Crafting History on the Web

Merging digital technology with research-based teaching led to a successful experiment this semester. In two of my latest courses, students were asked to present their research on digital platforms which they created and designed themselves. They gathered material, processed and analyzed physical and online sources, wrote scholarly essays, and published their projects online in the form of websites.

Since the beginning of this year, I have experimented with Blended Learning and digital tools in order to enhance the learning experience of my students with the help of twenty-first century technology and to integrate digital literacy skills into our curriculum. In the past, my students made short videos, wrote blogs, created wikis, or worked on other collaborative digital projects, all of which received positive evaluations. This time, the idea to ask my students to create websites occurred to me when I found out I would have to teach three intensive courses in the month of June. It was a puzzling task to figure out how to squeeze into four weeks a course worth the same amount of credit points as its eight-week counterpart. A few years ago, in order to stimulate “study success,” the Faculty of Humanities was required to restructure their semester system into teaching blocs. Semesters are now divided according to an 8-8-4 system with two blocs of eight weeks each (seven weeks are reserved for teaching – twice two hours a week – and the last week is the examination period) followed by a doubly intensive half-bloc of four weeks. In this structure it is not easy to find a balance between scholarly depth, a broad academic perspective, and a tolerable workload for students and teachers alike. One can juggle and wiggle with the material so that the main topics will somehow fit into seven weeks, but the syllabus is indeed limited with respect to both in-depth analysis and contextualization.

The four-week courses in January and June are even more perplexing. The original idea was that in these two blocs students would do intensive research and the teachers would act as supervisors of their projects. Though this setup sounded plausible enough in theory, students often criticized these four-week subjects as “not academic,” “unnecessary,” “conceptually weak,” or “confusing.” So when I was given responsibility for not one but three of these dreaded seminars in June, my first reaction was to cringe; but once the shock was over, I decided to make the most of it and turn these dreaded four weeks into an intellectually inspiring learning experience for my students. After negotiating to teach a topic which is familiar and close to my heart (critical theory of European imperialism and colonialism), I started to think of an innovative methodology that would work well within the narrow time-frame and would combine a research-based syllabus with acquiring and improving digital skills. According to the original mandate, students were supposed to work in small groups and present their research in the form of a portfolio at the end of the course; so it seemed a good idea to ask them to document their research in digital form.

I wanted them to engage with the Web 2.0 world (which is absent from our traditionally conceived curriculum) by creating a semi-open source research platform that could be shared online and developed further. The course would thus offer students the opportunity to acquire new knowledge, help them to improve their research and writing skills, and encourage them to learn about digital tools available in the humanities. This combination of a focused research project with an open interactive platform usefully meets the time constraints of the course and, more importantly, leaves in its wake materials that serve the interests of the scholarly and pedagogical communities as well as the general public.

Although at first the idea of a digital assignment seemed very new and puzzling for many of these second-year humanities students, the new method unleashed their creativity, and they produced some wonderful websites which exceeded all my expectations. They enjoyed working on these “multimedia essays,” as one of my students called the assignment, and they all mentioned in their evaluations that it was one of the most educational and enjoyable courses they had ever encountered.

One of these courses focused on the ethics and politics of exhibiting the colonial past of the Dutch East Indies in the ethnographic museum of Amsterdam, the Tropenmuseum (Syllabus in Dutch). In the other seminar students developed four lesson plans for secondary schools about teaching Dutch colonial history. Their task was to be innovative both in their perspective and methodology: instead of presenting colonialism as a heroic epic of economic success, they were asked to sketch a nuanced story of encounter, conquest, adventure, and exploitation with all its present-day social and political ramifications (Syllabus in Dutch).

Students especially appreciated the hands-on nature of the project and the ways in which the medium shaped and inspired not just the presentation of their research but the body of knowledge they gathered during the process. They became more aware of the interactions among the textual, visual, and auditory aspects of their topic (related to the Dutch colonial past) and learned to appreciate the cultural and historical information conveyed by words, images, and sounds.

