When you think of “history,” are your first thoughts of wars and white men and dates you could never remember for Mr. Slack’s midterm? For so many, “history” evokes
memories of watching the clock in their high school class or memorizing seemingly disconnected bits of information that they would be tested on later. But what about the “past”—your grandmother’s stories, your family’s genealogy, how you’ve seen your neighborhood change, just in your lifetime? If those images conjured up a friendlier feeling, you’re not alone. Whether we study the past as a personal hobby or a professional career, making personal connections to the past allows history to feel a bit more present and, in turn, more presently relevant.
So, how do we facilitate these personal connections to the past, for ourselves and our students, especially with topics that may initially feel disconnected from our lived lives today? More specifically, how does our digital technology facilitate or weaken this connection? This week, I’d like to explore a few websites connected to my own past that try to answer that question.
American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, City University of New York Graduate Center
For my first two years as a public school teacher, I taught 9th and 11th grade English at the High School of Economics and Finance in downtown Manhattan. Despite the school’s overall focus on finance and its proximity to Wall Street, the administration and staff also had a deep commitment to public history and encouraged lively conversations and collaboration within the humanities disciplines. Because of this, I had the opportunity to attend professional development seminars once a month with the American Social History Project facilitators from CUNY and learn more about their Who Built America series of lessons and documents. IT. WAS. FIRE. Seriously, the best professional development experience to date (and I’ve been teaching for 14 years now). At that time (2004-2006), they were still providing teachers with binders and CD-ROMs of their resources, so I wanted to check out their current website and see how they were interacting with the various publics who use their site today.
A vibrant mix of text and images, hyperlinks and social media connections, the ASHP homepage is accessible for both their main audiences—teachers and students—as well as academics and the casual historian. True to their mission of “mak[ing] the past, and the lives of the working people and ‘ordinary’ Americans who shaped it, vivid and meaningful,” they offer diversity in both content and delivery—a myriad of voices, seen and heard through primary sources and multimedia experiences. Their professional development is now online, with their learning community of educators earning badges as they create and reflect on the different units (I wonder if they aren’t missing out on the informal, in-person discussions, though?). They also provide links to their partner projects, such as their CUNY Digital History Archive and the New Media Lab, a space that provides assistance with the multi-media projects of CUNY faculty and doctoral students.
Overall, ASHP’s site is replete with digital documents, especially those specific to the New York area, and offers a plethora of resources for teachers, whether they complete the entire professional development series or just want a few ideas or primary sources for a specific unit. The diverse formats in which the material is presented gives teachers and students a variety of entry points into the material, and the digital format also allows digitally-native students to experience this material in an environment that feels more familiar.
Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill
After one particularly harsh winter, I made my way back to North Carolina, to a school district that was rich in resources, due in part to its proximity to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, just a few miles away. UNC received a Mellon Foundation grant in 2012 to create the Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative as part of their Digital Innovation Lab. So, with the school’s clear commitment to digital humanities, I wanted to check out their Documenting the American South project, a digital publishing initiative that seeks to broaden the public’s access to a variety of primary source documents.
The website felt a bit, well, archive-y. There is a significant amount of blank space on the home page (see above) that could have been used for more interactive features and, while there are hyperlinks to institutions who contributed and house some of the collection, there’s not much opportunity for interactivity. Despite stating that their mission is to “suppl[y] teachers, students, and researchers at every educational level with a wide array of titles they can use for reference, studying, teaching, and research,” the site doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of accessibility. The K-12 tab at the top of the page redirects to an online textbook for grades 8 and up (with North Carolina specific history and pictures, to be fair), but nothing in the way of primary school resources. In the words of Cohen and Rosenzweig in their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, “Although vast quantities of scholarly work appear online, the mold of that scholarship is overwhelmingly traditional.” Indeed. If we know from Rosenzweig and Thelan’s landmark study in The Presence of the Past that most people have viscerally negative memories of their history class experiences, why wouldn’t we offer our educators more dynamic ways to interact with history in the classroom? Despite claims to the contrary, Documenting the American South, while offering quality history scholarship, has a long way to go before it can say it is truly accessible to wider publics. Just as it is important to be mindful of the academic triumvirate of research, teaching and service in our personal careers, historians and their organizations who are interacting with digital publics should bear this balance in mind as well.
So, dear readers, which history websites are your favorites? Which offer a diversity of voices, quality scholarship, accessibility and interactivity? Which ones have you used successfully in your classroom? What would you like to see more of?