Tastemakers & Communities of Participation

In the classroom attention economy, professors and peers are simultaneously tastemakers and members of a community of participation. The students and I shared influence over conceptions of historical significance in the classroom. I channeled students’ attention toward topics I deemed significant, but students often paid attention to their peers’ choices too. The students and I did not compete for each others’ attention, though. Instead, the classroom mirrored a community of participation. Students did not pick this community the way they would choose to participate in a sub-Reddit, Twitter thread, or Instagram hashtag. The class was required. Nonetheless, shared knowledge of the course content and shared experiences discussing ideas online molded the classroom into a community of participation grounded in common interests and reference points.

Viewing the classroom as an attention economy in which both tastemakers and a community of participation influence participants’ choices raises the question of agency expressed by historical significance scholars and attention economy experts. The topics students found significant in the class closely paralleled the arguments I put forth in lectures and discussions. This trend was antithetical to the goal of developing students’ ability to determine for themselves what is or is not historically relevant. My role as a tastemaker arguably limited their ability to shape their own definitions of significance.

Yet students’ influence on each other and their influence on some of my choices in the classroom suggests greater freedom. When students chose to pay attention to each other’s perspectives rather than mine, that choice sometimes prompted me to adjust my teaching strategies or class materials. Influence among the students and I created a feedback loop in the classroom. This loop suggests students possessed a degree of power in the classroom. Like the attention economy on the web, agency in my course was a complicated blend of limited and expansive.

Educators as Tastemakers

As the historical significance literature indicates, identity, family stories, public history sites, and national narratives shape students’ perceptions of what is important in history. If I asked my students what events or people they thought were historically important on the first day of class, their answers likely would have reflected their prior history education and popular historical topics in Singapore. Topics included in the MOE’s secondary-level history syllabi, namely the history of Singapore, World War II, the Cold War, and Southeast Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries, likely would have topped the list. If their perspectives also reflected those of the general public, they might have shown an interest in political biographies, colonial history, and travel history.

My students likely entered the course with their own paradigms of historical significance, but I offered a different one. Politics and economics are not entirely absent from the course, but most lectures and discussions emphasized topics that reflect my training as an intellectual and cultural historian, such as religion, philosophy, gender, and sexuality. I also highlighted issues of equality because these topics provoked discussion and investigating justice in past and present societies is a crucial component of history’s purpose.  

Despite the differences in our perspectives, students typically chose my frameworks over their own when they decided what was most important in the course. The content of the Exit Tweets, in which students answered the question, “What did you think was most significant in today’s course?,” indicates students paid more attention to the themes I emphasized than the topics they were perhaps most interested in. Examination of the relative frequencies of words in the Exit Tweets confirms parallels between students’ conceptions of significance and mine. A list (“Low-Frequency Exit”) of 291 terms with relative frequencies less than 0.002 in English and five or more occurrences in the Exit Tweets points to the topics and themes unique to the course.

Figure 2. Word cloud of the Low Frequency Exit word list containing 291 words with raw frequency >= 5 in the Exit Tweets and relative frequency of <= 0.002 in English.

Decorative word cloud. Following paragraphs detail content of the word cloud.

The prominence of religion in the course is apparent Figure 2. “Gods,” “christianity,” “deities,” “beliefs,” “buddhism,” “islam,” “religions,” and “hinduism” all feature prominently in the word cloud. The philosophical texts students read and discussed are also discernible. “Ren,” a central tenet of Confucianism, occurred 28 times and students mentioned the Hellenistic philosophers “epicurus” and “epictetus” 25 and 20 times, respectively. Civilizations we studied (“romans”, “germans,” “egyptians,” “mongols”, “persians”) populate the list and students allude to the primary source readings in their mentions of “hatshepsut,” “herodotus,” “gilgamesh,” “dharma,” “suffering,” “yahweh” and “abram” (among others). Students also consistently reiterated my emphasis on the importance of qualities associated with the study of history, including “interpretation,” “bias,” and “perspective.”

By contrast, students rarely focused on topics related to the more popular topics of political and economic history. Except for “hatshepsut” (54 instances), words associated with political leaders infrequently occurred in the Low-Frequency Exit list. Students included “caesar” (20), “khan” (16), “julius” (14), “ruler” (9) “musa” (5), “mansa” (6), “genghis” (6), “qin” (5) a total of 76 times. The sum of all occurrences of political words is the same as the total number of times “gods” alone appeared in the Exit Tweets.

Altogether, 2430 of the 2736 Exit Tweets (~88.82%) contained one or more of the terms on the Low-Frequency Exit list. Approximately 49.05% (1342 tweets) included the 50 most common words in this set. From a purely pedagogical perspective, students’ inclusion of the topics I emphasized in class is an encouraging sign. Their repetition of my themes suggests they understood and were persuaded by my arguments for significance.

Viewed in light of the attention economy and the goals of historical significance, the trend is more troublesome. I served as a tastemaker for students by channeling their attention toward specific topics and themes. Consequently, students’ agency was constrained by my content choices. I diminished their freedom to judge for themselves what topics were historically significant by promoting some content and ignoring other potentially important people, events, and ideas. This is the nature of history; historical narratives are inherently selective and interpretive. Nevertheless, the framework of the attention economy draws attention to the consequences of selectivity. What history educators choose to include or exclude expands or restricts students’ opportunities to develop discernment regarding historical significance.

