Scholarly Site Review: US History Scene

This post is part of an assignment for GMU’s History course, Teaching History in the Digital Age. Last week, I reviewed two sites produced by RRCHNM.

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This week, Dr. Kelly asked us to review a digital project outside the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. For this assignment, I chose US History Scene, a new site (copyright 2013) touting free digital resources “hand selected by historians” geared toward educators, students, and history enthusiasts. This gorgeous and modern site (which has a pronounced blog feel) is produced by US History Scene, a multimedia and education publishing company.

The site successfully incorporates content curated by a variety of historians from major universities in the US (not all contributors include full bios). Functionally, the site presents a collection of authoritative and scholarly essays spanning a multitude of 17th to 20th century topics in American history. Some of these essays make clear historical arguments, most read as written lectures, which incorporate both primary source materials (images, mostly) and secondary literature (historiography and video lectures by historians and authors).  The more well-rounded essays include links to other resources, such as teaching aids for educators and historical questions on topic for further study.

It’s a new site, so there are sections with very little content. It looks as if they plan to create a more robust “study guides” section, which as of this review houses information about how to pass an AP test. Additionally, they’ve curated a variety of reading lists on topics in US history and included links to online lectures by prominent historians at major universities. For example, they include Lynn Hunt’s Western Civ lectures from UCLA.

From a pedagogical perspective, while this site offers robust topical material, it functions largely as a secondary source for students. Primary sources may be linked from individual articles, but as they are presented in essay format, students are not given the opportunity to question, evaluate, or analyze these materials for themselves. Wrapped as they are in another’s historical argument, the primary sources are presented as already-interpreted for the reader. Additionally, video content, most of which is embedded from YouTube, is not presented in a way that would allow students to question potential motives or biases of the creator. As is true of all embedded content from YouTube, students have to click off the site to see who uploaded the video or its origin. In either case, the interpretation is done and the content is being presented to students in a factual way, students are not overtly being asked to “think historically” about the content presented to them.

Helpful content for educators is present for some topics, but they have to dig for it. The prominent position of “About Us” and “Contact Us” in the primary navigation bar would be better suited for special collections of resources for educators. The primary mode of organization for all the content on the site is around the topical areas. Educators must come to the site and look up a topic first, then hope some teaching aids are included as part of the essay. Given the high quality of the scholarship here, some articles on how students learn or process historical information would be welcome additions. (At the very least curated content on that topic from elsewhere would be helpful for teachers.)

Fundamentally, US History Scene is a valuable resource. Complex issues are presented as such and more than one point of view is often told. Still, because students have no flexibility to choose how they explore these complex issues, nor are they asked to source, corroborate, or contextualize these topics on their own, the site should be considered as an alternative secondary source. US History Scene is a very new site and it remains to be seen how it will evolve, especially as a resource for educators. Given the quality of the content that exists there, I do hope they add more opportunities for students to practice historical thinking on their own, and give teachers the resources to help them do so.

 

Historical Resources Online and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

As part of an assignment for Dr. Kelly’s History 689: Teaching History in the Digital Age, we were asked to evaluate two digital projects. I looked at two projects devoted to teaching history with online primary source material developed and published by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at my home institution of George Mason University. Exploring U.S. History tackles niche topics for a specific class and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French functions as a portal or collection of primary source materials. These two sites, while existing on two ends of the spectrum on digital scholarship, do suffer from similar issues, namely in that they only partially address helping students ask good questions of history.

Exploring U.S. History, last updated in 2004, presents modules designed to supplement George Mason University’s History 120 course. The stated goals are to reinforce textbook readings and built IT proficiency, which is defined as learning to build and maintain webpages, completing online assignments, performing online research and using technology in historical analysis.

Given its 2004 production date, the site is presented with a very simple, yet clear design that stands the test of time. The site offers clear instructions and navigation buttons. Nice visual cues and use of breadcrumbs help with wayfinding, which allows students or readers to drop in on any page and understand how to click around. (This is important given that the majority of traffic to a website enters through a page other than the home page.)

The available topics are diverse and plentiful and offer students a broad view that the work of historians is more than just reading texts. Still the assignments presented ask students to answer questions instead of ask them. The assignments do help lead the student through what we could consider “good” historical questions, but the site does not help connect the dots between the primary material and asking historical questions of that material. ((See Wineburg, “On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach Between School and Academy,” Am Educ Res J September 21, 1991 vol. 28 no. 3 495-519.))

Detailed instructions  as to how to explore these objects, which range from material culture to photographs to texts, may be  prescriptive  depending on the particular topic or source in question. Sadly one of the more sophisticated assignments–analyzing artifacts in the Barnum museum in situ–offers no such instructional layer. With respect to the specific goals of the site, much like the steps to “reading” source materials, a sophisticated historian can see how the assignments and exercises map back to the original goals, but it is doubtful an undergraduate will. Additionally, there are no conclusions to any of the assignments. As a supplemental site for a physical course, once can assume the discussion will take place in class, but as an online resource, this lack prevents non-students from exploring. With a little work, this site could be scaled for use beyond that specific classroom.

