Students to Become Producers of New Historical Knowledge on the
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Historians do a relatively poor job of explaining their work process
to others. Perhaps this and the ahistorical bent of our culture
explain why my undergraduate students--even history majors--know
astonishingly little about historical methods. Too many students
think the study of the past consists of reading secondary works
and reporting on them. At most they might evaluate a few primary
sources. Yet the exceptions to this rule--students who write honors
theses--show that undergraduates are capable of more serious work.
We can coax them out of the box to become producers of new historical
In 1997, in an undergraduate seminar for history majors at the
State University of New York, Binghamton, I began a project that
rewarded students' efforts with publication of their term projects
on the course Web site. Binghamton, one of four university centers
in the suny (State University of New York) system, attracts a very
diverse and highly motivated population of students, primarily from
New York City. Partly because we have a strong graduate program
in U.S. women's history, we also offer an array of undergraduate
courses in U.S. women's history. Focusing on "women and social
movements in the U.S.," this seminar had no prerequisites and
included nonmajors as well as majors. Students in this and subsequent
seminars came to see how their course projects could open exciting
new windows onto American history for high school and college students.
It is a lot of work--for them and for me--but by becoming historical
practitioners themselves my seminar students have gained a much
more complete understanding of how historians work. In the process
they have also acquired useful skills that help them evaluate information,
interpret evidence, and construct arguments.
Do not let the technology scare you; college teachers do not need
to be Web wonks to do this. I was not yet on e-mail when I began
using Web-based technology in that seminar in January 1997. My conversion
to the new order occurred during the first week of class, when I
attended a funding panel at the Library of Congress. Meeting with
librarians, professors, and teachers of kindergarten through twelfth
grade classes, I found myself in the company of colleagues who were
creating the vanguard of history Web technology--Ed Ayers of the
University of Virginia, Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University,
and John McClymer of Assumption College. I noticed that U.S. women's
history was dramatically underrepresented among the submitted proposals
and realized that this absence symbolized a growing gender digital
divide in U.S. history on the Web. There I also learned from high
school teachers that what they needed most from the Web were sites
where information was focused in such a way as to permit students
to learn something significant in an hour. Browsing the Web might
be a way of life for many students, but learning meaningful history
is rarely achieved by simple and undirected Web browsing. This made
me wonder how the need for pedagogically effective resources in
U.S. history could be met by women's history materials, a strategy
that would simultaneously address the needs of U.S. history teachers
and the gender digital divide.
Returning to my senior seminar, where I had organized a number
of likely research topics for students based on microfilm sources,
I offered students the alternative of creating document-based projects
for the World Wide Web (www). Every student chose the new alternative.
The shift from using microfilm for research papers to using microfilm
for document-based editorial projects for the Web was easier than
I could ever have imagined. Web technology is a perfect match for
teaching about history because it permits us to democratize the
availability and analysis of documents. The technology boosts our
capacities as teachers by giving our students a front-row view of
the documentary record of historical change. Moreover, it allows
us to teach students how professional historians work with such
records. This happy conjuncture of new technology with the possibilities
of the history classroom has enormous potential for improving the
way we teach history. But to develop that potential we need to design
effective models for the classroom use of the new technology.
"Arresting the Girl Strikers for Picketing,"
Reprinted from the International Socialist Review,
Jan. 1910. Part of an editorial project by Deirdre Doherty,
State University of New York at Binghamton, May 1998.
The model I developed in the spring of 1997 and continue
to employ has three features. First, it treats students as the producers
of new historical knowledge by requiring them to produce a project
containing new historical knowledge. Second, it prescribes a very
specific form that the projects must follow, a form that facilitates
Web-based learning by offering historical knowledge in units that
can be explored in an hour's time. Third, it helps students place
their projects on the course Web site, where others can learn from
The course is divided into three parts that reflect these three
components. Gradually the course propels students "outside
the box." First, each students selects a topic, explores related
secondary literature, frames a new question, and locates primary
sources that will address the question. Second, the student selects
around twenty documents that address the question, writes headnotes
for each document, and writes a short interpretive introduction
for the whole project. Third, the student transcribes the documents
and mounts them with interpretive comments on the course Web site.
