All posts by Maura

The Malleable Past

The increasing prevalence of digital media has made it easier to teach about the past in several ways. Primary source material is more widely accessible (bearing in mind that the digital divide continues to exist) and so students can engage with it much more often. I recall my American history class in high school, where our only access to primary sources was through print collections, and think about how different it might have been with the types of materials that are available online (whether in commercial or open databases) today. Most of the undergraduate classes I work with in my current position have to find and closely engage with primary sources. Working directly with primary sources is closer to what historians actually do, and I think helps students practice “historical thinking” as well as become more comfortable with the “jagged edges” of the past.  

On the other hand, the increasing prevalence of digital media also makes it more difficult to teach about the past. Primary source materials disappear from the web; they have crappy metadata and so are impossible to find. They are siloed in expensive commercial databases or in hundreds of separate institutional collections. And the fact that some primary source materials are online often leads students (and some faculty) into thinking that *everything* is online, even though the bulk of these materials have not been digitized, will never be digitized, and will be lucky to get cataloged. This sense that anything that’s important is digital leads to reductive assertions that studying books digitized through Google is studying “human culture,” which leaves out so, so much. This is also seen in the how Wikipedia (while good for many things) tends towards superficiality and the erasure of controversy, disagreements, and debates within a field (this concerns me more than the malleability, frankly). And finally, the mere presence and accessibility of primary source materials doesn’t automatically lead to good historical thinking. Students still need the procedural knowledge, in Lévesque’s terminology, to be able to meaningfully work with those primary sources.

Fifth Piece of the Puzzle

I might not end up using exactly this text in my final project, but I would like to use a text for which I can find a little bit of information about its provenance/history. I like the Northumberland Bestiary because of its subject matter, and also because it has only been digitized. There is metadata for it, but it’s not very informative, but there is no transcription or translation of the text. There is also this article about the manuscript, with this tidbit: “The Northumberland Bestiary was originally owned by the Duke of Northumberland, but in 1990 was sold to a private collector. In 2007 the Getty Museum purchase the manuscript for a reported $20 million (US).” This is a pretty straightforward history, but also raises questions about how it survived for as long as it did and why it was sold. With this text (and there are definitely other possibilities that I might also include), I want to help students think through the histories of primary sources, the effort that has to be made to preserve them, how they function as commodities, and the labor that goes into making them findable. 


from the Northumberland bestiary

Fourth Piece of the Puzzle: Film

The two videos I have embedded below are quite different in content, but I think they help get at the central theme of my final project – thinking historically/contextually about primary sources and information systems. The Home Economics Story, which was produced by Iowa State, and Design for Dreaming, which was produced by GM, are ephemeral films that happened to be collected by Rick Prelinger (who collects ephemeral film) and then digitized by the Internet Archive as part of the online Prelinger Collection. They are both wonderfully rich texts, but within the context of my final project, they really point to the contingency of primary source materials. These were preserved and eventually digitized, but how much more was lost? Materials such as these films – and other ephemera – were not intended to be systematically collected by libraries or archives, but they provide a very different perspective from university and corporate records, magazine and journal articles, and newspapers.   

Film and Historical Thinking

I actually had to go back and read what I had written about historical thinking (I’m battling post-vacation brain and am also leaving for a conference on Thursday, so I’m a bit preoccupied). In the previous module, following Pegler-Gordon, I talked about using images to get at the complexity of history, and I think film also does this in several ways. It’s hard to describe, but I feel like film is visceral in a way that texts are usually not. It can be more immersive, and that can help students think about the past without engaging in presentism. Film doesn’t dissolve the “jagged edges” of the past, but I think it can make them easier to approach, if that makes sense.

Both fiction and non-fiction film can provide students with details about material culture of the time, even if it is somewhat stylized. Both can speak to ideology, dominant discourse, power relations, and so on, or what Seixas calls the “moral frame” of the time period/culture in which they were produced (Toplin is rather negative about cultural/media studies approaches, but I tend to approach films as texts and with the understanding that they have numerous, contradictory meanings, and that those meanings aren’t constrained by the creator’s intentions. Nor do audiences necessarily receive the same meanings or those intended by the creator). This approach, which I used in classes I taught as a graduate student, is approaching film as primary sources for historical research.

