Students’ Explanations of Historical Significance

Students’ equation of personal relevance and significance allowed them to exercise creative choice despite the constraints my selection of lecture and discussion material imposed on their agency to determine what content counted as significant. Students’ agency was ultimately both restricted and expanded by class content and activities. The combination of constraint and freedom that governed students’ determinations of historical significance seems paradoxical but, in fact, closely parallels the nature of agency in the attention economy.

The ways students explained historical significance likewise represent an intersection between the scholarship of historical significance and research about the attention economy. Students justified significance based on a topic’s value to communal or personal identity, connection to or lesson for the present, evidence of cause and effect, an event, person, or idea’s exceptional quality, or demonstration of an aspect of a past civilization. They cited affective impact as well, reasoning that content was relevant because it elicited an emotional reaction. These explanations of significance are common to many existing studies of historical significance.

However, many of the explanations listed above also can be reframed using the vocabulary of one or more of the categories suggested in Nguyen’s outline of BuzzFeed’s Cultural Cartography and Allocca’s TED Talk, “Why Videos Go Viral.” As outlined in Table 4, communal and personal identity are similar to “this is us” and “this is me” in the Cultural Cartography. Connections to or lessons for the present are akin to “connect with” or “I need this/you need this” in Nguyen’s analysis. Students’ attention to exceptional qualities can be seen as attention to the unexpected. Finally, affective impact fits neatly with “make you laugh” and “empathize with this.”

Table 4. Parallels between historical significance and attention trends online

Historical SignificanceBuzzFeed/Allocca
communal identitythis is us
personal identitythis is me
connection to/lesson for presentconnect with/I need this/you need this
evidence of cause and effect(none)
exceptional quality/actionunexpected/blow your mind/WTF
demonstrate aspect of past civilization(none)
affective impactmake you laugh/empathize with this

In the sections that follow, I view the attention economy as influential on students’ explanations of historical significance. The attention economy does not create web users’ content preferences, but it encourages attention to particular content. A close reading of students’ Exit Tweets suggests they were most likely to explain significance by citing how a topic resonated with their identities, produced a sensation of unexpectedness, or inspired imagination and curiosity.

Although the attention economy is apparent in students’ explanations of historical significance, it did not diminish students’ understandings of history as clearly as affect did their practice of historical empathy. As was the case for affect and empathy, curiosity was especially productive for developing students’ historical skills. Additionally, students evoked the “helps me” category from BuzzFeed’s Cultural Cartography. When they did so, they reflected on the usefulness of historical study to their own lives. This impulse highlights students’ desire to find relevance in their education and their ability to create significance by engaging habits of mind shaped by the attention economy.

Attention to Identity: Communal, Individual, and Lessons for the Present

Communal Identity: “This is Us”

Students articulated communal identity by drawing attention to perceived similarities and differences between past and present. As they commented on what was the same or different about the past, they defined the characteristics of present-day society and Singapore specifically. The similarities students addressed in their tweets often stated “this is us” by noting the usefulness of past beliefs to the present day. For instance, students viewed ancient philosophies about human emotions, innate goodness, and desire as still applicable to “our” lives today:

We are innately good people, and we have to work towards more on retaining that good, instead of learning it. #hwc111 #c13 (Tweet from deleted account; ID 841469544220651520).

Students also drew parallels with the past by modernizing historical figures. @Srini_06 recast the prophet Amos as a human rights activist while @NgQingEn gleefully appropriated my suggestion that Ibn Battuta was akin to modern travel bloggers:

Finally, some students saw the past as directly influencing the present. They explained similarities as a result of the direct influence of the past on the present:

The idea that guys take an initiative for all kinds of romance doesn’t change till now. #c07 #hwc111  (Tweet from deleted account, ID: 833913844984541184.)

What I love about Asia is that it’s so densely spiritual and religious, and we all live and respect each other despite of it #hwc111 #c24 (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 854878915550035968).

Differences between past and present similarly helped students articulate a sense of communal identity. By noting disparities in conversations about sexuality, gender roles, ethics, or logic, students implicitly defined the qualities of their own society. Open conversations about sexuality in the past elucidated more conservative conversations today; the difficulties of comprehending patriarchal societies made clear the value of gender equity in the present. Difference was significant to students because it helped them articulate the qualities of their present society.

