Digital History Teaching Project: What digital skill should students learn? And what content am I competent to use to teach that skill?

This project continues to be an exercise in teaching college students about the historical thinking skill of contextualization. With the thickening the project to include more in-depth activities, I am thinking this project might take too much time in an introductory survey class, and would be better suited in a course utilizing digital tools to study slavery and/or the Civil War.

Two comments I heard in exploring interviews with former students this last week particularly impacted my planning, though the comments emphasize potentially conflicting planning priorities. One was to start with the skill that I want students to develop, and work backwards towards the content presentation best suited to accomplish that. The other is to work within a subject area with which I am already familiar, and build the project around that. Without too much shoving of a round peg in a square hole, I have kept my original topic of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, with a focus on what the debates reveal about Abraham Lincoln’s racial views before the Civil War. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are a perennial topic in American history survey textbooks as providing causal context for the Civil War, and introducing Abraham Lincoln as a central player in that drama.

I have tried to be more intentional on how to use them as a topic for teaching the need and means to contextualize historical information. Historians and social scientists who study historical thinking emphasize the need for students to contextualize historical information. This skill is important for three reasons. One reason is to appreciate historical persons’ actions and words in the past within their “cultural, political, and social milieu” (Lévesque, 126). The alternative, to study the past using the values of “the contemporary social world,” will lead students simply to condemn many political acts in the past in light of “twenty-first-century moralities” (Wineburg, “Historical Thinking,” 496; Lévesque 126). In other words, a modern-day perspective provides students the “most readily accessible…cognitive tools” to understand the past, but it does not encourage critical thinking or judgment (Wineburg, 496). The second reason contextualization is an important skill is it “destabilize[s] what we might take for granted in the present and help[s] us view the present moment with critical perspective” (Calder and Steffes, 58). Seeing the past in its own context enables students to see the present as a legacy of the past and even to question why the present is not the same as the past, rather than assume that historical progress happens. A third reason contextualization is important is to show students the important role that audiences play in determining the words that individuals say publicly (Wineburg, Historical Thinking, 96).

To emphasize the exercise’s focus on practicing contextualization, I have also kept the intention to incorporate a Voyant text analysis component as an important step in the exercise. However, to set up the usage of Voyant, I have decided to have students do a few preliminary exercises, each requiring short written reactions to questions gauged to track how different layers of context shape their thinking about Lincoln’s views on race.  The first is to complete a brief survey of knowledge about the Lincoln-Douglas debates and soliciting opinion about whether the men were “racist.”  Lincoln’s debate opponent Stephen Douglas is less well known, though generally students may believe Lincoln and Douglas represented different sides of the issue of slavery: Lincoln was against slavery, Douglas for it. On that basis, and perhaps calling upon a “twenty-first century morality,” students may further infer that Lincoln was not a racist, and Douglas was; Lincoln was modern, Douglas, pre-modern. Whether, before they engage this project, students interpret Lincoln, Douglas, and the associated issues of slavery and race so dichotomously can be measured in a pre-project assessment, in which students rank the two individuals regarding a short series of questions about what they know of their political and racial attitudes. This data can enable a measurement of the effect of the project on their prior understanding (Wineburg, Smith, and Breakstone, “What Is Learned,” 988).

The second directs attention to a course textbook’s content on the debates, including an excerpt of Lincoln’s speech in the first debate concerning whether black Americans were equal to white Americans. The third directs attention to brief excerpts of a popular early nineteenth-century medical treatise on the origins and manifestations of race.

