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Journal of American History

Taking Seriously the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Section Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey
Lendol Calder

Ways of Seeing: An Introduction
Michael Coventry, Peter Felten, David Jaffee, Cecilia OĺLeary, and Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan

Thinking Visually as Historians: Incorporating Visual Methods
David Jaffee

Confronting Prior Visual Knowledge, Beliefs, and Habits: ôSeeingö beyond the Surface
Peter Felten

Whatĺs the Problem? Connecting Scholarship, Interpretation, and Evidence in Telling Stories about Race and Slavery
Tracey Weis

Moving beyond "the Essay": Evaluating Historical Analysis and Argument in Multimedia Presentations
Michael Coventry

Connecting to the Public: Using New Media to Engage Students in the Iterative Process of History
Cecila OĺLeary

Ways of Seeing: A Conclusion
Michael Coventry, Peter Felten, David Jaffee, Cecilia OĺLeary, and Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan

Ways of Seeing: Evidence and Learning in the History Classroom, An Introduction

Michael Coventry, Peter Felten, David Jaffee, Cecilia O’Leary, and
Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan

In a recent essay, David Pace decried the "chasm" between current practices in research and those in teaching in our profession. For more than a century, historians have worked together to build a research enterprise "infused with a commitment to rigor and collective responsibility." Yet the discipline's approach to teaching could hardly differ more. Because we generally teach in isolation, behind doors that keep our students in and our colleagues out, a significant gap exists, in both orientation and practice, between our research and our teaching. We tend to frame problems in our research as exciting opportunities, and we often seek out colleagues to discuss our work. When it comes to teaching, however, we see problems as disreputable, something to be hidden, rather than as invitations to further the knowledge of a community of practitioners through discussion and scholarship.1

Over the past decade, an increasing number of academics, including many historians, have explored the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) as one way to bridge the chasm by giving the same careful, methodical attention to problems in teaching as to problems in research. As in other forms of scholarship, knowledge claims in SoTL must be embedded in a body of knowledge, open to peer review, and accessible for exchange with and use by disciplinary colleagues. In SoTL for history, then, professional historians consider the questions about student learning that matter to them and apply standards of historical scholarship to tackle those questions. Their lines of inquiry often begin with questions about classroom practice├│"How can I help students understand and use primary documents better?"├│but return to issues fundamental to teaching and learning historical knowledge. The fundamental questions are varied, but historians engaged in SoTL have concentrated on two broad lines of inquiry: "What do students bring to the history classroom that may have a major impact on their learning?" and "What mental operations and procedures must [students] master in order to think historically?"2

Those initial questions motivated the five authors of the case studies that follow. We are historians at institutions ranging from open-admission public colleges to highly selective private universities and were participants in the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP), a grant-supported project funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies that involved over seventy humanities faculty members on twenty-one campuses across the United States.3 Over the five years of the project (August 2000 to October 2005), VKP participants sought to make visible and to open for inquiry problems in teaching and student learning across the fields of history, American Studies, and ethnic studies, among others. In these case studies we report research into student learning that responds to three developments. First, the scholarship of teaching and learning, or the pedagogical turn in the profession, engages historians in investigations of how students learn to think historically, treating student work as evidence to be evaluated using discipline-specific research methods. Second, the pictorial turn in culture studies prompts historians to reconsider the significance of images in the construction of historical understanding. Despite the ubiquity of images in online archives, in classrooms, and in the broader culture, many history students and scholars struggle to devise reading strategies or protocols that are as rigorous and rewarding as those used to interrogate textual sources. Finally, the digital turn in the profession encourages scholars and students to experiment with the use of digital media to develop new forms of historical discourse, through the creation of Web- and multimedia-based articles, archives, and narratives.

