting on. The world has changed an awful lot in the last 100 years and the fact that our teaching has changed so little in that century should give all of us pause.

So, read on, think about what I’m proposing, and let me know what you think. I also strongly suggest reading the Top Ed Tech Trends of 2012 by Audrey Watters of HackEducation. Much of my thinking on the history curriculum ten years hence has been influenced by Audrey’s writing about educational technology.

When my sons were young I spent a fair amount of time in their elementary school helping with this and that. More than once I wondered why it was that an elementary school had a science lab, but not a “history lab”? When I watched the children in the science lab what I saw was engagement, enthusiasm, and excitement. How many of us see that in our history classrooms today?

One reason that we see far less engagement, enthusiasm, and excitement in our own classrooms is that, by and large, history education remains a passive learning experience for students. To be sure, many creative history teachers at the high school and college level design interesting opportunities for their students to be more engaged. But the vast majority of history classes still rely on the (mostly) one way transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the student. And even when more creative teaching strategies are employed, they rarely tap into the creative energies of the students. Instead, those strategies (mostly) ask students to complete tasks designed by the teacher.

And that’s too bad.

I’ve spent most of the past decade looking carefully at the ways that history is taught in the English speaking world and one of the things that struck me over and over was how history education negates the creative potential of students. Other than asking them to think creatively about the arguments they might devise from the sources they’ve found and analyzed, we just don’t give our students much room to exercise the creative parts of their brains. Is it a wonder, then, that history classrooms (as compared to elementary school science labs) are pretty quiet places?

With each passing year our devotion to this style of teaching will be more and more problematic, because our mostly one way style of instruction runs counter to the ways that young people use digital media. While those over 30 tend to see the Internet as a zone of extraction–a place to find information or purchase goods–a significant and growing share of those under 30 also see the Internet as a zone of creation–a place to create and remix content and express themselves. A recent report from the Pew Internet Project and a book by Mizuko Ito are well worth reading for more insight into this shift in use of the Internet among teens and younger adults.

Because increasing numbers of our students are using the digital realm as a creative space, and because there is no likelihood that they are going to spend less time on their computers any time soon, we need to change our teaching to meet our students where they live. Otherwise they are likely to see history as a discipline increasingly irrelevant to their lives.

Fortunately, the way forward is already marked out for us.

A few enterprising historians have already begun to ask what the maker movement might offer us when it comes to pedagogical innovation. For example, Bill Turkel teaches a public history course called Designing Interactive Exhibits in which students “learn how to embed their interpretations in interactive, ambient and tangible forms that can be recreated in many different settings.” In other words, they learn to take advantage of innovations in physical computing and desktop fabrication (among others) to create new interactive historical exhibits that will engage the public in new and exciting ways.

I am increasingly impressed with the possibilities of desktop fabrication, especially 3-D printing, for unleashing the creative potential of our students. Rather than simply asking our students to write about the past, we can now ask them to recreate complex objects from the past such as this scale model of segments of the Berlin Wall. I chose this particular example because in 2009 we set up a segment of our own Berlin Wall here on campus and then invited students to tag it as they saw fit. For the next several hours dozens and dozens of Mason students exercised their creativity on that wall, so many in fact that we had to run back to the hardware store twice to buy more spray paint. Then we invited them to demolish the wall, a task they took to with equal gusto. These students were engaged with the past in very interesting ways. Building such a wall in the middle of campus every semester is impractical. But using a MakerBot to recreate a model of the wall which is then painted according to the students’ sensibilities is quite practical.

For such things to be practical, we’d need to build one (or more) “makerspaces” for our students to work in. Given that interest in the maker movement crosses disciplinary boundaries, I think it’s a safe bet that we’d find some allies on campus in other departments who might also be interested in seeing such a learning environment created for students to think and play in. Working with colleagues in other disciplines interested in “making” (art, graphic design, engineering) will also give us new opportunities to explore interdisciplinary work–something historians just don’t do enough of–and we certainly don’t create incentives for our students to do.