So much sex talk in the past makes me think why are we not open to it anymore? People are becoming more conservative, I guess. #hwc111 #c07 (Tweet from deleted account ID: 833912958866436096)

Our group discussed freeing for women and it was way harder to find (especially with the current standard in modern society,) #hwc111 #c21 (Tweet from deleted account; ID 851669416605437952.)

Individual Identity: “This is Me” and “Makes Me Laugh”

While similarities and differences between past and present aided students’ construction of communal identity, personal resonance with the past (“this is me”) and humor (“makes me laugh”) allowed students to express their individual identities. They communicated personal identity in both serious and playful ways. Students were as likely to express something profound as they were to produce a pun. In all instances, students cited past peoples, ideas, and events as significant because these historical phenomena offered opportunities to weave together different strands of their individual identities.

Some students used the Exit Tweets to reflect on the relevance of the primary sources to their lives. They wondered how they might incorporate key points from the texts into their lives and allowed class discussions to bring to light parts of their identity they had not considered before:

For @valennyy especially, the primary sources were significant because during class discussion they experienced a moment of profound awareness about a crucial piece of their identity. @valennyy’s articulation of identity was rare, however. More often, students implied content was significant because it offered the opportunity to showcase their playfulness.

Students riffed on the primary sources, lecture content, and videos from class to create puns, memes, and exaggerated hypotheticals. The content’s significance lay in its humorous potential. Students reshaped the class material into “makes me laugh” and, in doing so, revealed an important piece of their identities. The motivation behind humorous tweets was primarily individualistic, but nonetheless also served to bolster communal identity within the class. In the Exit Tweets, humor was an invitation for other students to also identify with the joke on offer and they often accepted the invitation with glee, replying and retweeting in kind.

Lessons for the Present

Tweets reflecting communal or individual identity could evoke pleasure for both the creator and other students, but at times the connections between past and present were uncomfortable. Students used identity-driven tweets to advocate change in present society and to reflect on alterations that would benefit their individual identities. They identified virtues or ethics lacking in present society or themselves and called for change.

The communal identity tweets of this nature typically referred to “today,” “the world,” or “present day” or identified a general “we” as the target of the critique:

Less frequently, students called out Singapore’s shortcomings, such as the nation’s perceived failure to value art and architecture, censorship of sexual content, and widespread surveillance:

Students appeared equally willing to identify their own shortcomings in the “this is me” tweets. Just as they wished to change things about Singaporean society, they expressed a desire to alter characteristics of their personal identity. These students used the exit tweets to contemplate lessons that resonated with and impacted them individually rather than communally. Two students reflected:

The lady who explained about  ” the danger of a single story” taught me not to be judgmental. What I know may not be true #hwc111 #c23 (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 854152285785530370.)

Also important to put aside personal religious beliefs and adopt an objective perspective when analyzing historical texts 🙂 (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 832047869800558592.)

In their expressions of communal and individual identity, students mirrored the emphasis on identity noted by Reynolds, Harris, Barton, Levstik, and Seixas as well as the “this is us” and “this is me” themes identified by Nguyen. Yet their use of the Exit Tweets to shed light on perceived national or personal shortcomings illuminates an angle unnoted by previous authors. Engaging with content that helps define communal or personal identity was not just about reinforcing the identity of a community or individual. This form of engagement was also a means of envisioning what a person or nation ought to be.

Attention to the Unexpected and Exceptional

Human preference for the unexpected is instinctual as much as cultural. Our brain’s physiology conspires with the sociocultural influence of the internet to draw our attention to things that surprise us. Cathy Davidson argues:

Attention is about difference. We pay attention to things that are not part of our automatic repertoire of responses, reflexes, concepts, preconceptions, behaviors, knowledge, and categories and other patterns both mental and physical (if we can make such a crude distinction) for which we have, over time, developed more and more efficient neural pathways.

Cathy Davidson, Now You See It.

The unexpected grabs our attention, requiring us to evaluate our safety, opinions, or surroundings anew. Sometimes we avoid the unexpected, insulating ourselves in echo chambers and media bubbles, because surprise can be painful instead of pleasurable. Yet, regardless of our desire for the unexpected, our brains remain physiologically and socially tuned to new information, events, and experiences.

In their Exit Tweets, students generally delighted in things they found unexpected or exceptional.

The Persians were really progressive for their time! I was impressed hearing that they were religiously tolerant… (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 834584167350358016.)

the travels of Ibn Battuta honestly blew my mind cos I can’t believe we know Marco Polo but not him??? #hwc111 #c23 #exit (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 855293041711566850.)

