Key Concepts of Historical Thinking

Historical thinking is a way of thinking that is learned, “unnatural art”. It is not a natural process or something that springs automatically from the psychology. It is the reading, analysis and writing that’s necessary to tell stories. It’s not only what we know about the past but how we know it. It gives people the ability to perceive the experience of others. Coming to know others, whether they live on the other side of the tracks or the other side of millennium, requires the education of sensibilities. This is what history, when taught well, gives us practice in doing. It makes us go beyond our own image, our brief life, and the fleeting moment into human history into which we were born. The goal of historical thinking/understanding is situating ourselves in the time and space, we cultivate the empathy for logics we do not possess or share.

There are five aspects of historical thinking: multiple accounts and perspectives, analysis of primary sources, sourcing, understanding historical context, claim-evidence connection.

There are two types of historical knowledge: substantive and procedural knowledge. Substantive knowledge is what historical knowledge is about—the content of history. It usually takes the form of narrative. The procedural knowledge structural basis for the discipline. The concepts such as evidence and empathy are conceptual tools needed for the study of the past as a discipline and the construction of the content of historical knowledge. It is the knowledge of how we research and make an interpretation of the past. The procedural understanding of the concepts which are the tools to understand history is

  1. What is important in the past? —historical significance
  2. What changed and what remained the same? — Continuity and change
  3. Did things change for better or worse?—Progress and decline
  4. How do we make sense pf raw materials of the past?—Evidence
  5. How can we understand predecessors who had different moral frameworks?—Historical empathy.

To examine the evidence, which is the major work of history research and learning, is made up of external criticism and internal criticism. External criticism is to examine carefully the nature and origin of the sources, not the content. Internal criticism is to examine the content of the source to establish its internal validity and reliability.

Three questions about history teaching:

  1. I agree that historical thinking is very important in students’ history learning. It is the method to read, analyze and write history. History is not only about facts. The question: how can I train students with historical thinking while teaching history each week. Now the history teaching is one-direction flow. I talk and they listen and one section of discussion each week. The class schedule is so full that I don’t find the time slot to talk about historical thinking. Now sometimes with online teaching, it’s more challenging. I am thinking if I should use one class to talk on historical thinking or I teach this way of thinking a bit week by week. It’s not only a methodology but students need to practice.
  2. The second question is for low-level history classes such as history 101, students are from various majors and history may not be their strong point. How can I attract these students to history and help them succeed in the class? My current practice is to spark their interest by linking the past to the present so that they can talk. I write long comment on their papers to advise them on how to write an academic paper. But I wonder if there are more ways to help them learn history effectively.
  3. Online teaching gets more and more popular. Besides uploading PDF files and videos, I wonder if there are some other ways that can improve teaching. I think of collaborative learning or crowdsourcing a project so that the students do not feel they learn history all alone in the class. But are there other ways?

Self Introduction

My name is Xiao which means smile in Chinese.  Currently I am a PhD candidate of Southern Illinois University completing my dissertation on the first Chinese woman who obtained a college degree in the U.S. Before enrolling in the PhD program, I was a TV journalist on the international news.

Thanks to the experience, I have video editing skills. My other digital skills are from the courses I had with George Mason University’s digital public humanities program. I did text-mining, mapping, visualization and Omeka.

Here are two term projects I did, this one maps the early Chinese immigration routes to the U.S. by excavating the information in the Chinese Exclusion files:

The next one is digital project demonstrating the Chinese immigration history in the U.S.:

These two projects not only gave me great opportunities to practice what I learned but also stimulated me to gain other skills to improve the quality of them. For example, during the time I did the project on the Chinese immigration history with Omeka, I learned basic source coding to change the outlook of many places in the website.

I have great interest in using these digital tools to enhance my history research and teaching.  The mapping of early Chinese immigration to the U.S. had an unexpected result: it showed that most of the Chinese under Chinese Exclusion period did not settle in California but on the East coast. This was surprising because it was usually assumed California was the state that held the most Asian population. This was not true, according to the map. This story is an interesting reminder that the digital tools can help a researcher have new findings by revisiting data. I hope that more knowledge of digital tools would make my research easier and more interesting.

