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Realizing the Democratic Potential of Online Sources in the Classroom

Valerie Burton, Robert C. H. Sweeny
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqv039 i177-i184 First published online: 1 October 2015


Our hypothesis was simple enough: undergraduates would better understand a historic document online if, instead of having a traditional textual introduction, the same information was made available in bite-size balloons invoked by the users clicking on pins distributed throughout the document. Half the students had a pinned edition and half a more traditional one, while they all had several hours to explore the same eight-page crew agreement from the late 19th century. They then filled out quizzes, short answer tests, and went through an extensive debriefing. The results surprised us. Form made no difference whatsoever, none of the students understood the document’s content. We concluded their difficulty stemmed from living in the immediate, rather than in a temporally informed present, and so they could not fathom the profundity of the past. Seeking to understand this dramatic foreshortening of the analytics of existence, an issue of general interest to humanists, we searched for guidance in the digital humanities and educational literatures with little success. Borrowing from more progressive writings on academic literacy, our solution is a Friere-inspired approach that privileges points of entry for our undergraduates that build on their already-existing knowledge, rather than requiring them to acquire a canonical and frankly out-dated learned past. We argue this critical approach allows our students a democratizing experience that permits them to more fully engage the world as informed citizens.

1 Introduction

The dramatic increase in primary source material available online fundamentally transforms teaching and research in the humanities. Material that was until recently only available to hundreds or at best thousands of people at select, often unique, repositories is now virtually available to potentially millions of people. Historical sources are an important part of this completely unprecedented and radical reorientation of archival practice. The sheer scale of this newly democratized access to the sources of humanity’s story is already extraordinary, and as more and more of the archival treasures long-housed in former imperial centres become available for research and, more importantly for our purposes, teaching in classrooms around the world, the potential for challenging Eurocentric conceptions of our past is great indeed.

This potential will, however, only be realized if our students are equipped with the tools they need to critically analyse these online resources. But is the historical literacy needed to understand a manuscript the same when encountered as a virtual source? Can a student simply transfer the knowledge and skills learnt in supervised archival research to working on the web? Are there different ways of knowing, distinct epistemologies, which are more appropriate to the qualitatively unique ontology of online sources? If so, should we be using the conventions of the digital world to navigate through these virtual sources? How might such techniques affect the necessary respect of the historical distance between a critically self-aware researcher in the present and the source from the past that she or he is examining?

When you hold a centuries-old document in your hands, feel its weight, hear the paper crinkle, notice a stain, or perhaps just react to the dust, you sense a connection to the past that is simultaneously humbling, enriching, and potentially misleading. This problematic experience has been at the heart of research in the humanities for centuries. (Steadman, 2002; Burton, 2005) Can a virtual encounter be as meaningful? Indeed, how useful is to think of these virtual representations as being from the past? Why would our students conceive of them as being from the past? For those who do, are they anything more than a brief illusory encounter with a past that remains largely beyond their understanding?

It was with these questions in mind that we started a project called ‘Explaining ourselves’. We are both experienced researchers, but more importantly, it is as pedagogues of history that we felt the need to address these wide-ranging and difficult questions. An urgency fuelled our work, as, increasingly, we realized that many, if not most, of our undergraduate students see the world in fundamentally different ways than those we taught only a short time ago. So, how might they encounter a major source that was created at the height of empire, and is perhaps the world’s largest consistent series to document working people from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries? Close to hand, we had the basis for an answer.

Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) is a public university with little in the way of endowments. It is the only university in a province that long had the highest poverty rates in Canada. Until recently, MUN has been a place where undergraduate teaching was respected. In the early 1970s, young historians raised the necessary funds from the federal government and convinced the local university administration to acquire the bulk of a collection documenting merchant seafarers of the British Empire held by the Public Record Office in London. (Matthews, 1974) Covering more than a century, the Crew Agreements maintained by MUN’s Maritime History Archive document the workforce of three-quarters of all ocean-going vessels within the British Empire between 1863 and 1939, with declining numbers continuing until the early 1970s. They provide detailed information about tens of millions of men and women who served aboard the largest merchant marine in history.

