Alumna Sharon Leon uses technology to engage young history students
Sharon M. Leon, Ph.D. ’04
Like many scholars at the beginning of the 21st century, I begin my day with e-mail triage.
If a stranger were to wander through my inbox, she’d find a fairly even mix of messages from students alerting me to their new blog postings, from Web designers and programmers about new media projects, from other academics about 20th-century cultural history, and still others from museum curators and educators about a variety of public projects. Though this may seem like a strange array of communications, it is evidence of the convergence of my commitment to my work as a teacher, as a participant in the emerging field of digital humanities, and as an American studies scholar.
Since 2004 I have had the good fortune to be situated at the intersection of the academic and the digital, at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM) As director
of public projects at CHNM, I have an opportunity to participate in the many technical aspects of building different kinds of digital history projects for educators and cultural institutions. At
the same time, I teach both graduate and undergraduate students in the fields of American studies and American religious history. Necessarily, my work at the center profoundly influences the work that goes on in the classroom.
At CHNM, we are working on a host of projects that aim to use digital technologies to improve the teaching and learning of history. For example, Historical Thinking Matters, a site for high school students and their teachers that I codirect with the History Education Group at Stanford University, asks students to pursue authentic historical questions using small collections of primary sources. The site uses the best of the elements of Internet design and technology to reveal the process of historical analysis and to teach students how historians engage with new sources. Often the “moves" historians make are a mystery to students until they can watch professional historians encounter new material, make guesses, stumble, and reevaluate their assumptions as they work toward new conclusions.
The process of building a Web site that helps students to think concretely about how they approach critical analysis and then to construct historical narrative has had a tremendous impact on the way that I introduce material and construct activities for the undergraduates whom I teach. I am constantly looking for ways to use digital technology to facilitate critical engagement with course material. Rather than using the Web simply as a place to retrieve the course syllabus, my students use the online environment to begin our conversations about our reading and to extend our interactions beyond the classroom. Each week they write a blog posting providing close readings of our primary sources and critical analysis of our secondary readings, and then they respond to one another. This makes my job of guiding and fostering critical conversation in the classroom infinitely easier, because everyone is prepared to engage with the material and one another. Though this digital intervention resembles journaling, it opens students up to new possibilities by asking them to write to a wide audience and to enter into a public dialogue with their classmates.
When I arrived at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1997, I did not think of myself primarily as a teacher. Like many graduate students, I was focused on my own work. But at the same time, I knew that my thinking had been profoundly influenced by master teachers — individuals who were capable of asking just the right questions to bring students to some new understanding of our past, our culture, and our world. To this, I brought an interest in the ways that technology might help to facilitate deep engagement with the materials of the past — an interest that brought me to CHNM. CHNM’s mission, as articulated by our late founder, Roy Rosenzweig, is to use “digital media and computer technology to democratize history — to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past." Through this work I have come to understand teaching as part of a larger project of digital humanities, one that involves using technology to create environments that foster critical dialogue — for students, for teachers, and for the public.