Tim Roberts Digital History Teaching Digital history teaching project: second piece of the puzzle

Digital history teaching project: second piece of the puzzle

I am drawn to trying to use Voyant as a digital tool because of its fairly easy to understand steps to allow a novel reading of text, the ways it can encourage students to conduct corollary research to provide context for its analysis, and the ways it can empower students to reach their own conclusions vis-à-vis what historical literature tries to convince them to believe.

The seven Lincoln-Douglas debates are comprised of some 141,000 words, a text too large and too abstruse for a traditional reading in an undergraduate classroom. Voyant’s tools allow analysis of the debates, however, by “distant reading,” or statistical and contextual analysis of the text (Hitchcock). Particularly, two Voyant features will highlight aspects of the debates: how often the two men talked about African Americans and the issue of race in America; and in what context they did so. Historians, perhaps first taking a cue from the philosopher John Dewey, emphasize as a basic historical concept and skill the recognition that words and “facts” take on meaning only when considered in context (Dewey). The goal of the exercise is to show that Lincoln’s statements about slavery and race take on different meanings when considered in different contexts: the context of modern attitudes about race; the context of what Douglas said about slavery and race; and even the context of the different locations in antebellum Illinois where the debates took place. In consideration of the latter context, students may be given the means to find out about local demographic data, using U.S. census information and county and state histories, for example, on communities that hosted the debates, to surmise if Lincoln, and Douglas, changed their language from location to location, and even if they changed the same way (both more liberally, both more conservatively, or, though unlikely in different rhetorical directions).

In further terms of context, it seems it would be necessary to provide students some excerpted secondary sources on the issue of Lincoln and race. Many historians – Eric Foner, Michael Burlingame, Doris Goodwin, to name a few – have written favorably about Lincoln’s liberalism and ability to evolve his attitude towards African Americans over his political career. But others are more critical. For Lerone Bennett Jr., Lincoln was an inveterate and even symbolic American racist. More recently, the capacious New York Times’s “1619 Project” highlights Lincoln’s meeting with American blacks in 1862 to encourage their leadership of their compatriots’ colonization to Liberia. By reading selected excerpts from these various and disharmonious writers, students can become aware of the concept of historiographical debate, of the constructed or interpretive nature of historical “facts,” and the need, and means, for them to consider primary sources’ information rather than relying on inconclusive secondary sources.

Perhaps the ultimate goal of the exercise is to “alienate the familiar,” as the dramatist Bertold Brecht phrased it, meaning to “destabilize [students’] assumptions about the past without making the past so strange, so other, that they write it off as either too weird or simply impossible to make sense of” (Mills). As happens today, Lincoln and Douglas were both politicians seeking election. The specific issue of slavery that they debated has long been settled. But their troubling, sometimes shocking attitudes towards racial difference linger still.  If the students wrestle with these ways that the Lincoln-Douglas debates were both alien and familiar, I hope to help them develop a more sophisticated ability to empathize with people in the past and understand how historical contexts impact the meaning of historical “facts.”


Lerone Bennett, Jr., Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Johnson Publishing Company, 2000)

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, 2 vols. (Norton, 2013).

John Dewey, Logic: the Theory of Inquiry (Henry Holt and Co., 1939)

Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (Norton, 2011)

Doris Goodwin, Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Penguin Books, 2009)

Nicole Hannah-Jones, “The Idea of America,” New York Times 1619 Project, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html.

Tim Hitchcock, “Place and the Politics of the Past,” Historyonics, July 11, 2012 blog, http://historyonics.blogspot.com/2012/07/place-and-politics-of-past.html.

T. Mills Kelly, Teaching History in the Digital Age (University of Michigan, 2013).

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