Peers as Tastemakers

#exit After hearing thoughts from others, reminder to self to put aside personal religious beliefs and TRY access the sources #hwc111 #c06 (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 829926372986408961).

The limitations imposed on students’ agency by my selectivity did not altogether negate their freedom of choice. Not all the exit tweets reflected my emphases in the course and, more often than not, a student’s choice to focus on a different topic resulted from another student’s influence. As evidenced by the tweets above, students frequently served as tastemakers for one another and exerted a noticeable force on their peers’ perceptions of historical significance. Students’ influence on each other adds complexity to their agency in the classroom. Although their choice of significant content was limited, students could choose to whom they granted influence over their definitions of significance.

The Exit Tweets for Class 04: Mesopotamia are a useful illustration. The in-class discussion questions for Epic of Gilgamesh included five themes from the Epic: deities (gods/goddesses), women, men, dreams, and markers of civilization. I divided the class into groups of five or six and assigned each group a theme to discuss. Depending on the size of the class, a total of five to twelve students discussed each topic. At the end of class, groups presented their conclusions to the entire class and all students listened to peers’ thoughts on the assigned themes.

Although I divided the discussion questions equally among the discussion groups, students disproportionately focused on “dreams” in their exit tweets. Across the three classes, students produced a total of 177 Exit Tweets for Class 04. Eighty-seven (49.15%) of the Exit Tweets contained a keyword from one of the discussion themes (god/goddess/deities, women, men, dreams, markers, civilization). Forty-eight of the tweets (55.17%) related to the discussion themes contained the word “dream” or “dreams.” Furthermore, sixteen of the Exit Tweets about dreams (33.33%) referenced a peer’s insight, retweeted, or replied to a classmate’s tweet.

The prevalence of “dreams” in the Class 04 Exit Tweets supports the idea of students as tastemakers for one another. Their influence, in fact, may have outweighed my impact as a tastemaker. In the Exit Tweets as a whole, students included words that suggested a peer’s influence, including “classmate,” “peer,” “student,” “fellow,” and “everyone” in 68 tweets. Students cited their peers’ ideas in a small number of tweets (2.49% of 2736 total tweets), but their references to other students’ insights occurred more frequently than allusions to my ideas. Only 36 tweets (1.32% of all Exit Tweets) contain “prof,” “professor,” “heather,” “bennett,” or “@helloworldciv” (my Twitter handle). Students noted classmates’ contributions almost twice as often as they cited something I said.

Variations between students’ references to peer and professor insights, as well as the close study of the Class 04 Exit Tweets, suggest classmates’ comments were memorable and influential on students’ choice of significant content in the class. I exercised power over the content students could pay attention to, but their decision to consistently pay attention to classmates indicates the presence of multiple tastemakers in the classroom. Students had limited freedom when it came to choosing significant content, but they exercised greater choice regarding who they paid attention to.

The Classroom as a Community of Participation

Both the students and I functioned as tastemakers and we did so within a loop of mutual influence that mirrored communities of participation on the web. “In a participatory culture,” writes Henry Jenkins, “members believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another.” The students and I consistently impacted each other through the content we each called attention to and, in doing so, we shaped one another’s perceptions of significance. Students also built connections with one another and with me by highlighting the personal relevance of class material. Students freely reshaped the content for social purposes and in doing so claimed co-ownership of the course material with me. Their actions, and the impact of their actions on my communication of course content, demonstrates that agency was at times more evenly shared in the course.

In the previous section, I used the Exit Tweets from Class 04 as evidence of peers’ influence on one another. The discussion surrounding the Epic of Gilgamesh is also indicative of the mutual influence students and I exerted on one another. The night before our scheduled discussion of Epic of Gilgamesh, all students submitted two tweets containing questions or comments related to the primary source. I noticed that dreams were an area of interest in the PST, so I included it in my discussion themes the following day. As noted above, a handful of students discussed the question in class and then shared their conclusions with peers. Students then continued their conversations about the relevance of dreams in the Epic on Twitter after class.

Identifying the tastemakers in this example is difficult. Arguably, all of us had a hand in the trajectory of the class discussion. The concern with dreams in the Epic of Gilgamesh moved from a student concern (PST) to a professor concern (discussion question) to students (discussion in groups) to professors and students (in-person review with the whole class plus online discussion in the tweets, replies, and retweets). At each stage, participants in the course reshaped the theme to support the interests of various individuals and the community as a whole. I retooled students initial concerns to fit my goals for discussion; they expanded on the discussion by expressing continued interest in the theme of dreams and considering the personal relevance of their experiences.

but imagine how much we could understand about the world if history is accurate & dreams were msgs from deities🤓#hwc111 #c04 (Tweet from deleted account; ID: 829682463702081536).

The tweets are evidence of students’ ownership of class content. Their continued conversation about dreams on Twitter tapped into discussion themes, but recast the theme as a matter of personal interest. Students wondered about the meaning of their own dreams, attempted to square the prophetic dreams of the Epic with modern psychology, and contemplated the benefits of direct communication with supernatural powers. The significance students attached to dreams in the Epic was not always historical, but nevertheless represented students’ freedom to define significance based on their own frameworks instead of my own.