The effusiveness of the above tweets is fairly standard in the Exit Tweets dataset. Approximately 9.36% (256 of 2736) of the Exit Tweets contain one or more exclamation points, a common signal of surprise. Students clearly enjoyed content they found amazing, inspiring, or delightfully new, but this did not lead them to avoid unexpected content that was less immediately pleasurable. Instead, they relished information that was ambiguous, contradictory, or in tension with other course content or personal knowledge as well:

though the Germans were barbaric, they had rather good moral laws (eg. upholding chastity) #hwc111 #c18 (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 847683636694405120.)

Far from finding unfamiliarity and ambiguity unsettling, students were keen to engage with the unexpected nature of the tensions present in lectures and discussions. The very fact that these tensions required their attention signaled not just significance but also enjoyment for students.

Students’ engagement with tensions in the course content potentially stemmed from a sense of accomplishment at learning something new. Scot Osterweil, Creative Director of the Education Arcade at MIT, observes this is a common reaction to an enjoyable, but challenging effort. He writes: “The fun of game play is not non-stop mirth but rather the fun of engaging of attention that demands a lot of you and rewards that effort.” Indeed, students sometimes expressed satisfaction in their tweets in response to a new or difficult endeavor:

The first student credited a fellow student with unexpectedly expanding their perspective on a text discussed in class while the second student was pleased with an unanticipated increase in their knowledge. The combination of pleasure and the irresistible distraction of unfamiliar content made “unexpected” and “exceptional” compelling justifications for significance in these students’ tweets.

Attention Through Imagination and Curiosity

Some students also found joy in creating hypothetical extensions of course content, such as the student who tweeted in regards to the primary source, “Birth of Hatshepsut”:

The student’s tweet is playful and imaginative, which would likely be a cause for concern among researchers of historical thinking for whom imagination in history is best used only in the presence of an excellent grasp of context and preferably an expert or two. Online spaces have no such rules when it comes to imagination; any and all queries are welcome and curiosity is recognized as a motivating factor in why people seek out and share content on the web. On the whole, students aligned with the attention economy more than the field of historical significance when it came to curiosity. If content was thought-provoking (“makes me think,” in the Cultural Cartography), it was also significant to students.

Despite historians worries, “makes me think” tweets were rarely as nightmarish as historical thinking scholars fear. Not every question or interpretation was historically sound. Curiosity, creativity, and factuality can run contrary to each other and there are some inaccurate, albeit highly original, examples in the Exit Tweets (like the student who wondered if St. Francis was high). Nonetheless “what if” questions more frequently helped students identify gaps in our class discussions or historical knowledge. This, in turn, enabled them to ask questions that potentially expanded the class’s contextual knowledge. After our discussion of Lysistrata, one student wrote:

The question, though potentially unanswerable given the dearth of writings available from women in the ancient world, called attention to an audience demographic we had not discussed in class. Another tweeter, following discussions of Stoicism and the Epicurean tradition, mused:

The student’s query followed our class discussion to a logical conclusion: What indeed is the connection between ideas and impact on everyday life?

The play and philosophical texts attracted students’ attention because the texts made them curious. When their curiosity veered toward the historical, students were more inclined to ask than imagine. This trend helps bolster the positive connotation of curiosity in the attention economy and might ease some historians worries about students’ “fanciful manner” of filling in gaps in their historical knowledge.

History “Helps Me”: The Attention Economy as an Asset to Historical Significance?

Curiosity is not the only attention economy habit that helps more than it hinders. At times, students used the question, “What was significant in today’s class and why?” to reflect on the growth of their historical skills. They noted that new interpretations of texts produced open-mindedness, learning about bias made them more conscientious readers and writers, and studying primary sources led them to think more deeply.

Studying philosophy lets us know how to purchase happiness. I agree with this idea & learning philosophy makes me think deeply. #hwc111 #c09 (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 836449530568548352.)

Every student have different interpretations of the reading which helps us to be more open-minded. #hwc111 #c04 (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 829926372986408961.)

Unlike explanations focused on identity or unexpectedness, tweets focused on history’s usefulness often referenced the benefits of studying history. These tweets were similar to the “helps me” pattern in BuzzFeed’s Cultural Cartography. One of the reasons people choose to engage with content is because it assists them in some way. Students showed the capacity to view history in the same way. To create significance from the content of the course, they looked for how history helped them read, write, or think in new, more desirable ways.

