Teaching Atlantic Slavery in World History with Digital Student Projects

One of my ongoing teaching and research questions concerns situating the Atlantic and Atlantic slavery in world history. To bring these topics to the attention of undergraduates, I have designed and implemented assignments that allow students to directly address comparative questions related to legal personality, indenture, slave trading, and transculturation. For a final assessment in an undergraduate seminar on comparative slavery, students created individual online exhibits to complete a project involving two case studies. The goals were a) to contextualize digital sources in historical ways b) to distill information for an online reader and c) to integrate and discuss two cases of slavery to form a coherent argument. The sites had to contain a minimum of three pages or sections incorporating images, text, and other media.

The basic requirements for the project included comparative analysis with supporting multimedia items; use of appropriate secondary sources from class or other academic texts; complete captions for all media; and a minimum of 2,000 words in the three combined pages. I graded the project on a rubric for its historiographical engagement, original arguments, comparative analyses, item captions, primary source use, and design.

Africans and Chinese Laborers project 1
Partial screenshot of an opening page from a student project on nineteenth-century Cuba.
Africans and Chinese Laborers project 2
Partial screenshot of a student project using of primary sources to discuss labor in Cuba.

Using a range of scholarly works, including Lisa Yun’s The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba, James Sweet’s Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World, and Kristin Mann’s Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900, students explored transregional approaches to study slavery. These methods were then intended to help students create accessible projects linking or comparing the experiences of historical subjects in the worlds of Atlantic slavery.

A Successful Lesson with Prism

As a tool for “crowdsourcing interpretation,” as its creators describe it, Prism is visually and functionally interesting for college students. This semester I used Prism to teach two texts in Latin American history, but one stood out as a good length and style for classroom use. Below, I’ve pasted a screen shot of how the class marked up an excerpt from Maria Eugenia Echenique’s essay “The Emancipation of Women” (1876). (This text was published for educational purposes by Harcourt Brace Custom Books and translated by Francisco Manzo Robledo.) I uploaded text and had my class sign up for Prism in small groups. They then read part of the essay and highlighted portions of the texts using three facets. Below, you can see how they understood the theme of legal culture working in this text. The other facets were “Gender Roles” and “Progress.” Three facets seems like a limited number, but I think adding more would not make the exercise as compelling or easy for students to conduct in groups.

Prism

My class found the Font Size Visualization feature appealing, though Winning Facet I think would be interesting in a larger class. The Font Size is easier to understand on impact and encouraged students to think about their ideas in relation to those of others. We were able to discuss where we strongly agreed and where some groups had different ideas. The Winning Facet Visualization takes some clicking to understand. Black text indicates places where facets were equally popular. For example, the author argues that Argentine women, “can manage the interests of our children, these rights being the basis for emancipation.” My students believed that managing children’s interests was equally applicable to gender roles and legal culture in nineteenth-century Argentina. Therefore, this portion of text had no winning facet. When we examined this phrase using the Font Size feature, we found that fewer groups had highlighted this section anyway. The combination of the two visualizations is really neat and helps students communicate their ideas with their peers. This exercise allows the class to quickly evaluate multiple opinions–where they overlap and where they diverge.

Like many educators, I have found Prism valuable. Thanks again to all the graduate students, librarians, and faculty at University of Virginia who support the Praxis Program, and the Scholars’ Lab in general. I am a huge fan!

 

Teaching with Podcasts

This semester I assigned a five-minute podcast on gender in Latin American history in my introductory course. I recommend this kind of project as a method for practicing speaking, building argument, getting experience with technology, and encouraging students’ interacting with peers. Students used Audacity, which caused few technological hiccups. The project involved a peer edit based on a rubric for clarity, length, accuracy, and persuasiveness. Though these were broad elements, they elicited useful qualitative comments from student partners during peer grading.

I requested feedback from the students regarding the assignment. One student mentioned that making the podcast immediately preceded an interview and provided preparation and practice for measured, clear speaking. Another student said that peer edits increased the quality of the podcasts; students wished to provide their peers with a good example of their work. For an introductory course, a podcast assignment is useful in conjunction with written essays to help students build distinct skills and communicate with their peers. Here is a site I consulted for instructions about audioblogging/podcasting. I look forward to incorporating more audio elements into my teaching.

I have consulted Dr. Lisa Spiro’s blog entry “Digital Pedagogy in Practice” for useful information about the rationale behind creating digital assignments. Her post, “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities” from a few years ago also comes recommended.

Omeka for Teaching

Attending THATCampAAR gave me some great teaching ideas, including using Omeka for student projects. This is a tool that makes it easy to place digital content in historical context, as evidenced here. A big thank you to Amanda French (GMU) for her workshop!

The first time I integrated a curated online exhibit as a project in a course was my first semester of teaching, through a Dean’s Teaching Fellowship at JHU. I used the digital media project in place of a final exam and had students execute their projects and present them in groups of three or four. The purposes were to present exhibits that contextualize digital sources in historical ways as well as build skills in presenting and explaining historical processes. The projects were stellar, but the stakes of the assignment were too high (40% of the final grade). I now would not consider weighting so much of a grade in a lower-division course toward a final project or exam. Still, the outcomes were good and the students built digital, written, and oral presentation skills.

Reglas de Congo snip
Screenshot of an Omeka site created for a lower-division Latin American history course in Spring 2014 at Johns Hopkins University.