The History Engine: Doing History with Digital Tools

by Robert K. Nelson, Scott Nesbit, and Andrew Torget

(Originally Posted September 9th, 2009)

The History Engine as a Teaching Exercise

In a recent article about the contours of history department curricula across the country, Steven D. Andrews notes that

Many students do not “do history” until deep into their college careers, sometimes in the last semester of their senior year. It is only then, in some kind of seminar class, that students experience the process so familiar to historians: identifying their own questions, selecting their own sources, pursuing those sources and constructing arguments, documenting the research process, producing multiple drafts and rewrites, and finally presenting the work in a formal document. For some students, the first comprehensive use of the skills of a historian may be the final act of their education.

This delay in introducing to students the practices of historical inquiry is at odds with what many, perhaps most, historians would prefer, a lamentable if understandable product of the distinct goals of lower- and upper-division courses. The former tend to emphasize, as Andrews suggests, “accumulation of information” about historical context, the latter the acquisition of the “thinking skills” of historical research, reasoning, and argumentation. It is often logistically challenging, sometimes impossible, to ask students to “do history” in lower-division classes simply because there is a lot of information for them to accumulate. Covering, say, roughly two centuries of American history in a survey course affords little time to ask students to engage in original research and formulate their own questions. The length of the “formal document” that Andrews mentions–perhaps a fifteen-page term paper or an even longer seminar paper that’s modeled on the articles that historians themselves produce–doesn’t help. It is, more often than not, simply impractical to ask students in lower-division history courses to engage in that kind of time-intensive, ambitious research and writing exercise (to say nothing of the daunting prospect of grading many longer student research papers in larger sections).1

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