This pattern of attention is encouraging for both historical significance skills and broader concerns about the “crisis of significance” in education. The “helps me” tweets point to students’ desire and ability to extend the skills gained in a history course into other aspects of their academic and personal lives. When students looked for history’s usefulness, they identified the relevance of historical skills to their lives and appropriated those skills for their own purposes. Students created for themselves the significance Michael Wesch hopes educators will communicate to their students as they address the relevance of course content to students’ lives.


  1. Foo, “Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance,” 80; Lévesque, “Teaching Second-Order Concepts in Canadian History”; Levstik, “Articulating the Silences,” in Stearns, et al, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History, 287; Terzian and Yeager, “‘That’s When We Became a Nation’,” 66, Barton, “‘You’d Be Wanting to Know About the Past’,” 35.

  2. Source: Author’s own work. Based on attention economy trends noted by Allocca, Why Videos Go Viral and Nguyen, What Makes Something Go Viral? and historical significance criteria outlined by Lis Cercadillo, “Significance in History: Students’ Ideas in England and Spain,” in Raising Standards in History Education, ed. Alaric Dickinson, Peter Gordon, and Peter Lee (London; Portland, OR: Woburn Press, 2001), 116–45; Christine Counsell, “Looking through a Josephine-Butler-Shaped Window: Focusing Pupils’ Thinking on Historical Significance,” Teaching History, no. 114 (2004): 30–33; Delia Wen Xian Foo, “Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance – a Singapore Case Study” (University of British Columbia, 2014),; Stéphane Lévesque, Thinking Historically: Educating Students for the Twenty-First Century, Reprinted in paperback (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2009); Robert Philips, “Historical Significance – the Forgotten ‘Key Element’?,” Teaching History, no. 106 (2002): 14–19; Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six: Historical Thinking Concepts (Nelson Education, 2013); Angeline Jude Enk Sung Yeo, “Students’ Judgments of Historical Significance in Singapore Schools: Positionalities and Narratives” (Ph.D., University of Washington, 2015),

  3. danah boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 24.

  4. See Affect & Historical Empathy: Understanding & Care.

  5. Students retweeted @RenetteFLee’s pun, for instance, three times and favorited the tweet another ten times.

  6. Kevin Allocca, Why Videos Go Viral, 2011, View saved version of “Why Videos Go Viral” on the Internet Archive.

  7. Cathy Davidson, Now You See It, 49.

  8. ibid., 50.

  9. Though “exceptional” does not appear in any of the criteria, a number of the proposed ways of thinking about significance point toward the importance of considering people, events, and ideas that are out of the ordinary. Counsell as well as Denos and Case imply exceptionalism in their “remarkable” and “immediate recognition” criteria suggesting that out of the ordinary events and people are frequently identifiable by the reactions of their contemporaries. Counsell, Denos and Case, and Philips also raise remembrance in the past and present as a form of exceptionalism. Philips adds groundbreaking as well, implying that firsts are significant because of their difference. Partington’s profundity (how deeply people were affected), quantity (how many people were affected), and durability (how long people were affected) likewise imply that people with deep, widespread, and lasting influence are significant — precisely because not everyone or everything has that sort of impact. Foo provides a helpful table/summary of five sets of criteria, including the four mentioned here. See Foo, “Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance,” 155.

  10. Quoted in Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Cultures, 36-7.

  11. Imagination occupies a tense position in the historical empathy and significance literature. On the one hand, when imagination is coupled with firm contextual knowledge, creative thought is considered essential to historical understanding. Elton wrote: “Imagination, controlled by learning and scholarship, learning and scholarship rendered meaningful by imagination,” wrote Elton, “these are the tools of enquiry possessed by the historian.” On the other, scholars are typically hesitant to encourage imagination among students; Yeager, Foster, and Maley critically described the “fanciful manner” in which students attempted to fill gaps in their information during a 1998 study. See G. R. Elton, Practice of History (London: Fontana/ Collin, 1987), 87; Elizabeth Anne Yeager, Stuart J. Foster, and Sean D. Maley, “Why People in the Past Acted as They Did: An Exploratory Study in Historical Empathy,” International Journal of Social Education 13, no. 1 (April 15, 1998): 8–24.

  12. Yeager, Foster, Maley, “Why People in the Past Acted as They Did: An Exploratory Study in Historical Empathy”.

  13. Michael Wesch, “From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able.”