The form of the assignment triggered ideas which otherwise would have gone unnoticed: for example, one group examined the topic of gender and colonialism in the Dutch East Indies based on the garments exhibited in the Tropenmuseum. Normally they would have only read texts (mostly only secondary literature) for such a research paper; but because they were asked to explore the existing exhibits at the museum, to assess their display critically in terms of gender, and to look into alternative ways to organize another “special exhibition” about the topic, they engaged with aspects of the material culture and the politics and esthetics of exhibiting gender that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

The group working on the exhibit on scientific racism discovered through the objects displayed in the Tropenmuseum that non-European racial differences in the Dutch Indies became a fertile environment for Dutch anthropological research that was often disrespectful of local populations. The topic led this group of students to reflect on issues concerning the public display of human remains (relics, skulls, shrunken heads, etc.) or human bodies in museums – whose body can be examined, dissected, and displayed? how do such exhibits make visible the social inequalities of the time? – and to think about the ethics of cyberspace where images of these human bodies are still visible even after their physical removal from most ethnographic museums. By having to construct a website, students faced serious ethical issues which historians and museum curators need to confront in their own everyday jobs.

Another group organized a virtual exhibition about Dutch propaganda during the so-called “policing actions” of 1945-1949. For their website they used posters, books and other material from the Tropenmuseum and also searched other online resources for propaganda movies and documentaries about the colonial war. They explored the way visual material creates and carries meaning, which would not have been the case had they been asked only to write an essay on the topic. They also noticed that there was not much material on this subject in the museum, and that what they found often failed to contextualize the images and did not present a balanced view of the complex situation during the transition to an independent Indonesia. The visual material was thus used not only as illustration for the essay, but it also inspired and shaped its arguments. By completing this assignment, students learned not only about the Dutch colonial past, but also about the differences between the various media, the “framing theory” in journalistic practices, and the ways that ideology can influence history. These courses have sensitized students to the ways in which history is used and abused in contemporary media and in modern life.

In the other course students enjoyed thinking of creative ways to teach colonial history in high school. The group who created a website with lesson plans for teaching slavery (to access the “Docenten” tab you need the password “ikbendocent”) did an amazing job with digital teaching tools: for example they created an interactive timeline with, made quizzes with, and developed interactive historical maps to present the Dutch slave trade routes and major ports. The digital nature of the assignment was an incentive for students to search for many more sources than they would have needed for a classical essay, and to explore the topic of slavery from cultural, economic, and political perspectives in order to create attractive and informative material for secondary school education.

Another group created a website with digital lesson plans about the topic of trade and commodities. The digital interface and the educational nature of the assignment made them emphasize the connection between the present economic situation and the past commercial exploration and exploitation more than an essay would have inspired them to do, since on a website they could visualize the ubiquity of the historical connections between companies with a long and shady past more easily than on paper. The other groups working on websites about scientific racism and Dutch slave trade also highlighted the relevance and topicality of colonial historical research by visualizing the similarities of past and present racial thinking. The interaction of serious scholarly historical research with the possibilities of the digital interface enriched the project of the students who found more sources, were more creative, and had more fun than a classical assignment would have provided.

Research-based teaching in the humanities cannot ignore the fact that we are all dependent on digital technology in our own academic work: we use online databases, rely on digital archives, practice text mining, and access and read online (historical) sources. In fact, we are all constantly experimenting with or developing resources for digital humanities. This four-week course was an excellent occasion to see how a discipline-driven use of technology can enrich the research experience of students. This innovative method not only enhanced their research skills but also equipped them with a basic understanding of digital resources that they can put to good use in their future careers. They were more inventive and creative, found and used more relevant sources, and became aware of the mechanisms which are important for understanding how history is made.

The digital assignment was an extra incentive for students to do a proper job because they knew that the results of their efforts would be shared publicly and would not simply disappear into the file cabinet of their teacher. The main goal of my courses was not to teach students how to make websites, but to invite them to look around for research inspiration both in the material world and in cyberspace, to understand how history is made, to reflect on the use of digital technology for research in the humanities, and to show that they can be creative and scholarly at the same time. If they also learned how to design and build websites, this is just an added benefit which they can cite in their future job applications.