The History Curriculum in 2013 (Mashing)

In the second post in this series I argued that one of the most important reasons why the history curriculum needs to change was that student use of the Internet has changed dramatically in the past five to ten years. Where once the Internet was primarily a zone of extraction–a place to go get information–for young people the Internet is increasingly a zone of creation. This is not just a supposition on my part, but rather comes out of my reading of a number of carefully crafted research studies of youth and digital media. And there is no reason to believe that this trend toward more and more creation of content online is going to change any time soon.

Given this reality, I’ve been arguing throughout this series 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.

In an earlier post in this series I discussed digital storytelling as 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.

This video 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 here at the 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.

[Final post in the series]