My interest in digital tools as a history teacher lies in teaching the students to use these tools for their research or for their presentation of a project.  This Teaching and Learning History in Digital Age course comes at good time because I am scheduled to teach digital history next semester. I can’t wait to share these cool digital tools with the students. But I also look forward to apply some digital history knowledge to other courses I will teach in the future. So, I have great interest in this summer course because I expect to gain some great ideas or inspiration from it. This is also the principal learning goal of mine.

As a Ph.D of history, I will probably teach and research in a higher education institute. Living in a digital age, I think it requires a history researcher and teacher to have more skills than before when history was only about archives, reading and writing. This change is provides great opportunities as well as challenges to the history professionals. To have command of some digital tools will enhance my professional portfolio, making me a more competitive researcher and teacher. This course of teaching and learning history in digital age is a perfect place where I can try to combine the digital tools I learned before with the pedagogy and see how to apply them in classroom. Currently I can only think of teaching digital  history. I hope to learn how to apply digital tools in other history courses.

final thought of the public history course

I have great experience and progress in this digital public history course. Before the course, I barely have any idea of public history and at the end of the course, I have good knowledge of public history including genre, audience, design, evaluation, collection and evaluation. While learning these things, I was gaining hands-on experience by building my own public history project—The Chinese At America’s Gate—by Omeka. It is such great public history experience that I not only gained knowledge of public history but also some technological knowledge such as writing a source code.

I was impressed with the difference between a physical exhibition and an online exhibition on the same topic. I used to visit a small museum which also had online presentation. Both physical and online presentations have their advantages but for the museum I visited, I prefered the physical site. This sparked my thought over how to make the best of the advantages of virtual presentation so that it can attract people, at least as many as, the physical exhibitions in the museums.

To  find your target audience is important before starting a public history project. To take my Chinese immigration project as an example. My target audience is the general public, most of who may not have any knowledge of the Chinese immigrants in the U.S. I looked around, found randomly a few common people, and built personas for them. These personas are used to remind me all the time what my project is for and what goal of the project is. This is important because it decides the language and design of the project, the strategy to promote the project and the improvement I will make of the project. Sometime this is not easy because as I built the project along, I unconsciously followed my own interest and my own profession (historian) rather than think from the perspective of my target audience. I think this is why it is very useful to do the paper prototyping and evaluation. This can save a lot of time in a way because it is challenging to select material such as how much should you get, what types of information should you include and how to write interestingly so that it attracts people to read on. With so many decisions to make, it’s important to keep who is your audience in mind first because it takes quite some time to rebuild the project.

A great advantage of digital public history is it can reach a wider public, with unlimited amount of information. So I have been very excited and hopeful to build my Chinese immigration history project by Omeka. There are a few things I gained by building this project:

First, it expands and deepens my understanding of Chinese immigration to the U.S. I have read a lot, by books and on the Internet before I decided what to put on the website. This selection of information accumulated my knowledge of Chinese immigration history and exercised my skill to prepare public history for the targeted audience. In short, as a historian, I gained more professional knowledge when I tried to disseminate knowledge to others.

Second, by exploring Omeka, I gained great skills of web design. Sometimes it takes time to figure out how to add a background picture or adjust the font and type of letters as you wish. But this was fun exploration though sometimes it was frustrating when you failed many times. Overall, I gained great digital skills to build an Omeka project. I can write the source code, embed pictures and Kepler gl. maps, and make “exhibits.” I especially enjoy the source coding because it is very interesting for me, if I know how to write a source code and therefore change the outlook of the things such as font and or embed maps. These skills will help me in any project I want to present to the public.