Burton’s (2011) completion of the major public history initiative ‘More Than a List of Crew’ provided the impetus for our experiment. By asking how students would read digital editions of these complex, multi-layered documents, she reinvigorated Sweeny’s (1998) decades-long engagement with the use of computers in the classroom.

2 The Experiment

Working with web-designer Simon Babineau, we developed two digital editions of the same crew agreement, one linear and the other not. The linear edition had an extensive, multiple-screen-length, textual introduction, analogous to an introduction to a historical document in a scholarly edition in print. The non-linear edition used Google-like pins to reproduce in bite-size portions the textual introduction as location-specific pop-ups to help the user navigate the document. We created two sets of colour-coded pins. The first explained the document, while the second drew attention to any references to a particular member of the crew. A crew agreement from the same vessel a decade later, but without either an introduction or annotations, was also made available for the students to examine.

We worked with fourteen undergraduate Arts and Science students in individual sessions. We recorded the screen actions for each session, because we expected to see students working with the documents in differing ways, depending on the type of advice they received. Such did not prove to be the case. Working alone, students were given up to two hours to familiarize themselves with the document. Half worked with the text edition, and half worked with the annotated one. Then, the students had two hours to complete two exercises. The first was content-oriented and used a multiple-choice/short answer quiz. The second involved writing a brief analytical essay comparing their crew agreement with the second agreement of a decade later. These written assignments were followed-up by focused conversations, where we asked the students to explain their answers and to identify the problems they had encountered in working with the documents. These de-briefings became more effective as we realized the merit of asking students how they would explain these documents to a friend.

The results were dramatically different from what we had expected. There were no significant differences in understanding the documents between those who had a traditional introduction and those with the pins. Both groups fared poorly. Neither group grasped these documents’ historical significance. When it came time to do the exercises, which they treated as tests, they searched for specific information rather than reflecting on the logic of the document as a whole. Sadly, students with substantial historical training, or at least those who had completed numerous undergraduate history courses, fared no better and indeed often worse, because they assumed that they already knew the answer.1

The screen captures did reveal differences between the two groups. Students with a traditional introduction used it to answer the questions. There was almost no consultation of the actual document. For those with the pins, the situation was a little more complex. They moved from pin to pin, in no apparent order, abstracting isolated ‘factoids’ from the pop-ups in response to the short questions. Both of these differing approaches meant that no understanding of the whole document was possible or maybe even thought necessary. Neither group exhibited any awareness that historical documents have distinct logics that need to be deciphered in order for them to be properly understood.

As this suggests, the screen captures allowed us to assess how students explored the document. Note, we do not say read, because the erratic and idiosyncratic navigation through the document for both groups meant that almost no one read the virtual document as we have been accustomed to thinking our students would read an actual document. Now, students generally scan texts, by which we mean they glance quickly over the content rather than reading word by word, but what we saw was something altogether different. Students with a formal introduction did start at the beginning, but no one read the introduction through from beginning to end before starting to examine the document itself. Once they turned to the document, both groups started on the first page, but then neither approached its contents nor the other pages in any particular order. People jumped back and forth, zooming in and out, in an apparently random manner.2 Only when answering specific questions, did students with an introduction return to it at all.

Two technical factors may help explain these patterns. First, the documents combined printed and handwritten text. Afterwards, many students complained that it was difficult to decipher the handwriting, and so almost all students made extensive use of the zoom feature. The rapid focusing in and out on differing and not necessary logically connected parts of the same page certainly made any appreciation of the logic of the document as a whole more difficult for them to gain. Second, in a misplaced sense of aesthetics, we had used a parchment-like background for the formal introduction, whereas the balloons linked to the pins were on a white background, and the balloon itself was set-off from the surrounding document by shadowing. During the de-briefing, it became evident that some students understood our introduction to have been part of the historical document itself.

