#termproject: Using Instagram as a Historical Teaching Tool (part 3 of 6)

(Before you read this installment, you should probably check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series!)

Part Three: Summarizing and Making Sense of Sources

By this point, my students already have some idea of what they want to write about for our class project.  Last week, I asked them to gather five secondary sources for their Instagram post––a task designed to reinforce the information-gathering methods we worked through in class.

This week, I wanted my students to work on summarizing and making sense of secondary sources––but I also wanted to cover other ground in the process.  In particular, I wanted to have students encounter the history of Liberia, which I felt went unnoticed in our course textbook and which really underscores some core themes and questions in modern world history. I had to devise an in-class activity that allowed us to approach new content while also honing certain skills and methods.

To satisfy all of these needs, I developed a small-groups activity in which students worked both individually and collaboratively to make sense of secondary sources:

I asked my students to break into small groups, and provided each group with a list of four articles about some facet of Liberian history.  Two of the sources were pieces of journalism accessible through a basic search engine query, while the other two were brief (3-5 page) scholarly articles housed in JSTOR.  Each member of the group was responsible for finding, reading, and summarizing one of these four articles.  (My tech policy is, more or less, “Just Don’t Be A Shithead”––so students accessed these readings through their laptops, tablets, or phones.)  I asked each student to summarize their article in no more than two sentences, and to write their blurb in such a way that someone wouldn’t need to read their article in order to make sense of it.

This part of the activity hit a few snags. Although I took a great deal of time searching for sources about Liberia that were general enough for an undergraduate classroom and brief enough for an in-class activity,  I forgot to consider that a couple of the articles would nonetheless be much easier to work through than the others.  The students who picked the New York Times or Smithsonian Magazine articles typically finished much quicker than the students who picked the sources from The World Today or OAH Magazine of History.  I plugged up this problem in the moment by workshopping the summaries written by those who finished early, discussing how they could make their writing leaner or more robust.

After nearly everyone had finished writing summaries of their articles, I had my students discuss what they had read to their other members of their respective groups.  I then asked each group to synthesize what their members shared into one collaboratively-written 5-sentence paragraph.

Checking in with each group, I realized most students had a keen grasp on what they had read––and some were particularly eager to discuss the key points of their article.  What each group needed additional help with, however, was conveying why a reader should care about the topic at-hand. Put another way: I care to learn more about Liberia––but why should a random reader?  What sense of stakes have they built into their prose? How can they conclude with a daring, provocative invitation to learn more about a topic––to invest time in understanding an idea more deeply?

Although my students likely won’t become historians, they will have many moments in which they have to convince other people––community members, colleagues and coworkers, friends and family, neighbors and strangers alike––to care about something.  It may be about the direction of a project, or the need for workplace rights, or a proposal to improve neighborhood conditions. The work of persuasion is in combining what you know about a topic with what you know about an audience in order to convince them to give a shit.  This week’s exercise, though small, was a way to reinforce the idea that thinking historically also means making an argument about why people should care about the relationship between past and present.

After troubleshooting each group’s collaborative writing struggles, we discussed as a class the difficulties in synthesizing multiple sources. Although my students found chronology a rather useful narrative device, they still had some trouble finding a theme or concept that would serve as the genuine through-line for their work.  In other words, they understand “change over time” quite well, but they are still grappling with the actual concepts or structures to observe. That said, several students were able to identify several possible ways to answer “So What?” when it came to the history of Liberia. Knowing my students can make sense of the relationship between race, religion, and empire–or the convoluted logic of white supremacy–makes me feel more confident that they can draw out the significance of their own research topics.

We also determined together what would be an appropriate assignment for this week.  Nearly all of my students had found 5 secondary sources when completing last week’s assignment––and, talking to one of the students who hadn’t after class, I became confident it would not be an insurmountable task for the remaining students.  We decided to essentially replicate the in-class activity on an individual level.  I asked students to write tight 2-sentence summaries for each of their sources, making sure they composed them in a way a reader could understand the summary on its own terms.  I also assigned students to compose a 5-sentence blurb based on their summaries––stressing that they should save space to address the crucial “So What?”

Oddly, this week turned out to be the least Instagram-focused thus far––and, thinking ahead, will likely remain the least tethered to the platform overall.  I am realizing that, although this project takes place on Instagram, not every lesson has to directly relate to it.  In fact, there are some fundamentals for solid historical thinking––like reading and synthesizing sources––that transcend the peculiarities of any specific medium. In turn, students seem to trust when I say certain skills and ideas are more important beyond this experiment.  It’s a reminder for me to clearly and continually underline the “So What?” of this class.


