Beyond the Essay: Rethinking Student Assignments

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on Teaching

Thursday, April 15, 2021, 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

Type: Lightning Round

Tags: Digital History; Public History and Memory; Teaching and Pedagogy


In this lightning round session, a group of historians will each share one example of an assignment they have used in place of the standard long-form essay. These assignments include recording podcasts, building online exhibits, blogging, constructing datasets, and building campus walking tours. Each participant will share details about the assignment, pedagogical payoffs and drawbacks, and practical advice for how to implement it in other classes. The goal of these presentations is to give history teachers new ideas for incorporating a wider range of student assignments into their own courses. The second half of the session will provide a chance for audience members to ask questions, share their own experiences, and discuss some of the larger issues, challenges, and opportunities facing history education in the twenty-first century.

Papers Presented

The Unessay

The “unessay” assignment has become more and more popular in history classrooms in recent years. The premise of an unessay is simple: choose a topic, research it, and communicate your work using any format besides a traditional written essay. Examples of student unessays include a lifestyle magazine about women’s fashion in British Colonial America, a children’s picture book about Filipino-American identity, or a board game about Cherokee dispossession and the Oklahoma Land Rush. The goal of the unessay is to help students approach history in creative ways and to spark interest and curiosity about the past. Faced with declining numbers of history majors, the unessay provides non-majors the chance to apply their own interests and skills to historical topics. A Computer Science major, for instance, used what they had learned in programming classes to build a computer game in which players explored nineteenth-century San Francisco’s Chinatown. This lightning round presentation will offer a brief introduction to the concept and pedagogical payoffs of the unessay along with several examples of student projects. It will focus, however, on the nuts-and-bolts of how teachers can incorporate the assignment into their class: common mistakes, sources and bibliographies, and evaluation and grading.

Presented By
Cameron Blevins, University of Colorado Denver

Solving the Problem of Audience

One of the primary challenges in creating meaningful assignments is solving the “problem of audience.” When the audience is only the instructor, as it usually is, it is difficult for students to avoid falling into simple performance, rather than genuinely engaging for the sake of communicating complex, evidence-based reasoning to a real audience. At the same time, the American Historical Association has increasingly urged pedagogical approaches that encourage visual communication, collaboration, and quantitative reasoning. These key skills are often underrepresented in history classrooms but are essential for both career diversity and promoting robust historical analysis. My pedagogical experimentation with these ideas in mind has resulted in assignments in which students identify an audience meaningful to them (e.g. community stakeholders, academic readers, activists), create a collaborative group around that shared audience, and individually create modes of communication that would be most appropriate to reach that audience. These might include op-ed articles, podcasts, a work of art, or an essay. These assignments also have crossover skills for the traditional – and still essential – historical modes of written analysis. Specifically, all student work must: cohere around a central argument, be based in evidence, and clearly communicate high-level ideas. Additionally, their work must demonstrate key historical thinking skills of placing events in historical context, thinking about change and continuity over time, answering questions of causality, and employ the concepts of complexity and contingency. With this process, I hope to also help students bring historical thinking into their lives and future careers, wherever they may lead.

Presented By
Annelise Heinz, University of Oregon

Audio History: Podcasts as Pedagogy

As audio and visual media become increasingly more important sources of knowledge for students, it’s important for students to know not only how to listen to them, but how to create them. To help students engage with creating historical content for a public, audio audience, I have created a class whose whole purpose is to create an educational podcast. The first attempt at this assignment focused on American explorers. I asked the students to listen to and evaluate podcasts in order to get a sense of the best ways to impart historical content, and then we spent a significant portion of the semester working on the technical skills needed to create a podcast, such as scriptwriting, audio editing, and show notes creation. We also collaborated with a student musical group at George Mason University, who wrote our podcast theme music for us. The experience was challenging for students but I look forward to trying it again!

Presented By
Abigail Mullen, George Mason University

Data and/as Historical Argument

One feature of the “digital turn” in history has been the application of statistical modeling, computational analyses and data visualization to historical questions. While these methods must necessarily be applied alongside close readings, contextualization and historiographical theory, they rely on datasets that transform historical sources into machine-readable information. There are many fruitful and generative examples of published historical datasets. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Students might also turn to historical census records, voter lists, or textual corpora. However, the processes by which historical documents were transformed into data is not always legible to students. This presentation introduces a semester-long assignment which asked students to produce a dataset from an archive, and then make historical arguments based on quantitative analysis. This assignment was intended to help students understand that data, like any artefact of the past, is always curated, and consequently always imbued with human assumptions and subjectivity. Students were asked to consider the processes by which archival material is selected and how particular facets are identified for datification, how those facets are encoded, and what perspectives might be flattened or lost along the way. This presentation will begin by summarizing the learning outcomes and scaffolding of this assignment. It will then turn to students’ impressions of their success in meeting those learning outcomes, and changes that I plan to make for future iterations. It will close with some practical advice about how to integrate a data-creation assignment into established courses.

