Bed Jumping and Compelling Convergences in Historical Computing

Source of the Columbia by Jim Richardson
Source of the Columbia copyright Jim Richardson

Thinking about ‘convergence’ reminds me of a broad mountain valley, just north of Montana, where two great rivers have their beginnings side by side. In a sly example of nature’s humor one, the mighty Columbia flows north, and the other, the energetic Kootenay, flows south coming as close as a 1.25 miles, at one point.

Over the past hundred years several unsuccessful attempts have been made to join those two rivers near their headwaters in southwestern British Columbia. No one tried harder than William Adolphe Baillie Grohman in the 1880s, but making two streams converge is not easy work. Eventually time and the landscape connect the two but it takes the snowmelt at the divide, time, and a journey of just under 500 miles traveling north or south, before the two streams converge at Castlegar, British Columbia.


Rivers are a common metaphor for knowledge; both are always in motion -- undercutting the edge of the bank here, depositing material there, following beds carved out eons or centuries ago. Over the past half century important intellectual currents in three distinct fields—historical thinking, teaching, and computing—have largely flowed in distinct watersheds with only occasional attempts to link them, and with not much more success than Baillie Grohman. In the last decade, however, some have started to flow along parallel valleys and it is possible from certain vantages to see the similarities and where these rivers of thought and intellectual effort have begun to converge.

Such moments in the history of thought, where formerly separate intellectual and technological currents come together, or at least are on close enough tracks that the portage between them is increasingly possible, are unusual and worth remarking. Others have observed that the interfaces where disciplines intersect is the most productive space for generating new insights. We often call this convergence “interdisciplinarity” which, as Roland Barthes observed, "consists of creating a new object that belongs to no one."1 The crossing of disciplinary boundaries, jumping from one river bed to another to use my metaphor, has proven productive in the convergences that I am writing about here.

Let me use a project that I am involved in as an example of the bed jumping that has made the blending of historical thinking, pedagogy, and technology quite enjoyable. The Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History Project (Mysteries Project for short) is self-consciously located where new modes of historical thinking meet new technology and new pedagogy.

New Ways of Thinking About…

The premise of the Mysteries Project is simple. Take an intriguing mystery – a story that has no single, clear resolution – put all the kinds and range of evidence you can find on the internet, and challenge students and others to solve the mystery. Of course, almost any historical question can be posed as a mystery or—like the opener "It was a dark and stormy night..."—as the first sentence of a story that students have to research, understand and complete.2 The Mysteries project has chosen a range of historical puzzles, from “Where was Vinland?” the Viking ‘Eden’ in North America, to the suicide of a Canadian ambassador, to Egypt in the midst of the 1957 Cold War Suez Crisis, to a series of crimes like “Who Killed William Robinson?” about a Black settler who had fled racism in California in the 1850s only to be murdered in what is now Canada in 1868.

Everyone loves a mystery and a great story. The intent of the project is to use great stories about flashes of violence, heroism, martyrdom, and moments of discovery to intrigue and draw students in, heedless of the risk that they will have to learn history to solve the ‘crime’. Vinland Home Page Unbeknownst to the sleuth, they themselves are snared in a methodological process called microhistory as soon as they embark.

Microhistory is one of the new currents of thought that converge in the Mysteries Project but it is, in part, the rediscovery of an ancient river bed. Along the plains of Germany and Italy, tributaries of the post and hyper-modern histories mingled together and created a new way of thinking about history founded on the very old. Storytellers have long since known how to combine the entertaining and the serious. Scholarly historians turned their back on these ‘popular historians’ three centuries ago; but three decades ago, the craft of conveying “the big picture” in small stories, was recaptured by European scholars in a method called ‘microstoria’ or ‘microhistory’. Microhistory is a return to the story of real people with all the messy, fascinating, sometimes microscopic details of their lives. But the goal in exploring the details is to see the larger forces at work, forces which are invisible when the scope is much larger. Different from the parochial ‘case study,’ Microhistory is asking the big questions of history and looking for the answers in small places.3

Some of the microhistorians borrowed more heavily from the epic and gave us engaging stories like “The Return of Martin Guerre” while others, particularly the Germans, took the opportunity to return to counting. All share that element of post-modern history which is anxious to look at fragments and not insist on deriving universal lessons from them. Most microhistorians accept the subjectivity of the historian, with clear links to post-modernism, while they reject the supremacy of the text and aim for an approximation of how it really was, along with the hyper-modernists. The enthusiasm for ‘close observation’ of ordinary people, micro-history, arrived at the same moment, by a different path, as a new found enthusiasm among anthropologists, philosophers, historians and post-modern scholars more generally for the event and “close description.”4

The Mysteries Project has selected “mysteries” which are dramatic manifestations of the collision of more subtle historical structures and processes. For example, the torture and execution of the Black slave Angelique for the 1734 Angelique Painting burning of Montreal may be used to expose the racism that accounts for slavery and her scapegoating; the murder of William Robinson is an entrée into understanding the homesteading/pre-emption system which allowed him to acquire native land that he was killed for in 1867; the massacre of the Donnelly family in the 1880s is a window into the religious conflicts between the Protestant and Catholics. They are what Ray Fogelson called epitomizing events: “narratives that condense, encapsulate, and dramatize longer-term historical processes.”5 Each of the events needs to be ‘unpacked’ and the underlying causal factors made visible to truly solve the mystery and understand its history.

