John Lutz: History, Mystery, and Virtual Victoria: Transforming Teaching and Research

As a senior in the department of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I was ecstatic to see that we were hosting one of the first major workshops in the use of digital mediums for the humanities. Internet technology is becoming more and more of a necessary tool for communication, publication, education, and archives. This was a great opportunity to see how use of digital technology could become more integrated into the field as a profession.

One of the lectures I happened to see was that of John Lutz (University of Victoria). A very innovative historian, Lutz discussed the use of history’s mysteries as a way to interest students. He explained that through this project of putting real, unsolved Canadian mysteries online with all of the known evidence, it forced the students to become “private eyes,” and use historical methods/critical thinking skills to engage the concepts more personally.

This is an abreviated transcription of the points he brought up, as well as my own thoughts.

Good teaching is keeping a razor edge balance of boredom and anticipation. For you, it’ll be the anticipation of whether or not I can get this computer to show you this presentation.

[Without realizing it, in his first statement Dr. Lutz brought up a key issue in digital scholarship: reliability. There were probably 2-3 times that the websites either didn’t appear, or the computer worked very slowly. A book can’t break down, and with as many bells and whistles as there are with websites, one has to wonder what the use is if they don’t appear on command?]

History can only be dull if we make it that way. Students say the present isn’t dull; there are terrorist attacks, corrupt politicians, natural disasters, celebrity love affairs, etc. Well, the past is composed of terrorist attacks, corrupt politicians, natural disasters, celebrity love affairs, etc.

[We all laughed with him on this concept because those of us who love history and its many stories know this.]

We give too much of the bare bones [in the classroom] when history is rich with detail. It becomes dull when we take the “mystery” out of it. We have to allow the students to do the research [in order to get them engaged]. We have to give them a chance to discover. History is too important to be boring.

History teaches us: Who we are, where we come from, and (when we are lost) where we’re trying to go.

[I would also say that history teaches us not only where we come from physically, but mentally, too. The process of learning where one’s ideas come from in the greater society is extremely significant]

New technology in the field of history invites/demands new ways of:

  • thinking about history
  • teaching history
  • publishing history

In past we’ve relied on a culture of books. This is perfect for the modernist and the structuralist process of narrative. The Internet gives an alternative medium for relaying, projecting history.

[The minute he said this I think of the Oregon Trail game. Obviously a child’s tool, it still allowed one to be introduced to the culture of the past in an interactive way that promoted learning and fascination.]

The Internet supports collaborative instead of single-person work, multiple voices instead of one voice, and an alternative reading experience. It can bring a problem solving experience for readers in ways that books do not. Instead of being led to a pre-disposed conclusion, the new technology gives them the tools to develop their own ideas. The technology allows them to combine the old way of learning a “story” with “fun.”

[Again, I think of Oregan Trail. People have to be able to relate to history to take joy in it. The mistake people often make is they don’t realize history can be as interactive as advanced math, and even twice as applicable to one’s everyday life.]

Micro history, or the study of smaller instances/events, is now popular. Recaptured by England in the medieval centuries, digital technology brings the advent of history which combines macro/micro-history. We can take these smaller, detail rich stories and look at if they are typical or not when placed the context of the greater human experience. It also brings together that modernist and post-modernist manner of thinking.

[I couldn’t see how scholars originally separated the two. Yes, one can view local/individual instances in history, but they must always be then taken and placed in the context of the wider perspective. That’s what makes these individual events important–they give us a greater insight into ourselves as human beings.]

Teachers have rediscovered student -centered learning. Students should be more active, not just taking notes and repeating it back.

The Internet allows us to rethink publishing, it opens up communication, attracts public ethusiasm. Wikipedia and YouTube are signs of this. We should use this enthusiasm to our own advantage.

[Where historians are lucky if 5oo people read their monographs, now hundreds, even thousands, might view one’s work. This is incredible! We are granted the ability to reach “everyman.” The question is, are people interested in “history websites?” I would say yes. Whether academically or for entertainment, people love history. That’s why the history channel is one of the most highly viewed channels on cable.]

