Digital History Teaching Project: Sixth Piece of the Puzzle

I have now constructed the project on a Google Sites website, provisionally titled, “Contextualizing Lincoln on Slavery, Race, and Civil Rights.” The website has two pages. The first page introduces the project’s historical topic of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates, discusses the project’s focus on the historical thinking skill of contextualization, and shows a short list of secondary sources. Most of them are monographs that reach different opinions about Abraham Lincoln’s attitudes about race. One is a book chapter that discusses an earlier case study on practicing contextualized historical thinking in the classroom (which actually uses several Lincoln primary sources as the subject). Another is a book chapter that describes opportunities and examples of text analysis using the Voyant platform.

The site’s second page is basically a direction sheet that students follow to complete the exercise in seven steps. At each step, students journal about their thinking on the question of Lincoln’s racial attitudes, as markers for how interpreting Lincoln’s words in different intellectual and political contexts changes (or doesn’t change) perception of Lincoln’s racial attitudes. The first and last steps are pre- and post-exercise assessments of learning. Between them students read excerpts from a history textbook about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, an excerpt from one of Lincoln’s debate speeches concerning race, and two excerpts on the science of racial hierarchy from medical sources of the mid-nineteenth century. They then perform several directed tasks using different Voyant tools, including correlating a Voyant analysis about Lincoln’s and Douglas’s speech patterns with demographic data about the locations where each debate occurred. After the Voyant exercises, students analyze a political cartoon published after the debates that lampoons Lincoln’s racial beliefs.

There are several questions at this point in the project’s development. The first page is a bit text-heavy, and could function better like a short introduction to a book, rather than the book’s cover. But I am unsure what could function as the project’s “cover.” There are several questions relevant to the topic of “contextualizing Lincoln on race,” which the project could ask, though currently does not, because I am not sure where or how to incorporate them without requiring additional secondary reading. I may need to add such reading at the outset.  The project’s opening sentence asks if Lincoln was a racist. But this may beg the question of whether the word “racist” existed in 1858 (it did not). The project implies that Lincoln feared Douglas’s accusation that he was a lurking abolitionist, but does not ask students to wonder why Lincoln feared that. The project doesn’t really explain why Douglas is now considered to have supported slavery. Earlier I had in mind to use a political cartoon that helps us understand Douglas’s proslavery politics. Since the cartoon appeared in 1854, before the debates, I have nixed that, but may re-build it in to parallel the anti-Lincoln cartoon exercise described above. And the project doesn’t ask students to reflect on the circumstance that Lincoln and Douglas were candidates for political office, so that we should expect them to sometimes lie. Does it matter for the purpose of the project when were they lying about their racial attitudes, and when were they telling the truth?

Another issue is the fact that that project currently is very much driven by steps I have developed for students to follow. There is no room in the exercise for them to explore the Lincoln-Douglas debate texts using Voyant tools they choose to see what they discover. Nor is there room for them to independently explore U.S. Census data about Illinois towns where the debates occurred, some of which is presented in a spreadsheet they use for one of the project’s analyses. These could be empowering, but they could also fizzle and be a distraction from the learning objective, if they try different Voyant tools, or study census data that don’t reveal something meaningful. I could encourage or require them to explore Voyant and/or the Census on their own later in the semester with a different set of texts-I suggested in an earlier post that the texts of modern presidential debates are accessible and could be fruitful.

A final unsolved issue is how to have students reflect on their learning from the project, given that there will be available by the end both pre-and post-project learning assessments, and their accumulated responses to question prompts about Lincoln’s racial attitudes that accompany each step in the project. Should they write an overall reflection paper? Contribute to a blog? Present their project experience at a state history conference? I am not sure of how best to culminate the project.   

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