New Ways of Teaching About…

The Mysteries project was inspired by the story of William Robinson and derives from an experiment in the late 1990s when Ruth Sandwell and I offered a document set as a murder-mystery workshop to a historical conference. I have never seen historians get so excited as over this question of "whether an innocent man was hanged". We saw the potential to engage students in the work of critically reading historical sources at this micro level as a way of teaching critical thinking more generally.

We quickly found that we had fellow travelers, and this brought about the second convergence. Teachers, and those who teach teachers, have in the last decade begun to re-discover the fun of asking their students to be detectives and solve historical puzzles by engaging with primary source materials from the past. This is sometimes known as “document-centered learning” or student-centred inquiry. It is part of the larger goal of turning the classroom from a place where students sit and listen to a teacher who tells them what they need to know, to a place where the teacher guides the students in “student-centered learning”. The underlying idea is that the undergraduate degree and even the high school diploma become more active and research-based rather than based on taking notes and repeating back what someone else, who did the fun work of history, has conveyed to them, usually in a tedious way.6

The mysteries project uses microhistorical mysteries to return the fun of uncovery and discovery to students. It operates at four levels depending on the sophistication of the learner: understanding primary documents, understanding social history, doing history and understanding what history is. Moreover, the internet allows us to do something very hard to do before, to link the micro and the macro: we can zoom in close for a microhistorical look – find a person, learn their story, and then see how typical that story is with some statistical analyses.

At the same time, the computing technology has evolved and become so widespread that another convergence is in process. We can begin asking the question: how can we deploy the new technologies to best teach historical thinking?

New Ways of Computing About…

While educators have been redirecting the thinking about teaching history and microhistorians have been carving out new channels, thee has been a cascade of changes in the technology available to us. A chart showing the falling cost of a microsecond of computing time would look like a river going over a waterfall whose pitch is getting closer to the vertical every year. Since the 1950s the cost of computing time has fallen by close to 50% every two years, a phenomenon known as Moore’s law.

The internet is shallow in some ways, as it does not lend itself to long blocks of text; it is incredibly deep in others. Instead of a simple footnote, one’s whole research database can be linked to one's research outcomes. Instead of a monologue, the internet invites dialogue; in place of solitary research, the internet supports collaborative research and multiple voices. In place of a linear plot, the internet accommodates multiple, overlapping pathways of causation. It asks us to think about relationships.

Even more fundamental, the computer and internet offers the opportunity for the reader to take some control of their reading experience. The form of the technology invites, even urges, readers to problem solve in a way that the book does not and the mystery format encourages that exploration.

The new technology asks us to consider whether publishing is just print, or also images, audio, video, GIS linked maps, census databases, 3-D interactivity and/or the so-called artificial intelligence built into gaming engines. Each of these media lends themselves to different ways of historical thinking and teaching.

The current generation of students has grown up in a digital world where their information, entertainment, and social interactions increasingly happen through a computer interface. David Lowenthal titled his book from the opening line of L. P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between (1953): “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” To the current generations of “digital natives” the world of print, not to mention the past, is a foreign place. A library with books in it is an increasingly alien notion and a trip to the library an extraordinary effort akin to a foreign expedition.

So if we try and present history in the new medium the same way as we have in the past it will be like teaching students to drive by sitting them in a revving Porsche, and insisting all we can do is read the manual. The new technology invites them to drive, and why would we want to stop them? The opportunities the Web 2.0 offers us in terms of social space are amply demonstrated by the success of Wikipedia, Flicker, YouTube, Second Lives, Facebook and other popular innovations. How can we as scholars use that enthusiasm to our advantage?

In its most recent set of mysteries, the Mysteries Project has expanded the notion of historical evidence to include 3-dimensional recreations of historical sites and flyovers of the historical landscapes to provide a kind of historical immersion that print or pictures alone cannot offer.

The mystery “Where is Vinland?” has to be solved on the basis of the written sagas and on some maps, but the Viking Simulation majority of the evidence is derived in one way or another from archaeology. The Viking site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada, has been meticulously excavated and documented and so it has been possible to recreate the site with a high degree of accuracy as to locations, form and size of buildings, activities that took place, and technology used. With the 3-D recreation which visitors can view as a video from different vantages or by downloading software they can navigate around the site themselves, it is possible to compare the site with the settlements in the Vinland Sagas and see if it fits the description. (To see a video simulation or download the simulation itself click here).