The premise of his project is “Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History.” He wants to take unsolved history and put up all evidence on the Internet. The goal is for the students fo finish the history and create their own analysis using the same methods real historians do.

Who Killed William Robinson” is one such mystery. The victim had been a black man who had to flee California with other “political refugees” in 1859 to Canada. William Robinson and 2 others killed on an island outside of Victoria. The site uses both transcribed documents and images from the period. Students learned the difference between primary/secondary documents, how to compare dates, and how to compare events to the greater context.

“We realized we’d been feeding history, not showing how to think history.”

[Dr. Lutz had it exactly. The common complaint I’ve heard from those who teach history and those who take history is that much of it is too general. It’s a process of force feeding and regurgitation.]

The project has 6 mysteries now, 9 by spring, 12 in future. It will cover major regions, themes, and time perids from 1000-1950. American high school will be the greatest number of sub-users. There are 130,000 words per mystery, over 300 images, and future forensic images. This project invites to learn how we “do” history (the “unnatural act”).

[The site is beautiful. It is as visually stimulating as it is mentally stimulating. It was definately a good way to attract students.]

Another is the “Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line: The Death of Peter Verigin.” Based on an infamous train explosion, they had forensic experts reexamine evidence and create new clues as to what could have happened for viewers to use in their own analyses. The site isn’t just for students, but it also invites scholars to make 700 word responses to questions. Each mystery is linked to the classroom through teacher’s guides to issues important to Canadians today, such as racism, child abuse, terrorism, religious tolerance, etc.

[The only concern I would see with all this evidence and the ability for students to see other analyses from other scholars is that their ideas might still be influenced. If other answers are there, how are they not just copying what they see?]

There is concern that this is just too much information for those in middle school to distill all of this information. So eventually they will release a site called Mystery Quest, which will help teach the same skills in a more guided manner.

These websites get a lot of attention because everyone loves a mystery. The last three launches of a new mystery was announced on news stations.

Victoria’s Victoria” is a new project being worked on. It involves a 3D reconstruction of Victoria, Canada, complete with historical maps and statistics from the city in the Victorian Age. It allows students to pose cultural questions. Things that range big and small, such as why is croquet important?

There is also a part for students to pick their own themes and write analyses based on the various documents, maps, etc., on the site. If you give them a chance to choose, often kids choose sex, drugs, alcohol, and crime, is the only problem. What’s excellent is that with the virtual reconstruction, students can assign analyses and concepts to images with a mark-up program. The students’ contributions will be added to the site for all to see. Eventually there will be a fourth phase that will allow people to use a GPS (palm pilot or cell phone) and come up with the history–who lived there, etc.–based on address. Phase five will be a total downtown reconstruction that one will allow one to “walk” through Victoria.

[The idea of virtual mark-up and everyone contributing to this project is great, but it was not said how the information would be filtered. All of the information would have to be reviewed, and how would it be organized in the most practical manner for everyone to see?]

With the technology that can create projects like “Canada’s Unsolved Mysteries,” we now have an opportunity teach and create history in a new manner that is engaging, pedagogically sound, and fun.

[Questions from the Audience]

Q1. Books create certain expectations in the narrative experience, which is to be led through and given definitive conclusions. This is ingrained from 900 years of book culture. How do we overcome this, or do we want to?

JL: As teachers, we have fed this. It will take awhile to change this culture. A project like this will allow us to change the culture of teaching in general.

Q2. Will you take this project transatlantic and connect it to a similar project being done in Victoria, England?

JL: No. There is a corner part of the website dedicated to global Victoria, England. The current project on Victoria has grown more micro in the process, with primary interest in Canada.

Q3. Can this approach [way of thinking and exploring in a historical manner] be directed at current, larger public events and people involved, so that the critical process will get people to think about those above in control?

JL: Yes, the goal is to get them to think about greater things, and how it trickles down into everyman. By building skills as teachers, and learning how to realtes these issues.

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