Third, get feedback from target audience from time to time to check that you are on the “right track”. This can help you succeed after completing the project. The feedback is very useful. For example, it tells me not to overcrowd the web pages so as to keep the audience interested in further exploration of the project. It tells me to mind my language because I may not notice it when some words and passages are for history processionals rather than the general public.

Due to the limit of time and strength, my Chinese immigration project in this semester focuses on the Chinese Exclusion Act period. I will continue to build the website bit by bit as I collected more material on other periods and I have more time.

I owe many thanks to the instructor of the course, Dr.Kelly, for his timely reply to my questions and to my classmates who gave me constructive suggestions on my project. With them, I have very fruitful semester learning digital public history and gaining interesting and useful knowledge.





The Final Project

The final project records the contributions and tribulations of the Chinese in America from 1850s to now. Their hardworking experience and their struggle for equal rights have been integral part of the American legacy. It is a path of success, tears, struggle and pride. Through this project, I try to make my argument to the audience that as an immigrant group, the Chinese did not only contributed to this country like other immigrant groups but also managed to thrive against the widespread racism upon Asians in America, culminating in the passage of Chinese Exclusion Act. My project uses the historical resources to show the duplicity of Chinese immigrant experience—struggle as new comers and as legally discriminated ethnic group—and the complexity of the immigrant experience which includes both good and bad stories.

In my preliminary research before doing this project, I did not find an online project that covers the various sides of the Chinese experience in America and the immigrants from the first batch of Chinese to current ones. The online sources usually focus on Chinese Exclusion Act, the content and some government documents. There is not such a website that collects individual things such as birth certificate, residence certificate and marriage certificate of Chinese immigrants in Chinese exclusion period that can show Chinese immigration history from a micro-perspective and what the Chinese Americans think about their experience in America after 1965 when the immigration quota on ethnic groups was removed.  As my project expands from the initial contact of China and America (Old China Trade) to 1990s, it is a good opportunity for me to collect the historical resources scattered in many places and combine them into my website. There are government papers and individual diaries. There are Chinese Exclusion Files that record the Chinese immigrants one hundred years ago and there are documentaries on the current Chinese Americans talking about their life experience in America. So, for academic purpose, my project is an ambitious trial that investigates and demonstrates the Chinese immigrants’ experience from 1850s to the present, from first immigrants to current Chinese Americans and the primary sources such as pictures and letters that are scattered in many other places. It is an extension and expansion of my dissertation on Yamei Kin, the first Chinese woman who obtained a college degree. She graduated from Women’s Medical College of New York Infirmary  in 1885.

For practical purposes, my project aims to disseminate knowledge about Chinese immigrants in America to the general public. So, it is a public history project. The projects tries to be an online museum that covers multiple sides of Chinese immigration history. The language is easy to understand and the visuals can spark visitors’ interest in further exploring the website. The project will help the community to better understand the Chinese immigrants who are part of American history and break some stereotypes, both good and bad, about the Chinese immigrants. By making such a complex project on Chinese immigrants, I hope the general public would gain new understanding of both the Chinese and the United States.

There are a few ways to evaluate my work.

  1. reading test. The target audience is the general public. So, I hope to make simple reading tests to learn if my language on the website is ok.
  2. The frequency of visit to the website. I need to figure out a way to track the visiting to the website.
  3. Comments on social media. I will promote once a week one thing in my website to attach and keep public attention such as an immigrant’s story or a picture of Chinese marriage certificate in the U.S. The comments on the website and on these individual items will reflect what the public think of the project.
  4. An online discussion forum. Ideally I hope to have such a forum on my webpage but it is not doable under current circumstances. I see this forum as an important place for idea exchange and comments, both positive and negative. I look forward to the negative comments because they usually show where I can improve. Social platforms can do so but many people, especially who know me personally, might hold their negative thought back. If I can’t have such a forum on the webpage, I will try to create a post regularly on the social media platform to collect comments.
  5. Questionnaires. It takes time to promote it on social media and get feedback so I’m thinking about asking the people around me for their evaluation. Such people include the course instructor and classmates of this class, the professors, classmates, and general public in the town where I live. I will invite them to visit the websites and collect their opinion through questionnaire.