This victory of form over content hints at a larger conceptual problem. Students simply did not think of the document as telling a story, or more accurately a series of partial stories, even though our highlighting all references to a particular sailor, combined with quite pointed questions about him, was meant to underscore the potential of these narrative threads within the document. Instead, the students approached the document as is: an object on the screen, existing in the immediacy of virtual reality. It has no beginning, middle, or end. It exists without a past, present, or future. This conceptual foreshortening of the analytics of existence makes it extremely difficult for students to think of the document as something that has been created, let alone by whom and for what purposes. It simply is.

3 Pedagogical Implications

History as a discipline, and one might argue the humanities as a whole, exists to transform the immediate into a historically informed understanding of the present. To think historically is not a question of dates. Since the pioneering work of Marc Bloch, (Sweeny, 1993) it involves a temporal awareness of how the ‘now’ connects in complex and meaningful ways to the past and to possible futures. Furthermore, as Sider (2014) has so forcefully argued, it means exploring other equally complex, but incoherent and necessarily indeterminate, presents that each have their own differing pasts and futures.

Thus, the scale of the pedagogical challenge our research revealed is large indeed. So we naturally, if somewhat naively, assumed that it was not a discovery, but rather that we had simply stumbled on to an already-known issue that would be the subject of extensive commentaries on the web. So, Burton set about searching the British sites, Sweeny the North American and French-language sites, while Ilaria Pivi and Lena Stoltz, graduate students fluent in Spanish, Italian, and German, extended our search to other language sites. The result was a surprisingly short list of potential collaborators, who we contacted, only to find that our focus on pedagogy was not widely shared.

We then turned to scholarship on the teaching of history. Here, we found considerable consideration given to the experiences in primary and secondary schools, but little on post-secondary institutions. Understandably, given the focus on children and teenagers, this literature draws extensively on work in cognitive psychology, Malcolm and Zukas, (2001). Indeed, Haggis (2009) found a presumption of the primacy of psychological over social determinants to be characteristic of much of the older literature on learning and disproportionately important in the most prestigious journals. Such psychological approaches largely ignore the cultural transformations whose urgency had fuelled our initial concerns.

Despite the critiques of Shepard (2000) and Haggis (2003), educational psychology continues to be highly influential in much of the recent literature. Nokes (2011) and Kelly (2013) for example build on Wineburg’s (1999) argument that thinking historically is difficult because it is such an unnatural act. This approach conjoins with the literature on deep and surface learning to provide the appearance of a critical stance that from our point of view naturalizes precisely that which needs to be critically examined: Why do our students find it so difficult to think historically? (Tally and Goldenberg, 2005) Furthermore, by explaining the problematic nature of the interaction between student and historical documentation largely in terms of the individual student’s thought processes, it shifts the locus of responsibility from society to the individual student and so effectively neutralizes, if not naturalizes, technology. As a result, the politically aware critique of informational technologies, which Sweeny (2001) and more recently Hitchcock (2013) have argued we need, is effectively denied entry.

More fruitful, for making sense of our findings, is the developing field of academic literacy. (Lea and Street, 1998; Canaan, 2005 & 2013). Recent scholarship on academic literacy has evolved away from earlier approaches that pathologized students for lacking the requisite skills or assumed the existence of a uniform process of academic socialization. By recognizing both the diversity of academic discourses and the importance of power relations, academic literacy scholars (see in particular Sutton, 2011) have sketched out a critical framework that might fruitfully be linked to new strategies developed by reference librarians, who are very much on the frontline of this difficult struggle. (Devine and Egger-Sider, 2009; Lindquist and Long, 2011)

Given the seriousness of the problems we are addressing, the paucity of scholarly conversations directly relevant to our concerns is itself important evidence. It underscores that historians tend to preserve the fiction that virtual documents are the same as actual documents. Now a fetishism of the primary document is a deeply rooted disciplinary convention in history, but in the 21st century classroom, it simply impedes the necessary transformative ‘pedagogy of hope’ (Canaan, 2005). Students, as we have seen, interact with these digitalized facsimiles in completely different and novel ways, and this is what we need to begin to understand.