The Pedagogical Turn

At the beginning of the Visible Knowledge Project, our research explored intersections between new digital environments and our classroom practice. Over the course of our investigations, technology became secondary to questions about student learning and historical thinking. We gradually shifted from asking what new media could do for us as teachers to exploring how students learn historical-thinking skills and content knowledge in our classes. Student work became our crucial source of evidence as we probed to see when and how students made incremental steps (or, more rarely, large leaps) toward historical understanding. Our emphasis was on the processes by which students become more expert in their thinking, so rather than concentrating on the final products of a course (such as exams or research papers) we collected evidence throughout the term, focusing on what the scholar of historical cognition Sam Wineburg has called "the moments of confusion before an interpretation emerges, while indecision and doubt reign and coherence remains elusive." We then approached that evidence as we would sources in our scholarly research├│systematically performing close and contextualized readings to develop a narrative response to our original research question.4


screenshot of Visible Knowledge Project

The Visible Knowledge Project (VKP) Web site provides links to syllabi, sample assignments, and multimedia projects from the authors’ classes as well as those of colleagues from across fields related to American history and culture. See <> (Jan. 22, 2006). Courtesy Visible Knowledge Project, Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship, Georgetown University.


As in traditional historical scholarship, our individual work became part of a larger scholarly discourse about fundamental questions├│in this case, about how students learn history in our classrooms, how the use of visual sources shapes and disrupts historical narratives, and how new media can provide innovative opportunities for the expression of historical understanding. Because we based our inquiries on evidence rather than intuition, we could examine our separate projects together to understand crucial issues better. We have attempted to go beyond the anecdotal, beyond the teacher-centered narrative, to analyze evidence rigorously and to engage theoretical aspects of the related scholarship. We apply to all of these strategies what the SoTL theorist Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori has called "unprecedented attentiveness to students' work." For us, this significant move has converted our classrooms into places where, as Salvatori envisions, evidence of student learning becomes "a litmus test for the theories that inform a teacher's approach."5 Three core factors characterized our effort to undertake research in the scholarship of teaching and learning:

  1. Questions: a sustained inquiry guided by questions about how students develop historical understanding
  2. Methods: the use of discipline-based research methods to analyze evidence of student learning
  3. Scholarship: the connection of individual research projects and findings to a larger body of related scholarship on teaching and learning
This approach has allowed us to begin the process that David Pace has described as "replac[ing] an understanding of teaching based on folk traditions and unfounded personal impressions with one rooted in a rigorous and collective examination of what fosters student learning."6

The Pictorial Turn

While an emerging body of scholarship addresses the development of historical-thinking skills using textual sources, little has been published on how the pictorial turn might simultaneously complicate the study of history and offer new opportunities for faculty to teach students to think historically. If, as the historian Robert B. Bain has suggested, "the problem for history teachers begins with trying to understand what defines meaning making in history," then the growing emphasis on understanding history through visual images as artifacts and sources suggests that our inquiries into how students come to understand historical-thinking skills should not be restricted to written texts. Our decision to make images central in our classrooms reflects a convergence of factors. Many cultural theorists argue that we are in the midst of a major transformation. In 1994 W. J. T. Mitchell, a theorist of images, asserted that this change marked the end of the centurieslong text-based linguist turn in Western society. But historians have been slower than their colleagues in other disciplines to accept the pictorial turn. "If historians have heard of it," the historian of education Sol Cohen noted in 2003, "they have ignored it." Historians traditionally have preferred textual over visual sources, and traditional historians continue to argue for the primacy of written texts. Yet, increasingly some historians have begun to rely on images as essential sources for scholarship, and recent investigations of photographs and portraits, advertisements and buildings, have illuminated significant aspects of the past.7

Technological changes have made it easier to use images and other primary sources to teach history, but abundance and availability do not guarantee historical understanding. In the past decade, visual archives have burst onto the World Wide Web in ever-increasing numbers, making it simple to paste images onto class Web sites and into PowerPoint presentations. Textbook publishers offer teachers and students a dazzling array of sources, graphics, and other visual materials. While visuals have become commonplace in history classrooms and texts, rarely do images move to center stage to become the focus of interpretation or the source of new insights. Pedagogically, visual materials are too often used only as presentational props.8 A slick slide shown in class or an appealing Flash movie posted on a course Web site might transmit information effectively, but such uses fail to capture the interactive possibilities of images and new media, used together, in promoting students' historical understanding.

