Teaching Innovations

Creating a Metaphor for the Past: Uniting History and Computing in the Classroom

Christopher Waldrep | Mar 1, 1995

Many historians have incorporated computers into their curricula in exciting and innovative ways. Simulations place students in the past, challenging them with the tough choices our ancestors faced.1 Electronic mail encourages thoughtful communication from even the most timid undergraduate, and creating a database about the members of a church congregation or a Ku Klux Klan klavern can help students see what kinds of people joined those organizations. A computer program entitled the "Great American History Machine" allows students to use census data to map population trends and plot migrations. Computers themselves have a history that can be studied profitably using computers, and some have equated quantification with literacy, arguing that study of numbers and tables makes students "numerate."2

Despite these accomplishments, historians have yet to make computer technology a metaphor for the past. To be sure, this may be characteristic of all new technologies: just by being new, technical advances provoke rethinking of the present and future before having any such effect on the past. The clock, for example, persuaded Descartes that there was something clocklike about his world; he did not think the world's past similarly clocklike. Had he thought so, he would have been guilty of a particularly heinous form of presentism. But quantification can help us fashion a new understanding of the past on its own terms.

Community Studies

Used cautiously, a collection of certain kinds of computerized information about a locale can become a metaphor for that place. For example, studying a database of all the lawsuits in a neighborhood, the banal as well as the striking, identifies community attributes. A community that allocates more resources for slander suits than to debt collection cannot be considered as commercial as one where the reverse is true. A place where merchants base suits for debt on formal, depersonalized contracts may be more deeply involved in a commercial economy than a locality where suits emerge from more informal agreements between friends. An examination of all the marriages in a neighborhood may find very young brides marrying older grooms, or the reverse. Since we now live in an urbanized, nationalized society, it is tempting to look at past communities from a centralized perspective. And, for historians, it is always tempting to study the past with the most striking evidence available, regardless of its geographical location. But people in the past most often constructed their identities with unremarkable acts in profoundly local worlds.

Caution is necessary for such local studies because no one can assume that any state, county, township, precinct, or other political or administrative subdivision automatically corresponds to "community" as understood by the residents. Communities exist in the imaginations of their denizens. Students should understand that there is nothing intrinsically organic in family, village, or state boundaries. Residents of an area may have formed their loyalties with little regard for the political boundaries within which they happened to live. The close affinity turn-of-the-century farmers and townsfolk living in and around the Kentucky towns of Lamasco, Cobb, and Wallonia felt for one another illustrates the point. Cobb lay in southern Caldwell County where its residents traded, worked, and worshipped with Wallonians and Lamascoans who lived in two neighboring counties; the people of Cobb felt a political and economic antipathy for those living in the northern half of their own county. At times, residents of communities esteemed regional or national loyalties over neighborhood identity. In the Civil War some inhabitants of Winston County, Alabama, valued loyalty to the Confederacy over connections to neighborhoods where most people found disloyalty to the Union repugnant.

But once boundaries have been properly identified, a database can be deployed by students as a powerful metaphor for past communities by becoming a model of the community. Residents of decentralized past societies typically saw themselves as implicated in some neighborhood or village. In contrast to our modern, depersonalized, and urbanized environment, residents in traditional communities compiled and used information about their neighbors. In some ways this information, though less bureaucratically collected, resembles data gathered on us today. Present-day information collectors, like their predecessors, use their data to make judgments and predict future behavior. Bank officers and credit agencies now use history to predict future financial trustworthiness, but so did neighbors and the operators of crossroads stores. People in the past, however, seemed to collect such information almost for its own sake. One southern woman remembered that when asking her "Poppaw" about the character of some neighboring family she "sometimes wearied when he gave me more family history instead of a straight answer. Eventually I learned that was the answer."3 In places where residents could not easily leave, they became the sum of their histories and even those of their families. That this knowledge mattered a great deal is evidenced by the large number of slander suits filed by those determined to "correct" their data. People living in traditional communities privileged local knowledge and sought community truths. A database of this information can present a picture of an "island" community's determinedly local peculiarities better than data structured from a researcher's assumption that, within a national or even a world context, one neighborhood is much the same as another.

