21st Century Public History, Part I

This is a revised and expanded version of a talk I gave at MITH’s Digital Dialogue series on April 14. It is Part I of III.

I. Digital Public History and How People Learn

The place of digital history in the digital humanities is topic of frequent conversation at the Center for History and New Media. While the staff have a variety of opinions on the question, we all generally agree that considering the place of digital history in the digital humanities requires that we acknowledge the long kinship between digital history and public history. While the two fields are by no means synonymous, they have similar goals and objectives. Though it may be a thin description of public history, the National Council on Public History offers a starting point, defining “public history as ‘a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public.’” They continue to explain “‘public history is the conceptualization and practice of historical activities with one’s public audience foremost in mind.’” This focus on audience is central to understanding the work of public historians, and really to understanding the future possibilities for transformative work in that field.

This focus on audience is central also to the work that we have undertaken at the Center for History and New Media. In the Center’s sixteen year history, we have done our best to take the scholarly work of traditional history and make it available to people outside of the academy. Our work has always been at the intersection scholarship and several publics: students and teachers, enthusiasts, “Citizen Historians” (Scientists, Humanists, Archivists, etc.). From this point of intersection, we are in the position to bring many fields into conversation with one another. Thus, our mission statement calls for using “digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.” This combination of open access and a focus on audience engagement has led us to think about how digital technology can allow us to help users significantly engage with the abundance of materials that are now in digital form. Our mission is not simply to add to the openly available stock of resources, but to provide a range of users with the tools, both cognitive and software-based, to do meaningful work with those resources. Thus, we are not focused on engagement for engagement’s sake, but rather on a larger goal of enriching historical understand for a range of publics.

That is not to suggest that the public is not already interested in history. It is clear that they are. Or at least, it is clear that the major media outlets think that there is significant interest, since they have invested in programming such as NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”, and PBS’s “Faces of America”. Similarly, genealogy sites owned by as Ancestry.com have vast numbers of subscribers and users. These venues show that people have very personal questions about history: What was my grandfather’s role in WWII? Why did my mother’s family come to New York? While these questions are important and can be the route to a larger engagement with historical material, the majority of public history work dwells at another level. The real issue, then, is what can digital history and public history do to move these members of the interested public to engage with content and questions that might not be personal, but that are meaningful nonetheless.

This has always been an important issue, but it has achieved slightly more attention and salience in the last several years with the rise of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. This coalition of corporations and educators has come together to fashion a set of skills they believe workers need to succeed in 21st Century global economy. They call for a focus on critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation. P21 has had broad impact in education circles, and the Obama Administration is certainly aligned with their efforts. There are a variety of critiques of the P21 work, but the strongest is the claim from a group of scholars and educators under the title of Common Core, who argue that P21 ignores the knowledge and content base that learners need to acquire and actualize the skills that the Partnership emphasizes.

More than other institutions in our common cultural life, libraries, archives, and museums–the workplaces of many public and digital historians–hold the content that is central for moving from the vague concepts of 21st Century Skill to knowledge and learning. The collections that reside with our cultural heritage institutions can be vehicles for bringing the public into rich conversations about our past, present, and future. This possibility is even more important now that the Institute of Museum and Library Services is embarking on a major initiative to help LAMs take stock of their role in helping citizens build 21st Century Skills.

To build better meaningful engagement for the public around questions of history, we need to actively bring together the insights of our colleagues in public history with those of our colleagues in the learning sciences. We cannot just lay out a collection of stuff in chronological order; that kind of presentation does not do the work that we need it to do. History is about asking questions. All practitioners do it–academics, curators, archivists. Why don’t we share that with the public? Why don’t we model the kind of critical inquiry that goes on behind the scenes?

Only if we expose the cognitive process of doing history–historical thinking–the perpetual beta of historical scholarship, including conflicting interpretations–will we really be able to position the public to engage in meaningful inquiry. We need to surface the ways that the introduction of new sources spawns new questions, and those new questions make us revisit the evidence and the existing interpretations. Learning takes work. It is participatory and relational and represents authentic engagement. Knowledge and inquiry build on the context that users can access if we help them. But, public history–digital and analogue–needs to actively support this kind of interaction, to scaffold public inquiry.

One way to do this is to consciously integrate the work from cognitive science into the ways that we think about presenting content for users. In 1999, the National Research Council published How People Learn as a general overview of the latest work in cognitive science and what it could mean for teaching and learning in a whole host of disciplines. Subsequently, specific committees produced targeted work on learning in history, mathematics, and science. [How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (2005) is the relevant version.] How People Learn outlined three key findings (p.14-19) about learning that are important for how we might transform digital public history–even though these are phrased with respect to students, it is clear from the underlying research that these findings apply to life-long learners:

  • 1. Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. If their initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp the new concepts and information that are taught, or they may learn them for purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions outside the classroom.
  • 2. To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.
  • 3. A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them.

These three findings have the potential to transform the way that public historians–digital and analogue–think about creating content for audiences. We may not be able to fully assess the preconceptions that users bring to our subject matter, but we can do audience research to start to understand some of them. Similarly, we can provide users with a base of content knowledge and then bring them with us as we form and investigate questions about history. Doing this in an explicit way will help users feel equipped to form and investigate their own questions when they are faced with the abundance of historical sources that are available online.

Read Part II.

About Sharon Leon

Sharon M. Leon is Director of Public Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and Associate Professor of History at George Mason University. Her research interests include the history of religion in the U.S., especially Roman Catholicism, history of science and twentieth century cultural history. She received her bachelor's degree from Georgetown University and her doctorate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota in 2004. Her first book, An Image of God: the Catholic Struggle with Eugenics, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2013.
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