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.