An elderly woman approaches a table, behind which stand excited university students. She tightly clutches a stack of yellowing papers, her favorite selections from her collection of Ragtime sheet music. She’s been collecting sheet music for about sixty years, and each piece is important to her for the time and effort she spent tracking them down and the memories of her musical childhood they evoke. She eyes the students; they are young—only undergraduates—but they are polite and professional. It’s evident they’ve been trained carefully to handle historical artifacts, and so she loosens her grip on her treasures and lays them on the table; her lips open, and out pours a story of a Lost Generation, a nation divided by color but united through jazz, and plunking piano keys in the childhood of a girl who grew up in 1950s Omaha.
This is what I imagine, anyway, when I, an undergraduate student of history myself, read about the collection of Janice Cleary, a resident of Omaha, Nebraska. She’s one of hundreds of Nebraskans and Virginians who’ve participated in the University of Nebraska and JMU’s “History Harvests“, headed by Professors of History, William G. Thomas III and Patrick D. Jones (of the University of Nebraska) and Andrew Witmer (of JMU). The aim of the project is “to create a popular movement to democratize and open American history” by inviting members of a community to bring their artifacts to be examined and digitally archived by undergraduate students of history.
The event is usually set up around a theme that has local significance; railroad history, local black history, refugee history, and the history of religion in surrounding counties are all examples of what has already been done. In the words of the professors, the Harvests “must be organic, grassroots, and local” to generate community support and to ensure that the objects being digitally archived really contribute to the sense of “the people’s history.”
It is immediately apparent that this project has great educational significance. How many colleges and universities aim to give their students hands-on opportunities in their fields of study? I think it’s safe to say most of them. And here is the perfect opportunity, where students are handling artifacts which might never have been seen before, connecting with the community, hearing oral histories, collecting data, and categorizing it all online for the rest of the world to access. Although undergraduate students are commonly involved in the archival process (we here at House Divided do the same things), the History Harvests are unique in that they place real significance in the ordinary objects of the past.
Yet it is not so obvious just how great is the project’s educational significance, especially to the realm of online education. MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are still on the up and up, and Professor Thomas has announced his plans for a “MOOC-like” course designed around the concepts of a History Harvest, to be launched in Spring of 2014. It is not clear what this online course would look like, beyond that it will be different than most MOOCs in that it will be open to professor-led classes of other colleges, rather than open to any joe-shmoe on his own in front of a computer.
But can American history really be “democratized and opened” through the medium of a MOOC? Should it? Already, the course undercuts its own aims by cutting out those students who are learning at home by themselves and only allowing tuition-paying, residential college students to benefit from the experience of handling and digitally archiving the artifacts. But how many students learning on their own are qualified to handle the treasures of people like Janice Cleary?
I think the History Harvests themselves are a fresh approach to teaching historical methods. It will be interesting to see how the MOOC fleshes out. And as a tuition-paying, residential college student, I’d take the class.
This post is part of a series on “Making History Online” that involves an examination of open online learning. Students and faculty at the House Divided Project at Dickinson College are collaborating this summer on a new open, online course called, “Understanding Lincoln,” taught by Prof. Matthew Pinsker and covering ways to teach Abraham Lincoln’s legacy using close readings of his most important writings. This new type of online course represents a unique partnership between Dickinson College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The course is available for both graduate credit and free participation. Registration for the course closes on Friday, July 19, 2013. For more information, go to https://www.gilderlehrman.org/programs-exhibitions/understanding-lincoln-graduate-course.