Improving the Past

This semester I’m offering a new course, Improving the Past [syllabus], that is another attempt on my part to capitalize on what we’ve learned from recent research about how young people use digital media. Last year I wrote a series of posts I called The History Curriculum in 2023 in which I argued that within a decade we should be focusing our teaching around four key areas of skill: making, mining, marking, and mashing. Improving the Past takes on the first and last of these criteria.

Last year my department decided that I couldn’t teach my admittedly controversial course, Lying About the Past, in its full form and I chose not to teach it in the version our undergraduate committee proposed, one that would limit my students’ creative endeavor to the confines of our classroom. Because that course had generated so much student enthusiasm, I started thinking about ways to capture that enthusiasm that would also be acceptable to my colleagues. A close friend and former George Mason colleague helped me clarify my thinking on this and had several fantastic suggestions, one of which morphed into the current course.

The basic premise underlying the course is that there is a long history of attempts to “improve” the past, whether it was the sudden disappearance of Trotsky from the history of the Soviet Union, or a more recent claim by a Virginia textbook writer that thousands of slaves took up arms in the Civil War to defend the institution that held them in bondage. And then there are those faked Civil War photographs like the one provided here. Of course, this history of improvement extends all the way to the origins of our profession cw00172when, for instance, Thucydides put words into the mouths of his subjects in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars. At least Thucydides was up front about his improving of the past.

Given this long history of improvement of the past — whether with good intent or bad — it seemed to me important that students, whether history majors or not, need to learn to think critically not only about why the past is being improved, by how. How is information altered and woven into compelling new narratives? What role does technology play in both the alteration and the dissemination of such knowledge? How can technological tools help us ferret out distortions of the historical record?

One of the most important takeaways for me as an educator from my experiences with Lying About the Past is that my students learned best when they were making a hoax out of the available (mostly true) historical facts. As a result, Improving the Past is built around making and mashing. In addition to studying the many ways the past has been improved, my students will do some of their own improving. They will select historical texts, images, and maps that they will then alter, preferably subtly, to create a new and improved narrative about the past. Then they will write about why they made the choices they made, how the new narrative might change our understanding of the past, how an improved past might be easier to teach, and what they learned from their experiences.

A glance at the syllabus will show that I’m placing a big premium on collaborative work in the course. There are two reasons for that emphasis. The first is that the work I’m asking them to do is difficult and each student will come to class with a different level of experience with history and with technology. The more they can pool their intellectual resources, the more they’ll get out of the class. The second is that I’m emphasizing the lesson that historical work is heavily collaborative, especially in these days of digital scholarship, and so I want to drive home the idea that by working together they are mirroring what, increasingly, we do in our own work. And lest anyone be concerned, my students’ “improvements” of the past will not be released to the Internet.

I am fortunate that the university has just opened two new active learning classrooms and I was able to grab one for this course (see below). I have not had the good fortune to teach in such a space before and so I’m looking forward to monitoring the ways the classroom design does (or doesn’t) facilitate the kind of work I’m expecting from my students. Given what I’ve written recently about spaces for history teaching and learning, I’m excited to be in such a new and different room. Notice, for instance, the wrap around white boards and the lack of an obvious “front” to the room.

RobB106

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the class. I’ll report in later in the semester on whether it’s working or not.

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History Spaces (V)

In this, the concluding post in my series on history spaces, I want to take up the hardest question of all — how we might find the physical spaces we need to take the sort of creative and new approaches to digital history, online education, and undergraduate research I’ve advocated for here.

I think it’s fair to say that few, if any, of our institutions have extra space lying around near our departmental offices that they would be willing to let us have, retrofit, and repurpose. And even if such spaces were just sitting there waiting to be used in new and different ways, it’s probably unlikely that a history department would get to call first dibs. We’re more likely to lose out to our colleagues in the STEM disciplines, the business school, or other programs that bring in larger enrollments and more external funding.

10250968414_cdf0d135e9_nThat being the case, all we have left to work with are our departmental spaces themselves. Unfortunately, if your department is anything like mine, the way your offices are set up right now doesn’t really lend itself to developing new and exciting spaces for student/faculty collaboration. Which leaves us with only one really viable alternative. To get new spaces that will serve us well over the coming decades, we’re going to have to give up something, and that something is going to have to be our private faculty offices.

Yes, I know that to even suggest that a professor give up his/her private office is about as heretical as anything I could possibly suggest. But before you click away to something less likely to elevate your blood pressure, hear me out.

Let’s all be honest for just a minute. Raise your hand if every one of your colleagues uses his/her office for more than 20 hours per week every week. Anyone? No? I didn’t think so. The fact is, every history department in the United States has plenty of office space that is used less than 20 hours per week — much of it for less than 15 hours. And when they are in use, what do we do in our offices? Most of us — not all, I grant, but most — use our offices primarily for prepping our classes, meeting with students, grading, and catching up on email. Very few historians I know do significant research and writing in those departmental offices. That work, as I suggested in my first post in this series, mostly takes place in archives, libraries, or at home.

