If These Bones Could Tweet: Teaching Introductory-Level History Courses with Twitter

As I transitioned from student to professor over the last year, I sought to find ways to transform the passive, top-down, large-scale lecture course into a student-centered, highly active, and goal-oriented collaborative learning environment.  To accomplish this, I have come up with an introductory-level course build utilizing Twitter and Google Drive in order to re-imagine the concept of the in-class “group project.”  In my three introductory-level world history courses this semester involving the participation of over 325 students, large-scale, collaborative group projects designed to “put history into action” serve as the central research project for each class.  The students, primarily freshman, have formed groups of 10-15 individuals tasked with the goal of a producing and publishing a work of digital public history via Twitter over the course of the semester.  I certainly remain skeptical of the promotion of technology in the classroom as the cure-all for the ills of higher education, but having seen the impact of this digital project on my students even within the short span of the first seven weeks of the semester, I have become a true believer in the potential of social media as a powerful pedagogical tool for transforming students into active, passionate learners working within these new “communities of practice.”

During the course of the semester, these groups work collectively to identify potential primary and secondary sources on a given historical topic, analyze those sources, compile data gleaned from those sources into a digital database stored on Google Drive, and finally publish a collaboratively-produced historical narrative using Twitter’s micro-blogging service, complete with metadata in the form of hash tags.  Through the merger of traditional historical methodologies with what was formerly a social media platform employed by students for “idle use,” Twitter is transformed into a powerful tool for turning students into producers, rather than mere consumers, of historical knowledge.  This hands-on engagement with historical sources and the utilization of social media, web publication, and digital databases to create collaborative, digital public history projects democratizes the practice of history and expands the notion of public history from exhibits and programs created for public viewing to an interactive historical space shared by its student creators and interested members of the public.

In the recent past, a number of educators have used social media such as Twitter as a means of extending student discussion outside the physical confines of the classroom.  My experiment attempts to go one step further towards integrating social media into the classroom by making it the central focus of the course itself.  These student-led Twitter projects form the pedagogical core of my world history courses and  provide instruction and practice in historical methodology, including the construction and manipulation of historical databases, navigating historical archives and databases, the analysis of primary and secondary sources, and the art of writing historical narratives.  Looking to the high-quality examples of historical publication on Twitter such as @RealTimeWW2, @TitanicRealTime/@WChapelRealTime, @CryForByzantium, and numerous others, these student-led projects seek to contribute to the body of historical knowledge available online.

Learning outcomes from this process are numerous and varied: students quickly learn to discern an academic from a non-academic source; work collectively to determine the best narrative structure for the publication of their particular topic; develop an awareness of the opportunities and challenges inherent to communicating information through digital media; utilize digital and physical library resources; construct Chicago Manual of Style-formatted bibliographies for their sources; and become “knowledgeable users” of several digital technologies.  Additionally, this project presents a powerful opportunity for “deep learning” on their historical topic, helping to offset the rapid pace of introductory-level courses which often are forced to skim the surface  of historical knowledge to stay on schedule.  The flexible, student-centered nature of this project also allows students to express their creativity and diverse personal perspectives, as a significant proportion of the projects being developed this semester deal with some aspect of gender, race, and/or class.

As of November 1st, the majority of groups have “gone live” and are now publishing their content on Twitter, allowing me to finally reveal the results of my students’ hard work over the last eight weeks.  They will continue publishing for the remaining six weeks of the semester, allowing their accounts to roll out at a semi-reasonable pace and hopefully attracting some interest from you, the public.  Are these projects perfect?  Absolutely not.  There will be some errors, as with any endeavor of this size created at such a high rate of speed, things will still slip through the cracks during the final edits.  However, while I am concerned with the historical accuracy and presentation of these topics, I am much more concerned with what my students have learned during the process of researching, writing, and synthesizing historical information for their projects.

I could not be happier with the ways in which this concept-driven, interactive course format has motivated and excited my students beyond what I’ve ever experienced before.  Innumerable students have approached me outside the classroom to express how enthusiastic they are about this project and how they have shared their work on the project with a family member, their friends, and even potential employers.  Additionally, this project allows exceptional students to stand out from their peers in a number of ways which traditional assessments simply do not allow for.  The leadership skills, drive, and creativity demonstrated by many of my first-semester freshmen has changed my (and I think their) assumptions about the complexity of tasks they are capable of successfully completing.