My clearest mistake this week was failing to account for the different difficulty levels among the four articles I assigned.  By giving some students pieces of journalism while giving others pieces of scholarship, I risked derailing this activity with uneven flow.  My approach left a couple students with nothing to do after a few minutes while unintentionally encouraging others to rush through their material.  If I revise this assignment, I will most likely find a couple extra periodical pieces on Liberia, and require students to summarize two pieces of journalism rather than one.  Although the journalists’ writing may still be easier to approach, it would at least balance out the time each student spent on their share of work.

I would also preface the activity with a brief discussion on how to gut a secondary source.  We talked about how to do during our recap, but my students would have benefitted more from knowing this in advance.  (I usually use a gross gutted fish metaphor when discussing how to approach secondary sources, but I don’t know a more useful image to employ. I suppose I am a vegetarian in deed but not word.)  In a longer course––one that runs fifteen weeks rather than six––I may also include an earlier activity where students discover how to gut a standard-length history article; this would make students more surefooted when asked to quickly work through a secondary source on their own.

If you want to see the procedure I devised for this week, here you go!


#termproject: Using Instagram as a Historical Teaching Tool (part 2 of 6)

(Make sure to check out the first installment of this series so all this makes sense!)

Part Two – Searching for Sources

Last week, I asked my students to determine the elements of effective communication so they could consider how Instagram would serve as a useful medium for brief historical narratives.  This week, I wanted my class to work with databases available to them so they could develop worthwhile methods for finding sources–and, in turn, when and how to take alternate routes.

Talking about Sources

I began this week’s class with a general discussion about research methods.  In order get a sense of what information-gathering skills my class already possessed, I wanted to cover three general points.  First, I wanted to know how they encountered information on a daily basis–whether the news they read had already been mediated through their social media networks, or if they deliberately sought out journalism from its source,  I also wanted to learn how my students did research for larger assignments in other classes.  (I stressed we were in a shame-free zone, and I would not hold any less-than-kosher methods against them–especially because I had abysmal research methods during undergrad.)  Finally, I wanted to gauge how familiar they were with their university’s online library system, particularly its collection of databases.  I figured that I could not expect them to find sources unless I first knew how comfortable they were with the general process.

Most of my students asserted that they were quite familiar with the university’s online library system, and had already used its databases to conduct research. (Whether I had unfairly lowballed the skill set of survey course students–or had simply projected my own haphazard teenage work process–is a matter of debate.)

Assured my students could easily build upon last week’s discussion, I had them assemble into their teams and asked them to navigate the university library’s online databases. I wanted them to determine what kind of information they could find for their projects simply using library resources–and, in the process, figure out where these databases may be less-than-helpful.

My hope was that by wading through library databases together, my students would also begin to hone and narrow their team topic–developing something less massive than, say, “revolutions” or “colonialism.”  I also hoped they would realize that, often, images are trickier to find on university databases than journal articles, as are relatively recent sources. Ideally, this would have inspired them to switch over to other methods–in particular, using a search engine.

Confident as my students generally were in their research method skills, they were less surefooted in how to apply those skills to hone a specific for their projects. Above all, students were hesitant to toggle between their library’s databases and a search engine. In particular, they seemed a surprised when I suggested they could Google results–even clickbait-y listicles–as a way to mine for keywords in their database queries. Part of developing an Internet Bullshit Detector is not only knowing when sources are fair and foul, but also sensing how deeply you can rely on any particular source. Sometimes, someone else’s cheap quick work can provide you enough clues to dig deeper and do something more substantive and meaningful.

In other words, I had somehow underestimated their comfort level with library resources, but also overestimated their ability to go between different methods of searching for information.

Meeting with each of the teams, I was able to troubleshoot both individual and group-sized challenges.  Sometimes the issue stemmed from my initial team assignments.  One group was still unsure what its broader project theme would be.  I asked each member what, based on what they had looked into so far, they would be personally interested in researching further.  I realized soon enough that the group of four made more sense as two duos: two working on the Lusophone world, and the other two working on France during and after World War Two.  It makes more sense to let students with strong research interests clique off rather than have a larger group slug through a soggy and useless compromise. (This is seen elsewhere in academia as “The Random-Ass Conference Panel that Helps None of the Participants and Burdens the Moderator and Audience Alike”)

Putting Methods into Practice

I wanted to reinforce some of the methods that we eventually reached during the segment of class devoted to the Instagram project, so I turned the second half of class into another group exercise.

