From the Technology column of the April 2012 issue of Perspectives on History
Blogging in the Classroom: Using a Blog as a Supplemental Resource
Sarah A. Curtis, Jason Lahman, and Brian J. Griffith, April 2012
There was a time when preparing for a new course (or revising an old one) involved assembling some of the best books and articles on a particular subject and writing careful word-based lectures on a series of significant topics. That approach is still valid, of course, but for certain historical topics, particularly ones involving cultural history, the internet provides a multitude of new sources that are often auditory or visual in nature. Straying from one's wordprocessing program over to a Web browser can both exhilarate and frustrate—how much of this material can one really incorporate into a lecture after all? Having identified these sources, how can instructors share them with their students?
In spring 2011, we had precisely this problem in a course entitled "Paris: Biography of a City," offered through San Francisco State University's humanities department. This course was expressly designed to be interdisciplinary in nature, combining history, art history, literature, film, and music. Even cursory searches of the Web, however, yielded more visual images, film, and sound clips than could possibly be shown in class. In three different roles—instructor, teaching assistant, and technological adviser, respectively—we discovered the solution to this embarrassment of riches: a course blog.1
Although we benefited from a team approach in creating our blog and could teach each other blogging "tricks of the trade" as we progressed, designing and maintaining a course blog does not need to be an intimidating endeavor. Data recently collected by the AHA suggests that over two-thirds of its members are "active users" of new technologies.2 Our experience convinced us that even those who consider themselves only "passive users" could easily master the relatively simple process of blogging.
Undergraduates are familiar with the blog format
Today's undergraduates are constantly connected to the Web through their smart phones, laptops, and other portable devices. There is data showing that this 24-hour connectivity is altering the way the brain processes and analyzes information.3 While some argue that this contributes to some students' inability to focus, the fact remains that the Web is where most young people communicate with others and access information.
Students are used to the deep, interconnected formats of the Web where every paragraph yields hyperlinks that direct them to more information about a specific topic. If used carefully in a blog entry, such information branching can be used to encourage students to learn more about any given topic. For all the time they spend surfing the Web, many students have trouble effectively navigating its waters. The conscientious instructor can use a course blog to guide students to reliable sources on the Web beyond those few sites students typically use (such as Wikipedia). However, the brevity of the format means bloggers have to be choosy about finding the right links in order to capture the student's attention and stay on topic.
Blogs reflect many of the valuable "turns" in academic history
The interdisciplinary capacities of the blog format reflect the tenor of current historical investigations. Many of the so-called "turns" that have taken place in our profession over the last 30 years have caused historians to look beyond print sources for subjects of analysis. The blog allows teachers to use the methods and sources of art and music history, visual studies, material culture, history of science, and anthropology, all of which have enriched "history proper." History is brought to life in the classroom through more than just the discussion of classic texts. Although historians still rely on the written word as their main type of primary source, they are increasingly using other types of sources to shed light on the past. The blog allows the instructor to introduce his or her students to this same process of discovery across the disciplines.4
The blog format is a great way to whet students' appetites for course lectures. Videos on YouTube, Vimeo, and other video sharing web sites are usually under 10 minutes in length and frequently under 5. This brevity is excellent for the blog format and for exposing students quickly to multimedia sources that can illuminate lecture topics.
For a lecture on the 1900 World's Fair in Paris, for example, we found a number of excellent short videos on YouTube related to the architecture of the exposition. This included not only vintage Edison footage of the fairgoers enjoying the grand sites, but several 3-D computer simulations of fair pavilions in full color. Since music is such an important part of the history of Paris in the 19th and 20th centuries, blog posts with short clips of opera, jazz, and popular ballads helped students imagine what Paris "sounded like" during the periods we studied. Scanning the Web for information about the Ballets Russes yielded a 15-minute lecture from the Victoria and Albert Museum's web site on the costumes for Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Although briefly touched on in class, this resource gave students the opportunity to learn more about what the designers were trying to achieve at the time. It also offered some explanations as to why there was such a hullabaloo at the ballet's 1913 premiere in Paris.
The blog format is a quick way to organize and cluster topical information
In the past, photocopied sheets featuring important statistics, maps, and lists of key words were a popular supplement in history courses. With a blog, instructors can provide the same information more economically and ecologically, with the added bonus of being able to hyperlink some or all of the featured content. Doing so allows students to jump into longer versions of definitions, see full-color maps, or peruse entire encyclopedia articles. The web sites of art and science museums, sites devoted to material and popular culture, and image databases (whether institutional, such as the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, or commercial, such as the Mary Evans Picture Library) offer the blogger all sorts of treasures, many of them not widely used by history teachers.
