If I were teaching a course on South African history, how would I incorporate digital tools? In this blog post, I propose an assignment that I would give to a second- or third-year class on South African history.
My inspiration for this assignment comes from Writing History in the Digital Age, specifically the chapters by Robert S. Wolff, Shawn Graham, Martha Saxton, and Andrea Lawrence. They each describe history class assignments that required students to write or edit Wikipedia pages. They describe the challenges and successes of asking students to identify gaps or biases in the Wikipedia record, and then write “neutral”, accessible, and well-sourced history to improve the Wikipedia pages.
My assignment also asks students to write a Wikipedia page, although unlike the historians above, I am less concerned with getting students to think about the “moral economy of crowdsourcing” in Wikipedia. The historians above required students to actually edit or create real Wikipedia pages. My assignment will only require students to create a potential page; they can choose to try and put it on Wikipedia on their own time. Rather, my three main goals for this assignment are for students to understand:
- How to find and use digital primary sources for history (since students are so often warned against doing research online)
- How to build a historical interpretation from primary sources (and to realize the significance of contributing new public knowledge that hadn’t existed before)
- How to contextualize an individual’s life within the major events of twentieth-century South Africa
This is what the assignment instructions would look like:
Assignment: Write a South African Historical Figure into Wikipedia
You will write a Wikipedia article about either Mary Burton or Roseberry Sonto, two South Africans who were each involved in different ways in the struggle against apartheid. Mary Burton was a leader in the Black Sash, a white women’s organization that protested apartheid policies and provided volunteer assistance to Black and Coloured women. Roseberry Sonto was born in the Eastern Cape and was involved in the Black Consciousness Movement and the ANC. Neither of these people have a Wikipedia page. You will choose one of these people, and create a short Wikipedia entry about their lives based primarily on their oral history interview on Overcoming Apartheid, with supporting information from at least two other digital sources.
The purpose of this assignment is for you to learn to:
- interpret multiple types of digital primary sources
- contextualize the life of an individual within twentieth-century South African history
- write a clear, accessible historical interpretation for a public audience
- Choose the subject of your encyclopedia entry
- Listen to their interview on Overcoming Apartheid. As you listen, note the key events and movements that they talk about and that we have learned about in this class.
- Use the digital source collections listed below to do more research about the events and movements that they were involved in. You can also use our textbook, William Beinart’s Twentieth-Century South Africa.
- Write your encyclopedia entry about your subject’s life
- The writing style should be clear, formal, and dispassionate. Read Wikipedia’s guide to writing, especially the section on Information style and tone.
- Your article should include important biographical details (birth date, place of birth, date of death if applicable) but the bulk of their article should focus on their historically significant involvement in politics. Your article should describe both their personal activities, and the broader movements and events that they were part of.
- Cite your sources in the way that Wikipedia entries do: footnotes that contain the title of the source and a link to the source.
Your encyclopedia article will fulfill the following criteria:
- Between 750 and 1000 words
- Be based primarily on their oral history interview
- Refer to at least two other digital sources that relate to the movements that they were involved in
- contains oral history interviews and other multimedia resources
- contains documents, photographs, posters about liberation movements in Southern Africa
- interviews, documents, newspaper clippings, photographs