Tag Archives: making

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.


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.

I Just Want to Move Some Shit

One of the ways I clear my head on the weekends is by doing trail maintenance for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in the Prince William Forest Park. There is nothing like getting down and dirty with a chainsaw, a Pulaski, or a McLeod, to help you forget for a minute that you have so many and various job responsibilities. And, once all the committees, compliance reports, and other minutiae of higher education vaporize, I find that I get some of my best thinking done about my teaching when I’m out on the trail digging, felling, and fighting erosion.

Last month I was fortunate enough to have a crew of Marines come out to the trail I oversee to help me out. The four men and four women of that crew got more done in four hours on the trail than I could have in three weekends of work. About an hour into our morning together one of them came up to me and said, “Sir, you need to understand. I just want to move some shit.” I pointed him at a large tree stump that was in our way, and half an hour later it was history.

CulvertThis weekend I was up in Shenandoah National Park moving some very large rocks to help build a culvert out of a spring along the Appalachian Trail. While I was working, I got to thinking about that Marine’s desire to just move some shit, and it occurred to me that one of the things we don’t do very well in post-secondary history education is give our students the opportunity to do that—just move some shit. They spend far too much time sitting in a classroom listening to lectures, circled up with others in the class discussing a primary source, or reading, analyzing, and writing about sources we give them and not enough time just moving shit.

Don’t get me wrong. While I’m on the record in dozens of places opposing the continued reliance on the lecture/listen format, I’m not entirely opposed to some lecturing, so long as it is not the be all of our courses. And there is a lot to be said for discussions, learning to analyze texts, and the other things we do. But I think it’s also important that we give our students opportunities to move some shit as part of their history education.

By that, I mean, we need to give them space to create things beyond the many papers they’ll write for us, to make things such as exhibits, websites, public displays around campus, 2nd grade curricular materials, digital stories, or any number of other tangible things that historians can do beyond analyzing sources and writing about them. Employers value these sorts of tangible outputs as demonstrations of our students’ ability to get things done. Students value them because through making and creating they learn in ways that let them apply the traditional skills and knowledge we give them to real world contexts that look and feel like what they’ll be doing after they graduate.

One of the best examples I have of the value of giving students the freedom to be historians is a photographic exhibit my former student Natasha Müller created in 2009 for an event commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. My only contribution to the project was pointing her at the collection of photographs at the Library of Congress and then acting as her mentor along the way. Everything else was her effort—from coming up with a concept for the exhibition, to selecting the photographs, to contacting the photographer, to getting space on campus, to launching the opening.

In a world where the vast majority of American adults think that college is not worth what it costs, giving our students the opportunity to move some shit is one way we can contribute to changing that perception. The more those outside our campus can see tangible outputs from our students as opposed to being told that we’ve done an excellent job of teaching them critical thinking skills, the better off our students (and we) will be.

Playing With History on Digital Campus

Following up on the most excellent conference–Playing With Technology in History–in Niagara-on-the-Lake two weeks ago, the Digital Campus crew (Dan|Tom) reviewed the conference and some of the most important issues it raised for the participants. Be sure and check out the podcast so you can hear more from the conveners–Kevin Kee and Bill Turkel. Among the things discussed were the value of “play” as a goal in history and history education and the ways that unconferences are subverting the standard history conference model. If you are bored listening to three 20 minute papers and a 20 minute discussant, then you definitely will find friends on the podcast. Give it a listen and let us know what you think.

Playing With History – Day 2 (cont’d)

This is the third in a series of posts designed to capture and preserve the activity and conversation at the Playing With Technology in History conference. After the morning break we shifted from gaming to making.

[11:00] How can making or remaking things from the past help us to understand the past? What do the tactile experiences intrinsic to making objects or handling/manipulating objects have to do with thinking about the past? A number of the papers/projects here are about making and how the act of making opens up new ways to understand the past. As new and entrepreneurial as the games are, my own sense is that the work of the “makers” here is closer to something we might call the bleeding edge of digital humanities. In particular, I like the way using digital tools to make analog objects, thereby making the intangible tangible holds some real promise for finding new ways for our students to think about the past. How we might measure that, however, is the big issue all the “makers” are facing. We don’t yet know how to measure such things, but measure them we will.

[11:45] For the various authors one of the issues we need to confront is the degree to which the papers are analytical or encouraging. If they are only encouraging, then they aren’t scholarship (in my view anyway), but if they are only analytical, they will both be more than a little boring and will appeal less to the intended audience for the book, namely those who are both interested in the work we’re doing and in possibly doing something similar themselves. By being both encouraging and analytical we will help others see that this kind of fun/work is possible, but also — and I think this is critical — that it is scholarly work, not just fun.

[12:30] A theme that emerged during the two days is how much of this sort of techno-play in history requires the historian to be a technical expert (or semi-expert) and how much can be done with simple to use, off the shelf products like Google Earth, Google Sketchup, etc.? The more the latter are useful for this kind of work, the more likely we’ll be to find a wider audience.

[2:00] In the context of the Great Unsolved Mysteries of Canadian History site, we spent some time discussing the ways that really worthy projects like this one sustain themselves over time. This conversation, well known to everyone working in digital humanities, was not about play, making, or any of the other conversations in the conference, but still we needed to have it.

[2:30] How do you work with a million books? How do you teach students to think differently with such an embarrassment of riches? See Steve Ramsey’s paper (a Digital Campus Irregular) on the conference website. Steve makes some very important points about the value of teaching students to screw around as a research methodology. I like the fact that this idea is so completely the opposite of the standard notion of teaching students to be overly structured in their approach to browsing and searching. His conclusion is great: “There are so many books. There is so little time. Your ethical obligation is neither to read them all nor to pretend that you have read them all, but to understand each path through the vast archive as an important moment in the world’s duration—as an invitation to community, relationship, and play.” Read the paper when it comes out in the book. If you teach, you need to.

[3:00] What are the ethics of using “casual games” to get museum or archive visitors to help you classify materials in their collections (in the model of Recaptcha)?

[3:20] Another advantage of the small, informal, but still structured conference format is that we’ve formed a community of practice that is already interconnected in a whole variety of ways — digital and analog. The book project will keep us glued together for a while, but the links we’ve forged here the past two days will outlast that project. That these links are both transdisciplinary and transnational makes the experience that much more powerful. More unconferences please…

[4:10] A nice moment when we discussed Stephane Levesque’s paper in which he described students complaining about having to use a digital history module in a course — one of them said “Why can’t you just tell us?” — instead of just being lectured at. To what degree is that schoolish behavior? Are they just unhappy that they can’t use the techniques they’ve mastered already, i.e., taking notes, memorizing facts, passing tests? Or is there something about the digital that they don’t like. For a book like the one we’re envisioning, it’s important to keep in mind that digital doesn’t always work.