Learning From Public History

As the technologies and the Internet have take hold in almost every aspect of life, digital tools gradually expand our ability to research, teach and demonstrate. Digital public history has effectively reach a broader audience and broken the space limit in a public history exhibit. However, the methods and technologies of public history offline still provides useful lesson for the digital public history works today. The digital public history is in some ways different from the traditional public history thanks to the digital means but in some ways an extension of it.

A major influence of public history on the digital public history is how to organize the stories. With so many resources in hand, it challenges the historians’ ability to turn the mute objects (pictures, diaries, newspapers etc) into stories and  to “furnish imagination with the makings of good stories.” (Richard Rabinowitz, eavesdropping at the well). The interpretive media, for example, plays a much important role in the success of such a project. The good arrangement of stories can also effectively express and communicate the historical ideas. The interpretive media such as display technique, audio-visual programs and graphic annotations brought visitors and virtual visitors emotionally closer to the experience of the history exhibited. For example, in the northern slavery exhibition in New York city, the exhibition organized focuses each gallery on a particular story exemplifying and dramatizing the era rather than assign the space to cover one time-period. This method, together with other literary devices such as flashbacks and contrasts in tone, brings visitors closer to lives of the enslaved, transforming them from objects to subjects. The interpretive design from public history can also be applied to digital public history. Digital tools can help us organize and arrange stories with unlimited space and bigger variety of resources. But the public history still provides good ideas about how to keep the audience focused and attracted to the exhibit. No matter what the means, the content of the exhibition is the most important, online and offline.

The engagement with the public is another way that influences the digital public history work created today. The interpretative approach asks us to collect resources from multiple perspective and arrange them to show an argument and attract the audience. Community history, oral history, social media such as blogs and twitter all provide the opportunities for a historian to collect, record and interpret history with resources from different perspectives, engaging regular people to participate in the history. This engagement with the public not only attracts more people to participate in the history projects, keeping them from being monopolized by academics or history professionals’s interpretation but also enhances historians’ research work by “crowdsourcing” the resources. With more resources on hand and better arrangement of stories, the historians can make the public history not “a book on the wall” but a dynamic history show that expresses historical ideas and animates wider public’s interest in history.

Update On My Project IV

This week, I continue to upload the material needed for my project. Besides the Chinese in America, I think it is good to add the historical context before the Chinese arrived in America, starting from the old China trade between the U.S. and China.

Besides updating the material, I also tried out the technical features of Omeka such as simple pages and added some features on the front page.

For the rest of this week, I plan to finish the uploading work and construct the website. The school library is closed now due to the Covid-19. This creates some problems to borrow books for reference. Not all things I need are on the Internet such as a brief history of China or the immigration history of America. I need these books to check if I leave out any important event in Chinese Americans’ history.

Besides this problem, I need to learn the technical features of Omeka to make the website look more beautiful and professional. I hope I can finish uploading material as soon as possible then have more time to study Omeka.

Update on the project III

This week, I focus on my efforts to collect information on a massive immigration fraud after the 1906 earthquake of San Francisco. This is a big event in Chinese American history because after the earthquake, there came suddenly a lot of Chinese Americans. Many people took advantage of the destroyed documents and burned papers of a fire caused by the 8.0-scale earthquake. Many claimed they were born in America and therefore American citizens. They used this event as a way to circumvent Chinese Exclusion Act which banned Chinese immigrants to the U.S. I’m collecting the government papers, historical research papers, the Chinese Exclusion files of the Chinese to explore the facts and consequence of the 1906 earthquake on Chinese immigration history.

Like what I said the last update on the project, I plan to collect and upload all material first then construct the website. The sudden close of school and restaurants because of coronavirus makes me lag behind my previous plan a little because I need to reschedule many things  but things gradually return to normal now.  I will catch up with my work in the next few days.

