Publication Date

November 4, 2008

Picturing U.S. HistoryIt seems everywhere we turn today we’re reading and hearing about new digital media fronts, especially when it comes to scholarly research and alternative teaching methods. Picturing U.S. History: An Interactive Resource for Teaching with Visual Evidence, a collaborative project between the American Social History Project and the Center for Media and Learning at City University of New York Graduate Center, is certainly no exception. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, this interactive web site promotes ways for teachers in art history, American studies, and other humanities to incorporate historical visual media into their lesson plans.

Though today’s visual media has an extraordinary wow factor, which correlates to the effectiveness of alternative digital teaching methods, the past isn’t without its visual media forms. This interactive web site taps into the invaluable cliché of a picture is worth a thousand words. History’s visual media offers students and scholars a window into past events, societal ideas, cultural opinions, and overall trials and tribulations of those who came before us: “Like textual evidence, these historical images provide documentation about experiences, beliefs, lives, and circumstances that compose history.” By making digital archives more accessible, prompting discussions that strengthen students’ critical thinking abilities, and teaching research methods, this interactive web site offers a contemporary approach to stepping into the past.

Because the web site is still in its developmental stages, many of the available resources are limited in their content. For instance, users can explore Lessons in Looking, a section that includes scholarly essays that delve into the ways visual media shaped historical societies and historical societies shaped visual media. Currently, this section has only one essay posted—“White into Black: Seeing Race, Slavery, and Anti-Slavery in Antebellum America” by Sarah Burns of Indiana University and Joshua Brown of the CUNY Graduate Center, which looks at visual media such as statues, cartoons, paintings, and daguerreotypes (early photographs) as art forms that not only allow historians to get a snapshot of the past but also allow them to dissect these art forms to search for symbolism representative of Antebellum America.

There is also an annotated list of online resources helpful in visual media research. Each link contains the type of resource available (archive, teaching resource, visual history, exhibit), a brief synopsis of the information offered, and its applicability in the classroom as an alternative teaching tool.

Along with reading scholarly articles and perusing visual media links, users can also participate in online forums, which promote monthly discussions moderated by guest scholars in their fields of expertise. October’s forum was Jacksonian America, moderated by David Jaffee from the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture; this month’s forum deals with Colonial America, moderated by Peter Mancall from the University of Southern California’s history department. There is also a section in conjunction with these online forums that includes visual evidence essays written by the forum moderators as introductions to their monthly discussions: “each essay provides an overview of approaches to and scholarly sources for using visual or material culture in teaching, cites examples of compelling visual evidence, raises critical questions about historical method and pedagogy, and provides links to valuable online resources.”

Users can read bimonthly reviews on books, web sites, articles, and exhibits that focus on historical visual media and culture and that explore new methods of teaching digital history.

One final section, My Favorite Image, allows scholars to share their favorite archival images that they find the most useful in teaching American history, which includes everything from Native American assimilation to Irish street gangs.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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