So, if we have all this space that is being used less than half time, there are two possible alternatives for how we might reconfigure our office spaces to make them into what we want. The first alternative is, in some ways, the simplest — shared offices. Bob, who Booksteaches MWF this semester has the office those days, and Stan, who teaches TR, has it the two other days.

But what about my books???

Trust me, I know. I too love my books and just sitting in my office looking at them makes me happy. But, since we’re being brutally honest here, how about this as a solution to your books. You get to keep every book that you’ve taken down off the shelf in the past 18 months. All the rest have to go home. In my case, that would open up something like 70 percent of my shelf space. Maybe more if I’m being really honest.

The second alternative, and the one that would have to require some serious re-thinking of how we work in our departments, is to move to an open floor plan — no, not cubicles — where individual workspaces are surrounded by offices that can be used for private meetings, project work, or private calls. Almost every other industry in the United States has moved to open floor plans and higher education just can’t be so special, so exceptional, that it couldn’t work for us as well.

1315-Peachtree-Perkins-Will-6Industries where professionals have to engage in creative, intellectual work have found ways to make open floor plans successful and report that collaboration among colleagues, general employee happiness, and overall productivity have gone up rather than down. This image is from the offices of Perkins+Will, an architectural firm in Atlanta, Georgia with a substantial higher ed practice. The main common space shown here holds dozens of workspaces for the architects and is ringed by glassed in offices that are used for various ad hoc purposes — the kinds of purposes I have been describing in my earlier posts. And, you’ll note, everyone has a window. I don’t know about you, but I certainly prefer natural light over florescent tubes.

If the very idea of giving up your private office hasn’t sent you away yet, try this experiment. Make a simple sketch of the total office space your department occupies. Then think carefully about the kinds of new spaces you’d like to have. Do you want a maker lab? Do you want group work spaces for students taking online courses? Do you want a “history lab” where you, several colleagues, graduate and undergraduate students can all work together on long term research projects? How about a new classroom that your department controls and that houses the technology, cartons of artifacts, or whatever, that you’d like to have available all the time?

If you were to halve the number of private offices (option #1, shared offices) that your department has, how much space would that free up? Would it be enough for the cool new spaces you envision? Or, if you were to move to an open floor plan like the one pictured above (option #2), how much space would that free up?

You might object to the whole idea I’ve laid out over the past few days on the basis of pessimism about your institution’s willingness to invest in reconfigured department space. Before you do, it’s worth sitting down with whoever is in charge of your campus spaces — an architect, a space planner, a facilities director — and just have a conversation with them. I can say that all across the United States people who fill those roles at colleges and universities are engaged in a very interesting and dynamic conversation about how campus buildings need to be retrofitted to meet the learning needs of future students and the research needs of future faculty. See if your campus is a member of the Society for College and University Planning. If so, then someone on campus has been at least partly connected to these conversations.

If so, you may just be surprised to find that you have a receptive audience, maybe even a willing partner, especially if you go in an offer up something — the footprint of your department — in exchange for something new and exciting.

The alternative, I’m sorry to say, is for us to sit in our offices, with our books, lamenting that those STEM people keep getting all the good spaces on campus.

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History Spaces (IV)

I’m at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association this weekend and yesterday I attended a panel discussion of the recent American Academy of Arts & Sciences report, “The Heart of the Matter” that discusses the future of the humanities and social sciences in the United States. One of the panelists, I’m pretty sure it was Claire Potter, suggested that one reason our colleagues in the STEM disciplines seem to be more visible on campus is that they do their work in big spaces — labs, workshops, and so on — spaces that include other colleagues, graduate students, and undergraduates. The speaker then urged historians to think big, by which she meant big projects we could do that would similarly involve many people.

We already do that here at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, where we have dozens and dozens of people working on various projects, large and small, spread out across half a floor in one of our campus research buildings. But we’re one of only a few history departments around the country that have such large scale research and production spaces and almost all of those that exist are engaged in digital work. Digital work at this scale is not for everyone, but historical research is, at least if by everyone we mean historians and their students.

In my second post in this series I suggested that we need to start thinking about research, teaching, and learning as shared endeavors rather than something that we as the experts transmit to our students in our classrooms and in our cramped offices. Such a vision of the future of history education fits very nicely with the push across the United States for substantial expansion of undergraduate research opportunities. According to the Council on Undergraduate Research, more than 900 colleges and universities have signed on as members of the Council and more than 10,000 faculty, staff, and students have joined as well. I’m quite certain that within a decade these numbers will have increased substantially. Undergraduate research is just too attractive both as a pedagogical tool and as a marketing strategy.

For historians this should be a no-brainer.Every history curriculum I’ve examined has a research methods course, a required research seminar, or some similar focus on undergraduate research. It’s just what we do.