The Use of Historypin

The software I used is historypin, a crowdsourcing archive website where a user can pin a place on google map and upload pictures, videos and texts related to the place. The users can overlay the historical pictures on google street views where the users can see what the place looked like before and now. The place I go to is South Illinois Avenue, Carbondale, Illinois.

The techniques they use are mainly location and preference based. It uses google map to provide the geo-location and a user who is interested in the place and want to share any historical thing about the place uploads it based on the location he’s interested in and pins. Besides pin a place, the user can also “crowdsource” the place by creating a collection so that both the user and other people who might be interested can contribute. The user can also search the place in the website and see what pinned places near him. Even if he does not pin the place or upload things, he can enjoy what other people uploaded about the place such as photos. On google street view, if you click the pinned place, you can see what the place looked like before and the picture overplayed upon the map. For example, by clicking the numbers on the street pinned by other people, I can see the pictures of the past about the place. The location of a student dorm building now  was a sports shop and a book store in 1970. By being present in the location, a user has a better historical experience by looking at the current place while contrasting it to the image on the phone. By such interactive features, the website can attract both users and contributors.

The theory it puts forward is the public history from a bottom-up approach. Serving as a crowdsourcing website, historypin actively integrates the public into the historical exhibits, sources collection and the creation of historical projects. The public must be more interested in pubic history making by the in-person participation. It makes history relevant and lively to the public life, playing an educational as well as fun-making role for the public. This engagement of users also makes curators’ work much easier by contributing archives and categorizing the material in collections.

The Update On The Project II

This week, I mainly collected and selected material to be uploaded on my website. The work is still going on, mainly focusing on the “immigrants’s stories” part. I would like to demonstrate through individuals the achievement, tribulation, or just ordinary people’s life under Chinese Exclusion Act.  Yamei Kin, the first Chinese woman doctor who obtained a medical degree, I’m writing my dissertation on her and I am selecting the material from the sources for dissertation to upload. For other Chinese immigrants, I read stories on the website to select who to include in my website. For this “immigrants’s stories” part, I think I might need to write the story by myself for some immigrants rather than copy and paste, like a short essay, because the sources are scattered in different files, books and online sources.

The challenges I face now is 1. some of the pictures I uploaded do not have metadata and subtitles because to save time when I constructed the website, I didn’t input them. I need to make up the work. 2. the webpage seems only be able to show the original size of the pictures I upload. This causes the problem that some pictures are big while the texts I match with them are small, making the webpages look ugly. There are other options to arrange the pictures such as thumbnail, I tried them all but still don’t solve this problem. 3. The theme of the website does not match well the content. The current color and design are not good enough. I tried to make a new plugin of a theme but in Omeka it says the plugin is not valid. I will try new ones later. 4. The titles on the webpage, including that of the whole website, don’t catch eyes enough. I’m thinking to have better titles of categories. This takes time.

In short, currently I am reading, collecting and selecting material for the website. I plan to take care of the design and construction work after I upload all the material I need. At that time, I may have technical problems in the process. But for now, the challenges are what I stated in the paragraph above.

the update on the project

My project on the Chinese in America is in the phase where I upload various historical material. Thanks to the past experience, I find it is faster to set up the frame and build the website by uploading all the things first. I used to upload some things, build a subsection and in middle of this work, I found I needed more things then I went back to upload. I found this pretty time-consuming and inefficient. So, now I changed my strategy and am trying to collect as many archives as possible and upload them together.

The challenge I face when I do the project is my knowledge of omeka. I know the basic skills now to use it but it needs improving. For example, I don’t know how to make the webpage look more beautiful and professional. I tried to use new appearance rather than  pick one of the default three but Omeka showed the new plugin is not valid. Another example is I would like to embed pages inside one webpage in the forms of tab, like this .  In the future, I need time to solve such technical problems and make my website look great.

My plan is to finish first uploading all the material I need for the project then devote a whole block of time to read study the instructions on the Omeka forum on how  to organize and demonstrate the things better.