Students' final projects are therefore pedagogic units that pose
central interpretive questions and provide about twenty primary
documents that address each question. Each project also includes
footnotes to the introductory materials, annotations of the primary
documents, a bibliography, and a list of related Web links.
To guide students through this demanding course I have relied on
the able assistance of Dr. Melissa Doak, a recent Binghamton Ph.D.
in U.S. women's history, who has developed an effective course Web
To produce new historical knowledge students learn about a wide
array of methodological issues, most of which we discuss on the
course Web site under "project guides." There we offer
guidance on such matters as:
• learning the distinction between primary and secondary sources;
• compiling a bibliography of secondary sources and developing
a perspective on historiography;
• learning what constitutes authoritative information (especially
on the www);
• locating and selecting documents for inclusion in the project;
• considering editorial practices to be employed in the transcription
• writing headnotes;
• citing documents and secondary sources properly; and
• writing an interpretive introduction for the documents as a
The course Web site also offers html (hypertext markup language)
tutorials written by Dr. Doak.
Our course meets once a week for three hours. Classroom discussions
focus on the week's assignment: how to frame a historiographically
derived question; how to locate documents capable of addressing
one's question; how to evaluate and interpret documents; how to
create a story from a group of documents; how to search for appropriate
images to illustrate one's project; etc. Throughout the course we
schedule frequent individual tutorials to discuss students' progress
and problems. Early in the course students acquire peer review partners
with whom they discuss their work each week.
At the end of the semester, we invite university administrators,
librarians, and history faculty to attend the final meeting of the
class where students give oral reports on their work and display
the products of their labors with large-screen projection facilities.
This event rewards the extra effort that most students have put
into their course projects. It also reinforces their identity as
producers of historical knowledge.
I help with the first stage of the course by preparing page-long
descriptions of possible topics, with suggested questions, secondary
bibliography, and microfilm sources. Some students prefer to work
more independently at this stage, but typically students use these
descriptions to launch their projects. My reward for this preparatory
work is that students become engaged in their projects early enough
to complete them within fifteen weeks. I also assume all responsibility
for permissions, an extremely time-consuming and arcane task that
they could not possibly add to their already-full plates, although
I describe that work so they understand that permissions do have
to be obtained.
Jennifer Burns (left) and Gretchen Becht (right), in a
senior seminar taught in the collaborative classroom, Fall
1999, compare notes on their project on women's rights conventions
of the 1850s. Photograph by Kitty Sklar.
In addition to posting their projects on the course Web site, students
aspire to have their work included in the Women and Social Movements
in the United States, 1820-1940, Web site that my Binghamton
colleague Professor Thomas Dublin and I co-direct with the assistance
of Melissa Doak, <http://www.womanhist.binghamton.edu>.
That site is visited by about ten thousand visitors a month from
sixty different countries. Before student work is placed on that
site we revise it in ways that render it fully authoritative and
professional. Yet the final products clearly reflect students' work,
and we credit them as the original editors.
Although the larger Web site builds on student work, it is not
an integral part of this flexible classroom model. This model can
be replicated wherever students have access to primary sources that
can be used to address historical questions. Variations on the model
might include group projects in which students share the responsibility
of completing a single project. My students have worked almost exclusively
with microfilm sources, but the course could also use archival or
even printed materials. The course could be adapted to serve as
a year-long framework for honors theses. Teachers without supportive
computer technology assistance might rely on my course Web site.
Addressing substantive interpretive questions in the selection
and editing of historical documents is a challenging task for students
to master in a single semester, as is the acquisition of technical
skills, but most of my students have risen to the occasion and done
quite remarkable work in the short space of three and a half months.
The key to their success is that they become energized by the goal
of putting their project on the Web as a learning resource for other
students of U.S. history. Inspired by this goal, they have been
willing to learn the nitty-gritty features of historical scholarship
that otherwise might discourage all but the most dedicated. Students
who entered the class with little or no understanding of historical
methodology or technical Web expertise leave the class with a command
of both. They let themselves "out of the box" to become
part of the process by which history is written. And they have fun
in the process.
Kathryn Kish Sklar is distinguished professor of history at the
State University of New York, Binghamton.
Sklar may be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.