How can we cultivate an historical awareness in our classrooms is a pedagogical question. It concerns both the methods we use and our conceptual approaches. It is also, however, a political question. Our students, like those in all advanced capitalist countries, have grown up in a thoroughly neo-liberal environment.3 One where the dominant cultures, technologies, gender and social relations, and relationships with nature do not just fail to meaningfully encourage historical awareness, they actively militate against it. In this context, King’s oft-quoted advice (1993) to move from being the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’ is no longer adequate, for a guide is only helpful if you both already agree on where it is you want to go. The triumph of neo-liberalism has meant our students and, truth be told most of our younger colleagues, are not aware that another way of knowing is even possible, let alone desirable.

Thus, it is quite unrealistic to expect that an individual student navigating a virtual representation of an historic document can on their own develop the requisite epistemological and conceptual understandings of the ontology of what it is they are seeing. How we shift them from recognizing it exists, to having them recognize it has a being, one that exists in time and space, is the question we all face in our classrooms. To address the many possible pedagogical techniques and approaches this question elicits is beyond the scope of this article; here, we can only outline what appear to us to be the most useful conceptual guidelines, but first a sobering thought. The scale of this problem means that simply making these new sources available on the web is unlikely to constitute a meaningful challenge to Eurocentric values and understandings.

Our presumption that by mobilizing established forms and practices from the web, such as pins, we would ‘reach’ our students was misdirected. Form is not the answer to critical content. We need to recognize the significance of the shift from reading a text to navigating an image, Kress (2005) and the difficulty this poses for hearing the multiple voices within these texts, Prior (2005). Being aware of these contemporary differences allows us to better apply the insights of an older way of reaching out to assist people in transforming their world by starting from where our students are.

Half a century ago, Paulo Friere (1970 & 1973) argued pedagogies of freedom must fully recognize the value of the students’ already existing understandings.4 ‘We’ have to be guided by what ‘they’ have to say. Hence, we have to listen carefully, so that they may be empowered to converse with the past.

Both student comments and their observed navigation practices strongly suggest that for them to explore new ways of knowing requires mobilizing their existing understandings. Admittedly, this appears paradoxical, as their current understandings are fundamentally a-historical; a tweetable world can after all only be immediate. But, we should not despair that students do not understand the depth or the significance of the past Humphrey (2006). Today’s undergraduates do not see any real need to develop historical sensibilities, critical or otherwise. As their teachers, we have to fully grasp the significance of this absence of historical awareness, for it means ‘we’ need to change ‘our’ expectations.

Currently, we expect our students to acquire a specific knowledge about the past from lectures, readings, and in-class discussions and then to use this knowledge to interpret a primary source. In this model of learning, a student approaches the document from a ‘learned past'. We recommend inverting this disciplinary convention, so that students learn the past by interacting with the document from their present.5

4 The Necessary Pedagogy of our Time

Simply said, but not so simply done. Much if not all of our academic training has stressed the importance of a prior, accumulated, and largely cumulative, knowledge about the past. Regularly, in every advanced capitalist country, there are cultural panics because the youth are not learning what they ‘should’ know about their nation’s past, as if citizenship in the 21st century could, let alone should, be based on a canonic set of historical understandings. (Gutstein, 2010) Young people today no longer need to know either a corpus of facts or a prescribed set of understandings, for the internet means that information, and very much else besides, is always readily available at their fingertips.

