Online research and the creation of digital content have been working their way into undergraduate history for some time for sometime now. More and more faculty members are beginning to think of the web as an effective weapon against undergraduate indifference that can make the study of history more relevant to ‘young people’. But how much have the fundamental principles of teaching history really changed? The goals of the history teacher remain rooted in fostering the ability to evaluate sources, synthesize information and produce a cogent argument. Working digitally presents opportunities to assign work that builds these skills, but it also makes room for projects that require less writing for students. Thus, humanists should carefully ensure that their digital assignments either contain a comparable amount of writing, or are assigned alongside traditional analog papers. Educators should also consider the institutional and personal barriers their students might encounter before replacing traditional assignments with digital projects.
In his book, Teaching Digital History T. Mills Kelly has argued that writing online content is much more relevant than traditional undergraduate writing assignments. For Kelly the five page paper is a relic of a bygone era that should be closeted away. Through his speculations about best practices in the digital age, and this is certainly an important conversation, Kelly makes some dangerous assumptions about the values and abilities of a generation he is not a part of. There are always generational barriers between teachers and their students to some degree. In the digital age educators who have no real experience growing up in the age of social media are threatening to reify gen y illiteracy by assuming that this generation is fundamentally different and lowering their expectations to match that assumption. I am not putting Kelly wholly in that camp, because he also suggests compelling digital alternatives that build the same kind of analytical skills. However, in my very brief experience as a Teaching Assistant I have encountered this myth of gen Y exceptionalism several times. I remember hearing something to the effect of “we can’t expect undergrads nowadays to have the same writing skills, because their generation does not read,” in my first pedagogy workshop. Again this came from the lips of a scholar who has been in the academy for some time, and as a (comparatively) young new comer I simply don’t believe it. Yes our students read tweets and blogs, but they also have Google books and other sources of literature at their fingertips.
Kelly also states that when educators consider what skills a historian would like to impart to their students few would actually “put the ability to write a five page paper at the top of the list,” (9). Perhaps this is true, but a five page paper remains an effective way to judge how well a student can synthesis a dearth of material over the semester, argue a position and express ideas clearly. Kelly admits that students do derive satisfaction from their grades, but argues that writing becomes irrelevant once the assignment is over, (6). So undergraduates might eventually forget about a particular five page essay they wrote and absentmindedly recycle it along with their junk mail. That does not mean that the experience of writing the essay was not valuable. Blogging might replace some writing assignments, but even something as personal as a blog can become just another tedious assignment. It is probably best to allow students more freedom of expression in their online writing and keep the academic paper in our curricula so students can demonstrate their ability to form an argument and defend it in an academic format.
Furthermore, I feel compelled to point out that the five page paper is also a fairly egalitarian approach in a world where access to digital technology is should not be considered a given, particularly among students from lower income backgrounds. Kelly rather annoyingly mentions video as a feasible alternative without considering difficult such a project might be for some students. Perhaps those undergrads who grew up owning iPads are comfortable using their smart phones to create a clever reenactment of a historical event, but what about the student who is trying to get by on with a bus pass and a library card? In her essay “Beyond ctrl-c, ctrl-v” Charlotte Lydia Riley states that, “it is important to remember that access to digital and online technology is still governed to a large extent by social class, an inequality that has been characterized as creating a ‘digital divide’,” (150) Some institutions do have the facilities, funding, and resources to bring low income students across the digital divide, and encouraging administrations and departments to do so is definitely a battle worth fighting.
Kelly’s book suggests several kinds of digital projects that get students to use the analytical skills History aims to teach. Yet as effective as they are, these projects should supplement a healthy diet of traditional methods that might include research papers, book reviews, or response papers. For example Kelly’s controversial embrace of Wikipedia becomes quite useful when coupled with traditional methods. Some might scoff at the idea of using Wikipedia as a teaching tool, but Kelly balances his assignment to create or update a Wikipedia entry with an introduction to the encyclopedia as a source and a discussion of impartiality. After all how useful would the students’ entries be if they did not know the qualities an encyclopedia entry should strive for. The assignment integrates a particular kind of academic writing with online content creation and allows the student to use what they’ve learned in class to benefit a wide audience.
Another approach might be to personalize the research process. This has yielded promising results for popular history projects in South Africa For example, the Apartheid museum’s collection of “a multitude of individual personalities…[encourages] a personalized engagement with the past,” (145). The Write Your Own History Project Leslie Witz conducted under the auspices of the South African Committee for Higher Education and the History Workshop aimed to impart the knowledge of how to ‘do’ history through projects that participants found relevant. Witz states that: “As anyone who has been trained as an academic knows, there are no predetermined rules that one must follow. Indeed, historians generally learn much more through the actual experience of engaging in research and writing than by following set precepts,” (378). Kelly’s work also suggests that most undergraduate students don’t actually do historical work until their final semester. Digital archives and online research can facilitate student driven research projects at more introductory levels.
Still, before we slay the five page paper we should first make sure it has a viable heir that is feasible for all students. To accomplish this we should consider exactly what kind of digital projects are realistic within our specific institutions and then how digital capabilities might be improved. The relevance of developing our students’ digital proficiency is undeniable and including digital projects in our coursework without compromising other critical skills does pose a bit of a challenge. Educators should not react by rushing to promote one kind of project over the other. It is unlikely students are well served by choosing between a professor who is either an orthodox pen and paper academic or a zealous digital convert. Instead educators should integrate digital methods into existing pedagogical frameworks and we will not be able to do this effectively without personally engaging with the digital in our own work. A good strategy might be one of active engagement in our own scholarship and cautious implementation in the classroom.