Investigating U.S. History

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Technology in the History Classroom

For over a generation, professional historians have revamped our understanding of the past by vastly expanding the bounds of U.S. History. This has included researching a wider range of individuals and cultures, and making available new sources and ways of looking at those materials. Meanwhile, constructivist pedagogies have promoted an active engagement by students in the understanding of the past, pointing out the power of making students into practitioners of the craft rather than consumers of a textbook account.

These developments challenge teachers of history to provide their students access to archives of documents data, and to facilitate their learning to make sense of the complexity of such investigations. This process has been greatly aided by the proliferation of digital sources on the World Wide Web, which provide a wealth of information once only available to intrepid professionals traveling to distant libraries or archives. We have wonderful digital archives such as The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War or DoHistory which make visible the archival dimension of historical investigation and how we turn documents into stories. Resource sites such as the Center for History and New Media and the American Social History Project's History Matters : The U.S. Survey Course on the Web offer guides to the ever growing digital world of history.

Students in history classrooms are increasingly able to grapple with authentic historical inquiry, and their teachers are developing new approaches to managing the challenges and opportunities of teaching with on-line resources. That is the approach of the Investigating U.S. History Project, providing multimedia models for utilizing the vast digital resources now available by teacher and students to investigate historical questions. We want to enable "novice" learns to engage in authentic research tasks and complex inquiry assignments with the "stuff" of history.

The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War


History Matters : The U.S. Survey Course on the Web

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Recently, David Pace in the American Historical Review decried the "chasm" between current practices in research and those in teaching in the historical profession. Because we generally teach in isolation behind doors that keep our students in and our colleagues out, a significant gap exists, in our orientation and practice, between our research and our teaching. We tend to frame problems in our research as exciting opportunities. When it comes to teaching, we see problems as disreputable, rather than as invitations to further the knowledge of a community.

An increasing number of academics, including many historians, have begun to explore the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) as a way to bridge that chasm by giving the same careful, methodical attention to problems in teaching as to problems in research. As in other forms of scholarship, knowledge claims in SoTL must be embedded in a body of knowledge, open to peer review, and accessible for exchange with and use by disciplinary colleagues. In SoTL for history, then, professional historians consider the questions about student learning that matter to them and apply standards of historical scholarship to tackle those questions.

Their lines of inquiry often begin with questions about classroom practice--"How can I help students understand and use primary documents better?"--but return to issues fundamental to teaching and learning historical knowledge. The fundamental questions are varied, but historians engaged in SoTL have concentrated on two broad lines of inquiry: "What do students bring to the history classroom that may have a major impact on their learning?" and "What mental operations and procedures must [students] master in order to think historically?" Sam Wineburg has analyzed and written about historical cognition in several essays and his Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past.

David Pace, "The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching," American Historical Review, 109 (Oct. 2004): 1171-92

Randy Bass, "The Scholarship of Teaching: What's the Problem?," inventio , 1 (Feb. 1999) (Sept. 20, 2005).

Michael Coventry, Peter Felten, David Jaffee, Cecilia O'Leary, and Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan, "Ways of Seeing: Evidence and Learning in the History Classroom," Journal of American History, 92 (March 2006)

Visible Knowledge Project,

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, 2001)

Visual Evidence in the History Classroom

The pictorial turn in culture studies has led historians to reconsider the significance of images in the construction of historical understanding. Despite the ubiquity of images in online archives, in classrooms, and in the broader culture, many history students and scholars struggle to devise reading strategies or protocols that are as rigorous and rewarding as those used to interrogate textual sources. New media has made it easier to use images and other primary sources to teach history, but abundance and availability do not guarantee historical understanding.

In the past decade, visual archives have burst onto the World Wide Web in ever-increasing numbers, making it simple to paste images onto class Web sites and into PowerPoint presentations. While visuals have become commonplace in history classrooms and texts, rarely do images move to center stage to become the focus of interpretation or the source of new insights. Pedagogically, visual materials are too often used only as presentational props.

Students might enjoy, even demand, visual stimulation, but students do not necessarily enter a college classroom able to give visual sources the disciplinary reading that furthers their historical thinking. But because many historians have been so skeptical of images, we have few conventions for reading images as historical sources. Louis Masur maintains that pedagogy is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the emerging image based scholarship: "Letting one's students interrogate, speculate, and often hyperventilate is an alarming business, especially when at the [end of class] you cannot tell them definitely how to read a picture or precisely how an image shaped history."

The point of our classes is not to entertain our students, but to help them learn to think historically--to develop their facility for making historical meaning from the images, texts, and objects in the world around them. Responding to the pictorial turn will require historians to help our students become sophisticated readers--and perhaps even authors--of image-based historical narratives.

There are discussions--in print and online--of how to incorporate visual materials into the history curriculum. Historians such as Peter Wood have produced exemplary scholarship. There are online interactive models such as the National Portrait Gallery's George Washington: A National Treasure offers an interactive view of Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne portrait where visitors can choose among several filters--symbolic, biographic, and artistic--with each path offering the viewer a distinct interpretation of what and how they are seeing. Visitors can tour virtually P.T. Barnum's famous American Museum at the American Social History Project's The Lost Museum. And a group of U.S. historians have collaborated on a essay discussing how they incorporated visual evidence into their history classrooms. "Learning to Look" will need to become a distinct part of every history teacher and students' toolkit.

Louis Masur, "'Pictures Have Now Become a Necessity': The Use of Images in American History Textbooks," Journal of American History , 84 (March 1998): 1409-24.

David Jaffee, "'Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye': E-Supplements and the Teaching of U.S. History," Journal of American History , 89 (March 2003): 1463-82.

Peter H. Wood. Weathering the Storm: Inside Winslow Homer's 'Gulf Stream' . (Athens, Ga., 2004).

Michael Coventry, Peter Felten, David Jaffee, Cecilia O'Leary, and Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan, "Ways of Seeing: Evidence and Learning in the History Classroom," Journal of American History , 92 (March 2006).

National Portrait Gallery, George Washington: A National Treasure

American Social History Project, The Lost Museum

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