But while we’re very good at giving our students a chance to engage in authentic historical research, we’re not very good at doing that in a “big” way as suggested by yesterday’s speaker. Instead, we generally reproduce the binary expert/novice model and just about the only time research that is anything like the shared endeavor so common to the sciences occurs is when we hire an undergraduate to do some research for us. library

What if we took yesterday’s speaker seriously, though, and went big? What kinds of historical research projects could we design that would span several years, would attract external funding, and would engage undergraduates, graduate students, and colleagues in collaborative knowledge production and meaning making? I can think of several such possibilities right off the top of my head and I’m sure that with a few minutes reflection, you could too.

But if we are going to go big, we need some space for that to happen — space where people can sit around tables and collaborate, where some archival files can be stored, maps can be unrolled, objects can be locked up and then later brought out for examination, careful analysis of sources can happen, where all the things we do as historians can take place, can be shared, and can result in something much bigger and more immersive than the expert/novice binary can every provide.

Any such space we build should be visible from the street, the hallway, or the campus quad. Other students, those not part of what we’re up to in that cool space, should be able to peer inside and ask, “Hey, what’s going on in there?” Because if they do, they might just think to ask more about being a history major. And with the number of high school seniors set to decline over the coming decade, anything we can do to attract a few more our way is to the good.

Tomorrow, in my final installment in this series, I will tackle the thorniest question of all — how we can get the kinds of spaces we want. Be prepared for a post that will make you a little queasy.

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History Spaces (III)

In my first post in this series I suggested that there were three main areas where we, as historians, should start thinking creatively about our departmental spaces and how they will or won’t serve us and our students well as we move forward in the coming decade. In the second post I laid out a series of recommendations for spaces that will help us take better advantage of the opportunities digital history offers us.

If your institution is anything like mine (or like most of the ones I read about and visit), you are being asked to think about how you might incorporate more online and/or hybrid courses into your curriculum. In our case here at George Mason University these conversations are being driven both by a genuine sense that we need to be part of the online delivery of educational content, but also by a space crunch that is only going to become more acute with each passing semester. Whatever the pressures or inducements are at your institution, it’s almost a given that you are hearing something from somewhere on campus about online, online, online.

When we talk about spaces and online education (under which I’m including hybrid courses that blend online and face to face instruction), there are both physical and virtual spaces to consider. I’m on record in many places as not liking BlackBoard or really any other commercially available learning management system (LMS), but I will admit that for many instructors, these open the box and use systems make a lot of sense if only because they are institutionally supported and relatively easy to use. I think they impose a particular set of pedagogical assumptions on the instructor, which is why I don’t use them, but for history departments that want to create virtual learning spaces quickly, the use of a commercial LMS may be the simplest option.

What I’m more concerned with in this series of posts, however, is the physical spaces we control — to the degree we do control them — in our departmental offices. If we are going to do online right, we and our students have to have easy access to two kinds of physical spaces — those that can be used for the production of online historical resources, and those that students can use when consuming those resources. For advice on the first of these spaces, I’d refer you to my prior post, in which I discuss what a digital production space might look like. For more on spaces for students engaged in learning online, read on.

I think educators enamored of online education cling to one really big mistaken assumption when it comes to student learning with online resources. Yes, it is likely that many students will sit quietly by themselves watching videos, working their way through problems, doing research, and interacting with other students enrolled in the same course. But does it have to be that way? Is this face-glued-to-laptop mode of learning the best use of online educational tools? After all, if that’s the way students are going to take our courses, then we don’t need our campuses at all, now do we? They can just sit at home, in Starbucks, or wherever, and consume our curricula all by their lonesome selves. Think of the money we’d save if we shut down all our classroom buildings for good.

What if, instead, we created learning spaces in our departments dedicated to students taking online courses? Such spaces could be Huntsmallish, meaning large enough for a couple or a few students, and wired, so that the students can all watch the same screen simultaneously, but have enough bandwidth to work independently on their laptops/tablets. The image to the right is from the Hunt Library at N.C. State University that opened last year and shows one of many such possible configurations of a space where students can work together, whether as part of an online course, or while planning a group presentation, or whatever.

If our students had such spaces and we designed our online learning opportunities to encourage them to work together in such spaces (or in their dorms, or a Starbucks), what could the learning outcomes be and how would those outcomes be different that what might be achieved in a face-glued-to-laptop mode of online course design? Because some of the very best historical work is the result of collaborative endeavor — showing drafts to friends, presenting to colleagues, etc. — it seems to me that it is incumbent on us to think more carefully about designing online learning around the kinds of collaborations we value in our own work. In that way we help to model a mode of knowledge production that we engage in ourselves. And we give them a reason to engage with our curriculum in our department, where faculty and other students might join in, be available to answer questions, or take part in the production of new knowledge as part of the kind of shared endeavor I discussed in yesterday’s post.

That alone would seem to offer a very good reason why even online students might want to be on our campuses rather than taking courses from online competitors.

 

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