As students from different majors, how can we apply/relate what we’ll be learning in this class to our individual majors?

World History Student, Singapore, 2019

I teach a required, undergraduate world history course as an instructor for the University at Buffalo, Singapore Institute of Management (UB-SIM) program in Singapore. My students are from Singapore and other Southeast Asian nations, none of them are history majors, and most have not taken history since they were fourteen years old. They would like to know why this mandated history class is worth their time. Why is a subject focused on the past relevant to the present? Why is a world history course worth money and time if it does not directly build skills that will contribute to a successful career? Their queries aren’t meant to be combative. They really would like to understand whether history is valuable to their lives.

"What do you mean?" painted on concrete sidewalk
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I usually answer: Studying history is worthwhile because historical thinking prepares us to live well and interact with one another in a diverse but divided world. Encountering unfamiliar past people and places with care and understanding (historical empathy) cultivates the skills necessary for dealing with difference, controversy, and hate in the present. Students themselves value empathy skills and express a desire to facilitate safer and more considerate interactions online. Learning to determine what is significant about the past (historical significance) develops students’ ability to discern what is important in our age of information abundance. The digital age requires not memorization skills, but the ability to know where to find information and quickly discern the quality of information, as George Siemens, Michael Wesch, and Mike Caulfield have eloquently argued. Taken together, the skills engendered by historical thinking grant undergraduate students greater power and agency in their online lives.

For historians and educators to help students grow these skills, we must understand the complex personal webs of understanding students bring to their study of history. Earlier scholars of historical thinking mapped the roles of sociocultural influences on students’ approaches to history. Family, nation, and identity all shape students’ perceptions and articulations of history. In “Hashtag History,” I argue that social media constitutes an equally important part of students’ webs of understanding.

Social media habits frame students’ reactions to historical content, guide what they pay attention to, and provide a visual and textual vocabulary for expressing connections between past and present. The habits fostered online impact students’ practice of historical empathy and historical significance. In the content chapters that follow, I view social media habits as both beneficial and detrimental to students’ approaches to history. When educators and historians focus on only one aspect of social media’s influence, we miss the opportunity to fully recognize what our students bring to their study of history.

Intertwined web of strings.
Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

The Literature Review provides an extended introduction to the project by summarizing existing scholarship in the field of historical thinking. Although this project draws on research related to social media research, digital media and learning, and visual cultures, historical thinking is the foundation of this dissertation. The Literature Review offers an overview of definitions of historical thinking, sociocultural influences on students’ approaches to history, historical thinking in Singapore, and the impact of the digital age.

Chapter 1: Methodology details the motivations for presenting “Hashtag History” as a digital dissertation, the methods used to collect, compile, and analyze data, and the contexts that shaped the creation of the core dataset for this dissertation. While digital methods such as text-mining are commonly used to conduct social media research, the historical discipline remains wary of digital work. Digital work is more novel still in the study of history education. “Hashtag History” therefore contributes to the fields of history and history education by modeling the use of hybrid methods and frameworks to better understand undergraduate students’ practices and perceptions in a history course. The remaining chapters of the dissertation draw conclusions from the compiled dataset, comprised of 11,454 tweets and 74 blog posts (plus attending comments) created by the 150 students enrolled in the world history course I instructed in Spring 2017.

Chapter 2: The Attention Economy & Historical Significance considers the role of the attention economy in students’ perceptions of historical significance. A history class is not a space uniquely prone to distraction from technology, but rather part and parcel of the attention economy fostered by social media. Students’ perceptions of what is historically important often depend more on what captures their attention than any intentionally formed conception of significance in history. To make sense of this trend, I engage viral media research from Buzzfeed and YouTube. I use close reading and coding to identify the presence of attention patterns proposed by these media giants in students’ tweets.

Despite the influence of the attention economy in the classroom, instructors do not need to compete with technology for students’ attention. Instead, knowing what topics, methods, and media capture their attention is useful for leading students toward more nuanced definitions of historical significance. These more nuanced definitions of historical significance can contribute to the growth of students’ abilities to make meaning out of their college education as well as the abundant information that saturates their lives. Drawing on the work of Cathy Davidson and Michael Wesch, I argue that viewing the classroom as an attention economy invites educators and historians to examine whether and how we make explicit the connections between students’ college courses and their day-to-day lives.

Chapter 3: Affect & Historical Empathy examines the impact of social media’s privileging of affective response on students’ practice of historical empathy. As Keith Barton and Linda Levstik argue, students, like historians, bring immense care (a key aspect of historical empathy) to their study of past peoples. This care manifests as affective response, defined by Alexander Cho as “a force or intensity that exists somewhere in between an embodied, sensorial experience and the name of an emotion.”

I use sentiment analysis to identify affect in students’ tweets and track the impact of intense emotion on students’ understanding of and care for past peoples. While affective response can pose a barrier to students’ understanding of past beliefs and actions, affect also drives curiosity and deeper consideration of context. The combination of curiosity and care is productive for historical empathy and can be leveraged to help students make the jump from historical empathy to practicing empathy in their daily lives on- and off-line.

Chapter 4: GIFs from a History Class reflects on visual media, especially GIFs, as both a potent pedagogical tool and a significant challenge to students’ development of historical empathy and historical significance. GIFs cultivate a sense of pleasure and give students room to play in a subject they frequently find boring. As T. Mills Kelly and Kevin Kee have shown, playful historical thinking can be creative, engaging, and immensely productive.

However, the decontextualized nature of GIFs (highlighted by GIF researchers, including Miltner and Highfield and Jiang, et al.) compromises students’ practice of historical significance and historical empathy. GIFs encourage context collapse and sometimes perpetuate historical injustices, particularly racism and ableism. In order to tap into the full potential of GIFs in the history classroom, instructors must exercise awareness and intentionality. This chapter uses close reading, coding, and sentiment analysis to illuminate the affordances and constraints of GIFs in a history course in order to increase educators’ awareness of visual media’s impact on the history classroom.