Presented By
Anelise Hanson Shrout, Bates College

Finding Ghosts: Place-Based Storytelling with Curatescape

Throughout 2019, I introduced both undergraduate and graduate history students to place-based storytelling by using Curatescape. Students researched campus spaces -- doing archival research, oral histories, and other historical research -- to write multimedia narratives they shared on Curatescape. In lieu of a final exam, students crafted a walking tour for the campus community highlighting the narratives they discovered. When brought together, telling their stories on the walking tour, one group of students even realized that they discovered the historical underpinnings of one of the primary ghost legends on campus. This strategy engages students while helping them think about presenting historical narratives through multiple modalities in a way that's meaningful to their audiences.

Presented By
Lindsey Passenger Wieck, St. Mary's University

Public History in the Wild

History is everywhere, whether or not students recognize it. Public History in the Wild is a blogging assignment designed to teach students to see their worlds through the lens of a public historian. Once students have identified an instance of public history—a historic marker, a plaque on a building, a restaurant that’s been an “institution” for 50 years, or a cemetery—they have to write about it on the blog, in 100 words or less. They not only learn how to write label text for a public audience, but also how to read their local environments like a public historian. On top of that, they also learn about information architecture through a content management system like WordPress. Students quickly learn that condensing what might otherwise be a brief essay into 100 words is harder than it sounds. The un-essay also teaches students transferrable, marketable skills in a career-competitive market.

Presented By
Rebecca S. Wingo, University of Cincinnati

Session Participants

Chair and Presenter: Cameron Blevins, University of Colorado Denver
Cameron Blevins teaches United States history and digital humanities at the University of Colorado Denver, where he is a core faculty member involved with the Digital Studies Certificate. His book, Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West (Oxford University Press, 2021), presents a spatial interpretation of the nineteenth-century American state by mapping the sprawling infrastructure of the nation’s postal network. Cameron’s writing has appeared in the Journal of American History, the William and Mary Quarterly, and Modern American History.

Presenter: Annelise Heinz, University of Oregon
Annelise Heinz is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oregon. Her current book project, Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture (Oxford University Press) explores the American history of the Chinese parlor game mahjong in the first half of the twentieth century. It follows the history of one game to think about how, in their daily lives, individuals create and experience cultural change. More broadly, her work focuses on the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in American and transpacific history. Heinz is also fascinated by the intersections of design and pedagogy, including out-of-the-box approaches to writing.

Presenter: Abigail Mullen, George Mason University
Abby Mullen is a term assistant professor in the history department at George Mason University. She holds a PhD in history from Northeastern University (2017). Her in-progress book manuscript, A Difficult Undertaking: Conflict and Cooperation in the First Barbary War, 1801-1805, investigates how the U.S. Navy forged international connections in the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War. Mullen is the PI on Tropy, a Mellon Foundation-funded software development project at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and she is the PI and project director for a 2020 NEH-funded Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities, “Digital Methods for Military History.”

Presenter: Anelise Hanson Shrout, Bates College
I hold a PhD in history from New York University. I am currently an assistant professor, teaching digital and computational studies at Bates College. My research focuses on the nineteenth-century origins of international humanitarianism, and particularly the ways in which philanthropic donations were used as proxies for arguments about governance in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. I’m also interested in how the ‘internet age’ changes the way we interact with sources and with students – and in how the digital humanities shape what we do both as scholars and as teachers.

Presenter: Lindsey Passenger Wieck, St. Mary's University
I'm an Assistant Professor of Public History at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. I recently earned a Ph.D. in History from Notre Dame, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Notre Dame in 2017. I'm a 20th Century U.S. historian specializing in urban spaces, race, the West, and digital and public history. I am working on a manuscript entitled, The Mission Impossible: The Cultural Politics of Community and Gentrification in Postwar San Francisco. This project explores Latino community formation in the Mission District of San Francisco and examines how this creates a space for gentrification.

Presenter: Rebecca S. Wingo, University of Cincinnati
Rebecca S. Wingo is a scholar of the Indigenous and American West, and the Director of Public History and an Assistant Professor of Public History at the University of Cincinnati. In addition to several articles and digital projects, she is the co-author of an award-winning book, Homesteading the Plains: Towards a New History (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). She is also a co-editor of an open-access volume called Digital Community Engagement: Partnering Communities with the Academy (University of Cincinnati Press, 2020) that seeks to explore best practices and ethical challenges of academic and community partnerships. Her manuscript in-progress, Reframing the Crows: Housing and Adult Education on the Crow Reservation, argues that housing policy was designed to restructure the relationships the Crows had to the house, to the land, and to each other. Wingo teaches widely in digital and public history, as well as Indigenous history.