Students might enjoy, even demand, visual stimulation, but students do not necessarily enter a college classroom able to give visual sources the disciplinary reading that furthers their historical thinking. As Wineburg has argued, historians read primary documents in a distinct way, applying a "sourcing heuristic"├│that is, a set of questions about a document, its author's intentions, and its reliability├│to use texts to build arguments about the past. Students, in contrast, read sources in a less sophisticated way, as sources of information, or "content knowledge." But because many historians have been so skeptical of images, we have few conventions for reading images as historical sources. Louis Masur maintains that pedagogy is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the emerging imagebased scholarship: "Letting one's students interrogate, speculate, and often hyperventilate is an alarming business, especially when at the [end of class] you cannot tell them definitely how to read a picture or precisely how an image shaped history." The point of our classes is not to entertain our students, but to help them learn to think historically├│to develop their facility for making historical meaning from the images, texts, and objects in the world around them.9 Responding to the pictorial turn will require historians to help our students become sophisticated readers├│and perhaps even authors├│of image-based historical narratives.

The Digital Turn

Teaching students to craft engaging and effective historical interpretations, a perennial challenge, becomes even more problematic in the digital classroom where faculty ask students to design multimedia- and Web-based projects that demonstrate their ability to think historically. In comparison to more traditional assignments such as term papers, multimedia compositions allow students to use various forms of evidence (text, images, audio clips, and music) to experiment with new forms of critical analysis and narrative. Individual and collaborative multimedia authoring in the classroom├│involving multiple skills and points of view and frequently connecting a public audience to student work├│resembles, on a much more modest scale, the efforts of historians to develop new forms of scholarship tailored to the digital medium.10 Can the digital turn do what William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers, pioneers in digital authoring, envision├│can it make visible or reconfigure "deeper connections among documentation, evidence, and analysis than a single plane of fixed text can offer"?11 What opportunities and obstacles do electronic environments offer novice and expert historians interested in rethinking historical narratives? How might the scholarship of teaching and learning help us better understand how the digital turn affects the development of historical thinking in our students?

Bridging the Chasm: Case Studies from the Visible Knowledge Project

In the sections that follow, each of us outlines how her or his own scholarship of teaching and learning research has explored the intersection of visual evidence, multimedia authoring, and historical understanding. Working with our students in new-media environments, we are generating evidence of how historical thinking with visual arguments develops in our students. Our analysis of that evidence leads us to posit five interrelated themes, each foregrounded in one of our essays:

  1. In "Thinking Visually as Historians: Incorporating Visual Methods," David Jaffee discusses how pushing our students to see visual evidence contextually can help us teach historical reasoning better.
  2. In "Confronting Prior Visual Knowledge, Beliefs, and Habits: 'Seeing' Beyond the Surface," Peter Felten illustrates how engaging students through a seemingly familiar and self-evident visual culture can also direct them to confront both their deeply held beliefs in particular historical narratives and the constructed nature of any source.
  3. In "What's the Problem? Connecting Scholarship, Interpretation, and Evidence in Telling Stories about Race and Slavery," Tracey Weis explores how watching students connect evidence and scholarship as they construct historical arguments reveals ways to use new media to enrich student understanding of historical investigation and argumentation.
  4. In "Moving beyond 'the Essay': Evaluating Historical Analysis and Argument in Multimedia Presentations," Michael Coventry proposes that combining argument and evidence in multimedia historical narratives drives faculty and students to rethink the limits of writing as a way of representing historical knowledge.
  5. In "Connecting to the Public: Using New Media to Engage Students in the Iterative Process of History," Cecilia O'Leary documents how students become citizen historians by creating digital histories that not only connect them personally to the history they study but also give them the tools to make history public.

Our collaboration has helped us see that the very openness and uncertainty at the heart of the task of interpreting visual materials provide an opportunity to introduce students to the complexity of the past. That complexity often stands in direct opposition to prior knowledge and beliefs about history. Our research also leads us to propose that the confrontation with complexity and the sense of power gained in creating a visual argument replicate for students some of what practitioners experience as we create historical narratives in both traditional and nontraditional media. Making the process of student learning visible offers possibilities both for our students to learn to think historically and for us to develop a rigorous and open approach to our pedagogy, bridging the chasm between research and classroom practice in our profession.

