Promoting Creative Historical Imagination in the American History Survey Course

Erika Nelson

Late in my second semester as a teaching assistant for “History of Religion in America,” I was working with my students to measure the impact a variety of groups had on American religious history. I asked my students to weigh in on the question of if, or how much, Puritans have influenced modern American culture and religion. My class was generally gregarious, and I anticipated a robust debate. But then one of my students sheepishly asked me “who are the Puritans again?” My heart just sank. I was also baffled because the class had done well on the Puritan question on the previous exam. Yet all I saw before me were blank faces. While my students could memorize the material they needed for the test, they could not connect events or themes across history. I was able to address this issue through a project as part of the Blended and Online Learning Design (BOLD) program through Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. The program selects graduate students who wish to use online learning to address a specific learning problem. I thought that bringing technology into the classroom could be a way to not only make the class more exciting for the students, but to give them a new perspective on how to do history well.

I am certainly not the first history educator to encounter this problem. Lendol Calder, in his important essay on “uncoverage,” outlines how the classic history survey often ends up “hiding what it really means to be good at history.”[1] What he means by this is that the impetus to cover of a vast amount of material ends up obscuring true historical thinking and practice. The survey generally encourages breadth rather than depth of understanding. Calder argues that as history instructors we should aim to uncover, or make clearer, certain aspects of the past rather than focus on coverage of material as the guiding principle. This is now a generally agreed upon approach to history; the memorization of names and dates is no longer the order of the day. But most scholarship on the subject deals with the entire syllabus. While that is certainly necessary, the research regarding in-classroom methods to bring about this change in perspective are not yet fully explored. So I worked on creating a directed project for my students, founded upon the concept of uncoverage.

The first step to helping my students understand history more fully was to precisely define what I was trying to achieve. I asked myself the question that Samuel Wineburg poses in his work Historical Thinking, “What is it, exactly, that historians do when they ‘read historically’? What concrete acts of cognition lead to sophisticated historical interpretations?”[2] Rather than only memorizing individual figures or moments in time, I wanted my students to see movements across history and recognize how interconnected historical events are. Even more than that I wanted to foster the creativity that is necessary to do good history. In this I am heavily influenced by Vivienne Little’s article “What is Historical Imagination?”[3] Little argues that every aspect of historical inquiry involves imagination. From perceiving evidence as an “intimation of the past,” to constructing a narrative using that evidence, there is always a strong element of imagination. This creativity leads to unique historical inquiries, different understandings of existing sources, or even new avenues of material. Ultimately, a historical imagination is one that uses facts and data to visualize the world of the past. As such, I labelled my view Creative Historical Imagination to capture all of the complexity and originality I wanted to promote with my students. In order to accurately understand, and test for, creative historical imagination, I have divided it into three categories:

1) The ability to see trends across time periods.

  • Students should understand that history is more than just looking at one specific time period. Rather, American history is a long story of interconnected events. 

2) The ability to understand comprehensive historical cause and effect.

  • This is part of where the creative aspect comes in. History is never simple, so students should be able to look for potential causes and effects in many places. A significant part of this prong is the ability to effectively research. 

3) The ability to critically read texts. 

  • This involves both close reading of the text itself and an interpretation based on the historical context. 

Ultimately, creative historical imagination is more than the sum of its parts. It not only captures the concrete, and testable, aspects of historical thinking. The term also includes the necessary spark of creativity that makes great historians. 

Proposed Solution

Creative historical imagination is only useful if there are concrete methods to promote it in students. The project needed to be comprehensive enough to achieve this lofty goal, but also doable in one semester. At its core, the project is a comparative annotation writing assignment. Students were asked to come up with a historical trend that was compelling to them. I explained to the students that a trend was not simply a topic, but an exploration as to how a topic changes over time. For example, one student looked at how Quakers’ attitudes towards war shifted as their political power waned over time. Another student looked at the way arson against Black churches was reported in the media as Jim Crow gave way to the civil rights movement. Once they had selected their topic, the project had three parts: 

1) Annotation of Pre-1900 Source: Students were asked to select a written source that was related to their trend from before 1900. The students were asked to use an online annotation website called XODO.

2) Annotation of Post-1900 Source: Students were then asked to find a YouTube video from after 1900, also related to their trend. Students were taught how to use a video annotation website called Reclipped to annotate their video.

3) Synthesis Paper: Building on the two annotation assignments, students wrote a paper making an argument about their trend. They were asked “how did it change?” or “if it didn’t change, why is that?” 

I chose these three steps because they correspond directly with both the literature on historical thinking and my own definition of creative historical imagination. More specifically, the annotation assignments deal with what Wineburg outlined as a difficulty in historical studies: “There is no easy way around the tension between the familiar past, which seems so relevant to our present needs, and the strange and inaccessible past, whose applicability is not immediately manifest.”[4] While I am not suggesting that this assignment is “an easy way” around this tension, it does address the fact that students find the more distant past difficult to comprehend. By comparing one time period to another, students use a familiar part of American history to understand a historical moment they cannot. It makes the “strange and inaccessible past” a bit easier to understand and more relevant to their experiences. 