This kind of public, immersive digital project produces an end product which students are extremely proud of, as they are helping to contribute to the growing body of historical knowledge available on the web.  I believe these kinds of innovative digital projects could play a significant role in the future of the historical practice and directly address the concerns expressed in a recent article in Perspectives in History written by 2012 National Humanities Medal recipient Edward L. Ayers, in which he describes his undergraduate students’ appeal for historians “to engage people where they are…we must employ the tools people use every day to build communities of understanding in real time…[and] expand our definition of scholarship so that it would flourish in the new world of social media. [The students] felt certain that the public that would be interested in what scholars were writing if they could just see it. They wanted to put scholarship to work in the world, to make it a living presence.”[1]

For my future teaching, there is no going back to purely traditional methods.  As early as this spring, I plan to experiment with a number of other digital tools in my introductory-level courses, including the creation of interactive map layers utilizing Google Earth, virtual museum exhibits using Omeka/Neatline, and visual narratives constructed using Tumblr.  Also, this spring I have the honor of teaching the first upper-division methods course on the practice of digital history ever offered at Colorado State University, so next semester be prepared for a flurry of online tutorials and blog posts referencing our work across a number of my courses (you can follow me on Twitter at @rjordan_csu to stay on top of all my updates.)  For our Twitter projects for this semester, the following is a comprehensive list of accounts if you’re interested in viewing my students’ work and to start following them:

HIST 170.001 – World History: Ancient to 1500 (Topics on the Mediterranean World):

  • @Gladiator_Facts – A historical exploration of the lives of gladiators in ancient Rome.
  • @lifeofcleopatra – The life and reign of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, one of the most famous and fascinating women of the ancient world.
  • @AncientSports – A historical exploration of the variety of sports played in the ancient Greek world (GSPN).
  • @CenturionDaily – The life and times of a Roman centurion in the time of the Roman Civil War.
  • @Apostle__Paul – A historical account of the life and world of the Apostle Paul.
  • @Techno_Rome – A historical exploration of the technologies introduced and employed during the time of the Roman Empire.
  • @CaligulaTheMad – The life and reign of Caligula, one of the most infamous Roman emperors of all time.

HIST 171.004 – World History: 1500 to Present (Topics on the Industrial Revolution):

  • @WomenatWork171 - The narrative of the lives of four women living in London, England during the Industrial Revolution.
  • @VoicesofBedlam – A historical narrative describing the lives and conditions of Bethlem Mental Institution in the 19th century.
  • @LawandOrderVL – Two fictional detectives solve real cases straight from the criminal underworld of 19th-century London.
  • @RailroadsMuseum – A historical examination of the development of railroads on a global scale.
  • @TheOilBoomer – A historical narrative of the life of John D. Rockefeller and the oil empire he created.
  • @LondonLaborers – A historical retelling of the lives of child laborers in London during the Industrial Revolution.
  • @FivePoints_NYC – A historical narrative of the multitude of people living in the infamous Manhattan neighborhood known as Five Points during the 19th century.
  • @Allanpinkerton3 – Historical facts and stories involving the Pinkerton Agency.
  • @MedicinalRevo – A historical examination of aspects of medicine during the Industrial Revolution.
  • @londonunderworl – A narrative of the lives of everyday people living in London, England during the Industrial Revolution.

HIST 171.006 – World History: 1500 to Present (Topics on World War II):

  • @atomiclibrary – Facts and historical fiction pertaining to the Manhattan Project and the development of the first nuclear weapons.
  • @battleofmoscow – The devastating Battle of Moscow and events leading up to this military struggle from various perspectives.
  • @GoForBroke_442 -  The stories of the fighting men of the U.S. Army’s 442nd Battalion during their distinguished service in World War II.
  • @Story_AnneFrank – A historical exploration of the world of Anne Frank and her diary.
  • @thebritblitz – A historical examination of the Nazi bombing campaign on London during World War II.
  • @ww2propaganda – The history of World War II as told through a collection of global war propaganda.
  • @OpWatchtower – A livetweeting of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and Operation Watchtower from the perspective of a fictional embedded journalist.
  • @StalingradWW2 – A historical retelling and examination of the Soviet counterattack codenamed “Operation Uranus” centered on the city of Stalingrad from November 19-23, 1942.  (Live tweets to come).
  • @WWIIPearlHarbor – A historical retelling and examination of the events of December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.” (This group will be doing some major live tweeting later in the semester).

[1] Edward L. Ayers, “An Assignment from Our Students: An Undergraduate View of the Historical Profession,” Perspectives in History, September 2013, accessed October 8, 2013, http://bit.ly/18O7fPK.

1 Comment

Filed under digital history, digital humanities, history, public history, Social media, Twitter

One response to “If These Bones Could Tweet: Teaching Introductory-Level History Courses with Twitter

  1. Pingback: Friday round-up: It’s What You Want! : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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