Practicing Digital History at the Intersection of Teaching, Research, and Outreach
E. Thomas Ewing, May 2009
Digital history offers college and university historians an opportunity to integrate different aspects of their professional activities. An instructional objective is realized through the creation of teaching materials suitable for classroom use, a research component is advanced by asking analytical questions about primary sources, and an outreach element promotes new forms of public understanding about the past and connections to the present. Many existing digital history projects effectively pursue these instructional, research, and outreach goals; the goal of this essay is to describe an approach that self-consciously integrates these different elements and thus to encourage history departments to devise new criteria for evaluating this aspect of the historians’ work.
The Virginia Schools in the Great Depression web site (www.vaschools.history.vt.edu) illustrates how digital history can provide this integrative function. A collaborative project involving the Department of History and the School of Education at Virginia Tech, this project provides a variety of primary source materials, presented in lesson module and searchable database formats, that explore the impact of the Great Depression on Virginia public schools.1 One of the first objectives in designing this project was to make otherwise inaccessible source materials available for easy classroom applications. An obvious advantage of the online environment is that a large amount of material can be accessed for only the charge of internet service, without the costs of acquiring books, making photocopies, purchasing subscriptions, or otherwise committing scarce school funds. The primary sources in this project include newspaper reports and editorials, articles from the two teachers’ association periodicals, editorial cartoons, photographs, and statistical information in the form of tables, charts, and graphs. The five educational modules in the first part of the Virginia Schools project demonstrate how historians, working in collaboration with social studies educators and experienced teachers, can explore new instructional applications through digital history projects.2
This project also promotes historians’ instructional objectives by providing teachers with materials appropriate for the Virginia Standards of Learning curriculum.3 Asking the question raised in the Standards of Learning, “How were the lives of Americans affected by the Great Depression?” this project provides considerable evidence of how the decrease in economic activity substantially reduced the funding for schools, which provoked budget cuts for school systems, shortened school terms for students, imposed unemployment and salary decreases for teachers, and anxiety for parents. Yet these materials also address other aspects of the Standards of Learning History, Civics, Government, and Economics curriculum by exploring how these burdens were unevenly distributed across society based on race, region, and socio-economic status, how the media shaped public opinion about the value of schools and the role of government, and how individuals took actions designed to improve their situation and advance perceived common interests. By organizing these materials around the “essential” understandings, questions, knowledge, and skills mandated by the Virginia Standards of Learning, this project can be easily integrated into a standards-based curriculum, as teachers recognize how teaching with primary sources and pursuing an inquiry approach can be consistent with the imperative to raise pupils’ performance on end of year testing.
Digital history projects also create new opportunities for historians to pursue research and scholarship. As a historian of education, my research focuses on the ways that schools are shaped by political forces and the ways that individuals in educational contexts perceive, respond to, and transform broader cultural and social trajectories. In 2006, I co-edited a collection of scholarly chapters that examined the relationship between education and the Great Depression in a global context.4 As a book aimed at a scholarly audience, however, this collection did not provide teachers with the kinds of materials that might be easily integrated into classrooms, thus illustrating one of the constraints of this more traditional “product” of historical scholarship.
By contrast, a digital history project can follow similar research questions to produce new materials easily integrated into classroom teaching, thus providing a broader and more engaged audience for the historical research. The second part of the Virginia Schools project, an archive on Race & Education during the Great Depression, documents how schools were divided along racial lines even as administrators, principals, teachers, pupils, and the general public struggled with common challenges posed by the Great Depression. While these racially institutionalized differences are familiar to historians of Virginia during the interwar period, this project provides teachers with resources illustrating just how thoroughly these distinctions pervaded Virginia society while also demonstrating how challenges to segregation originated in the community activism and professional engagement of educators, parents, and even schoolchildren.5 To take an obvious example, the Virginia roots of the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation can be traced not only to the 1940 court case for Norfolk teachers’ salary equalization, but also to 1931, almost a decade earlier, when African American teachers in rural Buckingham County organized a campaign for equal salaries, as well as other measures to end inequalities in public schools. Within two years, a similar petition had been signed by 2,571 African American teachers across the state, approximately two-thirds of the profession, thus demonstrating a remarkable willingness to make demands from a vulnerable position in a time of crisis.6
Because the Race & Education archive is searchable by school districts as well as year, topic, and source type, it becomes possible to situate these specific moments in their chronological and regional context. A table and graph showing public funding for white and black education in Buckingham County allows students to see how wide a gap existed between these two systems of unequal education. While per capita funding for African American schools in this county rose from less than $8 in 1930 to more than $30 in 1940, a similar increase in funding for white schools from more than $16 in 1930 to more than $49 a decade later, ensured that these racial disparities persisted even as the economy improved. In a similar manner, teachers’ salaries were consistently stratified by race and gender, with white men always earning the most, followed in order by white women, black men, and black women teachers.7 The archive thus allows teachers and students to compare this data with other school districts across Virginia, thus illustrating both the extent of regional variation and the persistence of inequality along racial lines. Quantitative sources are accompanied by news reports and editorials which demonstrate growing support for equalization measures—as well as the persistent opposition to any challenges to established white privilege.8
The Race & Education archive is probably more extensive than most teachers would chose to use in their classrooms, but it does meet the needs of teachers who want more primary documents for their classrooms, who look for ways to illustrate national trends with local historical materials, and who want students to develop skills of source analysis.9 If historians use their research skills, resources, and opportunities to develop these kinds of digital history projects, then teachers can decide how best to present materials to students. Treating teachers as professional colleagues demonstrates how these trajectories of research and instruction can be combined through digital history.
