For my final project of the Summer 2018 semester, I designed a “choose your own adventure” activity to teach users about the D-Day invasion.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction activity:
You are a WWII soldier from Bedford, Virginia, who’s an infantryman in the famed 116th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division.
You and your four best friends from high school all enlisted in the Army National Guard on December 8, 1941. Now, three years later, after training in both the United States and England, you are getting ready to cross the English Channel and invade Normandy, a northwest region of France.
Your choices will determine if you survive the war and make it back home to Virginia, or if you’ll die on the battlefield in France.
If you have completed the “choose your own adventure” activity, please submit a reflection.
For your portfolio post, write an essay that responds to one of the questions below, or some similar question or issue that you wish to explore:
What are the challenges we face as history educators with presenting the past in the digital world?
How have digital tools made it easier to teach about and help our audience(s) engage with the past?
Although archives and libraries have been around for centuries, there is now considerably more ease in accessing such sources. Accessibility is hardly the controversy; in fact, it is imperative to digitize many items and even exhibits in order to remain well-known and relevant. However, all this accessibility presents certain challenges in teaching about the past. As mentioned in Wineburg’s essay on “Why Historical Thinking Is Not Historical,” the plethora of information can often confuse rather than illuminate facts. Without a guide or a set of instructions, a student might as well be looking for a needle in a haystack when it comes to combing through the National Archives’ incredible digital collection. How can, when faced with an advanced-looking search bar, a student find the information he or she is looking for? Outside of the archive and the library, how can a student know if that information is incredibly biased or even real, especially if he or she knows nothing about the subject? There isn’t one lens to view the past through. While it is tempting to lament the elimination of gatekeepers, it’s actually a good thing for everyone to learn to become a gatekeeper of knowledge. Gatekeeping, therefore, means privileging certain sources over others, but hopefully making that distinction based on quality and not presentation. (Simple HTML websites can seem off-putting, but some have more/better information than slickly-designed “user experiences.”) How do you make a primary source book written in slanted cursive seem more interesting than a well-produced TV series (that may not be so accurate)? In the end, the digital world is an extraordinary way to understand the past, so long as the caveats are understood.
Given the current discussion about facts, real or “alternative,” how should we use what we know about historical thinking, public perceptions of the past, and what we can do with digital tools to promote a more accurate understanding of the past? Write a blog post that explores these questions.
I think Wineburg’s analysis is spot-on, and the scenarios that he describes are ones that I’ve worried about before. The Internet has a tendency to show you what you want to see (algorithms, anyone?), and so it can be bad for pluralism and worse for bigotry. Historical thinking, Wineburg argues, is not just limited to academic journals and doorstop textbooks. We need to apply historical thinking to all Internet readings. Yes, that does sound exhausting just writing about it, but media literacy (a term I prefer to historical thinking) is like a muscle that becomes easier to use when it is constantly exercised. I would also add rhetoric to a list of must-knows when it comes to media literacy, as recognized ad hominem attacks, for instance, will help you in establishing whether you should continue reading an article. Which rhetorical styles move an argument along? Also, check when you’re getting incredibly angry. Anger is the main motivator behind low-handed rhetoric and false facts.
When it comes to public perceptions of the past, I think it’s important for historians–from the renowned authors to the first-year graduate students–to put it out there, whether on Facebook or at an in-person event, that they are willing to talk about things like the Holocaust and Confederate monuments, especially if those subjects fall under their area of expertise. We need to take the first step and extend a hand, allow people to ask questions because they are genuinely curious. These conversations about the motivations behind the Confederacy can’t stay behind academic organizations, nor should they. The public would benefit from historians answering basic questions, even–especially–for adults who might be too embarrassed to ask what they think is “common knowledge.”
I didn’t know about whois.net or website.com. However, tools like those remind me that the Internet isn’t a completely bad place. There are tools made specifically to help you rather than to sell you something. Some creators do have the best intentions in mind, which can be hard to remember when you’re trudging through Amazon comments. I would add that the plethora of untrustworthy/untrue information out there can only be combatted with accessible information and sources.
In this activity, write a blog post and reflect on the previous interviews you watched in this module. Discuss how what you learned from the examples of work completed by other students changed your thinking about your final project. What will you do differently based on what you learned, and why?
If there was one common theme in these interviews, it was that everyone is going to overreach with their projects. Whether it’s because you work in the sources frequently or haven’t acknowledged your technological limitations, you will assume that you can do more than time–even more so than ability–allots. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, as projects can always be updated and expanded.
