During my first decade of teaching history at Drury, I faced one consistent challenge when it came to research papers. To be sure, it did not involve getting students to see the value of history. And it did not concern showing them that the study of the past illuminates the nature of the present. Instead, I struggled to convince the majority of students to see historical research as a process rather than task. No matter what approach I tried, there was always some group of students who always started working on their papers later, rather than earlier, in a term. As a result, these students produced papers that were less than satisfactory as works of historical scholarship.
To address this issue I tried an experiment last semester in my Vietnam War and American Society class. At the beginning of the term I assigned students to seven or so research teams. My thinking was that students who worked together on a project might feel a collective, rather than an individual, responsibility to do research. I then assigned these teams a single iconic Vietnam War-era photograph to research. Examples included Hubert Van Es’s “Saigon Evacuation” photo, which showed the “last American helicopter” leaving Saigon in 1975, and Malcolm Browne’s “Self Immolation” photograph, which captured the flaming suicide of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in Saigon in 1963.
I also wanted students to understand that historical research can be an interactive as well as a collaborative process. Towards that end, I curated a digital learning project at the course blog (http://vietnamandamericansociety.wordpress.com/
) for the class. At this site students documented and shared their research findings about their photographs with their classmates and with the wider online community. They did so by making weekly blog posts about their research progress. If students found a unique source or an important piece of information related to their projects, I wanted them to explain its significance and share their findings with their classmates. Other students in the class could then post comments and give feedback on the blog.
The course’s subject matter allowed for another unique wrinkle in the research process. The Vietnam War had ended only decades ago, which meant that many of the people who appeared in the photos or had taken them were still alive, and thus were potential historical sources that students could tap. I encouraged students to try to track down these individuals and to then ask them if they’d agree to be interviewed for the purposes of historical research.
Two teams did particularly remarkable work in this area. First-year student Olivia Willoughby spearheaded the first team’s efforts. She contacted peace activist Jan Rose Kasmir, who appears in a photo taken by Mark Riboud at a protest at the Pentagon in October 1967. In it, Kasmir offers a flower to National Guardsmen as they point bayonets at her and the larger group of protestors. Willoughby interviewed Kasmir a number of times during the semester and facilitated a Skype session between Kasmir and the other students on her team. Through this research, students learned Kasmir’s motivations regarding her offer of a flower to the soldiers. She also explained how she got involved in the antiwar movement.
The second team looked into a famous photo taken at the Kent State Massacre of 1970. First year student Alec Presley built a relationship with the man who took it, photographer Jon Filo. Filo was a student at Kent State University in 1970 when he snapped a photo of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio as she gazed at horror at the dying Jeffrey Miller, who lay bleeding on the ground. Filo won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for the image, which is one of the most important photographs in American history. Presley and his teammates interviewed Filo. During the conversation, he shared his experiences and talked about the photo’s impact on his life and on America’s history.
While the cultivation of these relationships by our students speaks to the commitment of these two teams, I can report that a strong majority of students seemed to have shifted their view of the research process. They got engaged earlier in the semester and remained involved in the building of their research base during the term. Did the blog and team approach drive this process? I’d say they did. My take is that the blog encouraged this class to see research as an interactive and collaborative process. I also think that the need to be accountable not only to their fellow students but also to history buffs who might read the blog prompted the class to take a more serious approach to historical research.
At Drury, faculty members strive to engage and challenge students. But as professors, we also look to challenge ourselves as instructors. Five years ago, if someone had asked me if a course blog could improve learning, I would have been skeptical. But after last semester, I tell others that the work done on the course blog changed the way that students approached historical research. I also tell them the experience altered the way I will teach future history courses here at Drury.
Greg Renoff is an Associate Professor of History at Drury University