The authors wish to thank the editors of the JAH, and especially Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser, "Textbooks and Teaching" section editors, for their invaluable help. David Pace was instrumental throughout, facilitating discussion at our writing residency and reading drafts. Roy Rosenzweig kindly read and offered detailed comments on an early draft. Susannah McGowan, assistant director for curriculum design at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, assisted in the writing of this essay by participating in conversations about its shape, compiling early versions of the pieces, and commenting on drafts. We acknowledge with gratitude her important contribution to our thinking. The authors thank Randy Bass and Bret Eynon and all of their colleagues from the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP) for providing a nurturing space for the exploration of these ideas. We each express thanks to our students for permitting us to quote and paraphrase their work. Our title echoes that of John Berger's influential book, Ways of Seeing (1972).

Michael Coventry teaches in the Communication, Culture, and Technology Program at Georgetown University; previously he was assistant director of the VKP. Matthias Oppermann, Randy Bass, John Rakestraw, Patricia O'Connor, Diana Owen, and Molly Chehak offered suggestions and critique. Gelardin New Media Center, Lauinger Library, Georgetown University, provided support, student training, and collaboration. My students, who have engaged in this work so enthusiastically, merit a special thanks.

Peter Felten is associate professor and director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Elon University. He offers special thanks to Sherry Linkon, David Pace, Allison Pingree, and all his VKP colleagues. David Jaffee teaches in the History Department and the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Program at the City College of New York and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He thanks his VKP colleagues at the Graduate Center, Paula Berggren, Sally Webster, and Larry Hanley, and especially Steve Brier for his support of the project, along with all the other VKP participants.

Cecilia O'Leary is a professor of history at California State University, Monterey Bay, and is on the editorial board of Social Justice.

Tracey Weis is an associate professor in the Department of History at Millersville University. She also coordinates the university's Women's Studies Program. She thanks her students for permission to share their work so that others may benefit from their efforts. Thanks to the VKP Seminar at Millersville University and to the Catholic Girls Writing Group for their encouragement and support.

Readers may contact Coventry at, Felten at, Jaffee at, O'Leary at, and Weis at

1 David Pace, "The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching," American Historical Review, 109 (Oct. 2004), 1171. On viewing teaching problems as positive and worthy of research, see Randy Bass, "The Scholarship of Teaching: What's the Problem?," inventio, 1 (Feb. 1999) (Sept. 20, 2005).

2 The questions are from Pace, "Amateur in the Operating Room," 1176. On early work that takes the evidencebased approach advocated here, see Lendol Calder, William W. Cutler III, and T. Mills Kelly, "History Lessons: Historians and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning," in Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Exploring Common Ground, ed. Mary Taylor Huber and Sherwyn Morreale (Washington, 2002), 46, 52├▒54. We adapt this definition of scholarship from Lee Shulman and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, who expand the work of Ernest L. Boyer. See Lee Shulman, "Course Anatomy: The Dissection and Analysis of Knowledge through Teaching," in The Course Portfolio: How Faculty Can Examine Their Teaching to Advance Practice and Improve Student Learning, ed. Pat Hutchings (Washington, 1988), 5. Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (Princeton, 1990).

3 On the Visible Knowledge Project (VKP), see (Sept. 25, 2005). In July 2003 the Atlantic Philanthropies ended its program of grant making in higher education to focus on areas such as population growth and human rights. See the Atlantic Philanthropies (Dec. 13, 2005).

4 Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, 2001), 91. Entries for "history teaching" indexed in America: History and Life increased from 253 (1985├▒ 1989), to 260 (1990├▒1994), to 357 (1995├▒1999), and to 428 (2000├▒2005). Important book-length investigations include Paul Gagnon, ed., Historical Literacy: The Case for History in American Education (New York, 1989); Peter N. Stearns, Meaning over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History (Chapel Hill, 1993); Robert Blackley, ed. History Anew: Innovations in the Teaching of History Today (Long Beach, 1993); Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York, 1997); Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History (New York, 2000); Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts; Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Cambridge, Mass., 2002); Linda Symcox, Whose History? The Struggle for National Standards in American Classrooms (New York, 2002); and Thomas Bender et al., The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century (Urbana, 2004).

