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Historical Thinking in the Digital Age

Smith--BioPicMichael B. Smith has taught history and environmental studies at Ithaca College since 2001. He co-edited the volume Citizenship Across the Curriculum (Indiana University Press, 2010), and has written several articles on both environmental history and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Note: this is the first of a five-part series on teaching history in the digital age. Check back for the rest of the month for more.

From the now well-aged (in digital years) Valley of the Shadow project to the various initiatives of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, most history educators have now recognized, if not embraced, the power of the digital age to excite students about the study of the past. I myself have been involved in developing a program called LINK (Learning in Networks of Knowledge), a digital learning tool that has shown great promise in cultivating core historical thinking skills and renewing students’ enthusiasm for history. And yet, for the past several years I have been also guiding students in my North American Environmental History course through a local environmental history project. In ways I will describe below, the project has inadvertently become a kind of antidote to the ubiquity of the digital age. It has reinforced the unique value of the brick and mortar archive for stimulating curiosity and even delight in students as they encounter the past in material artifacts.

The students work with one-of-a-kind archival materials at The History Center in Tompkins County, (the local historical society in Ithaca, NY, where I live) develop research questions, refine those questions, and finally make a presentation to the public based on their answers. Although few students in lower-level courses like this environmental history class have an opportunity to conduct archival research, their experience would be familiar to any historian trained in the past 120 years. Indeed, the sense of wonder and strangeness that can come from encounters with archival materials is one of the things that draws many professional historians to the field.


Students studying one-of-a-kind maps at The History Center in Tompkins County as part of their local environmental history project research, 2009.

As I have written elsewhere, this local environmental history project helped connect students to the landscape and community they inhabit during their college years (and sometimes long after). That was my principal goal in designing the assignment. I was, however, taken aback at first by how many of the students report how refreshing it is to engage in research without recourse to the digital environment they are supposedly so native to. Traditionally aged college students (18-23) are, after all, “born digital.” Yet each semester I run this project a majority of the twenty-five or so students in the class make observations (without any prompting from me) in their final research report about their encounter with real rather than virtual artifacts.

“So often in my classes I simply use the internet,” wrote one student years ago. “It was refreshing not to start a presentation or a paper with a Google search engine, and I proved to myself that there are other ways to gather information.”

Wrote another:

“I saw for the first time in what feels like forever that people still research in a traditional way instead of opening up my homepage of and typing in a keyword. Instead of scrolling through web pages and quickly skimming tons of material from online sources and databases, I put on a pair of gloves and gently turned the pages of a scrapbook created by someone in 1925. It made the experience so much more real; I was doing history instead of just reading about it. This really created a feeling of intimacy with this project; I certainly feel more connected with it and the things I have learned than if I would have done this research the traditional way.”

In addition to feeling liberated from Google (don’t we all have that feeling sometimes!), that sense of intimacy with the material past came through repeatedly. “It was a completely new experience to be using real historical documents in this project,” wrote one student just this semester. “The feeling of holding these original documents in my hands and leafing through them made me feel much closer to my work. Laying out maps from different years to compare them and searching through the different directories gave the research an air of adventure. It felt much more investigative than the other projects I have done, because we were using the original sources and creating a story from them.”

I cite these observations at length because they highlight for me the enduring power of the tactile and the material in the cultivation of historical thinking, or at least of an appreciation for how the past was different from the present.

But the digital age has its own virtues in engaging students with the past. In collaboration with my Ithaca College colleague Ali Erkan and three of this research students, and with grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities program, I have helped develop a teaching and learning tool for introductory (and probably more advanced courses as well) history courses called LINK (Learning in Networks of Knowledge).

In a nutshell, the LINK software allows students both to “tag” readings or other learning resources according to a pre-defined (initially) set of 4–6 thematic labels and to explain in a text box their rationale for their tags. The system helps the students create an organizational scheme for their historical understanding as it evolves over the course of the semester, both through the tags themselves and through the visualizations of the connections they are making produced by the software—a kind of concept map. By helping students recognize the relational and often non-linear nature of historical knowledge, our system allows students to make meaning from what can seem like a chaotic assemblage of information.

And again, the evidence we have gathered from the students suggests how powerful the experience this approach to history can be. “As we read more and more,” one student told us in a post-course interview, “we found that there were connections between the things we had learned at the very beginning of the class and the things we were learning at the end so it was interesting to see how everything connected even if you didn’t immediately think that it would and then you could write about connections that you didn’t see before.”

As a history teacher who has cherished every moment I’ve spent in an archive working with primary-source material, I am thrilled when my students can experience, if only briefly, the excitement that comes from tactile encounters with evidence from the past. I understand that most students will not have this experience—yet I still want them to develop some basic comprehension of how we construct meaning from studying the past and recognize that historical thinking involves putting disparate sources into dialogue with each other. I realize that digital environments are, in many ways, the spaces in which many of our students prefer their learning to happen. It is for just this reason that moving beyond one’s comfort zone (as students are obliged to do in the local environmental history project) can produce such powerful learning.

So my work as a scholar and teaching and learning in history has in recent years had this yin and yang quality to it. As a result of my experiences with these two quite different approaches to cultivating historical thinking and appreciation in twenty-first-century undergraduates, I hold with those who see the future of history as a complementary relationship between the magic of encounters with the material with the opportunities for navigation offered by the digital.