Teaching and doing digital history.

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.

 

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