Likewise, it has been possible to scan some of the extraordinary artifacts in 3-Dimensions and offer them up forSpindle Whorl Small students to manipulate. We have even created physical replicas of some of the artifacts from the site based on precise 3-D scans and have them available for classes in limited quantities. Butternut burls found by archaeologists at L’Anse Aux Meadow and examinable on line, may in fact be the key to solving the mystery of where Vinland was. (A video of the spindle whorl rotating in 3D is available here, Quicktime 2MB.)

The new technology also offers us a vast audience which we could never reach before. Scholars can present their research to classrooms as soon as it is done, and not a generation later after it has trickled through the academic presses into a monograph, been picked up by a scholarly community and revised by a textbook writer. Internet publishing has the potential to take “Scholarly History” to an audience that only “Popular History” was able to reach through print. The Mysteries project has over 100,000 new readers each year, which in print terms is beyond a best seller and into the range of blockbuster.


Can we imagine ways to teach history that we could not before? Three dimensional simulated worlds offer one new avenue, and clearly we are just at the headwaters of this current. Inadvertently, the mysteries project used an element of the very common gaming trope, “the quest,” to draw students. A new literature on teaching using gaming strategies called “serious games” invites us to take this one step further. Can we use the new technologies to make the serious matter of teaching history fun? Serious gaming asks us to use the appeal of gaming to teach an eager audience the key lessons of historical thinking.7

L'Anse Aux Meadows Viking Village Recreation
L'Anse Aux Meadows Viking Village re-creation

It is a rare event when a river wears down the barriers that separate it from its neighbor, or when human engineering does it instead, and two streams start to flow together. It is also uncommon to find an intellectual convergence as mutually enriching and reinforcing as the current conjuncture of new ways of thinking, teaching, and computing about history. We can, of course, follow the age old channels, but that would squander an amazing opportunity which can keep our discipline engaged in and engaging to the modern world.

History is serious business, but it does not have to be boring. A century ago, when we had made our disciplinary beds and laid down in them, we fetishized “discipline” to an unhealthy degree. Not only do the new convergences of thinking, teaching and computing about history suggest that we have to get into the (metaphorical) beds of colleagues with other disciplinary perspectives and technical knowledge, but they also invite us to loosen up and share the fun of “doing history” with our students. Now it is time to sit up, stand up, do a little bouncing, and see if a short hop to a neighboring bed might invite some innovation and inject more fun into our discipline.

1 Barth quoted in Leontine E.Visser, “Reflections on transdisciplinarity, integrated coastal development, and governance,” in Leontine E. Visser (ed.) Challenging Coasts: Transdisciplinary Excursions into Integrated Coastal Zone Development (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 12-23) John S. Lutz and Barbara Neiss, How Knowledge Moves, (McGill-Queens Press, forthcoming).

2 We make no claims to novelty in making this connection. R.G. Collingwood in his The Idea of History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945) 227-8, 243 made a strong case for the connection: “The hero of a detective novel is thinking exactly like an historian when, from indications of the most varied kinds, he constructs an imaginary picture of how a crime was committed, and by whom.” ; see also Robin Winks, The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, (New York: Harper & Row, 1968); recently others have pointed to the link with teaching: David Gerwin and Jack Zevin, Teaching U.S. History as Mystery, (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003).

3 George G. Iggers, "From Macro- to Microhistory: The History of Everyday Life," Historiography in the Twentieth Century From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge. (Hanover/London: Wesleyan University Press,1997). Two classics of the genre include: Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller, Trans. John and Anne Tedeschi. (Baltimore/London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, Original in Italian 1976. English 1980.); and Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

4 Marshall Sahlins, “The Return of the Event”, Clio in Oceania, ed. Alette Biersack. (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian, 1991). 37-99; ‘close description is most often associated with Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in his Interpretation of Cultures (New York, Basic Books 1973); S. C. Caton, "Anger Be Now Thy Song. The Anthropology of an Event," Occasional Papers of the School of Social Science (1999 5); Raymond D. Fogelson, “The Ethnohistory of Events and Nonevents,” Ethnohistory, Vol. 36, No. 2. (Spring, 1989); Homi Bhabha, “Frontlines/Borderposts,” in A. Bammer ed., Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press: 1994) 269-273.

5 Fogelson, “The Ethnohistory of Events and Nonevents,” 143.

6 Chad Gaffield, “Primary Sources, Historical Thinking, and the Emerging Redefinition of the B.A. as a Research Degree,” Facsimile, 23-25, (200-2001), 12-17. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001); David Gerwin and Jack Zevin, Teaching U.S. History as Mystery, (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003).

7 Richard Van Eck, “Digital Game-Based Learning: It's Not Just the Digital Natives Who Are Restless” EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 41, no. 2 (March/April 2006): 16–30; Suzanne De Castell and Jennifer Jenson, "Serious Play." Journal of Curriculum Studies (35(6): 2003) 649-665; Marc Prensky, Digital Game-Based Learning (2001), James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2003), Clark Aldrich, Simulations and the Future of Learning: An Innovative (and Perhaps Revolutionary) Approach to e-Learning (2004).