On the other end of the spectrum, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution provides a collection of online primary source documents. It is the older of the two sites with a copyright at 2001. It is unclear when it was last updated.

The site functions as an actual portal for an impressive array of source material including topical essays, primary sources ranging from images and paintings to  texts, songs, and maps. Due to its early creation date, the site does not benefit from directed navigation options. Browsing, exploring and searching are encouraged, yet there is no inherent difference between these three functions. A a student arriving on site without a research plan would be hard pressed to know where to begin ((For the challenges with search, see Beyond Google: How Students Conduct Academic Research)). One of the most useful essays, “How to Read Images” is buried at the bottom of the Explore tab. Offering a more obvious link to this essay–and providing similar instructions to help scholars “read” the other primary source types–would be one way to solve this problem.

The essays located under the Explore tab make use of the early benefits of hypertext. The supplemental primary source materials that are presented with each essay are listed in the left margin (not in context in the main body) for interested students to explore. However, the essays themselves read as chapters from a general text book and are still presented as insurmountable chunks of text without the reprieve of images to break the flow and rest the eyes. Wayfinding in these essays is complicated by the fact that each supplemental source pops as a new window (cutting edge technology in 2001) complete with new navigation buttons.

The Browse tab presents a truly non-directed browse functionality; the sources are in alphabetical order and offer no other categorization beyond the primary source type.  The primary text materials on the site are presented with a short introductory paragraph and translated to English. As Jeri mentioned in her review, this prevents students from actually seeing the original document in full context or reading it in its native French. Nuance lost in translation is lost forever and the ability to read texts in their native language is a crucial part of historical thinking. While admittedly a barrier for most undergraduate students, the importance of seeing a text in its original form (and language) allows them to “read” the document on a more sophisticated level. While the site does provide context for the text in question, an image of the original would be a helpful addition.

Knowledge of modern research on site usability, readability, and navigation undermine the truly impressive collection of artifacts on the French Revolution. The overarching challenge with this site as a teaching tool is the lack of a framework to help guide students in their historical thinking. The site itself presupposes the reader is asking sophisticated questions and in this respect functions only as a search portal for finding relevant material.

Regardless of their respective goals–admittedly one site was created to ask specific questions of history and the other functions only as a warehouse–these sites would benefit from more open-ended questions and better instructions on how to “read” sources. Despite their age, with these additions, these sites would remain relevant to helping students learn to think historically.

Great Expectations

I had partial success with my mapping project this weekend.

I had originally planned to map each state with little popup boxes showing details on the numbers for each state. It turns out that I greatly underestimated both my skills with JSON files and the Google APIv3 for maps.

But let me back up. I did have success mapping multiple points on a map. I also successfully mapped a point on a map with a detail window on click (click on the marker to see the details.) However, when I tried to map multiple points on a map with detail boxes, that’s where the train went off the rails.

Apparently, the Google Maps API has issues with looping through a long list of details to set markers and info boxes. It only pulls the last info box in the list. There are a nice bunch of tutorials on how to fix the issue, BUT since I am not as well schooled in javascript and calling JSON information, I could not get it to work.. although I did try. My attempt to get it to work is avail here and frankly, I think it’s a big old mess. For one, I’m not sure how to call the separate JSON file. [The tutorial I was using is here. I have his book and his examples were working well for me up until this point, which makes me think it’s a js/json problem.]

For reference, here is my JSON data.

var json = [
{
"state": "Virginia",
"lat": 37.768002,
"lng": -78.205704,
"detail": "In Virginia, 1254 men were executed between 1620 and 2002; 88 women were executed in this same time frame."
},
{
"state": "West Virginia",
"lat": 38.467999,
"lng": -80.969597,
"detail": "In West Virginia, 150 men were executed between 1620 and 2002; 4 women were executed in this same time frame.."
},
{
"state": "Maryland",
"lat": 39.072399,
"lng": -76.790199,
"detail": "In Maryland, 293 men were executed between 1620 and 2002; 11 women were executed in this same time frame.."
}
]

 

I’ll continue to try to debug and hack at it to get it to work, but I’m finding the online documentation only partially helpful. One big problem is that I’m not totally confident that I know how to code the start and end to each file. So when I find code snippets of “solutions” to common problems, I’m not entirely sure where to put the code. Since the order is really important, I’m sure I have some things out of order.

Full code examples would be more helpful so that I can see it in context, but I know this is a learning curve problem, and that it will diminish with time. These “help” blog posts are written for experienced coders and right now I’m a hack at best. So for the time being, I’m embracing my hack status and putting this to the side as a problem for another day.