Most of the readings, however, are about using historical films to teach about historical narrative and representation, and really about the way we construct history. This is really apparent in how one of Seixas’s students, once she had seen The Searchers, began to understand the previously transparent moral frame of Dances With Wolves as historical and contextual as well. This intellectual move is crucial to historical thinking, and might also be considered a threshold concept, since it undergirds historical work and is likely to be transformative. (As a sidebar, I thought it was funny how everyone hated The Searchers, because it’s an amazing film that really speaks to the Western as a genre, nationalism, and race).

The other element of teaching history with film that might deepen historical inquiry has to do with emotion and empathy. I can’t remember which author wrote about this, but Wineburg probably touched on it, but I think that film (and as Zemon Davis describes, poetry, and also other forms of literature) might help us empathize with people from the past. Zemon Davis specifically mentions Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, which I think does this beautifully (and medieval history is particularly alien). I can’t think of other films at the moment that do this, but literary examples readily come to mind: Beloved, The Things They Carried, The Night Watch, Hild. Obviously, these fictional representations are not totally “accurate” or “true,” but the empathic engagement with the past that they induce is valuable.

Third Piece of the Puzzle: Audience

The audience for my project is undergraduate students, both history majors and non-majors. I would also like to make the project interesting and relevant for graduate students in history or doing historical research in other fields. I primarily work with undergraduates and there are many more of them. It would also be nice to actually use this project for some of the large introductory history classes I teach for – because they’re so large, I generally have to lecture, and it would be good to have them do some sort of activity prior to that lecture. I would also like the final project to be accessible to graduate students, because not all of them were history majors or had to write senior theses, and the same sorts of issues around primary sources confuse them. The results of this confusion are usually much worse, too. It’s usually along the lines of “but I need it for my last dissertation chapter” and the archive that held those documents was bombed during WWII.

Second Piece of the Puzzle

The central question of my final project is:

How can I help students think about 1. finding and accessing primary sources and 2. library systems historically and contextually?

I already do try to teach students about this to some extent, albeit around the primary topic, which is usually how to find primary and secondary sources for their papers or projects. Knowing something about the history and context of information systems is extremely helpful in using them. I think for my final project, I’ll focus solely on finding primary sources and address information systems along the way.

In terms of the content, I would want to start with some basic information organization theory and history (e.g. what is a record and why do we need them). Then move on to (very brief) histories of library/information systems, because that explains so much about why they work the way they do (e.g. metadata, controlled vocabulary). When I’ve done this in classes before, I would show examples that they see everyday. I would then move to primary sources more specifically and what I would really like to do is have several examples of primary sources, their history, and basically how they ended up where they did (they could be destroyed before they ended up anywhere, too). I generally don’t talk about this at length, but I do discuss OCR and metadata specifically in regards to primary source databases.  

I’m a bit stumped on format. In a perfect world, I would like to plot the primary sources’ course through space and time on something like Neatline, but I don’t think I’ll have the time to do the research and figure out Neatline this semester. I could include a mapping piece using Google Maps, though. I’m also not entirely sure how to make an assignment out of it. I can see an exhibition/presentation part easily, but I don’t want it to only be that. All of my instruction sessions are in-person and involve a fair amount of back-and-forth, and I’m not sure how to recreate that online.

The History of History Teaching

There have been two contradictory elements at the heart of history teaching since the beginning of the twentieth century, only one of which gets at historical thinking as Wineburg describes it. The first element is an approach to history teaching that emphasizes the “facts,” memorization, or covering content. This is seen in the AHA Group of Seven’s “four block program,” (most) textbooks, the survey course as traditionally conceived and taught at all levels, and history as taught in K-12. This is the sort of history that is easily able to be assessed, even, as Wineburg notes, those assessments are inaccurate. This is also the sort of history that plays into history as “heritage,” national myth, or warnings about the cultural illiteracy of today’s youth, as it is not rooted in evidence.

