Incorporation of Historical Thinking Research
The “More to This Than Meets the Eye” prototype site serves as a student guide to explore American perceptions of the Caribbean during the period of U.S. expansionism at the turn of th 20th century. Through the examination of 1898 War political cartoons as primary sources, the site is geared toward helping learners engage in the “practice of uncovering the past” (Levesque), encouraging them to generate historical questions, such as: What can we learn from political cartoons? What messages are conveyed by cartoonists? What persuasive techniques are employed to shape my opinion on a topic? Why can they be so difficult to decipher? This inquiry approach facilitates learners’ development of historical thinking skills to critically analyze evidence and to create and evaluate their own interpretations.
Throughout the site, learners can identify and investigate these complexities as they encounter evidence, starting from the smallest detail to the “big picture”. To think historically, the site includes an overview section with learning objectives, a section on unpacking the meanings of political cartoons, activities (three main ones, and three additional ones), a cartoon gallery, and a selection of primary and secondary sources for contextualization and corroboration. All activities were designed to scaffold the thinking of history, or as Becker pronounced on his AHA presidential address, to “bring it alive in consciousness”.
The first activity is a zoom-in inquiry that directs learners to think about an unfamiliar evidence presented to them, in this case, the cartoon “School Begins”, and to jumpstart the process of examination and interpretation of a difficult primary source. Instructors using this activity would help their learners lose their fears about reading complex visual representations. The activity consists of revealing a small portion of the image and prompting them to pose initial observational questions, like: What do you see? How do you describe who and what you see in this image? As they transition to more complete sections of the image, instructors can guide the audience into reading a gradual complex situation and posing more interpretive and evaluative questions, such as: What persuasive techniques does the cartoonist use to depict relationships between different cultural groups? This activity addresses Levesque’s advocacy for more procedural knowledge building skills, for “by doing so, we uncover the careful, analytic process involved in investigating the past.” (36) The zoom-in inquiry presentation guides students to both sourcing a primary source to determine its reliability and to contextualizing it to better grasp the long-term impact American depictions of the newly acquired territories created during the short-lived Spanish-American War.
In Activity 2, learners continue their involvement with contextualization practices through the reading of a secondary source and the analysis of two cartoons. The scholarly article “Images of Empire: Popular Representations of the 1898 War.” (Gleach) is intended for scholars to engage in the “reading against the grain” of visual presentations produced in the past, including cartoons, and in the understanding of cultural meanings that Americans had assigned to Caribbean populations during the 1898 War. The second part of this activity is a close reading of one cartoon to determine the following questions: What type of audience would agree or disagree with the cartoon’s message? What are the diminishing processes behind these depictions of Caribbean populations? Can these past viewings be persistent and problematic even to the present day? How so? And just like Activity 2, this second activity requires learners to slow down and pay close attention to the details of what they observe and to decipher the persuasive language used by cartoonists to convey their messages.
The third activity, which instructs learners to create a zoom-in presentation, is about articulating their own processes of historical knowledge-building. Through this imaginative construction (Becker), learners would enter into a spiral path of inquiry (already rehearsed in previous activities) that will help them expand their “specious present”. Through the use of Google Slides, learners can generate what Becker called the own “artificial extension of memory”, one that helps them make sense of their thought patterns and orient them in their “little world of endeavor”. This product-creation activity focuses on self-awareness and self-reflection. All exercises in the Additional Activities section are geared towards corroboration of evidence. The inclusion of other primary sources can serve as portals to understanding how these may support or oppose arguments being made by cartoonists. They get to ask questions about important details across political cartoons, newspaper articles, and a school play; prompting them to go back and forth between sources and reconsider their initial arguments.
Revisions and Changes During the Process of Creating the Site
There were three main revisions and changes I had to make during the process of making the “More to This Than Meets the Eye” site: (1) switch primary source types, (2) switch platforms, and (3) switch audience. The postcards I had originally envisioned as my primary source were not ready to be used, as the contributor, Prof. Frederich Gleach (Cornell University), had no immediate access to the backside of them. Not having this piece of the puzzle prevented a closed reading and analysis of evidence. As an alternative, Gleach suggested working with a selection of political cartoons he had used for his article “Images of Empire”, which would facilitate a discussion on how to make sense of American cultural depictions of Caribbean’s peoples and spaces. This change, which evolved into Activity 2, provided me with the chance to work with an unfamiliar primary source around which to build the site.
Another learning curve I had to overcome was building a site using WordPress. As part of the George Mason graduate certificate program, I have successfully learned how to build collections and exhibits with Omeka, play with some neat mapping and annotation plugins, and curate items with the use of DublinCore metadata elements. And while Omeka is suitable for making archival collections discoverable and integrable, for the purposes of this site, I decided to experiment with a platform with more customization capabilities, something that WordPress offered. Having created blog posts with WP provided me with some level of familiarity with WP, but I still had to figure out how to make a website this platform. I finally learned how to embed shortcodes for image galleries, text accordions, and Google slides.
The third change, switching the audience, was the most difficult to address. I intended to build a teacher-centric site, where instructors could access a teaching guide, a lesson plan, and additional pedagogical sources when working with 1898 War cartoons. But having devoted my time developing my own historical thinking skills, kept me in student-mode. After a discussion with Prof. Schrum on how to make the site work, I have decided to focus on ready-to-go activities for instructors to assign and on curating primary sources for students to interact with.