Databases as Teaching Tools

The pedagogical value of databases as metaphors for past communities is evident from a specific example, that of American constitutional history. Students in constitutional classes need to learn, among other things, that antebellum America was a disaggregated federal system, a collection of corporate communities. Nonetheless, historians ordinarily teach such courses with books offering excerpts from nodal Supreme Court opinions and other important documents. Christopher Columbus Langdell began using this leading case method to train lawyers at Harvard Law School in the 1870s. Langdell sought to standardize and nationalize America's patchwork of local precedents and legal traditions by teaching law as a science. As one historian has observed, Langdell "handled local diversity by ignoring it entirely."4 Said another way, he picked the state and local precedents he liked and nationalized them by pretending they had been national all along. Langdell's positivism is no longer fashionable, but his case method has proved so popular that historians now use it to study not only constitutional doctrine but legal processes in rural regions where officers of the law privileged local discourse over national patterns. In fact, not just constitutional historians, but many scholars use a Langdellian-like approach, abstracting data from diverse locations to find some central "truth."

In a federal system, discrete communities can develop characteristic conventions, local solutions for local problems. Allowing students to study and explore a community database leads them to experience decentralized, traditional society in a way the study of central authority alone cannot. For example, in legal history the study of the number of crimes against property as opposed to those against people or morality will reveal which legislative acts local jurisdictions thought most worthy of enforcement. Similarly, study of the social background of complainants and defendants and defendant recidivism reveals which groups felt oppressed by law enforcement or which local elites saw their criminal justice system as a tool to control dangerous classes. One historian has observed that "[c]ommunities develop political styles; . . . some counties developed intransigent factional leaders and . . . contests remained at the level of every man for himself. Other counties developed traditions of compromise."5 Such diversity is the hallmark of a federal system; allowing students to study the characteristics of particular communities conveys a true sense of the decentralized nature of the United States before the Civil War and, indeed, of many other early modern federal systems of concentrating and overlapping authorities.

Thus, all historians can use databases as a metaphor for a decentralized past. Voting records allow study of rank-and-file political discourse; probate, tax, and land records offer insight into the distribution of wealth. Similarly, birth and death records allow construction of life tables, and marriage records can reveal much about family life. For Americanists, data appropriate for a community study have the advantage of being readily available. Legal historians need look no further than the nearest courthouse.

For the constitutional classes I teach as a part of Eastern Illinois University's new core curriculum, students look at leading cases, but I also have them conduct a statistical examination of the entire caseload of one jurisdiction. The data I use come from Warren County, located at the foot of the Delta, on the Mississippi River. Through much of the 19th century Warren County's population was 70 percent black. Vicksburg became the county seat in 1836. By 1939 Warren County had constructed a new courthouse and moved across the street from an historic old structure built by slaves 80 years earlier. After the county government abandoned the old courthouse, leaving behind many records, it stood idle until 1947 when it was turned into a museum. In 1990, when I arrived in Vicksburg, I found the old records forgotten, and filthy, in the attic. This county became the center of my work when the director of Vicksburg's Old Court House Museum, Gordon Cotton, agreed to loan the archive to Eastern, and the American Bar Association's Commission on College and Nonprofessional Legal Studies joined Eastern to fund my trips to Mississippi to pick up and return the records.

Of these records, the documents generated by court cases collected in case files have proven most useful. A criminal case file might begin with a grand jury indictment. The accusations written by a prosecutor and endorsed as "true bills" by grand juries contain a wealth of quantifiable information. Every true bill gives two dates, that of indictment and that of the alleged crime. Defendants and victims can usually be identified by gender and, if matched with census records, by race, age, and wealth. Finally, some true bills contain the jury's verdict. All this information can be made machine readable with a number of database management programs, such as D-Base 4 or Paradox. For analysis, it is simpler to reduce everything to one line using numbers whenever possible. Thus, an indictment in November 1868 of Wash Gaddy that resulted in his conviction for stealing a milk cow might look like this: Gaddy Wash 2652 186911 1 0 1. The number 2652 is a code for grand larceny, 186911 means November 1869. The next digit represents a guilty verdict (I use zero for not guilty, one for guilty) and the following numbers indicate that Gaddy was a male (zero) and an African American (one; whites are zero). If his name appeared in the census, Gaddy's birth year, occupation, and real and personal property holdings could be added.

I warn students against using this information to measure a "crime rate," an imaginary and illusory statistic in any context. A sharp increase in prosecutions of African Americans after the Republicans take charge of the county does not mean that blacks actually started committing more crimes. More likely their victims, often also black, found the new prosecutor more receptive to their complaints, which white conservatives thought trifling. Prosecution rates measure the interests of the community or, perhaps, the interests of power holders within the community. Students can plot the rising and falling determination of a community to regulate morals across time or official willingness to use law to mediate race relations.