The second element at the heart of history teaching is essentially teaching students how to do what historians do, whether that is called historical thinking (Wineburg), historical-mindedness (AHA’s Group of Seven), “New History,” (Becker), or procedural knowledge (Levesque). I think Kelly’s list of 15 items in “Thinking: How Students Learn About the Past” succinctly articulates what exactly goes into this, while McKlymer’s assignments provide concrete examples. McKlymer also exemplifies how some history teachers have responded to recent technological change, primarily through a much closer engagement with primary source materials at the undergraduate level, even in a survey class. McKlymer emphasizes the abundance of resources and the ease of accessing them, but I also think he somewhat de-emphasizes (or at least doesn’t highlight) the amount of thought he puts into designing the course, classroom discussions, and assignments, and how much interpersonal work he puts into making students feel okay about not getting everything right. He does actually spend some time talking about the latter, and this is particularly important in relation to current testing regimes, especially in K-12 education. There can be an abundance of resources that are easy to find and use, but having students use primary sources in order to learn how to do what historians do is not something that can be quantified or put into a multiple choice test. McKlymer’s description of the work he puts into making his classes work also emphasizes another continuity; good teaching requires effort and thought, and is fundamentally interpersonal.  

First Piece of the Puzzle: Project Brainstorm

I am hoping to be able to orient my final project around the final two questions in the previous post: How can I help students think historically and contextually about 1. finding and accessing primary sources and 2. using library systems? I basically want to create some sort of project that helps students and other users “think historically” about these two components of library research. I hope that makes some sense and isn’t completely tautological. This project emerges from my nine (!) years an academic librarian. I have been asked about finding the following materials:

  • Economic data from pre-Columbian Inuit societies
  • Recordings of pre-World War I amateur radio broadcasts
  • Local news broadcasts from small cities, dating from the 1950s to the 1970s
  • Meeting minutes, political endorsements, election results, newspaper editorials and other election-related materials from 25 small Canadian towns (e.g. Moose Jaw, SK) from 1910 to 1990
  • Primary source materials related to obscure Eastern European composers, translated into English
  • A copy of the IRA’s field operations manual

This is the tip of the iceberg – I have mostly remembered these for the ludicrousness, as in each case, the student or faculty member (no, these are not all undergraduates) expected these materials to be available, not merely in an archive or national library, but digitally (with the exception of the IRA field manual – that was just requested via ILL). There is no sense here of the historical nature of sources: that they need to have been created, that someone had to make a decision to preserve them somehow, that the technologies for preserving them existed and were accessible, that they need to have survived until now (fires, floods, and war tend to destroy materials), that they need to have some sort of record (MARC record, finding aid) to make them findable in an index or database, that someone needed to be interested in them enough to spend money and time on digitizing and hosting them, that someone wanted to spend the money and time on translating them into English, that they are not in copyright and can be digitized, and any number of other contingencies that need to fall into place. Primary sources have histories, and those histories cannot be disentangled from their current form.

Of course, all kinds of texts have histories, and understanding this is part of the larger goal of ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, as is understanding that library systems also have histories and those histories figure into what they do and how they work. “Uncovering” these histories is crucial to using them effectively and also transferring that knowledge to other information systems and contexts. Library catalogs are structured in a certain way and contain certain types of information because of the way they developed historically, as do journal indexes, primary source databases, and the omnipotent Google. Students have a hard time grasping this, I think, because there is a broader tendency within American culture to reify/dehistoricize technology. What this means is that they think everything can be found on Google and JSTOR (which do work fairly well for some types of secondary sources, so they tend to be fine with finding these). These products do not include everything (lots of content is proprietary), are terrible at primary sources that aren’t journal articles (JSTOR) or anything dated between about 1924 and 1995 (Google), and can be, depending on what you are looking, very difficult to search. This is the second question I am thinking of taking on in my project, although it might be enough to just take on the first question.  

Thinking about Historical Thinking

Before listing my questions about teaching history, I should explain the context in which I teach (and will teach in for the foreseeable future). As a research librarian, I teach library research to primarily undergraduate students but also graduate students. Each class I teach is designed to address the specific assignments in the course and I generally only see each class once, although students are able to make one-on-one appointments with me afterwards (students can do this without having a class with me, so I also do a lot of one-on-one teaching). I generally try to minimize me talking so that we can spend most of the class period actually conducting research. For some of the programs/departments I work with, I see majors multiple times but for others I don’t. Some programs/departments lack a designated methodology course and so I often only see students when they’re writing their senior theses.