Various items related to a lecture can be easily assembled and placed in a blog entry so that students can scan and click on whatever interests them. By giving them three to four short supplemental items to look at, students' interests are piqued and their knowledge of a topic expanded. A blog entry on Emile Zola for our Paris course, for example, included links to the famous "J'Accuse!" newspaper article, various reliable sites on the Dreyfus Affair, photographs and political cartoons, and even a short clip from the MGM biopic The Life of Emile Zola. Throughout the semester we heard from many students who found the links to supplemental media or archival resources helpful as they considered the lecture materials and chose topics for class projects.
The blog can take shape over the course of a semester
One of the greatest advantages of a course blog, from the instructor's point of view, is the ability to post entries over time. Since a blog is a chronological form of communication, rather than overwhelming students with a list of "further resources" for the entire semester, you can introduce these resources during the course of the semester when they are prepared for and interested in the subject at hand. This is especially useful for the instructor teaching a new course. But you can also reuse the posts in subsequent iterations of the course, while adding new resources and deleting old ones according to the shifting nature of internet information.
Although we did not require this of our students, it would be possible to use the "comments" feature of the blog to conduct a discussion about the various blog posts, which would augment and extend class discussions. Blogging software can be set so that a blog is only visible to a particular group of users, allowing students some privacy in sharing comments and ideas.
In this particular course, we also created a blog for students to post their own work, specifically an assignment entitled "A Tour of Paris," in which each student profiled a different neighborhood or monument in Paris, including historical background and images. Although this blog made less use of the chronological feature inherent in blogging (all students posted within a one-week period), it did provide an easy way to make the project a shared learning experience.
Making the most of the Web's resources
Searching for pertinent information for your blog entries is easier than ever. Google key-word searches yield many potential resources. When you need visuals you can set your search options in Google for "images" or "video". When searching for video clips on a particular topic (such as "The American Revolution" or "Mussolini"), explore YouTube and Vimeo. It is quite surprising how many clips there are on historical subjects and these include not just parts of episodes from the History Channel, but actual documentary footage or even academic lectures from well-known universities.5 YouTube users also compile and post wonderful home-made video slideshows of the works of particular artists—searching for "Van Gogh" or "Matisse," for instance, will yield some great examples, often called "tributes". If you want to include an audio clip in a blog entry, search the above-listed video sharing websites for particular composers or periods.
In addition to pictures and videos, a wealth of other types of sources and services can be found on the Web that can further enrich your course blog. For example, embedding a Google Map on your blog might help better contextualize locations and proximities relevant to the course's topic. Furthermore, Google Maps are customizable, allowing users to place pushpins (that is, icons marking particular locations on the map) on various locations relevant to the course's topic. Each of these markers can be custom labeled, as well as annotated, allowing the author to insert comments or even a relevant URL for interested readers. In the case of the "A Tour of Paris" blog, for instance, we compiled all of our students' blog entries into a customized Google Map, allowing them to view a single map of the city of Paris with markers placed on each of the locations they had covered in their assignments.
You could go a step further, still, and include links to Google's Street View, which allows users to experience a three-dimensional perspective of various street-level locations all over the world, or Google Books, which features a database of over 15 million scanned books, three million of which are considered "public domain" publications.6
Blogs are not the only technological tool available to instructors in this enhanced media world. Enterprising instructors could set up a course web site or use course management systems to achieve similar goals. But blogs are now easy to design and use and provide a casual means of communication between the blogger and readers where information can be added over time. They can help to mitigate information overload in class and, most of all, put the resources of the Web on any given topic at the disposal of students who might not otherwise discover its riches. As a multi-layered, web-based format with which nearly all undergraduates are familiar, a blog allows instructors to tie together sources in a variety of modes (visual, auditory, textual) from a huge number of domains, reflecting many of the methodological practices of academic history.
Sarah A. Curtis is professor of history at San Francisco State University.
Jason Lahman received his MA from San Francisco State University in modern European history in spring 2011 and is the author of a history-related blog entitled "My Eye in the Sky: Explorations in Art, Culture, History & the Powers of Vision."
Brian J. Griffith completed his MA from San Francisco State University in modern European history in fall 2011 and was president of the SFSU History Students Association in 2010–11. He also maintained a blog on digitized primary source collections.
1. " To view our course blog, see http://hum375.blogspot.com.
2. Robert B. Townsend, "How Is New Media Reshaping the Work of Historians?," Perspectives on History 48:8 (November 2010).
4. See www.socialstudies.com/pdf/usingvisualprimarysources.pdf for an example of how high school teachers are using visual sources to teach American history. An excellent beginning text for historians on the pleasures and pitfalls of using visual sources is Peter Burke's Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).
5. For videos of academic lectures on various topics, see www.academicearth.org. For more information on using YouTube as a pedagogic resource, see Jonathan Rees, "Teaching History with YouTube Revisited," Perspectives on History, April 2011.
6. For a complete list of the locations currently covered by Google's Street View, see http://maps.google.com/help/maps/streetview/learn/where-is-street-view.html; for information on Google Books, see http://books.google.com/intl/en/googlebooks/about.html.