Digital Pedagogy Roundtable, Part 4: Funeral Trains and Social Media

This week, The Junto features a roundtable on digital pedagogy, in which we discuss our different approaches to using digital sources in the classroom. Today, Ken Owen shares his experience of an MA class’s project using social media for public history uses. You can also read Part 1 by Rachel Herrmann on source accesibility, Part 2 by Jessica Parr on teaching digital history to non-majors, and Part 3 by Joseph Adelman about working with students on technical knowledge.

Back in April, I had a rather surreal teaching experience. A class project, focusing on tweeting the assassination and funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, attracted a good deal of media attention in central Illinois. My class ended up appearancing in local newspapers, radio, and even with a featured spot on the local news channel. I even had a waiter in a local restaurant recognize me as the ‘Lincoln and twitter professor’.

My class deserved the attention and the praise they won for the project, which was part of their assignments for an MA class on History and Digital Media. To give the background to the class: my university runs a successful public history stream as part of its MA program, and as a department we felt it was time to introduce training in digital projects as a program requirement. Perhaps having agreed with the idea a little too enthusiastically in a department meeting, I was tasked with developing the course.

My main concern in teaching the course was impressing on my students the importance of considering purpose and audience when writing online. This, combined with my experience as a blogger and podcaster, meant that I sought to include a social media group assignment from the moment I started envisioning the course—this would require a very different style of writing and demanded a different means of engaging an audience in comparison to the final projects the students would work on individually or in small groups. Having looked at other Twitter timeline projects—such as @ww2today and @elizastavely (which I subsequently found, with great pride, to be written by another UIS student not in my class!)—it seemed that this would be a manageable project for the class to work on in the course of a semester.

It was at around this point I realized I was in a fortuitous historical situation—in early May, right at the end of our semester, Springfield would be commemorating the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s burial in the city. A timeline that charted the course of  Lincoln’s funeral train would tie in nicely with such an important local anniversary, but would at the same time present a substantial research task to be tackled by a group of around 10 students.

In class discussion, the project started to take shape. Students found various—often conflicting—accounts of the funeral train’s journey across America, and we spent time in class working out what we could and could not accurately claim. (The timing of the funeral train proved particularly challenging, as crowds were often so large the carriage neither arrived nor departed according to printed schedules). Enterprising students found impressive photographs of the train, its journey, and the assembled crowds of mourners. Others suggested that tweeting about the funeral carriage without news of the assassination and the chase for Booth and the other plotters might seem incomplete, so we started researching that, too. Over a period of a few weeks, we amassed a great deal of information about Lincoln’s assassination, and the funeral train as it made its way to Springfield.

The final project took shape with the Twitter handle @AbesLastRide. (LincolnsLastRide was, alas, one character too long). The class broke into smaller groups of 2 or 3, each tasked with researching specific parts of the assassination and funeral timeline; each group was then assigned to fact-check the work of another. Once a ‘master timeline’ had been assembled using Google Docs, we spent time in class discussing the format and content each tweet would take. Groups were then assigned to turn the basic factual information into a standardized format that fit within 140 characters.

The assignment seemed to energize the class, and I was impressed with the diligence they brought to the research. There were a number of challenges in bringing the project to fruition, though, and they are issues I will consider as I invent new social media projects for future classes.

First, the project ended up being more technical than I thought. Though the class brought a lot of energy to the project, there was (understandably) less excitement at the fact-checking, editing, and formatting stages, and the close work required (we had made all tweets follow the same basic formatting) took up more class time than I’d originally envisaged. I would definitely build in tighter editing requirements in future assignments. One other factor to consider is how to budget time in class compared to work done outside of class—bringing everyone’s work to the same style takes time and effort, and I had to concentrate more effort in the two weeks before the project went live than was ideal.

The other difficulty I found was in how to direct the project. In class, I served as a kind of manager or overseer of the project, but I maybe stepped in to direct things too much. Partially, this was out of a desire to make sure I impressed on the class the importance of the public nature of the audience (after all, there were far more eyes on this project than any of their individual work). But it may have been better to take a looser hand and let the mistakes play out.

Nevertheless, the strengths of the project greatly outweighed the difficulties. The publicity the project received allowed the students to see people’s interaction in real time, and the interest gave validation far beyond the acclaim of a professor or a grade. The project was fairly self-contained—big enough to allow for creativity and to be challenging to research, but definitely manageable within the timespan of two and a half months.

There were, of course, serendipitous aspects of the project, too. Finding a big anniversary of direct local interest (which public history students were already interested in) helped give the project a lot of momentum resulting in the project being covered by numerous local television and radio outlets. The fact the live-tweeting needed only to be scheduled for a period of about three weeks also helped. It gave a tight focus to the assignment and helped students work out which pieces of information were most relevant to the overall story they were telling.