While historians engage in many kinds of outreach activities, one of the most significant involves collaborations with school teachers, particularly now under the auspices of U.S. Department of Education-funded Teaching American History grants. To the extent that these activities emphasize content knowledge, encourage teachers to integrate primary source analysis into the classrooms, model an inquiry method in instructional strategies, and connect local, regional, and national narratives, this outreach supports a kind of historical understanding consistent with work traditionally done by university historians.10 The Virginia Schools Project is intended to foster engagement that is simultaneously more inclusive, by reaching a potentially larger audience, more thorough, by providing many more resources that could be covered in a single workshop, more durable, by making these materials available over a longer period of time, and more flexible, by giving teachers the opportunity to decide how to use them in their classrooms. As a historian at a land grant institution, where outreach has traditionally been an important component of faculty duties, I have seen how digital history allows historians to engage with a broader community along the lines of more applied fields, while also maintaining standards for research and instructional activities rooted in the traditions of the liberal arts.
Recognizing how digital history can integrate these different aspects of the historians’ professional life might encourage more faculty to engage in these projects. Often untenured faculty are simultaneously the most interested in (and comfortable with) new forms of technology, while also the most concerned about the ways that such efforts may be seen as detracting from their “primary” responsibilities for classroom instruction, departmental or university service, and scholarly publications. If senior colleagues, personnel committees, department chairs, university deans, and other participants in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions could recognize digital history as a promising intersection of seemingly distinct trajectories, historians might be more willing to explore this realm of professional activity in ways that bring benefits to a wider community of teachers and learners.
—E. Thomas Ewing is associate professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. The project has been funded by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Virginia Tech; neither organization is responsible for the content of this site or this article. Other contributors include David Hicks and Melissa Lisanti, of the Virginia Tech School of Education, and Jane Lehr, an assistant professor at California Polytechnic State University.
2. The five educational modules are described in E. Thomas Ewing, Jane Lehr, Melissa Lisanti, and David Hicks, “Teaching about the Impact of the Great Depression,” OAH Newsletter vol. 36, no. 2 (May 2008), pp. 3, 8.
3. For information about the history curriculum in the Virginia Standards of Learning, see the Department of Education web site, www.doe.virginia.gov/VDOE/Superintendent/Sols/home.shtml.
5. Peter Wallenstein, Blue Laws and Black Codes: Conflict, Courts, and Change in 20th-Century Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004); J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
6. See the report by the African American newspaper published in Norfolk, “Seek Gradual Equalization in Teachers’ Pay,” Journal & Guide, October 14, 1933, 11. This article is available in full text through the Race & Education Archive, www.vaschools.history.vt.edu/archive/?q-node/52.
7. These tables and charts are based on the Annual Reports of the Virginia Superintendent of Education, and are available through the Race & Education Archive: www.vaschools.history.vt.edu/archive.
8. See, for example, the following articles, all available from the Race & Education in Virginia archive: “Salary Cuts and Negro Teachers,” Virginia Teachers’ Bulletin vol. 9, no. 1 (January 1932), 4–5; “Negroes Seek Salary Raise For Teachers,” Richmond Times Dispatch, December 6, 1931, page 20; “Pay of Virginia Negro Teachers Termed Too Low,” Roanoke World News January 6, 1932, page 3; “School Official Comes Out for Segregation,” Norfolk Journal & Guide January 27, 1934, page 9.
9. In this sense, the materials in the Archive can promote the kind of transformations envisioned in Wilson J. Warren, “Closing the Distance Between Authentic History Pedagogy and Everyday Classroom Practice,” The History Teacher vol. 40, no. 2 (February 2007), pp. 249–255.
10. See discussion in Kelly Ann Long, “Reflections on TAH and the Historian’s Role: Reciprocal Exchange and Transformative Contributions to History Education,” The History Teacher 39:4 (August 2006), 493–507; Kelly Woestman, “Integrating Teacher Feedback and Teaching American History Grants,” Perspectives, 45:2 (February 2007), 19–22, online: www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2007/0702/0702tea1.cfm.