Germany, World Wars, & the Wiki

Stanford Humanities Fellow Edith Sheffer had an idea of how she could personalize history for her students. This led to an innovative use of the wiki, a tool currently under pilot within CourseWork. The response of her students to this project exceeded her expectations and she plans to repeat the project next fall. The following are highlights from a conversation in January 2009 about her course “Germany and the World Wars, 1870-1990.″

Update: Sheffer received the second place Teaching With Sakai Innovation Award in July 2009 and recently wrote an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about her class.

"The wiki project made me truly consider how and why historical events occur, rather than just memorizing lists of dates by rote. It was the equivalent of a problem set from my science classes for a humanities class -- it forced us to directly apply what we had learned from lectures and textbooks to the problem of our character's life story." -Adrian Ion, junior

The students of History 138A. Adrian Ion, a junior, said "The wiki project made me truly consider how and why historical events occur, rather than just memorizing lists of dates by rote. It was the equivalent of a problem set from my science classes for a humanities class — it forced us to directly apply what we had learned from lectures and textbooks to the problem of our character's life story."

Can you tell me about the central project for your class?
The idea was to have a writing assignment that would function like weekly response papers but be slightly more interesting to the students. Each student would create his or her own character that was born in 1900 and be in complete control of their persona. Beyond the initial introductory sentence that gave their parent’s occupation, and birthplace and gender, they could make life choices.

Why did you chose to do this project and was this the first time you had done it or something like it?
It just hit me. I was putting together the course reader, trying to select autobiographies from workers and waitresses and people from different walks of life — because I wanted to convey to students the multiplicity of historical experiences and that Germans were different from one another. So I was putting together this reader with three to five page excerpts from different people, and I thought it might be fun to role-play these characters since role playing is a common technique. And then came the leap from role playing to “Oh, why don’t they just create it?” — well, that could be more fun.

How did you use the wiki and CourseWork to facilitate this project?
I conceived the idea before I figured out how we could do it. I spent a lot of time on CourseWork – I’d even looked into creating a blog site. And then I contacted you guys through support — [you were] just fantastic and got back to me right away. It was really intuitive and easy to use.

This sort of project could have been done, in theory, by having student turn in papers directly to you.  Did you find an advantage in doing this in the wiki?

That they got to read each others’ writing, mainly. I think they got a lot out of reading each other’s posts and gained a greater sense of community — that we’re all in this together.  Also, I think by having this out on the web, it made it feel like less of an assignment. It felt like a blog that they were creating for themselves rather than the dynamic of “Oh here, this is my weekly paper to turn in.”

Do you think that because the wiki was public (to other students in the class) that they were even more into it because people could immediately see it?
It’s interesting – some students said they were embarrassed by how much they were writing! That it was almost the reverse: they were really into it and were almost shy about showing how invested they were [about the project]. So, yes for some of them there was peer pressure to keep up, but I think for some of them it was “I don’t want to look too crazy about this.”

It sounds like some of your students got really into this project. Can you tell me about that?
What they said was that they would just get typing, and that although it was initially hard to figure out what they were going to say each week or to do the research, once they started writing it up it became very easy.

Did the students impress you?
I was really blown away, the TA was as well. The kinds of feedback they would get on the average post would be “This is great” or “I’m not so sure how plausible this scenario is.” When there were gross inaccuracies I would either address them in lecture or the TA would provide that in written commentary. But we didn’t want to give a sense of evaluation because I think that was one of the key ingredients to the success of the project — that it really was their own.

Sheffer used the Wiki homepage for the project and to organize other aspect of her class. Click image for larger view

Sheffer used the Wiki homepage for the project and to organize other aspect of her class. Click image for larger view

How did students respond to using the wiki itself — presumably there was some instructional time?
I demonstrated the wiki the first or second week in class. I had my laptop hooked up to the smart screen and walked them through how they would get on it. Some were really great and picked up on how to do the bold face, etc. right away, and some really never really got the hang of the formatting — but either way I don’t think it really affected the quality of their posts.

And I found the wiki useful. I wound up putting the exam study guides on there, which was a lot easier than downloading word files.  I also put an office hours chat sign-up sheet there, and it wasn’t hard for them to figure out how to use the table feature either.

Do you think that the nature of the in-class discussions changed because they were doing this project and because they had the perspective of a particular persona in their head?
Based on their comments, I think it did affect how they saw events unfolding and their sense of ordinary people’s motivations. Some of them wrote in their feedback that they would hear the lectures or do the reading with their personas in mind, thinking of how their characters would respond. Beyond that, they said they gained a greater sense that people are just people — they want to look after their family, they want to make do. I think that might be what a lot of them got out of the course; if there was one main takeaway, it was that people are making day-to-day calculations based on day-to-day situations.

What did you hope your students would take home from this project?
The sense of diversity in any population — there’s no single way that people are in any particular place. Also, a sense of how adaptable people are, and how this adaptability is what drives a lot of history. It’s not that everyone believed in the Nazi party, but there were very concrete reasons why people would see it in their interest to support it at different points in time.

Story and Photo by Keli Amann.

Class photo and wiki image courtesy of Edith Sheffer.

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