Desktop fabrication is but one way that we can give our students new and interesting opportunities to “make history.” Digital storytelling has been around for more than a decade and offers a mature model of another way to let our students play with the past in creative ways. Our students also need the opportunity to make history in other ways — mobile apps, historical games, and other interfaces that connect learners to historical evidence and interpretation that we haven’t even thought of yet (but our students may have).

If we put our minds to it, there is no reason why we can’t come up with many ways to create the same level of engagement, excitement, and enthusiasm I used to see in that elementary school science lab. We just have to be willing to be different. And we have to be willing to turn out students loose, let them exercise their creative potential. If we do, they are very likely to surprise us in ways they never will with a carefully crafted essay.

When I was a freshman in college one of the first history classes I took included a tour of the university’s main library and an introduction to its vast card catalog, the like of which none of us had ever seen. Our professor patiently explained the arcana of the Library of Congress subject heading system, showed us how a work might turn up in the catalog either by title, author, or subject heading, and then sent us off on a scavenger hunt through the thousands of little file drawers. By the end of our class period, each of us had the beginnings of a bibliography on the subject of our course.

That first foray into the world of real historical research was fun, overwhelming, and educational all at the same time. But it was also limited to secondary sources and was entirely limited to those works available in the university library.

How the history student’s world has changed.

Today our students are face to face with access to primary and secondary sources beyond count–quite literally tens of millions of primary sources and an equally large and growing corpus of scanned secondary works. My professors taught me in a pedagogical world based on scarcity. Today we teach in a world dominated by abundance.

Big data” is one of the “big ideas” of the current decade across many sectors of the information economy and historians and other humanists have already begun working on exciting projects [see also and also] that are helping us find ways to mine emerging super massive datasets of historical information. One maturing example is the Criminal Intent project funded by the NEH’s Digging into Data program (my colleagues Fred Gibbs and Dan Cohen are central players in this project).

As exciting as the Criminal Intent project and other similar data mining efforts are, they are currently operating at a level a bit to complex for the average undergraduate. Simpler data mining tools like Google’s NGram viewer offer a more frictionless introduction to data mining concepts. For instance, I’ve written about how undergraduates might use the NGram viewer to mine millions of words from the Google book database and begin to think about what sorts of historian’s questions might then come out of such a mining exercise.

Right now, today, getting much beyond these basic sorts of exercises with undergraduates will be difficult. But it is useful to remember that ten years ago it was not so easy to make a web page. Before too much longer the user interfaces for mining massive data sets of historical information — especially texts and images — will be appropriate for the undergraduate curriculum. That means it is already past time for historians to be thinking about how we can incorporate data mining into the undergraduate curriculum. Some interesting graduate syllabi have begun to appear, but data mining, whether text or image mining, seems to be largely absent from the undergraduate history curriculum.

Imagine, for instance, a course that begins with the simplest tools, such as Many Eyes or the NGram viewer, helping history students to see both the strengths and weaknesses of these tools. From there the course could move on to increasingly complex forays into data mining, letting the students range further and further afield as their skills grow. Our colleagues in computer science have already developed such courses, but such courses would need to be adapted heavily for them to work with history students who (mostly) lack the background in programming.

I’ve already argued that incorporating “making” into the history curriculum gives us opportunities to build connections to other academic disciplines (art, engineering, graphic design). Data mining offers us similar opportunities (computer science, library science, computational sciences). The more creative we can be about building such linkages, the richer our curriculum can be and the better prepared our students will be for the world they’ll face when they graduate.

But just as important, we’ll be training a new generation of historians to work with the unimaginable wealth of historical information that a decade’s worth of scanning and marking up of texts, images, video, and sound files, has made available to us all.

Way back in 1996 (a millenium in Internet years) I was teaching at the University of New Hampshire as a fill in for someone on sabbatical. Early in the fall semester I got a memo (not an email) offering faculty members a chance to attend a workshop where we would learn how to put our syllabi on the World Wide Web. I signed up and spent two hours learning to write HTML code via green text on a black screen. At the end of the workshop, both of my syllabi found new lives online and the rest, as they say, is history.