I work with several different subject areas, but the largest is American and European history. Because of this, I often teach students how to find primary sources in all formats and in all European languages. I also teach how to find secondary sources, but they are generally much better at that (and in my opinion, it’s also much easier, although library catalogs and their controlled vocabulary can be tricky, so I do spend time on that). This might not be “teaching history” in the same sense as Calder, Levesque, and Wineburg, but I do think their insights can be used to inform my one-shot library instruction sessions.

The questions I would like to consider over this semester are:

How can I translate/incorporate techniques based on semester-long classes into one-shot sessions? I don’t expect to get *nearly* as much done in a one-shot and in general, my goals are fairly modest (show them the course guide, get them started, make sure they know they can contact me later with questions). At this point, I do work fairly closely with many teaching faculty, too, so I might be able to work with them to expand my session beyond the one class session in the library classroom. This is the most obvious answer to this question, but I would also like to think about how the one-shot itself can be made better.

In order to do this, I think I am going to need to spend some time thinking about the essential goals/questions/processes of library research instruction. Calder and Levesque both outline a series of fundamental modes of thinking/doing, and while the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education does this to some extent (and I do find it useful in this regard, so it will influence my eventual answer), it is also meant guide students’ development over their entire college experience. What are the essential goals/questions/processes of the one-shot? Of library research throughout the semester? How do these relate to the course’s larger goal of historical thinking?

My next two questions are related. Frequently, when students are asked to find primary sources or use library systems of any sort, they fall into what Wineburg calls presentism. They tend to think primary sources are easily available, usually digitized, and no matter the topic, that they exist in the first place. They also tend to view library systems (and really, technology more broadly) ahistorically, as something that always has been and always will be. How can I help students think about 1. finding and accessing primary sources and 2. library systems historically and contextually? I have done some thinking on this before, in conjunction with the Decoding the Disciplines/Thresholds project at Georgetown, but really only for a single class. These frameworks, along with Calder’s “uncoverage,” will likely inform my answer to these questions.


Teaching & Learning History in the Digital Age: Introductory Post

It’s a little hard to believe that this is the last course in the digital public humanities certificate (it’s been a long, but good, academic year for me for various reasons). In addition to being a certificate student, I’m a collections, research, and instruction librarian for African American studies, American history, American studies, European history, medieval studies, music, and women’s and gender studies at Georgetown University. This means I spend a good chunk of my time teaching primarily undergraduate students but also graduate students how to use library resources (and the omnipresent Google) to conduct research. Unofficially, I also spend a good chunk of my time talking with students about how to develop a research topic (especially when they’re not familiar with the subject matter), how to read and use primary sources as evidence, what counts as evidence in different disciplines (most of my subject areas overlap to some degree, but I also provide general reference help), how to integrate secondary sources effectively (no plopping in quotations where they fit!), what their professor means by scholarly books or peer-reviewed journals or academic press, and other things that I can’t recall at the moment (the semester just ended and we’re all burnt out). Many of the faculty I work with do cover these types of issues in class, but many otherwise lovely people assign “research papers” without describing what that looks like, even in general education courses filled with non-majors.

In this regard, I expect this course to be incredibly useful in reflecting on and revising how I talk to students about historical research. I have done some reading and thinking about this, and even worked with a faculty member on revamping her general education course and its assignments using the insights from Decoding the Disciplines, but I haven’t formally studied and worked on this. I have researched and written on critical library pedagogy and am also interested in how what I learn in this course will play into that, in terms of both research and practice. This includes working with the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy (my professional organization’s non-standard standards), which I both love and hate. I am also interested in thinking more about digital tools and the role they play in historical research, teaching, and learning, since these are the primary focus on my teaching and I constantly rethink how I talk about digital tools; the students I work with need to know how to use them, but I also want them to think critically about them and feel empowered in their use of these tools (de-naturalizing and historicizing technology is also something I have researched and written about). I do think digital projects (like those I did in the previous courses) can play some role in this, and I have a good sense as to the different project options I can talk with faculty about (since I don’t assign anything). The other aspect I am interested in exploring – some of my previous blog posts point to this – is how to get learners to think about uncomfortable or unpleasant topics, including histories they might be personally invested or implicated in. In “Righting Wrongs,” Gayatri Spivak has this great quote about teaching being the non-coercive rearrangment of desires and I would like to think through the tension/process more in this course.