5 Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori, "The Scholarship of Teaching: Beyond the Anecdotal," Pedagogy, 2 (Fall 2002), 298.

6 Pace, "Amateur in the Operating Room," 1189.

7 Robert B. Bain, "Into the Breach: Using Research and Theory to Shape History Instruction," in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History, ed. Stearns, Seixas, and Wineburg, 332; W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago, 1994), 11; Sol Cohen, "An Innocent Eye: The Pictorial Turn, Film Studies, and History," History of Education Quarterly, 43 (Summer 2003), 251. For a survey of approaches to images, see Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (Ithaca, 2001). For examples of the recent shift toward visual evidence, see George H. Roeder Jr., "Filling in the Picture: Visual Culture," Reviews in American History, 26 (March 1998), 275├▒93; Joshua Brown, Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crises of Gilded Age America (Berkeley, 2002); and Peter H. Wood, Weathering the Storm: Inside Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream (Athens, Ga., 2004).

8 Louis Masur, "'Pictures Have Now Become a Necessity': The Use of Images in American History Textbooks," Journal of American History, 84 (March 1998), 1409; David Jaffee, "'Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye': E-Supplements and the Teaching of U.S. History," ibid., 89 (March 2003), 1463├▒82. For speculations on moving images to the center of historical accounts, see Katherine Martinez, "Imaging the Past: Historians, Visual Images, and the Contested Definition of History," Visual Resources, 11 (no. 1, 1995), 27.

9 On students and images, see James H. Madison, "Teaching with Images," OAH Magazine of History, 18 (Jan. 2004), 65. For a detailed approach to understanding the textual reading practices of historians, see Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 89├▒112, esp. 76. On the need for conventions for reading images, see Robert M. Levine, Insights into American History: Photographs as Documents (Upper Saddle River, 2004), ix. Wineburg's model was adapted by the Center for History and New Media, the American Social History Project, and the Visible Knowledge Project in the production of the Making Sense of Evidence Web site. See Center for History and New Media, Making Sense of Evidence (Sept. 20, 2005). For another project that works with college, university, and high school teachers of history and the use of images in the classroom, see American Social History Project, Learning to Look: Visual Evidence and the U.S. Past in the New Media Classroom (Sept. 20, 2005). Masur, "'Pictures Have Now Become a Necessity,'" 1423.

10 On the complexities of multimedia authoring in humanities classrooms, see Visible Knowledge Project, Multimedia Authoring Gallery (Sept. 20, 2005). See also Randy Bass and Bret Eynon, eds., The Difference That Inquiry Makes (forthcoming, 2006), and Randy Bass and Bret Eynon, "Teaching Culture, Learning Culture, and New Media Technologies: An Introduction and Framework," Works and Days, 16 (nos. 1├▒2, 1998), 11├▒96. For examples of new digital scholarship in history, see Robert Darnton, "An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth- Century Paris," American Historical Review, 105 (Feb. 2000), 1├▒35; Roy Rosenzweig et al., "Forum on Hypertext Scholarship: AQ as Web-Zine├│Responses to AQ's Experimental Online Issue," American Quarterly, 51 (June 1999), 237├▒83; and the contents of the special issue "Hypertext Scholarship in American Studies," ed. Roy Rosenzweig, American Quarterly, 51 (June 1999) (Sept. 20, 2005). See also the introduction to an online article on slavery: William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers, "The Difference That Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities," American Historical Review, 108 (Dec. 2003), 1299├▒1307; and the article: William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers, "The Difference That Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities," American Historical Review, 108 (Dec. 2003) AHR/ (Sept. 20, 2005).

11 Thomas and Ayers, "Presentation," in "The Difference That Slavery Made," AHR/ (Sept. 22, 2005).

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