With this background, I intend for students to then move to using Voyant. To experiment with Voyant, I uploaded a corpus of the entire Lincoln-Douglas debates and explored their meanings possible through various tools. I realized, though, that to be able to distinguish, and contextualize, Lincoln’s statements about slavery and race, I needed to treat his and Douglas’s debate commentaries as separate texts. Accomplishing that, I have been able to experiment with several Voyant tools to identify the ones most suitable for purposes of allowing a comparison of Lincoln’s and Douglas’s views about race. The Summary tool allows a comparison of the two speakers’ most frequent words. The Links tool allows comparison of words associated with a few key common terms; I found “equality*” and “race*” to yield some suggestive correlations. The Contexts tool is useful for tracking usage of specific key terms. Though it needs to be preceded by a “trigger” warning disclosed earlier in the project’s directions, a search for the term “nigger*” yields helpful results dramatizing the need to analyze speakers’ language in context of larger points they are arguing. And the Trends tool allows the two speakers’ mentioning of “slavery” and similarly spelled terms to be analyzed by where among the seven debate locations Lincoln and Douglas most or least often talked about that important concept.

This last exercise is important to emphasize the impact that an audience may have on what an historical actor says, a different kind contextualization from the preceding Voyant activities. To develop this activity, I plan to provide students some selected data on each of the towns where debates occurred. These are a map of Illinois, and, from the online 1860 US Census, statistics showing 1) percentages of white and “colored” persons; and 2) percentages of native-born and foreign-born persons (while each debate attracted many listeners who did not live in the immediate area, this does not alter the composition of host towns).  In my experiment with the Trends tool, I observed that both speakers’ usage of “slave*” terms diminished dramatically in the third debate, in Jonesboro. Jonesboro was the southern-most debate location, and had the smallest proportion among the debate locations of foreign-born residents. Hopefully, students will recognize these points, and will be asked to speculate about why the two speakers may have been more reticent about the issue of slavery when addressing a heavily native-born community on the southern tip of Illinois.

Throughout their working with Voyant tools, students will be prompted to respond to questions within the same document (maintained on Google Docs) from the beginning of the exercise, with the teaching goal of creating a route of their evolving thinking about Lincoln and race.

As a follow-up to these Voyant exercises, I plan to incorporate two visual images in the exercise, political cartoons from the 1860 campaign portraying Douglas and Lincoln vis-à-vis slavery and race. One image is a cartoon that casts the campaign as a dance, with Dred Scott, a former slave who gained celebrity when he unsuccessfully sued for his freedom during the 1850s. Both Douglas and Lincoln appear in the cartoon: Douglas dancing with a crude Irish immigrant, recognizable for racist opposition to abolitionism and black civil rights; Lincoln dancing with an equally crude black woman, recognizable as a “wife” Lincoln joked was hardly the domestic relationship he had in mind when, in debating Douglas, he called for black political and economic rights. The other image, part of a painting of a series of promotional campaign images of Lincoln, is simpler but more ambiguous. The image shows the campaign as a playground seesaw, with a nameless black man’s head and torso as a fulcrum, supporting a beam on opposite ends of which Douglas and Lincoln sit. The beam tilts down on Douglas’s end. Students will be asked to assess if the images’ messages about Lincoln and race are favorable or unfavorable vis-à-vis Douglas, and consistent or inconsistent with what they concluded based on the Lincoln-Douglas debates exercises.

As a culminating exercise, students will be asked to reflect on the same questions that were asked in the pre-activity assessment, as well as a more speculative question of whether s they think issues debated by Lincoln and Douglas and political images of their positions resonate in modern American society.

There are several next steps in this project. One is to continue to experiment with Voyant tools to determine its most suitable tools and search terms. A second is further develop a website using Google Sites to present the exercises’ background and instructions in a coherent way.  A third is to have a volunteer college student try out the website to provide feedback. A fourth is to determine whether all the activities outlined above should be included in the exercise.


Calder, Lendol and Tracy Steffes. “Measuring College Learning in History.” Social Science Research Council. May 2016.

Lévesque, Stéphane. Thinking Historically. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.

Wineburg, Sam. “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.” The Phi Delta Kappan. 488-499.

Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Wineburg, Sam, Mark Smith, and Joel Breakstone. “What Is Learned in College History Classes?”  Journal of American History. 2018. 983-993.

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