Black steel frame roof with sunlight shining through
Photo by Dakota Roos on Unsplash.

In “Hashtag History,” I argue that social media frames but does not innately help or hinder students’ historical thinking skills. Attention is malleable and educators can engage students by calling attention to the unexpected or tapping into their identities, sense of humor, and desire to learn. Yet students too are agents in the classroom and often exhibit a keen ability to use the attention economy for their own purposes. Navigating the attention economy in the classroom, therefore, requires all participants’ awareness about the sociocultural frameworks that exert power over our attention. The impact of affect in the classroom is likewise complex. Affect helps students create connections between the past and present, but also presents a barrier to curiosity. Untempered by curiosity, affective response obstructs students’ capacity to approach the lives of past peoples empathetically.

Finally, GIFs are advantageous for encouraging a sense of play and providing students the freedom to engage the class content on their own terms. GIFs promoted students’ interest in each others’ blog posts, afforded them a nuanced affective vocabulary on Twitter, and helped build affinity among students and with past peoples. However, visual media was not a completely positive influence in the classroom. GIFs narrowed the scope of the students’ and my attention, produced context collapse, and sometimes facilitated the perpetuation of dehumanizing stereotypes. The adverse effects of GIFs in the classroom occurred because the students and I lacked the necessary knowledge and preparation to critically address the use of visual media in our course.

Implications for Historical Thinking Research

Although this dissertation focuses on the impact of social media in the classroom, it is at heart a project about historical thinking. My explorations of affect, attention, and visual media are driven by interest in how students make meaning out of history and how personal, national, and online sociocultural influences frame their perceptions and practice. In the end, “Hashtag History” draws on the scholarship of digital, social, and visual media studies, but does so in order to forward conversations about historical thinking and higher education.

Pay attention to undergraduates and non-majors.

Empty chairs in lecture theatre.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

“Hashtag History” is a call for greater focus on undergraduates, and especially non-history majors, in historical thinking research. Each semester, I teach World Civilizations to 120 to 180 non-majors in a program that does not offer a history degree, so my interest is partly personal. But I am partly responding to the state of history as a discipline in the late-2010s. In the United States, the history major is in decline; it’s a good year if the numbers simply hold steady. In Singapore, the history major has always been exceptionally small. The National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) are the only government-supported university with a full-fledged history department and degree-granting program. The National Institute of Education (NIE) offers social studies and humanities teacher-training programs. History courses are offered in other public and private universities, but on the whole, history is perceived as a degree with limited usefulness to Singapore’s national and economic aims.

Even though most students encounter undergraduate history as non-majors, the majority of existing studies of undergraduates (rather than of primary and secondary students) focus only on historical thinking among history majors. The literature poses standards for historical thinking that are impossible to achieve in a single semester and in a survey course. Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes, for example, conclude their review of undergraduate history education by proposing an ideal skill set for history majors. By the time they attain their degree, history students should be able to produce historical accounts that:

“Pose historical questions; select and utilize relevant and reliable primary source evidence to support their historical interpretation; extract information and supportable inferences from a wide range of primary and secondary sources, acknowledging, conceding, or refuting evidence that runs counter to the overall argument; recognize the limitations of evidence; and persevere through uncertainty, renouncing simple certitude (proof and inevitability) and easy relativism (every view is equal) for the disciplinary standard of limited relativism (plausible–implausible, acceptable–unacceptable).”

Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes, “Measuring College Learning in History.”

Goodness. If I can help my business, psychology, sociology, communications, and economics students who haven’t taken a history course since they were fourteen comprehend and begin to query primary sources by the end of the semester, I’ve really accomplished something. It’s not that students are unwilling to learn; we’re just short on time.

“Hashtag History” builds on the insightful research focused on undergraduate history majors, but seeks to direct conversations toward the usefulness of history to non-majors and survey courses. In this dissertation, I’ve proposed that historical thinking is indeed beneficial beyond the major because the skills developed through students’ practice of historical empathy and historical significance serve them well in their personal and online lives. Practicing understanding, curiosity, and care toward past peoples develops empathy skills like perspective taking, comprehension, resonance, and care toward people students encounter in person and online. Growing students’ awareness of the influence of affect on their ability to express curiosity about historical phenomena empowers them to discern and manage their emotional responses on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. Helping students notice how media in the classroom and their interactions with one another guide their attention aids the development of agency, giving them greater control over their devices and interactions with content on the web.

Let’s think more globally.

Lighted globes hanging from ceiling
Photo by Arthur Edelman on Unsplash.

“Hashtag History” also encourages a more global perspective in historical thinking scholarship. As I noted in the Literature Review, most historical thinking research takes place in North America and Europe. Investigating other contexts, such as Singapore, may or may not yield new insights. My conclusions mostly confirm what previous scholars have discovered regarding the sociocultural influences framing students’ perceptions and behaviors. But Singapore may not be far enough afield to illuminate variations in historical thinking. This is an English-speaking country with close ties to Europe as well as Asia. The nation is indeed distinct from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but it also shares popular culture and education frameworks with these nations.

Studies focused on East, Central, and West Asia, Central and South America, and most nations in Africa are still absent from the literature. Studies in these regions would require linguistic skills that I do not possess, so my proposal for a more global focus is an invitation to collaborate or an offering to scholars who speak multiple languages. In either case, the field would benefit from more diverse international outlooks and investigations of history education and learning at all levels.  

Play is valuable.

Shallow focus photo of single bubble
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Finally, this dissertation affirms the benefits of play proposed by T. Mills Kelly and Kevin Kee and encourages educators to more fully value play in the history classroom. Valuing play requires sharing control of a class with students and collaborating with them to develop their historical skills. But as Kelly and Kee have demonstrated, and as GIFs from a History Class shows, play is useful for engaging students, encouraging their critical and creative thinking skills, and fostering independent learning. These outcomes are in line with current research in the field of education. Increasingly, student-centered and experiential learning are desirable in all majors. By providing students the freedom to play with history, history educators can align themselves with educators from other fields as well. This potentially creates a wider network in which history educators can work with instructors from a variety of disciplines to combat the “crisis of significance” that fosters distraction, and prompts students to tune out of the classroom.

Final Thoughts

Two gray pencils on yellow surface
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

With Cathy Davidson and Michael Wesch, I hold that communicating the connections between disciplinary practices and everyday life is a crucial aspect of education in the digital world. To help students see the benefits of historical thinking, educators need models for building historical thinking skills in a single semester. To do this internationally, we need a global focus on the scholarship of historical thinking. We also need to discern which skills are most useful to students, regardless of major, which likely means offering more opportunities for students to play and create meaning for themselves. All of these goals require listening carefully to students, taking their needs seriously, and pushing ourselves as historians and educators to examine our discipline. To meet the challenges of the digital world in the 21st century, we will need to determine which aspects of our discipline are essential to historical study and valuable beyond the classroom  — and which elements we need to hold more loosely.