This was not my introduction to coding, but it was by far my most successful foray (there is no need to discuss what grade I earned in Introduction to BASIC Programming in college). I continue to bless my luck that I learned to create web pages the old fashioned way, because I’m just lazy enough that had I started with a program like DreamWeaver, I probably never would have learned the underlying code that drives my websites. At the same time, more than once I’ve wished that I had had the time to really learn XML and CSS at the level that I need to know them. I even own a guide to simple programming in Python, not that I’ve ever gotten past the Introduction.

Because the tools of digital technology are increasingly so user friendly, fewer and fewer of our students are spending much, if any, time at the command line, or even in the source code for the content they create online. In my experience, most history majors don’t even know what “metadata” means, much less how it influences what is served up to them by Google or other search engines.

If we let this situation continue, we are doing our history students a real disservice, both when it comes to teaching them about our discipline, but also in helping them prepare for careers after graduation, whether in history or many other fields.

It’s a reasonable question to ask why history majors should learn some of the basics of coding. As Audrey Watters points out in her post on the more generalized version of this question, “Coding for the sake of coding doesn’t really get you much.” Audrey quotes Jeff Atwood who argues that good software developers don’t write code because they love code, but because they want to solve problems. While Atwood is making a plea that we not teach everyone to code, I think that his point about problem solving is exactly the reason why history majors need to be introduced to the basics of coding.

To put it more directly, good historians, like good software developers don’t study the past because we love musty old documents or to see our names in print, but because we want to solve problems. Our problems are different from those faced by software developers, but problems they remain. How many times have to urged your students to answer a question in their essays? That question is a problem that typically begins with the word “why.”

With the advent of super massive databases of historical content, students of the past are facing a new species of problem. How can we mine these databases for the information we want? How can we recognize patterns in those data? How can we organize the material we extract? How can analyze what we’ve found and organized? How can we present those data in ways that are compelling and explicable to our audiences? And how can those presentations happen across multiple platforms (laptop, tablet, mobile phone)?

Historians and other humanists are starting to take seriously the notion that coding, whether to extract and manipulate data or to present it in elegant ways (or both) are skills that students of the past need to acquire. But only a few historians thus far. Examples worth taking a look at include my colleague Fred GibbsCaleb McDaniel at Rice University (see his posts on learning Python), Miriam Posner at the University of Minnesota, Jeremy Boggs at the University of Virginia, and everyone else working on the Programming Historian project.

I can’t pretend to say that I could teach my students how to code, other than how to work with HTML and CSS, but I do recognize just how important it will be for our students going forward from 2013 to develop skills that I don’t have. Not every history student needs to learn to code, but I think we do our students a disservice if we don’t (a) make the option available to them and (b) strongly encourage them to avail themselves of this option. Those of our students who do develop these skills will almost certainly find doors open to them that the standard history major, MA, or PhD will not even be able to knock on.

Because for the rising generation of students the Internet is no longer solely a zone of extraction, but rather is also a zone of creation, I’ve been arguing throughout this essay that the history curriculum must change to give students much freer reign when it comes to the work products they deliver to us as evidence of their learning in our classes. But it is also the case that just offering students a chance to be more creative does not (generally) result in an outpouring of creativity on their part.

After all, our students are busy, often over scheduled, and can be intensely pragmatic in their pursuit of a particular grade. Given the choice between doing something they know–write a paper, take an exam–and something they aren’t used to, many, if not most will opt for the known path to success. For this reason, it is incumbent on us to create courses that integrate what we know and care about (historical thinking, various forms of content) and what digital media make possible.

Because our students will come to those courses with a wide range of digital skills, these courses have to be structured in such a way that even the complete digital novice will prosper. But that’s what we do already in our courses, isn’t it? Don’t we assume on Day 1 of the semester that at least a few of the students in class know essentially nothing about whatever the topic of the course is? Getting students up to speed quickly is something we already do well.

No aspect of digital technology offers our students as many possibilities to be creative in their approach to making sense of the pass as the ability to mash up various forms of historical evidence into a new and compelling presentation. The possibilities of such mash ups, while not endless, are so great that I’m only going to discuss two here: video and mapping.