Since the beginning, I only had one goal when it came to the participants/students learning something: a lot of our everyday knowledge of World War II is built upon misconceptions and popular media. Even if my participants can’t retain every single fact or source I provide, my main hope was that they walk away with the sense that this event should be approached with more nuance and even a grain of salt. These interviews made me realize if I want to make sure people learn this message, I have to ask students afterward what they make of the information I’ve provided through the “choose-your-own-adventure” exercise. If they don’t understand that I’m trying to relay that World War II didn’t involve 110% sacrifice and patriotism from every single American citizen–and it’s okay that it didn’t!–I’ll have to think about how my project veered from that goal. Basically, the interviews and the exposure to other projects made me realize the importance of interactivity, as passive learning is rarely compelling and doesn’t remain in the brain for a long time.
In this activity, continue working on your final project.
Select a text that you wish to use in your final project and write a brief blog post explaining why you chose it and how you might use it.
For my final project, I would actually select two texts, both written by General Dwight D. Eisenhower on the subject of the Normandy invasion. One was seen by thousands of troops, while the other remained (thankfully) unseen for years: Eisenhower’s letter to the troops and his in-case-of-failure draft announcement.
This letter is a very important primary source document concerning D-Day. American troops received this letter before landing in France. It is a message to the troops, but Eisenhower also knows this letter will certainly be reproduced in newspapers and, eventually, textbooks. This is one of those moments where the participant knows that “history has its eyes on you.” (Shameless Hamilton plug there!) The letter has to balance optimism with realism, and I think Eisenhower straddles that line quite well. The rhetoric is heroic and soaring, meant to inspire a patriot to storm the beaches. It’s hard not to get swept up in his exclamation points and confident tone.
(If you listen to the audio recording of this speech, Eisenhower’s tone is more restrained and stilted than the letter implies. You can listen here.)
However, Eisenhower wrote a very different letter on June 5th, 1944. As the title implies, it was meant “in case of failure” of the invasion. Its tone is sobering. Because it is so short, I’ll quote the transcript here:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
It’s a really chilling document, and although it wasn’t distributed, it is another important primary source document because it is a window into Eisenhower’s state of mind. In fact, Eisenhower was so stressed out that he wrote “July 5” instead of “June 5.” (Not surprising, since he was chain-smoking like crazy in the week leading up to this invasion.) It also is a rare glimpse into a “what if” scenario, usually not endorsed by historians but in this case useful to think about to understand Eisenhower’s motivations in writing this.
I like comparing these two documents because they show how the writing of one person can vary wildly, depending on circumstance. The two documents also prove that underneath the bravado of Eisenhower’s more famous letter lies apprehension and anxiety. The “in case of failure” letter also exposes the reality that history was once the present: Eisenhower didn’t know which way history would go, so he had to prepare for both scenarios. There is a wonderful presentism in both of these documents, an experience that can be hard to come by when studying history. Nothing is inevitable, which is a message I’m trying to convey with this “choose your own adventure” project: there are many possible outcomes in the moment.
In this activity, continue working on your final project.
Select an image or video file that is related to your final project idea. Post it in your blog and answer the following questions: Why did you choose this image/video? Why might it be difficult for students or other audiences to analyze this source?
For my project, I want to utilize photos of the Bas-Relief Sculpture Panel along the ceremonial entrance walls of World War II Memorial. The panel above, “Enlistment,” is the second panel of the South Balustrade, which illustrates a timeline of the Pacific theater of World War II. For my project, which will be a “Choose Your Own Adventure” game(?), one of the first questions I plan to ask will is this: Do you enlist in the military, or do you wait to be drafted? This panel gives the impression that men volunteered for the military in droves in response to Pearl Harbor. In actuality, the majority (61.2 percent) of the millions serving were draftees. However, this fact somewhat contradicts with the narrative of the “Greatest Generation,” who–in simplest terms–put everything on hold and their lives on the line for their country. Knowing this fact now, would you judge someone for not enlisting? Why do we think of most WWII soldiers as enlistees? (Could this bas-relief panel be affecting our ideas of what a WWII soldier is?)
It is a bit hard to analyze this source, since these sculptures are forced to sacrifice text for a wholly visual, streamlined message. I imagine people would ask if it’s fair to project all these assumptions onto this panel. After all, it is at the World War II Memorial, which has a clear purpose on the National Mall and in our national history and memory. Even part of me is swept up in a wave of patriotism when I look at these sculptures. However, a critical eye doesn’t have to detract from the art or from its purpose.
