During the New Deal of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration hired writers to document history across the United States. The best-known effort collected oral histories of former slaves. Those interviews became the bedrock of research for decades, contributing to a reinterpretation of slavery that took place from the 1950s to the 1980s, says William G. Thomas III, a historian at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Mr. Thomas sees something similar as possible today. He and others are trying to build a movement to gather “the people’s history.” And their project could spawn a new model for massive open online courses, or MOOC’s.
Since 2010, scholars and students at Nebraska and at James Madison University have organized a series of “History Harvests”—community events where families share their artifacts and stories with students, who document and digitize them. The idea is to make visible histories and materials that otherwise would be largely invisible, and to share them more broadly online. Scholars benefit, and so do students, who learn to apply their disciplinary skills in real-world situations.
At one harvest, in North Omaha, Neb., a man brought a foldout tin drinking cup (pictured above) that his great-grandmother had used as a slave in the fields.
“The cup has been passed down in his family as a reminder of their roots and how far they have traveled since the days of slavery,” says Patrick D. Jones, an associate professor who is co-director of the History Harvest project.
Other participants shared Civil War letters from the Battle of Atlanta, the tail of a massive windmill, and artifacts related to a Tuskegee airman (like the image at left). One harvest focused on political refugees in Lincoln, a city that takes in many people resettled by the U.S. State Department from countries like Iraq, Cambodia, and Sudan. The four harvests held so far have amassed more than 350 items and oral histories, a collection that spans the history of railroads, jazz, German immigrants on the Plains, African-Americans, and refugees.
“What we want to do is have history harvests all across the United States and perhaps even the world—to spread this movement,” Mr. Thomas says. “It could lead to all sorts of new historical interpretations and historical approaches … We have all sorts of historical material held in families and in communities. It’s not government-created material. It’s not the White House papers. It’s the social experience of people.”
Mr. Thomas and his colleagues plan to expand the History Harvest concept into a MOOC-like online course. The hope is that students at participating universities in different areas will run local History Harvests. The students (like the Nebraska undergraduates pictured at left) would also collaborate online, so they could participate in work outside their own regions. A pilot version of the course will be offered in the spring of 2014.
The plan is Mr. Thomas’s attempt to advance a MOOC discussion that has been “somewhat unsatisfying.”
“The problem with MOOC’s is that they are largely one-way delivery,” he says. “It seems they’re largely star-driven, from a faculty standpoint. And they don’t appear to me to be grappling with the real questions, the hard questions, about how can we use technology like this to better serve our students. We need more models for MOOC’s, not fewer. And we need ones that particularly advance the humanities.”