Process Reflection

When I first pitched Constituting the Nation as my final project for this class, I was still thinking of a relatively traditional source site where students and scholars could have access to primary sources. It has been very interesting to see how that initial idea has evolved in response to what this course has taught me.

I had expected to learn about the practical aspects of creating public history projects and experiences. From the start, I was pleasantly surprised when the readings encouraged me to reflect on how historians could re-imagine how their worked served the public and the impact that this interaction could have on their work. I believe that historians’ main obligation is to produce knowledge about the past, understanding of how it has evolved, and to interpret what meanings it may have for our daily lives. More importantly, in doing these things we should aim to teach our readers and students how to think historically, so they can also evaluate and make meaning of what they learn about their past. But if we have learned anything from the precipitous decline in the standing of the Humanities at our universities is that many don’t feel like they are being served by the work we do. This class has taught me that not all historical scholarship needs to be guided by or devoted to cultivating a relationship with the wider public, but that ignoring this relationship hurts both scholars and the public.

Thinking about how to use my scholarship to help others learn to think historically became the main goal of my project. The first two design tools that caused me to rethink elements of my project were the creation of personas based on my targeted audience, and the story boarding exercise. Using these tools helped me make important decisions about the design of my project. First, I needed to recognize that the two main audiences I was hoping to serve were in fact very different. Scholars and students have different needs when it comes to reading primary sources. So I decided to create an exhibit that would use selected documents from a larger collection to teach students how to read archival sources related to the constitutional history of the Gold Coast. I had already created an Omeka site that contained close to sixty documents on this topic. Thus, I turned my efforts on creating an exhibit within the larger site that would be specifically designed for high school and undergraduate students.

Having conducted interviews with two students (one undergraduate and one from high school), it became clear that the main challenge of the site was to help students find a connection to the material. Students learn very little about the history of Africa during their educational careers. What little they do learn is mainly focused on the Slave Trade and, to a lesser extent colonialism. The students I interviewed also had very little idea of what intellectual history was, and constitutional history was just as obscure. However, the concept of a constitution, as a document that defines the character and ideals of a nation, was something that they could recognize. Fortunately for me, students in American schools as quite familiar with the history and importance of the United States constitution and the debates about whether it should change or not, or on what basis it could change. I realized that my exhibit should try to help students use their study of the Gold Coast constitutional development as a way to answer questions about what constitutions are, what role they play in the creation of new nations, who can legitimately write them, etc.

A second finding from the interviews with students was their need to articulate their questions into a narrative. This was a challenge in the sense that historical thinking should encourage us to recognize that narratives are interpretations and that there is rarely as single undisputed narrative of particular events or processes. So I decided that my site would need to give students some guiding questions, the scaffolding of a conversation, of a larger mystery, so they could insert or assess their own conclusions in relation to the debates that historians have had on particular issues. In this case, the larger question I want my readers to address is when does Ghana start? Can we see the emergence of the political community that became Ghana take shape in the constitutions that were written during colonialism? What were the values and aspirations of the nation that started to be formed during colonial times? By providing these questions I hope to give students a few possible frameworks to participate in a much larger conversation, but also to start asking themselves what the history of this foreign territory means to them.

So, doing interviews with two students that represented two potential users of my project was tremendously clarifying for the conceptual design of the project. From a practical point of view these students needed to be presented with something that was easy to navigate and that offered a scaffolded approach to answering questions that could become stories. For this reason I chose to adopt a chronological organization of the material, prefaced with short introductions and brief statements about the debates and questions that students would find in the selected documents. It was clear that too much information presented at the same time, could be quite discouraging to students. Breaking things down in a chronological and consistent way helped simplify the initial access to the documents.

A second decision was to make some brief annotations in the documents. One problem I have found when presenting students with primary materials is that they have difficulty seeing documents as objects of the past. Instead, they focus on the content and they forget, that “form affects content,” that is, information contained in a letter should be read differently from information found in a draft report or a published report, to cite just one example. For this reason, I extracted parts of the selected documents to highlight the differences among them and point out how letters are addressed or signed, what can we expect from dispatches, draft reports, or memoranda. 

As much as I have thought about how to make use these materials to help students become better historical thinkers, I am also happy to say that it has also changed my scholarship. Before I worked on this project I was focused on producing a manuscript on the intellectual and constitutional history of the Gold Coast. My questions were those of historians interested in constitutions or nationalism. But asking myself why should these materials matter to students, particularly American students, has forced me to reframe my questions and even read my sources rather differently. Acknowledging the questions and interests of a wider public can sometimes be used as an excuse to ignore historical questions that are not directly related to our present problems or questions. However, it can also be the springboard to new questions. An important element of historical thinking is to learn to recognize ourselves in the lives of peoples far removed from our experience, either geographically or temporally. If we are serious about helping readers and students see themselves as members of a complex and diverse global community, we need to take the time to figure out what is important to them so we can help them learn about themselves through the understanding of others.

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