How could we use this project in the future?
The “More to This Than Meets the Eye” site is not meant to possess the answers as to how Americans depicted the newly acquired territories, but for learners to be given the space and tools to observe, analyze, interpret, and use information about past events; and to acknowledge the complexity and ambiguities of history, with all its puzzle pieces. Does the play help you further understand political cartoons or contradict your initial interpretation? Does the newspaper article help you better understand the meaning conveyed by the cartoonists? If so, in what ways?
This site could be successfully by college students of history, Latinx Studies, journalism and media, and sociology courses. High school students of civics and social studies could also benefit from this site, as it offers engaging activities for them to develop historical knowledge of this American period and to embrace the ambiguity of working with difficult, yet visually appealing primary sources. The site can complement some of the content covered in their classrooms, whether they are K-12 teachers, college professors and TAs, or museum docents.
What worked and what could be done differently?
This site is meant as an invitation to explore a complex primary source, hence the main reason for wanting to maintain a high-level of simplicity in its design. To keep it simple, I chose to have a short section of interpretive content related to the important role political cartoons played during the 1898 War period. The last thing I wanted was falling into the trappings of inundating the site with walls of texts, dense narratives and substantive knowledge. Instead, the site’s focus was to provide clear explanations and examples on cartoonists’ use persuasive rhetorical techniques to influence public opinion. Since instructors may already be providing the contextualization needed to understand historical events surrounding the Spanish-American War, I chose to focus on scaffolded activities for learners to quickly engage with the sources and with historical thinking activities.
The creation of this site leaves me with even more questions that–with more time–I would love to address: What digital tools could I use within WP to properly curate the items in the cartoon collection? How could I weave the primary sources on this cartoon collection to others source types produced before and after the 1898 War? What can be my approaches for creating a section where instructors build the leverage they need to facilitate historical thinking skill development? How can I prompt better engagement and interactions with primary sources? What other types of connections can help learners support their own arguments for the creation of political cartoons? How can the site create the experience of a “sum is more than its parts” experience? One that lets you explore the discipline of history and open the portals to other sites?
The aspect of metadata is crucial, as it would create a more integrated site. If I were to adopt standards, such as Dublin Core, I could effectively describe items and establish connections to other images from that collection or other collections presented on the site. Effective tagging would increase discoverability, and with that, engagement. Regarding the addition of more diverse primary source collections: The more approaches we have for getting to know about political cartoons, the better the chances of students understanding the concept of change over time of American imaginings. If I had more time, my next steps would be to include postcards of the Puerto Rican landscape and peoples produced between 1900-1930, Ogilvy’s rum ads in the New Yorker in the 30s, a propaganda film created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture entitled “Democracy at Work in Rural Puerto Rico” (1940s), and galleries of contemporary Americans political cartoons. This would become the “hammers” and the “saws” (Wineburg) that can deepen the understanding the complexities of U.S.-Caribbean relationships. This site also offers the flexibility for another team member to focus on Filipino-U.S. relations, on Latinx issues, or on the topic of “fake news”. How can primary sources produced around the same time as cartoons (e.g. newspaper articles or books) help us make better sense of visual representations? How can I used these other primary sources as ways to corroborate historical evidence?
I would also create an instructor’s guide for those who would like to facilitate their instruction. This section would provide suggestions for approaching political cartoons for different grade levels (and learning styles) and for the type of historical content appropriate to present prior to asking students to use the site. How could I craft instructions on how to use the site’s activities on online learning platforms (e.g. Zoom, BbCollaborate, and MS Teams)? What links to additional resources created by other teachers would be appropriate to add? What other types of assessment tools could I includej (e.g. rubrics, surveys)?
Here’s an example of how I can take this site to the next phase:
Say you are viewing the cartoon gallery and you take a moment to decode “School Begins” or “First class”. With the right metadata that can elevate students’ sense of discovery and serendipity. Perhaps they will stumble upon the New York Evening Post editorial article, “Do we need Cuba?” (March 21, 1899). This could corroborate what some cartoons are conveying, in this particular case, to convince the public not to support Cuba’s annexation to the U.S. This finding might lead them to Jose Martí’s response the Evening Post piece, “A Vindication for Cuba” (March 25, 1899), a counter-narrative that questions the cultural images constructed by Americans of Cubans and makes a case for Cuba’s independence. Such exploration, could bring learners to an 1899 school play entitled “Uncle Sam’s New Scholars”, written by Helen A. Flack (aka “Mrs. Royal Bristol”).
But, wait a minute, who is Helen A. Flack (aka, “Mrs. Royal Bristol”)? Why did she write this play? For whom? Why was it published in a scholarly journal for speech and theater educators? Was it to help student correct speech impediments or develop acting skills? Was Flack influenced by what she read in the political cartoons of the times? What was it like for a woman to be a playwright at the turn the 20th century? Was was it like for a child to be part of the “Uncle Sam’s New Scholars” play? How can I approach Flack’s writing with historical empathy so I can better appreciate the historical value theatrical plays?…
Becker, Carl L. “Everyman His Own Historian.” American Historical Review 37, no. 2. December 29, 1931. p. 221–36.
Calder, Lendol and Tracy Steffes. “Measuring College Learning in History.” Social Science Research Council. May 2016.
Lévesque, Stéphane. Thinking Historically. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008.
Wineburg, Sam. “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.” History News 71, no. 2. 2016.