I teach my introductory survey course in tandem with a colleague in the English department as part of a freshman learning community program. As a result, there is a lot more writing in my survey than is typical in a university Western Civ course. One of the assignments we designed last semester was a “personal history” that required the students to combine old and new forms of historical research into a brief paper. The results were quite amazing, especially from such a simple assignment. They wrote the best essays of the semester and some of the best I’ve seen from a group of freshmen.
Here’s how it went. Each student was required to do a brief oral history (the old) with a member of their family not of their generation, i.e., parent, grandparent, aunt, etc. Then they had to go to the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database (the new) and find at least two newspaper stories that related to the history of the person they interviewed. So, for instance, one of my students interviewed her father about his brother who was a Viet Nam vet who died from Agent Orange poisoning. She used several stories from the Washington Post about the use of Agent Orange during the war and about the consequences for those exposed to the chemicals.
Along with their papers they had to turn in the transcript of their oral history and copies of the newspaper stories they used as evidence that they had really done the research.
The purpose of the assignment was to reinforce research and writing skills as opposed to teaching them anything about Western Civ and this simple and fun (they told me later) assignment accomplished this goal. Because it connected the skills I was after with something they were very interested in (their families), they really got into it and by and large did a very good job. And, for the rest of the semester, they proved much more willing to use the databases that our library spends so many hundreds of thousands of dollars to subscribe to.
Could they have done the same thing by going to the Library and looking up old copies of the Washington Post or New York Times in the microfilm room? Sure. Would they have done so? Sure–if I had forced them to. But what they would have had a more difficult time doing was the keyword searching of the ProQuest database that made the assignment so easy.
To me, that’s the key to using digital media in a context like this one. This was a freshman course, mandatory for all undergraduates at my institution, so almost none of the students taking the course even intends to become a history major. As a result, many have one objective in the class–pass. But if we can make history seem interesting and not too arduous, they’ll find that it can be more fun than they thought. And, along the way, they learn some of the things we want them to learn. So, a digital database just makes the task simpler and, as a result, I got better results than I would have if I’d forced them to slog through the microfilm.