#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?

Reflections:

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.

Notes

[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).

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