Digital history teaching project: first piece of the puzzle

For this course’s project I would like to try to use a text mining tool, Voyant, I have learned about previously in the program. I am interested to explore one of the ways that Sam Wineburg highlights as a best practice of history teaching focused on developing college students’ ability to interpret a past event in its historical context. This project primarily would be an assignment in an American history undergraduate course, populated mainly by white, middle- and working-class students in their late teens and early twenties. Possibly, the same assignment could be administered to graduate students and non-traditional students returning to college, which would allow some comparisons to be drawn.

I would like to use the text of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, when Abraham Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas in a campaign for the U.S. Senate. While there was a range of topics the two candidates argued about in their seven debates from August to October 1858, much of their exchange revealed their attitudes towards African Americans and slavery. In the prospective assignment, students first would be given a document of statements by Lincoln on issues of slavery, black colonization, and legal, social, and racial equality of black and white Americans. This information’s purpose is to create an initial profile of Lincoln on slavery and race. The document might also contain short biographies of Lincoln and Douglas, pertinent to the shaping of their political beliefs, particularly if I want to ask students to try to empathize not only with Lincoln’s views of slavery and race but also the more proslavery, racist perspective of Douglas.

Students would then be given instructions on how to use Voyant, steps in the assignment, and a corpus of the debates, which they would upload to Voyant. Voyant’s several tools are useful to analyze a corpus. This assignment would focus on three things: the terms that the two candidates used to refer to African Americans; the context for those terms; and the frequency with which each candidate used the terms.

There are several outcomes of the assignment. The first is to show how a digital analytical tool like Voyant can be used in an American history college course. The second is to determine if there were differences between Lincoln and Douglas in their pronouncements about slavery, African American citizenship, and the nature of the United States regarding slavery and racial equality, noticeable through text mining (I should carry out the analysis myself to ensure there are noticeable, relevant results before I develop this as an actual assignment). The third is to find out if students’ learning about Lincoln’s pronouncements on racial equality in the context of more racist pronouncements of his opponent Douglas may shift their understanding of Lincoln’s racial attitudes. A possible fourth might be to find out if students’ perceptions of Douglas’s racial attitudes become more nuanced, or are simply confirmed. This last outcome would connect with Wineburg’s advocacy of the need for students of history to develop capacity to understand people and their attitudes in historical context, and develop an ability to empathize with people or ideas in the past whom they perceive as alien.

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