Digital History Teaching Project: Fifth Piece of the Puzzle

At the expense of sounding like a broken record (if anyone recognizes the meaning of that simile anymore), this project continues as an exercise for advanced undergraduate or graduate students in developing a sense of evaluating an historical event in different kinds of contexts, to see how historical meaning and significance changes. There a couple of possible course settings that could be ideal, one a capstone course on Illinois history, and one a graduate methodology seminar.

The data for the exercise is the text of the seven debates between Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858, with the texts of all of Lincoln’s remarks and all of Douglas’s remarks split into two corpuses for analysis using Voyant tools. To prepare students to use Voyant to study the debates, I will have students complete a quick knowledge or perspective pre-assessment about Lincoln, Douglas, and their racial attitudes. This pre-assessment will include two political cartoons about Lincoln, Douglas, and race, originally published in the 1850s and 1860, available online at the Library of Congress. Students will be asked to render an initial evaluation of the two cartoons’ messages, and questions that occur to students about the cartoons they would like to know more about.

Then students will post a series of cumulative responses in a journal that tracks if and how their initial perceptions of the two politicians’ racial attitudes alter based on two readings. The first is a textbook secondary source reading about the debates and a short excerpt of Lincoln’s remarks in the textbook about racial equality in one of the debates. The other reading is an excerpt from a prominent medical book of the early nineteenth century that postulates evolutionary differences among human groups signified by skull shape, or phrenology. The exercise then moves to usage of Voyant, for which students will be given instructions on how to upload the two corpuses and which Voyant tools to utilize to allow some comparisons between Lincoln and Douglas on what they said about race. Students will continue to record their thoughts on the question of Lincoln’s racial attitudes in the context of Douglas’s words and phrases. The Voyant Links tool allows word associations. Students will be given a few word associations to compare (“negro,” “race,” “slavery”). They will also be encouraged to experiment with word associations of their own choosing, to identify other possible terms for meaningful comparison of Lincoln and Douglas. The Voyant Trends tool allows tracing of the two men’s word patterns by debate location. Students will use this data to correlate with demographic data, specifically native-born and foreign-born populations, from the 1860 U.S. Census about each debate location. The goal of this step is get students to hypothesize correlations between Lincoln’s and Douglas’s expressions about race and the ethnic background of audiences.

The exercise can conclude with a post-exercise assessment of students’ learning, probably with a request that they answer the same questions and interpret the same two cartoon images of Lincoln and Douglas that they studied at the beginning of the exercise as a pre-assessment. This post-assessment can provide a barometer of whether the exercise has altered or enhanced their understanding of the role of historical contextualization.

Depending on time available for this kind of exercise, I may try to use it as a learning tool to show students how to use Voyant for their own research projects. A likely topic could be more recent series of debates involving a prominent Illinois candidate, Senator Barack Obama. Obama debated Senator John McCain three times in 2008, and, as president, debated Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney three times in 2012. Several sites (https://www.debates.org , www.nytimes.com)have the full-text of the debates. Students would be challenged to upload corpuses and decide which tools to use to explore questions, identify themes, possible patterns of speech correlated with local or national constituencies, and postulate findings of their own choosing.

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