Ultimately, the project worked to fulfil the goals I’d set out—to consider how to use social media to present history in an innovative and publicly appealing manner without sacrificing the standards of research and writing necessary to maintain professionalism. And my students were great—dedicated to the project and excited to shape a project of a kind they’d not worked on before. Hopefully, it proved also how social media can be used to capture the public imagination, and how rigorous historical work really can engage an audience in new ways.

4 responses

  1. Sounds like a great project, and there’s no other way to learn what works and what doesn’t than by diving in and seeing what happens. I’ll bet the kids got a lot more out of it than you even know.

    Let me know if you want to pick up on it again at some point, as we’d be happy to help with info and materials from where the car was built.

    Jim Mackay, Director
    The Lyceum — Alexandria’s History Museum
    Alexandria, VA

  2. I am the ‘creator’/’author’ of @elizastavely. I figured I could chime in on my experience to help further the conversation. I would definitely agree that it was a learn-on-the-go experience, UIS requires its students to complete an internship as part of their graduation requirements and I was very fortunate to be selected by the Looking for Lincoln Coalition, . Looking for Lincoln’s mission is to tell the story of Abraham Lincoln within the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area which covers 42 counties in the state of Illinois. The project that the organization assigned me was to create a social media event to tell the story of Lincoln’s funeral train through the Illinois communities. The organization was inspired by past social media events like one that took place in 2013 to commemorate Quantrill’s raid in Lawrence, KS. .

    The Lawrence event was a ‘live real time’ reenactment that took place in what I believe a roughly 24-hour period. It had from my understanding 100 reactors all playing their parts to tell the story of the raid. Looking for Lincoln Coalition’s original vision for the social media event was very similar to Lawrence’s vision; however, the difficulty that I encountered was that I was spanning a longer period of time and also was only one person. Twitter requires one email address for each account, and ultimately I thought it would be unmanageable to handle so many accounts.

    One of the other media events that the Looking for Lincoln Coalition came across was one that done on the Titanic, . As I studied what that group had done I noticed whenever they differentiated characters they would simply hashtag those characters. Example, #officer, #Carpathia, #crew, #firstclass, #BoatNo1, etc. By doing this, they only needed one account, which would solve many of the logistical problems I would encounter with attempting to do a social media event by myself. However, after pitching my idea to Looking for Lincoln, it seemed that it had a potential to be confusing hashtagging every character as well eating up some of the limited 140 characters.

    I wanted to tell Lincoln’s story as much in real time as possible like the Lawrence Event. I wanted to use only one account, and I didn’t want to be confusing. How was I going to accomplish this feat? During my research, I went to Twitter accounts of journalists to see how they reported live events. For Example when Abraham Lincoln gave a speech and Eliza would report it:

    LINCOLN: On the occasion…four years ago, all thoughts were…directed to an impending civil war. #Lincoln1865 #150years #history

    or when another character spoke:

    STEPHEN- The new Vice-President is drunk, and President Lincoln made it clear that he was not to speak on the portico. #Lincoln1865

    I also every morning during that semester while I drove to either class or my internship would listen to the autobiography of Mark Twain. Twain would often discuss journalism in his autobiography and one day, while sitting at my desk, I had the epiphany moment. I’ll create a fictional journalist, who operates one account and who could be at every event because they’re fictional.

    One of the great factors that played into the success of this social media event was the flexibility of the Looking for Lincoln Coalition, once I had a solid plan, they fully supported my idea and looked for every avenue for me to succeed. I had first created a man to be the journalist, for approximately five minutes, thinking a man would be most common in the 19th century; however, I felt dealing with a 21-century medium like social media it would interesting to portray the events from a woman’s perspective. I finally came across a Civil War journalist by the name of Emily Briggs and loosely used her for the model of Eliza Stavely.

    The organization put me in contact with an excellent historian at the Abraham Lincoln Library who was a tremendous resource for the project. We decided to start Eliza’s story much earlier, at the 2nd Inauguration, than the funeral train to build a following that would already be with us during the Illinois events. For three days a week starting at the end of February to the end of the first week of May, I researched and live tweeted from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, as well scheduled tweets during ‘live events’ when I couldn’t be at the computer. All of the research for Eliza came from research done at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library as well as tweeted pictures of many of those events from the Library of Congress.

    I also incorporated from two mediums because Twitter being such a disposable medium I sought to infuse both more traditional mediums of storytelling, music and literature. The organization had rights to Civil War music, so I uploaded the material to SoundClound and tweeted songs from that medium. I also wanted to use imagery within the text of the tweets in an attempt to make people feel like they were reading a story. An example is Eliza describing seeing the Capitol Dome for the first time:

    Lady Liberty, no longer soiled by slavery, sits on a dome transfigured white from the blood of our civil war. #Lincoln1865 #150years

    It was a tremendous journey and experience; I thank Looking for Lincoln for the opportunity as well as the historian at the Library for being a tremendous help to locate sources. You can view Eliza’s story on Storify:

  3. Pingback: Digital Pedagogy Roundtable: Your Links « The Junto

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