Giving the students collections of information about ordinary people in hamlets and villages prevents them from assuming that assertions and claims made by metropolitan authorities necessarily reflected reality. In legal history, for example, the temptation is always strong to read legislation as an accurate picture of grassroots society. Such assumptions exaggerate the power of elites to impose their will on their communities. Warren County circuit court records suggest that whites had trouble enforcing some of the oppressive laws passed by their state legislature. Slaves and white merchants regularly flouted the law forbidding slaves from engaging in mercantile exchanges without their masters' permission. Looking only at the statute might convince a researcher that few such exchanges took place; they were, after all, illegal. A noncomputer search of case files could not easily, or accurately, reveal what proportion of the county's caseload consisted of such prosecutions, which almost always ended in dismissal or acquittal.

Using Databases to Test Hypotheses

I require first-year Constitution students to formulate and test hypotheses in social science fashion when writing a paper about who used law enforcement in Reconstruction Mississippi. The students begin by writing a hypothesis about what they expect to find in the database, and they often assume that conservative whites used law to oppress the freed people. For example, as one student hypothesized, "In 1876 when white conservative ex-Confederates seized control of Warren County, there were more black defendants than in previous years." Another guessed that "more blacks were indicted after the takeover than during the Republican period while the number of whites indicted during the Republican period remained roughly the same." A third wrote, "When whites ran Warren County they prosecuted more blacks than when blacks ran the county."

Sometimes just writing these thesis statements is a useful exercise. Fashioning their own hypotheses helps students learn what a thesis looks like. Trying to use a faulty "hypothesis" ("this paper will examine prejudice") in social science research quickly teaches students what does and does not work. When students try to test their hypotheses they discover the importance of defining their terms—what is prejudice, for example, and how might it show up in legal records? Most students begin this project thinking "prejudice" in law means overuse of the law against certain population segments; they often end the project realizing that prejudice more often means exclusion from the legal process. By comparing both the number of black and white defendants and complainants, students study who utilized the criminal justice system, and to what end, in Reconstruction Mississippi.

Students test their hypotheses with Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) programs I have written in advance.6 The SPSS, along with the Statistical Analysis System (SAS), is one of the most common programs used by social scientists to analyze data. Although one manual describes SPSS commands as "English-like," their use can be frustrating for neophytes as the spelling, nomenclature, and punctuation must follow a precise protocol. To avoid frustration, I provide students with a menu listing 15 prefabricated programs, most of which use the relatively simple crosstabs procedure. In crosstabs two variables are "crossed" with each other to create a table arranging combinations of the variables' categories in cells. Crosstabs tables, for example, show students the number of blacks and whites found guilty or not guilty or the number of blacks and whites accused of crimes during presidential and congressional Reconstruction. The students choose and run whichever programs they think necessary to test their hypothesis. For example, program "C" gives numbers of defendants by race for the Redeemer and Republican regimes. I tell the students they are free to alter the programs if they wish, and I encourage them to see me for guidance on how to do that. But my purpose is not to teach first-year SPSS programming, except at the most rudimentary level. Rather, I want them to understand the functioning of past figures in historical communities.

Community databases, therefore, can offer students a metaphor for a decentralized past not possible without computer technology. Such databases must be carefully assembled so their boundaries correspond to what neighbors regarded as their neighborhood, not to some artificial political construction. But, when data parameters approximate those of communities, then computers properly allow students to quantify and study the routine marrying, property accumulating, suing, voting, and dying that filled the lives of most people in past communities. Such analysis will help students to identify and understand the discrete characteristics, diversity of styles, and autonomous character of past communities.


1. James B.M. Schick, Teaching History with a Computer: A Complete Guide for College Professors (Chicago: Lyceum Books, Inc., 1990), 100–47; John Semoche, "Computer Simulations, the Teaching of History, and the Goals of a Liberal Education," Academic Computing 2 (September 1987): 20–23, 46–50; Carolyn Chappell Lougee, "'The Would-Be Gentleman': A Historical Simulation of the France of Louis XIV," History Microcomputer Review 4 (spring 1988): 7–14.

2. Nancy Fitch, "The Crisis in History: Its Pedagogical Implications," Historical Methods 21 (summer 1988): 106; R. E. Johnson, "History by Numbers," Perspectives 27 (February 1989): 14–18.

3. Florence Mars, Witness in Philadelphia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1977), 36.

4. Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law, 2nd ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 618.

5. J. Mills Thorton, III, Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800–1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1978), 153.

6. I use the mainframe version simply because it is readily available at Eastern Illinois University. For SPSS/PC, see John A. Culley, "SPSS/PC in Criminal Justice Research: A Personal Voyage," Social Science Microcomputer Review 3 (winter 1985): 336–40.

Christopher Waldrep is associate professor of history at Eastern Illinois University where he teaches American constitutional and social history. Duke University Press recently published his book, Night Riders: Defending Community in the Black Patch, 1890–1915.

Tags: Resources and Strategies


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