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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 O’Leary, and Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan

Thinking Visually as Historians: Incorporating Visual Methods
David Jaffee

Confronting Prior Visual Knowledge, Beliefs, and Habits: “Seeing” beyond the Surface
Peter Felten

What’s 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 O’Leary

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

Whatís the Problem? Connecting Scholarship, Interpretation, and Evidence in Telling Stories about Race and Slavery

Tracey Weis

For years students seemed to come to my African American history course with the Gone with the Wind interpretation of slavery that collapses four centuries of history on four continents into the plantation production of cotton in the Deep South in the late antebellum period. I want them to comprehend how slavery ìworkedî in different places and times and to understand the role of slavery in the making of America.22 I knew I could use the traditional lecture format to tell them about the complexity of the peculiar institution. Even so, I wondered if they could show me how they navigated between their prior knowledge and beliefs about slavery and the new forms of evidence and scholarship they would encounter in my course. The scholarship of teaching and learning has helped me address two persistently pressing pedagogical concerns: (1) how to get students to see beyond their visions of slavery as monolithic and (2) how to make the process of historical interpretation and narrative construction more visible for myself and for novice historians such as my students. It has guided me in developing multimedia exercises for students that combine text, image, and narration in ways that make visible to them the complexity of historical research and the knowledge it produces.

My interest in having students broaden and complicate their narratives of slavery led me to devise ìTelling Stories about Slavery at Americaís Historic Sites,î a three-week unit that culminates in student PowerPoint slide shows based on their assessments of how the Web sites of Monticello, Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, and the National Park Service interpret slavery and race. Small groups of students work together to combine their readings of the Web sites with other relevant visual and text sources; they then produce a research report consisting of fifteen to twenty PowerPoint slides accompanied by a narrativeóa scriptófor class presentation. Functioning as visual paragraphs, the slides show the relationships between the evidence students select from the Web sites, the historiography they locate in the America: History and Life database, and the arguments about slavery they develop as they maneuver back and forth among the sources. The deliberate juxtaposition of historical incidents, types of evidence, and scholarly analyses helps them grasp the complexity of slavery and its interpretation. Contrasting four colonial-era historic sites would, I hoped, allow students to see how they had privileged antebellum cotton plantations as the singular sites of slavery.23

I first introduced the unit in fall 2001. In reviewing the initial round of presentations, I realized I did not know how to assess the messy complexity of what students were learning about slavery as they researched, produced, and presented their multimedia narratives. Yet, within six months, collaborative work with colleagues in the Visible Knowledge Project who shared my interest in multimedia student authoring resulted in the development of a common framework for evaluating multimedia projects.24 With a better understanding of how to evaluate narrative organization, thoughtfulness in the use of images, and the process of multimedia authoring, I was ready to try again.

The following fall I tried to map student presentations frame by frame so that I could see how students were assembling primary and secondary texts, images, scripts, and audio narration into narratives. A close reading of their work helped me recognize that students had begun to grasp the need to create a contextualized narrative that acknowledged both the existence of many stories about slavery and, to quote the historian Ira Berlin, the complicated and protracted ways ìAmericans have situated their own history in terms of the struggle between freedom and slaveryóand freedomís triumph.î25 Nonetheless, their capacities for incorporating visual evidence into their historical explanations were uneven and at best generally at the novice stage. Below, I discuss what I learned from one presentation that analyzed the Web site of Colonial Williamsburg.

The substance of the student presentation began with a slide that contained three elements: an image of shackles, a photograph of a contemporary historical interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, and a reference to a required course reading by the historian James Oliver Horton. But the script that the student had created as narration referred to neither of the images; instead, it summarized Hortonís argument that ìhistoric places give concrete meaning to our history and our lives as no spoken or written word alone can do,î a claim that served as a compass for my students as we tacked back and forth between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the local and the national, in our efforts to situate and to scrutinize slavery. Surprisingly, the presentation did not include or interrogate the caption of the photograph from the Web site: ìOld Paris, played by Robert C. Watson, awes with tales that teach.î While an expert historian might have chosen to juxtapose the harshness of the shackles and the benign image of a grandfatherly storyteller to raise questions about the contradiction between the brutality of punishment and the benevolence of paternalism, the novice historian seemed unable to exploit the interpretative potential of the juxtaposition.26