Digital story telling is one way students can “make history,” but the typical digital story produced by students tends to be more of a mini-documentary and less of a mash up. What I’m arguing for here is to teach students the skills they need — both technical and historical — to produce sophisticated historical mash up videos like this very short take on the events outside Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The video access through the preceding link mashes up iconic news footage of the “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square facing down a line of tanks with a clip from Mario Savio’s “put your bodies on the gears” speech at Berkeley in 1964 and a sound track by Boards of Canada. In just 62 seconds the creator of this mash up makes what we would recognize as a reasonable historical argument — that there is some sort of connection between American student activism of the 1960s and Chinese student activism in the 1980s. In the context of a history course, much more would need to be done to explore this argument further, but this brief video offers us a glimpse of what students might do if we turned them loose to create arguments in various media.

Digital maps are another way that students can be produce very creative mash ups of historical information. That historians are very interested in the potential of digital mapping and GIS is evident in the number of sessions on GIS at the 2013 AHA annual meeting. But we still offer our students very few opportunities to engage historical evidence in geographic space.

Simple tools such as Google Earth make it much easier for students to mash up historical evidence with historic (or current) maps. Already, various Google Earth communities have posted a wide range of interesting mash ups of maps, images, texts, and video. The learning curve for creating mash ups such as this one of Francis Gary Powers’ U2 flights is pretty shallow. What’s missing is the value added that we can provide — a more rigorous approach to the analysis of the evidence included in the mash up.

More sophisticated tools, such as Cleveland Historical and NeatLine, are already available to allow students to create even more sophisticated mash ups of historical and geographical information. In the next few years it’s reasonable to expect that many more similarly exciting platforms will be available to us and our students.

Given how easy it is already for students to produce interesting and intellectually rigorous historical mash ups, the curriculum of the future needs to incorporate these tools, both because doing so gives our students license to “make history” and to think about history in new and interesting ways, but also because the work they do with these tools will provide them with tangible intellectual products that they can show to future employers, graduate search committees, and others.

At a conference on the future of higher education at George Mason this past fall, one of my colleagues in the sciences pointed out that his department offered very rich and immersive learning experiences for their seniors in capstone seminars. I asked him why they made their students wait four years for such experiences?

In this series I have tried to suggest a number of ways we can transform the history curriculum to take advantage of the potential of digital media technology and offer rich and immersive learning experiences for our students throughout their four years in the history major. I’ve just finished reading the December 2012 edition of Perspectives and I have to admit that I’m amazed at how little attention was paid to undergraduate education in an issue devoted to “the future of the profession.”

It’s worth remembering that without undergraduates, our profession has no future.

The tuition paid by our undergraduate students sustains our graduate programs, making it possible for us to offer those small and not cost effective seminars. It also at least partly sustains the faculty labor force. How many departments that you know of would have the same budget if their undergraduate enrollment declined by more than one-third over a short time span? A few of the best endowed institutions can sustain departments through their endowments. But only a few. The rest of us depend heavily on undergraduate tuition for our survival.

I’m confident that history will never be dropped from the national undergraduate curriculum, but it’s very possible to imagine a future where individual institutions drop the liberal arts (including history) altogether to become niche players in an increasingly globalized education economy. In a world where big accounting firms are arguing that universities must radically transform their business models if they are going to survive at all, we need to take seriously the notion that at no institution is history indispensable.

That being the reality of the future of our profession, we need to think hard about how we can make our undergraduate major relevant in the digital economy, relevant to the lives our students are living and the ways they use technology, and, just as importantly teach our students the procedural knowledge — both digital and analog — that they need to be the best historians they can be.

The changes I’ve proposed here to the history curriculum are obviously not the only possible options for reform of what we do. I hope they generate some conversation about our future — conversation not only in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, but also in our top journals and newsletters.

If we don’t take seriously the notion that change is necessary, our future looks increasingly like an underfunded archive: stale, musty, and increasingly forgotten.

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