Breaking the class into three sections, I asked each to dive a bit deeper into a topic related to the material on slavery they read for that day: US confederates who moved to Brazil after the Civil War; slave labor practices in Florida tomato farms; and slavery in contemporary Mauritania.

I asked students to focus on both content and process: while I wanted each group to explain a bit about their assigned topic when we reassembled, I also wanted them to concentrate on the methods they used to find information about their topic. What could they gather from their university’s databases? Where did those databases fall short? And what information could they gather from their topic using effective search engine practices?

Each of the groups experienced potential pitfalls that, when we reframed them in general terms, could serve as useful research practices for their term projects:

  • The group who looked into Brazilian confederates realized that search results between “os confederados,” “the confederados,” and “Brazilian confederates” were significantly different–and a reminder to consider variations in phrasing when researching a non-English/non-U.S. topic.
  • The students who looked into Immokalee agricultural workers, meanwhile, realized that the university databases provided better geological information than historical information. Their library’s database resources may be a good place to learn about how patently absurd it is to grow tomatoes in Florida, but a general web search is going to provide more information on the (incredible) work done by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to put pressure on fast food and grocery companies to only purchase from farms with “clean labor” practices.
  • Those who looked into slavery in Mauritania realized that the university’s Google Scholar function provided an ideal mediating function between historical data and recent developments in the ongoing enslavement of people in the country.

After we recapped, I reminded my students of the assignment printed on that week’s handout. I asked them to find several sources related to their specific project entry, using the same methods we’d built over that day’s class. I asked them to focus on method when writing their response: where did university databases provide useful secondary sources for their topic, and where did they have to turn to external search methods?


This week, I think I really underestimated the level of information literacy my students had coming into class.  But at the same time, I also didn’t come in with any assessments to measure whether the skills my students said they had were sharp enough for historical research.  I think this is tied into my aim not to overwhelm students with this project–I didn’t want the work to get in the way of the broader lessons to learn from the work.  Nonetheless, I will likely develop a small activity to use at the beginning of this segment to see how nimbly students can search for different types of information.  While I am not a fan of classwork for its own sake, this may be an instance that benefits from an in-class assignment or some loosely-framed form for students to complete.

I would also give the second half of this lesson more formal structure when I run it again. Giving students more direct questions upfront–“What are the limits of using databases for this topic? What credible sources did you gather using Google?”–would likely diminish the initial hesitation in the room when I have them break into groups.

I was surprised how long it took for students to be on board with the idea that Google is a useful device for finding worthwhile sources.  In many ways it felt like a hypercorrection on their end–or, less judgmentally, that they have not had many opportunities to use search engines in a focused way as part of the legitimate research process.

In any case, while I failed on several grounds with this lesson, I believe that it can be refined when I run this project again.

#termproject: Using Instagram as a Historical Teaching Tool (part 1 of 6)

Part One — Setting Foundations

This summer, I am teaching a six-week introductory World History course at my local private university. Although I’ve taught modern world history surveys at the college level before, it’s been a while — long enough for me to wind up redesigning the course from scratch rather than build from old material.

This rebuilding process has given me the space to try new pedagogical practices. One approach I’ve wanted to take for some time in survey courses is using social media as a teaching tool. Over the past several years, I’ve seen plenty of instructors build Twitter into their course structure.[1] But what I’ve yet to see, either personally or in the literature, is the use of Instagram as a tool for developing fundamental historical skills.[2]. So I’m using this course to pilot a term-length Instagram-based project in which students craft photo-essays and, in the process, develop their research and writing skills.

My project plans were based on the incredible work already done by several Instagram users. I’m especially drawn to the accounts @lgbthistory and @the_aids_memorial. The creators of @lgbthistory, Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, comb through numerous archival collections — including their own holdings — to illustrate the multifaceted, intersectional, and deeply political foundations of queer culture. The anonymous user behind @the_aids_memorial, meanwhile, has created a space in which contributors around the world share photos and essays that memorialize loved ones lost to the syndrome over the past several decades.

What I find really interesting is that neither of these accounts are run by professional historians –and it made me think I could design a project that students didn’t automatically interpret as “stuff historians do.” In other words, I wanted to create an assignment that reinforced the idea that anyone could engage with history — make sense of it, grapple with it, discuss it — as long as they followed certain fundamental methods. Those methods aren’t necessarily bound to any particular medium, so why not do it in a digital space where many are already familiar and comfortable?