Robert Watson Jr. as Old Paris

A student in Tracey Weis’s class at Millersville University used a 1993 image of Robert Watson Jr. as Old Paris, a first-person interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, in order to analyze contemporary reenactments of slavery. Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Similarly, the student author of the next slide used a photograph of the reconstructed slave quarters at Carterís Grove plantation, run by Colonial Williamsburg, to illustrate her evaluation of the organizationís Web site. Although she had probably read ìRepresenting Slavery: A Roundtable Discussionî in the issue of the online journal Common-Place that included the photograph, her script did not refer to it directly. The accompanying narrationóìthe Williamsburg site gives us the impression of a quaint, small, harmless slave community without all the cruelties that were experiencedîóonly obliquely pointed back to the discussion, in an article in the round table, of the daily challenge African American interpreters face in trying to ìstrike a balance between being truthful and being tasteful.î Yet the studentís assessment did acknowledge the contradictions between Colonial Williamsburgís visual representation of master-slave relations and the scholarship on the subject. Labeling her argument, ìThe Good, the Bad, and Pretty Ugly,î she identified as positive the siteís insertion of information about the working lives of slaves.27 This inclusion of African American presence was undercut, however, by the Web siteís misrepresentation and omission, termed the ìBadî and the ìPretty Uglyî by the student critic. The student pointed out how the Web site ìcompletely glossed overî the brutality of slavery and ìthe mistreatment of human life that occurred there.î These contradictions prompted other members of the class to ask whether the images and text on the Colonial Williamsburg Web site reflected the content and tone of the living-history presentations.

In the next two slides, a new author explicitly juxtaposed scholarship and visual evidence to advance critical interpretations. Tellingly, she titled her two companion slides ìSlavery through the Eyes of Whitesî and ìSlavery through the Eyes of Slaves.î In the former, she set Jean-Baptiste Le Paonís 1783 portrait of General Lafayette accompanied by his orderly James Armistead against a rather lengthy caption: ìSlavery, in the eyes of whites, was glossed over. Not everyone agreed with slavery, but the ones who did made slavery out to be a pleasant experience. White people would make comments such as ëthey were fed and sheltered, what more did they want?íî28

Contextualizing Jean-Baptiste le Paon's Portrait of General Lafayette (1783)

For students in Tracey Weis’s class at Millersville University, the task of contextualizing Jean-Baptiste Le Paon’s Portrait of General Lafayette Accompanied by His Orderly, James Armistead (1783) illustrated the challenges of interpreting images of slavery. Courtesy Lafayette College Art Collection, Easton, Pa. Gift of Mrs. John Hubbard.

Her skepticism of the benevolent paternalism that the portrait announced was evident. But, I wondered, had she brought that wariness, informed by her own experiences as a young African American woman, into the classroom at the beginning of the semester? Or had she refined her understanding based on her consideration of the experience of the first-person interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg?29 In any event, her conclusion that the visual evidence misrepresented James Armistead included an awareness of authorial intent: ìThis picture portrays the idea of noble savage. Whites who did not want to believe that slavery was wrong called African Americans noble servants rather than slaves. This picture gives a false image of how slaves dressed. When looking at this picture one might believe that African Americans were treated equal to whites when in reality that was not the case.î

In the next slide, this same student author offered a bulleted summary of some of the harsh aspects of slavery in visual juxtaposition to The Old Plantation, an undated and unsigned (perhaps late eighteenth-century) picture found in Columbia, South Carolina, that depicts playful slave leisure:

  • Taken from their home only to be forced to do laborious work for white men
  • Treated as if they had no soul
  • Torn apart from their families30
The studentís narration for this slide included quotations from several scholars speaking to the difficulty of African American survival in the face of the brutality of slavery. After featuring an analysis of slavery in the antebellum period, she turned next to the words of a freedman extracted from a secondary source on Reconstruction: ìWe havenít got our rights yet, but I expect weíre goín to have íem soon. . . . weíre men now, but when our masters had us we was only change in their pockets.î She then invoked Frederick Douglass to conclude her analysis: ìA manís troubles are always half disposed of when he finds endurance the only alternative. I found myself here; not getting away; and naught remained for me but to make the best of it.î Once more she used scholarship and textual sources to challenge visual evidence that portrayed master-slave relations as benevolent. Yet, although her slides were conceptually rich and interpretatively sharp, the student seemed untroubled that they were analytic collages comprising visual and textual ìtracesî from different historical eras and places.31