The paper is the culmination of all the skills they developed over the course of the project. The result of this is that my students learned the basic components of a historical research paper. They learned how to research well, how to mine the source for all of the content they need, and how to translate that raw source into a well-crafted, argumentative paper. The project should give the students not only knowledge of the past, but the skills to understand history, regardless of the individual facts and time period one is working with.

Methods of Analysis[5]

To determine if this was an effective project, I engaged three different means of analysis: a survey, a reflection assignment, and a small group analysis. First, I gave my class a survey that asked students’ confidence levels in various tasks related to creative historical imagination. I gave the same survey before and after the project. The pre-survey had a 67% response rate and the post-survey had a 75% response rate out of 33 students. While this doesn’t measure concrete ability, the students’ own perceptions of their learning are incredibly valuable. 

I assigned the students a reflection assignment as my second measure of analysis for this project. Students were asked to write one to two pages reflecting on how this assignment impacted or changed how they viewed history, if it did so. Here I wanted to capitalize on my students’ proven ability to express themselves in a freer format. This was turned in with their synthesis paper and it was only graded for completion. For my third measure, I used the focus-group service provided by Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching (CfT). This is when a staff member from the CfT comes into the classroom and facilitates a small group discussion on a specific topic without the presence of the instructor. This allows the students to give qualitative feedback anonymously, which increases the likelihood of that feedback being honest. 

Results and Conclusion

So, was I able to help my students develop a creative historical imagination? The answer, I am happy to report, is an overwhelming yes. The survey results showed a marked increase in confidence across the board, with the most notable increase being confidence in close-readings. The survey also showed that students felt that the assignment added to their overall learning. In the reflection assignments, it was striking how many students addressed the exact prongs of creative historical imagination even though this breakdown was never provided for the students. Many students spoke about how this project changed their overall view of history. The small- group analysis showed that students felt that the technology and annotation skills they gained were useful for their future academic careers. Based on all of these factors, I can confidently conclude that the comparative annotation assignment did inculcate in the students a sense of creative historical imagination. 

Moreover, students understood this skill, and the assignment overall, to be useful and interesting. When asked this question directly, 87% of students responded 6 or 7 (out of 7). This overwhelming positivity about the overall effectiveness shows the extent to which students enjoyed and learned from this project. It also communicates in statistical form the excitement I saw as an instructor. Students were deeply engaged in their individual topics and their reflection papers showed how enthusiastic they were to explore history using the creative historical imagination they developed. One student said in their reflection paper, “Out of contemplating this assignment, which was of great interest to me as someone who loves history, grew an even deeper respect for history.  I now view history as not just a subject, but a tool for which to experience the past.” Even for students who already loved history, this project helped them refine and complexify their understanding of history as a tool. This was not an isolated comment either; many students said that this project made them enjoy history. As a history teacher, what more could I ask for?

Overall, the success of this assignment is about so much more than the numbers and the graphs. The passion that I saw in these students grew as they learned more about their topic. As the parts of the project were dispersed throughout the semester, many students were able to use their trend as a through-line to understand the class material. Their interest and analytical ability grew in equal measure as the semester progressed. They often brought up in the discussion sections how specific readings related to their topic. Through these moments I could see that many students used their project as a kind of anchor. They knew that they needed to be looking for the interconnectedness of history, but that can be a daunting prospect when you are looking at a long, detailed survey of American history. Their projects allowed the students to focus on one topic that was interesting to them and understand change that way, while still learning about other important topics in the course.  

Ultimately this is a worthwhile type of project to add to any history or religion survey course. Students cannot possibly go in-depth on every topic they encounter in class, nor should survey courses change so entirely that students do not understand the basic information. But this project can give students the tools and skills to go in-depth when it is required of them. The annotation assignments helped students hone their critical reading skills and bring in appropriate historical context. The synthesis paper facilitated a deeper understanding of overarching narratives and cause and effect. And the multimodal approach promoted student interest and gave them multiple pathways to approach the material. In short, this project gave students the ability to apply creative historical imagination to other classes or historical inquiries in a way that was manageable and even enjoyable! 

Author

Erika Nelson is a 6th year PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University, and recently started a position in the Student Learning Center at UC Berkeley. She is passionate about finding ways that writing can help students become better scholars, historians, and citizens of the world.

Notes

[1]Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” The Journal of American History, 92 (Dec. 2006), 1358–70, 1363.

[2]Samuel S. Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, (2001), xii.

[3]Vivienne Little, “What Is Historical Imagination?” Teaching History, 36 (June 1983), 27–32.

[4]Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 6.

[5]IRB approval was granted for this research.