The current version of Instagram lends itself to developing students’ foundational writing, revision, and historical inquiry skills. Because Instagram entries have a 2200-character limit, the app doesn’t lend itself to aimless rambling. Users only have 200–300 words to make introduce a topic, make some sort of point, and slip in some salient details related to the images in a post. This space restriction compels students to summarize a great deal of evidence into a few sentences, and craft lean prose with vibrant style. In other words: Instagram provides a way to have students create the best possible page of writing they can — a skill I already try to develop in my courses.

Instagram’s new posting options will also allow us to go beyond a basic book report model. The app now allows users to include up to ten photos in a post. My aim is to have students comb databases to find an assortment of images related to their entry. Having the option to post multiple photos will allow students to make comparative and summative observations about visual sources. In turn, students can use visual sources to augment the limitations of textual description–that is, to build a multidimensional historical narrative.

Rolling out the Project:

This week, I rolled out the initial stage of our class project. I provided students a one-page overview of what we will be doing over the next several weeks, as well as a one-page agenda for what I wanted us to consider this week.  (Here’s a copy of both of these documents.)

I explained to my students that, by the end of the term, we will create a class Instagram page devoted to examining various topics in modern world history. I also stressed that this project would build week by week: each Thursday we will have a group activity and discussion about some component of historical research––gathering sources, summarizing ideas, editing and revision, etc.––after which they will be assigned a component of the project to complete over the following week. I wanted to make clear that we would be working on this throughout the term, in a gradual, scaffolded fashion.

After covering the overall project structure, we dived into a discussion about history, social media, and communication. Frankly, I wanted to know what they found boring about the type of history they were used to encountering. We also discussed what made for less-than-ideal writing from their own experience–perhaps when they had to rattle off an eight-page paper the day before it was due. Although tastes varied, we came to a consensus that poor communication often takes an otherwise fascinating historical topic and renders it very, very dull. From here, we came to the agreement that, above all, good historical writing should aim for clarity, brevity, and relevance–and that hitting that mark required time to research, draft, and edit.

For the following week, I asked students to comb Instagram and find a historically-oriented account they thought did solid work. (I also later sent a Blackboard announcement with several examples, in case they were having difficulty getting started.) I then asked them to write a page or so addressing several questions about the account they chose:

  • What was the historical focus of this account? Discuss the scope and scale.
  • How did this account write about their historical topic? Describe the writing style.
  • What kinds of images does this account use? What’s the relationship between words and images?
  • How has the account seemed to change over time? (As in, take time to go through the account’s posts! Don’t just look at the three most recent entries.)
  • Does the account ever engage with its readers/followers? How?
  • Which entries did you find most effective, and why? How will that influence the way you build your historical Instagram entry?


Although I think this first week was overall successful, there were a couple failures on my end that I should address if I rerun this project:

I failed to gauge for fatigue. My course meets for four-hour blocks twice a week over a six-week period. Because of this scheduling, I designed our first day to include a great deal of foundational discussions and activities about what history means, what sources are, and what thinking like a historian involves. By the time we reached the Instagram project, I could sense that the energy in the room was beginning to trail off. If I reran this project, I would make sure to build our introductory discussion into the second or third class session rather than the first. (And, obviously, hope for a less compact course.)

I also failed to give clarity on how students’ efforts will relate to one another. While everyone will be graded individually for their project contribution, students are working in small teams, whose members will each create entries related to some broader topic (e.g. piracy, slavery, etc.). I originally planned to assign each small group its topic, thus allowing students to focus on their individual contributions. I ultimately changed my mind, reasoning that the research and writing process included grappling with what is an appropriately sized topic. In my estimation, this was a mistake. Although we reconvened and troubleshot any struggles the small groups had coming up with a topic, my choice may have siphoned off energy better spent elsewhere.

That said, I am looking forward to developing the next stage of this project this week.


[1] There is a great deal of fascination with Twitter as a pedagogical tool, stemming back several years and including schema for degrees of engagement and activity, as well as analyses of student responses to classroom Twitter use. It has even been the focus of graduate research, such as a 2011 MA thesis by Lynn Beth McCool. This cuts across many disciplines, but several historians — including Kristen Burton, have written about building Twitter into their course design.

[2] I have seen a couple exceptions to this, namely by instructors focused on art history. History instructors and professors, however, still seem focused on Twitter as a pedagogical device that can reach the backchannel in massive survey classes (as Elizabeth Pollard has examined) and foster engagement through creative reenactment (as Brian McKenzie attempted), and Wikipedia as a site where feminist politics can meet praxis (as Jennifer Edwards has written about).