Indeed, it is this constantly expanding and inherently malleable virtual world that makes a radically new, because fundamentally democratic, approach to historical documents possible. (Sweeny, 2001, 2009; Andrews, 2011; De Pape, 2011) For it is precisely the structured order of the printed document, which so legitimized hierarchical authority, that is necessarily subverted by its online iteration. All those apparently random and to our historically trained minds meaningless movements of the cursor, that initially drove us to despair, is how learning now happens. They testify to an empowered learner’s capacity to find new meaning, relationships, and significance.

To so empower our students means teaching them how to engage concept and evidence. We believe that it is by engendering an appreciation of the internal logic of a source—why it was created the way it was and what that means—that we are most likely to make these abstract goals relevant. How this can be done will of course vary with each source, but starting with where our students are in the world is the best guide.

Two examples from the crew agreements illustrate what we mean. All of the signatories to a crew agreement provided their age. Our students are either older or the same age as many members of the crew and in relationship to the world as they know it; there is a striking absence of older people on board these vessels. Seeing how age and authority differed is such a good entry point because it challenges categories that are so often presumed to be natural or fixed. Exploring what people ate and how it relates to health is another subject where students have both an awareness and an interest. The agreements detail the diet the crew could expect, and until the 20th century, the provision of lime juice to fight scurvy was standard procedure. Highlighting such familiar and yet foreign aspects of life can provide useful points of departure for exploratory group discussions. Once so empowered, students will start to find their own meaningful entry points that make the bridge to the past for them.

Similar starting points can be identified in each documentary series, but if we really are to start with where they are in the world, we need to understand and respect how 21st century undergraduates see their world. Only in this way can we assist them as they move from an immediate to a historically aware present. We agree with Bethany Nowviskie (2014), asking how their experiences as youth in a neo-liberal world on the brink of ecological disaster relate to questions of power, hierarchy, and resistance is the necessary pedagogy of our time. The crew agreements weave together the environment, politics, technologies, and cultures in remarkably challenging ways. They also incarnate inequality through a bureaucratic enumeration that presumed mastery of the world, with all of the social, gender, and environmental implications that that raises. Seeing how the fundamental issue of inequality works its ways through these documents offers a cornerstone upon which we can build bridges of critical understanding between the present and the past.

All historical texts were created in, by and through unequal societies, and therefore they all bear witness to inequality. This is most evident with the great documentary series generated by and for imperial authorities. How did crew agreements embody the unequal power relationships between seafarers, masters, ship owners, and the various state agents? Who is present and who is not? What are they agreeing to and why? How does this change over time and space? These are the types of conversations we need to encourage. Who knows, if enough of us open up our classrooms to such discussions, our students might yet realize the democratic potential inherent in all those newly accessible online repositories.


  • 1 For example, a question about the degree of literacy of seafarers, which should have been answered on the basis of calculating the number of people who were able to sign the document, was answered incorrectly by history students because they assumed 19th century seafarers were illiterate.

  • 2 Our experiment had students using desktop computers equipped with relatively large screens; these problems would only have been compounded by reliance on the smaller screens typical of mobile devices.

  • 3 Ironically, the very explosion in the availability of historical documents online with which we started is a product of this neo-liberal transformation. Everywhere publicly funded museums and archives are being forced to justify their existence in terms of users rather than by the intrinsic merit of their holdings, for the very idea of intrinsic merit is an anathema to neo-liberals, because it recognizes a different arbiter of value than the market.

  • 4 It is a mark of how complete the neo-liberal victory in the academy is that instead of defining our task in terms of pedagogies of freedom, we have been reduced to talking of pedagogies of hope.

  • 5 Our thinking here parallels Jorge Larrosa’s (2010, p. 69) on reading: ‘The important aspect of the act of reading is not what the text says, what the text refers to, but what it says to us, the person that the text addresses. It is not a matter of deploying a body of knowledge about the text, but of creating an experience from the text’. We are grateful to Anita Lucchesi for her critical reading of an earlier version of this article and for bringing the work of Larrosa to our attention.


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