Taken together, these excerpts from the Colonial Williamsburg presentation illustrate both the increasing complexity of studentsí understandings of slavery and the persisting unevenness of their analyses. Looking back on the evidence I collected, I can identify three distinct moments when studentsí understandings faltered and suggest what I learned about intervening in those episodes:

First, students unaccustomed to critically evaluating visual historical evidence tended to employ a cut-and-paste approach to images. They either extracted an image as a free-standing item devoid of context or pulled an image and its accompanying scholarly commentary as a unified and coherent item. This, I learned, reflected their inexperience in working with primary sources of any kind. I needed to help them develop their understanding of howóand whyóexpert historians attend to context and authorial intent.32 Then these young scholars could apply their newfound skepticism about veracity and motive to subsequent analyses of all primary sources.

Second, neither my students nor I had begun the class with an understanding of how contemporary culture shaped the knowledge of slavery that they brought with them. My presumption that they shared the Gone with the Wind interpretation worked against making their prior knowledge and beliefs about slavery visible. Nor had I considered the images of slavery they carried with them from such films as Amistad or from illustrations in high school textbooks. Moreover, references to ìWhite Americaî and ìWhite peopleî in the slides had alerted me to the necessity of making studentsí prior knowledge and beliefs about race more explicit in the classroom so that we could all see how these interrupted our analytic efforts to ìcompare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutionsî in the past. Recognizing that images evoked both cognitive and affective responses from students led to the realization that exploring studentsí prior beliefs meant encouraging them to articulate desires, fantasies, and fears as well as rational reactionsóa daunting challenge indeed, but one I found necessary if our learning were to proceed.33

Third, students displayed particular historical-thinking skills when they undertook particular tasks in their analyses of slavery, but they seemed unable to bring their multiple competencies together. As a result, their efforts to move beyond novice interpretative strategies were haphazard rather than systematic and often generated collages rather than narratives. Yet, by bringing together the content of historical interpretations on the one hand and the organization and form of the analysis on the other, they had taken important steps toward understanding the complexity of historical representation. When they constructed their individual slides, they understood the tension between showing (demonstrating) and telling (narrating). Peer-review discussions of the presentations pushed this learning even further, as students asked each other to justify their selections of images and texts: Why did you select this image? What point were you trying to make? How does that image relate to this excerpt from a primary document? The students were demonstrating how the technique of juxtaposition enhanced their understanding of how historical narratives are constructed. By gaining competencies in composing the individual ìvisual paragraphî for each slide, students were preparing to take the next step in narrative construction: creating more coherent and more comprehensive explanations of causation and consequence.

Inspired by the scholarship of teaching and learning to contemplate studentsí work more closely and more carefully, I am challenged to refine my strategies for helping students develop the skills and dispositions of historical inquiry. The multimedia format of the historic site reviews made the problems and possibilities of historical argumentation and narrative visible even as the collaborative review of the multimedia interpretations put the process of historical interpretation on display. Evaluating studentsí efforts to incorporate visual evidence into their analyses, however, is making me rethink the limits of writing as a way of representing historical knowledge. Like David Jaffee and Peter Felten, I recognize that many students need more practice in reading visual sources with skill before they can effectively use them to present compelling and coherent historical interpretations. Nonetheless, like Michael Coventry and Cecilia OíLeary, I am excited by the new forms of historical argumentation emerging in multimedia narratives. I am optimistic that working together, as scholars and educators, we can continue to build our knowledge of teaching and learning in ways that will advance both the pedagogical and professional practice of history.

22 Russell Olwell, ìNew Views Of Slavery: Using Recent Historical Work to Promote Critical Thinking about the ëPeculiar Institution,íî History Teacher, 34 (no. 4, 2001), 459ñ69.

