From the Teaching column of the January 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Taking History Personally: How Blogs Connect Students Outside the Classroom

Russell Olwell, January 2008

Blogging, the use of the internet to post commentary or links, has taken off among historians, both in the academy and beyond. For example, History News Network has a group blog of historians, and historians such as Juan Cole (www.juancole.com) and Joshua Micah Marshall (Talkingpointsmemo.com) provide daily, historically grounded commentary for the general public.

Blogs offer a free or low-cost, easy-to-assemble web page, allowing historians to present ideas, opinions, research, or just to let off some steam.

Although a daily part of life for many historians, the use of blogs for teaching has not yet been examined extensively. While there is some educational literature on the uses of blogs for K–12 and college classes, much of it is either how-to or why-you-should. This literature stresses the blog as a means of student self-expression, or creating an authentic project using writing for an audience. The connection of blogs to course content or disciplinary thinking is not well developed in this literature.

In this article, I present initial findings from my experience in using a blog with an undergraduate Methods of Historical Research and Writing class at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), where I teach.

Each student in the class is usually required to write a 10- to 12-page paper around a historical theme, and our theme for one recent term was "Veterans and Oral History." Students could choose to write about any conflict in history (battlefield or home front) and were encouraged to critically use oral history sources in their papers. In order to give the class a stronger idea of how oral history can be used, I asked them to read Chris Appy's recent work, Patriots: An Oral History of the Vietnam War from All Sides.

To stimulate discussion about the use of oral history in historical research, I created a blog for the class at Blogspot.com. The blog allowed the class to pose questions to Appy (who currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) and allowed him to answer the questions at his leisure. This asynchronous format did not tie us down to a schedule like a phone interview, and also allowed for a longer conversation, ranging over several weeks. Students received extra credit for posting to the blog, and 7 students (out of the 20 in the class) participated.

What Students Wanted to Know

Students at EMU, mostly from working-class backgrounds, have a personal connection to the Vietnam War and its issues. Many of them have Vietnam veterans in their families, and many also have personal connections to people serving in the military now. It was not surprising, then, that their blog questions reflected their connection to these two conflicts.

The students' first question was about Appy's age when the Vietnam War ended, and whether he faced the draft. Students also wanted to know whether Appy faced hostility when researching the book. One student asked on the blog:

Did you feel any tension from the Americans after interviewing all the Vietnamese soldiers? What I am trying to ask is that did you sense a feeling of betrayal from the Americans by "fraternizing" with "the enemy"? I can imagine that so many years after the brutal conflict feelings of "sides" are still strong amongst soldiers from both halves of the conflict.

Students were interested in the experience of veterans beyond the war, when they returned home. One student wrote:

Do you or don't you agree that the attitudes towards the Vietnam War are very skewed due to the dislike by the general public of that War? That public psychology is the main driving force behind the self-loathing and general feeling of apathy the veteran soldiers feel? Or do you think that the Vietnam War was such a unique experience that it has its own driving force and power, a force that has both crippled and scarred its participants? And if you do, what is this driving force behind their scars?

While these might sound more like speeches than questions, they illustrate the importance students place on being able to understand what it is really like to write a book, or to make sense of a contentious issue. With access to the author, students raised questions and points about the act of researching and writing history that would not have emerged in a conventional class discussion.

What Students Thought of the Blog Experience

To find out more about what students thought about the blog experience, they were sent a short, anonymous survey (through Surveymonkey.com) about what they found valuable or problematic about using blogs in class.

Students expressed appreciation for being able to talk to the author through the blog. One declared, "I also found the interviewer to be very passionate to his book. It actually gave you a more personal relationship with the author." Another noted, "It was wonderful to actually communicate with the author of the book we focused on in class. It also helped to learn about some of his techniques and views. It made the book even more meaningful."

Students—even those who did not participate—found very few problems with the blog project. Asked about drawbacks, one student wrote, "I personally don't see a drawback because students get a chance to think about their questions before posing them to the author and the author can complete his entire thought not being concerned about a timeframe. The only general drawback is that a lot of people hate to take the time to type out their thoughts; for them it is easier to speak instead of type." Another student wrote that the medium of blogs "doesn't allow eye to eye contact, [like] talking to a person face to face," and yet another reported that the medium allowed "no personal contact with the author."

What Do Blogs Accomplish in a History Class?

Properly used, blogs are a quick, cheap, and technologically simple means of encouraging communication, especially when people are separated by space and (lack of) time. While certainly it would have been more meaningful for my students to interview Appy in person, it was not a possibility for logistical and financial reasons. The advantage blog discussions have over course management software is openness to those outside the campus computing network. While this can be a drawback (someone once posted a stock tip in the middle of the class blog) it allows for discussions among a range of people, some inside and some outside of a class.

Blogs also allow students to take history class material to a more personal level than in-class discussion might. The students in the class wanted a sense of what it was like to interview veterans, or travel to Vietnam today, or to have written a book. They sought to connect the information in the book to their own lives, families, and communities, and the blog allowed them to ask questions that they had on their mind while they were reading, but might not ask in a class discussion.

Finally, the informality of blogs allows students to see more of what goes into historical research and writing. Sam Wineburg argues that studying history is an apprenticeship in how to think like a historian, and blogs allow students to interrogate what this means with an expert, and to get the reasons behind the choices and interpretations that professional historians make. While students may not go on to write history books, the experience of blogging with an author seems to make them more aware of the issues that historical researchers face, and how they justify the choices they have made. While traditional historical academic writing takes the "I" out of the research paper or book, the blog helps students put it back in, and to see how the personal and historical intersect.

—Russell Olwell teaches at Eastern Michigan University.

References and Further Reading

For an overview of historical blogs, see History News Network, http://hnn.us/articles/1572.html.

Historian Juan Cole's world-famous blog is found at http://www.juancole.com.

The American Historical Association blog at http://blog.historians.org/ is also a good place to see the impact of blogs on historical discussion.

Historian David Voelker has reported on his use of blogs for classroom discussion and communications in Perspectives, May 2007 issue, found at http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2007/0705/0705tec7.cfm.

Samuel Wineburg's accounts of teaching and learning history are found in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).