In this activity, think back through what you wrote in response to the previous readings, and discuss a way that you plan to use images and/or film in the work that you do (or might do) as a history educator either as a consumer or a producer. As a consumer, what images/film do you think you might use and how will you use that media to lead your audience to deeper historical inquiry? As a producer, how would you use digital storytelling in a classroom or public history setting?
As you write this blog post, be sure to think back about what you have already written on historical thinking.
As much as I love to consume historical images and/or film, I enjoy producing far more. Something about the idea of finding or pointing out something new in an image or film makes me feel connected to history, where the “past is not past.” (Shoutout to William Faulkner.) When I’ve visited newer museums, videos are an integral part of exhibits. Although the cynical might call this a passive museum experience, I see it as a practical museum experience. In a place like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, there’s only so much room and time for all the viewers to crowd around an exhibit item or noteworthy plaque. A video can be viewed by dozens comfortably rather than by three people breathing down one another’s necks.
If exhibit items are supposed to form a narrative, you might want to connect the dots and make a video of that narrative. Sometimes, a museum exhibit cannot be viewed in the perfect narrative order; a video cannot help but be. Even if someone begins watching a video in a museum halfway through, it usually intrigues them enough to stay until they can restart and watch up to where they had previously joined. If you want to give people an overview before presenting them with niche objects, use a video. Videos are wonderful introductions, the perfect medium for reaching people who might not normally be in your audience. I don’t want a video to do the thinking for my viewers, but I do want it to set a foundation.
In a brief blog post, describe your intended audience for the final project and why you chose that audience.
Initially, my intended audience for my project was just going to be military history buffs (or _____ War buffs, depending on if I decide to focus on a particular war). However, upon further thinking, it might be best for me to–gasp–take on the role of a teacher for this project. Therefore, I might want to think of my project as a model for other teachers, something that they would feel comfortable using in their classrooms. However alien it is for me to consider myself a teacher (I’ve never, ever considered that career trajectory, mostly because I am terrible at explaining things), I think having an audience of teachers puts me outside my comfort zone in a good way. After all, it’s easy for me to communicate with people who share the same interests as me–they’re basically me! It’s more useful for my project to be a template for teachers, as then students will firsthand learn to correct these misconceptions. If I want to reach students who know little but have the potential to become very interested, I need to reach their teachers.
In this activity, write a blog post that addresses the following questions:
Now that you have had a chance to think carefully about teaching students or museum visitors about the past, think more about the project ideas you have in mind. Choose one of the possible projects you’ve been thinking about and write a brief response to these questions: How will digital media and/or digital tools be important to teaching my target audience one of the essential lessons I’ll be focusing on in my project? What, specifically, about the digital environment will influence what you do and why?
Since my project will exist entirely online, in conjunction with no particular museum or historical site, I think the hardest part about my project will be people even knowing that there’s a project. However, I feel that, with the Internet being the Internet, it’s better to put something out there than not at all, especially to combat lots of misinformation floating around online. It’s easy for many sites to compile listicles of common misconceptions, so I want to go beyond that and consider why certain misconceptions are misconceptions. For instance, why do we believe that World War II soldiers were universally hailed and given parades upon their return home? Well, adulation of World War II veterans propagates the narrative that World War II was “good” and its generation was “The Greatest Generation.” (Thanks, Tom Brokaw.) Movies and TV (not from the time, but recent ones) also lend to this mythology. In a way, that explanation is more interesting than simply saying, “There were no parades, goodbye.” I want to show historical documents from the time, like the film The Best Years of Our Lives, which–coming out in 1946–is a contemporary view that directly contrasts with how we view the homecoming of World War II veterans 70+ years later. The beauty about the digital world is that I can include video clips (though copyright may thwart some of my efforts), photographs, and textual evidence that can immediately head off criticisms of “well, I saw in Saving Private Ryan…” Viewers will hopefully abandon their misconceptions when presented with evidence, especially when they realize they don’t have any evidence other than the thrice-removed anecdote and terrible period piece film.
I don’t have any fancy plans for my webpage, but I want to do more than a center-justified photo and Times New Roman text underneath it, with some hideous yellow background to match. (Don’t worry, I’m making fun of myself as much as anyone else; I “designed” websites like that in the fourth grade.) I don’t want the webpage to be a gallery of images (that’s too much like my “Price of Freedom” exhibit reboot); I want to present a compelling article with lots of side-links. I want all the misconceptions on one page, then each misconception can have its own page where it presents how the misconception came to be, why it’s false, and the importance of correcting such misconceptions beyond being pedantic.