23 ìSyllabus,î History 272: African American History, Fall 2002, Millersville University http://muweb. (Sept. 20, 2005). For more on this assignment, see ugrr/272/tsoutline.pdf (Sept. 20, 2005). In addition, each team had to investigate the Web site of a historic site that challenged or contradicted the presentation of master-slave relations at the first site. The paired sites were: (1) Monticello (Sept. 20, 2005) and Kingsley Plantation goldcres/sites/kingsley.htm (Sept. 20, 2005); (2) Mount Vernon (Sept. 20, 2005) and Seacoast New Hampshire Black History (Sept. 20, 2005) (featuring the story of Ona Judge Staines, who escaped the Executive Mansion in Philadelphia in 1796 and made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire); (3) Colonial Williamsburg (Sept. 20, 2005) and Common-Place (Sept. 20, 2005); and (4) selected sites administered by the National Park Service (Sept. 20, 2005).

24 We drew on several resources to develop our rubric for assessing multimedia narratives. For the elements that make a ìgood story,î see the Cookbook from the Center for Digital Storytelling memvoice/pages/cookbook.html (Sept. 20, 2005). For the components of effective historical narratives, see the National History Standards (Sept. 20, 2005). For guidance in using images in a historical interpretation, see Martinez, in ìImaging the Pastî 21ñ45. For rubrics of narrative construction, see ìDigital Storytelling: Some Selected Online Resources,î VKP Community Newsletter (Sept. 2002) http:// (Sept. 20, 2005).

25 For a sample assessment grid, see (Sept. 20, 2005). Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), 10.

26 James Oliver Horton, ìOn-Site Learning: The Power of Historic Places,î CRM Online, 23 (no. 8, 2000) (access by subscription only). See also James O. Horton, ìPresenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling Americaís Racial Story,î Public Historian, 21 (Fall 1999), 19ñ38. The photograph of the historical interpreter appeared on the Colonial Williamsburg Web site. See Colonial Williamsburg: African-American Experience life/Af_Amer/aalife.cfm (Sept. 20, 2005). For another perspective on ìtales that teach,î see Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York, 1977).

27 Karen E. Sutton, ìConfronting Slavery Face-to-Face: A Twenty-First-Century Interpreterís Perspective on Eighteenth-Century Slavery,î Common-Place, 1 (July 2001) sutton.html (Sept. 20, 2005). Christopher D. Geist, ìAfrican-American History at Colonial Williamsburg,î CRM Online, 20 (no. 2, 1997) (access by subscription only); Jeffrey J. Crow, ìInterpreting Slavery in the Classroom and at Historic Sites,î AHA Perspectives, 36 (March 1998).

28 The painting appears as an illustration in Alex Bontemps, ìSeeing Slavery: How Paintings Make Words Look Different,î Common-Place, 1 (July 2001) (Sept. 20, 2005).

29 Interpretations that informed this studentís reading of the master-slave relationship in colonial-era Williamsburg included Shane White, ìIntroduction: Representing Slavery; A Roundtable Discussion,î ibid.; Sutton, ìConfronting Slavery Face-to-Faceî; and Bontemps, ìSeeing Slavery.î On variations in historical understanding among students of various national, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, see Keith Barton, ìResearch on Studentsí Historical Thinking and Learning,î AHA Perspectives, 42 (Oct. 2004), 21.

30 This unsigned painting (c. 1777ñ1794), held by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Williamsburg, Virginia, appeared in Bontemps, ìSeeing Slavery.î The paper on which it was painted shows a paper makerís watermark from 1777ñ1794. Historians speculate it shows a scene from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century on a plantation between Charleston and Orangeburg, South Carolina.

31 Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York, 1855), chap. 4; Burke, Eyewitnessing, 13ñ16.

32 Additionally, as the National Standards for History urge, students must develop competencies to interrogate ìa variety of visual sources such as historical photographs, political cartoons, paintings, and architecture in order to clarify, illustrate, or elaborate upon the information presentedî in written narratives. National Center for History in the Schools, National Standards for History (Sept. 20, 2005).

33 Amistad, dir. Steven Spielberg (DreamWorks, 1997). Standard 3B Historical Analysis and Interpretation, National Standards for History (Sept. 20, 2005).

Next essay: Michael Coventry, "Moving beyond 'the Essay'" >