Narratives and Counternarratives
Building Digital History Projects in the Classroom
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a two-part column. The first installment can be found here.
I sat in the Special Collections Library at the University of Chicago with one of my students. Her brows furrowed as she described her finding to me, pointing out the details that moved her to research this object. In this photograph, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and her children posed before a painted backdrop of a domestic scene, framed by architectural features on either side and a fireplace on the viewer’s right. Her arms were wrapped around her sons, Charles and Herman. The boys sat on the arms of an unseen chair, while her daughters, Ida and Alfreda, sat in front of them. The family all wore clothing adhering to the latest fashions. The photograph used visual cues to signal an upwardly mobile class status from the turn of the 20th century. The image captures how Wells-Barnett used photography to make herself and her loved ones visible, countering pejorative stereotypes about the black family and actively engaging with the gendered, racialized, and classed politics of photography.
(Re-)Producing Race and Gender through American Material Culture was my first self-designed undergraduate class at the University of Chicago. For the final project, rather than assigning a traditional paper of 10 pages or more, I asked students to design a digital history project anchored in original research. I’d envisioned that the students would create a digital history exhibit paired with a physical exhibit installed on the University of Chicago campus. The digital project would have served as a space where in-person and remote exhibit visitors alike could learn more about the objects on display. This dual-pronged project taught my students how to manage the depth of original research papers with the brevity of a 150-character label. They worked tirelessly to design object labels and develop their longer-form research papers during the quarter. Due to the pandemic, we canceled the installation of the physical exhibit and finalized the digital one.
The students chose from 14 objects that I’d arranged in advance with the archivists in Special Collections. Each object spoke to themes of identity construction and lived experience through the material world, and they varied across time, form, and intended audience. These objects included a woman’s athletic sweater from the University of Chicago, two children’s books, a photograph of Ida B. Wells, and paper dolls. Three students explored Special Collections and selected their own objects to research with my approval. I taught them to conduct original historical research using material culture with readings, class discussions, museum visits, object-handling experience, and office hour appointments. It was up to them to use primary and secondary source research to determine the historical significance of their objects.
Objects included a woman’s athletic sweater from the University of Chicago, two children’s books, a photograph of Ida B. Wells, and paper dolls.
Over 11 weeks, the students developed their papers through scaffolded assignments. The first 300-word assignment pushed students to carefully examine their objects. They described the materiality, size, dimensions, color, and decorations, supported by photographs and captions explaining what they saw. This exercise encouraged them to consider the challenges of rendering a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional photograph and description. This paper served as the foundation for a second, 1,200-word contextual paper that analyzed the objects with increasing depth and complexity. Students used primary sources that pushed their thinking in new ways creatively and critically, including comparable objects, advertisements, newspaper and magazine articles, political cartoons, and personal papers. Each choice grounded their object in its time period. As with all research papers, they anchored this research within secondary literature to establish why their findings were historically significant.
Their final papers were challenging in their brevity, limited to only 750 words. I asked students to combine their two papers into a single piece and edit them into pithy contributions for the digital history project. What did they want their readers to learn? The length challenged students to quickly and succinctly deliver their arguments. Through multiple rounds of writing and editing, they learned how to identify which points were most important for their argument and which could be left on the cutting-room floor.
While transforming their research from academic paper to digital history project, we discussed who their target audience might be. Should this be for other University of Chicago students, the intended audience for the physical exhibit? Individuals in higher education, including those outside of the university? The general public? Who is included and excluded in the “general public”? They had to take into account how writing for an audience with wide-ranging background knowledge and reading levels required careful consideration. My class finally decided upon their undergraduate peers as the intended audience, but their papers were written at a 10th-grade reading level to encourage accessibility to members outside of the university.
Through collaboration, the students created their own community of scholars.
Through collaboration, the students created their own community of scholars. They taught one another about their objects in classroom conversations and presentations. They then spent the final few class sessions deciding on an overall framework for the digital project, drawing upon previous conversations to identify the commonalties and differences between their research subjects. Ultimately, they arranged their objects into two categories: “Narratives” and “Counternarratives.” The class of 21 students then collaboratively wrote the introductory post for their project. Finally, they published their written contributions along with illustrative photographs and brief captions. I encourage everyone to read their final products.
Looking back on the experience, this assignment enabled students to learn important research skills while picking up valuable digital publishing skills. The class used WordPress to create the digital history project, a platform well-suited to textual assignments like research papers. Every student was responsible for posting their contribution using HTML. Perhaps of greatest importance, the class encouraged students to experiment with unfamiliar methodologies and new sources, challenging their historical thinking. They learned that critically engaging with their peers, historians, and the general public alike required creativity, careful research, and confidence in the final product.
Allison Robinson is a PhD candidate in American history at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation examines race making and the legacy of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Works Progress Administration. Allison holds a BA in history from Yale University, an MA in history from the University of Chicago, and an MA from the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware. She tweets and posts on Instagram @arobinhistory.
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