Site offers history resource

  • Professors at the University of Richmond have created a website called History Engine that lets students post short document analyses.
  • These "episodes" provide a short narrative about the document and its historical importance.
  • One of the key features of History Engine is the advanced search feature that lets students group episodes by place, time, or subject.
  • Some professors worry that History Engine could have negative effects on learning by promoting laziness or cheating.
  • Presently, History Engine is limited only to American history.

Students studying American history recently gained a new resource for research: a Web site called History Engine that compiles student-written essays about historical topics.

The Web site was started by professors at the University of Richmond, including Andrew Torget, who describes the software as "a wiki with gatekeepers."

The gatekeepers, Torget said, are professors, who have to register students before they can post material to the Web site. He said the essays, called "episodes," are freely accessible after they have been posted.

Fellow director Rob Nelson calls the episodes "micro-histories," and said each episode is about 500 words long.

"These are really small moments in the past," Nelson said.

Nelson said the episodes consist of a narrative taken from a historical document that explains the event and its historical significance.

In most classes, Torget said, students post episodes in lieu of writing essays, and teachers can then give finals that rely on the information gathered by the class as a whole.

Episodes are linked by what Torget calls "metadata," such as dates, places and tags. Tags are keywords associated with episodes.

One of the unique characteristics of History Engine is its advanced search techniques, such as Map Search. Torget said the interface "lets you map searches across time and space," using an interactive map and an adjustable timeline.

More advanced search options are coming soon, Nelson said. He said one option planned is a search that would return related tags as well as results, so students could add additional tags to their search and narrow in on the exact episodes they want.

History Engine was originally created in 2005 for use in one classroom, and after its success, Torget and the other founders decided to expand the project to a small group of schools. Torget said this was the first year that the Web site opened up nationally, beyond this small group.

Now that the project is national, Torget and Nelson both said they hope that the collaboration will be of great assistance to historians outside the classroom as well.

"These students could be potentially exposing things historians might not find on their own," Torget said.

However, Torget said the focus of History Engine will still be on the classroom.

"It's designed for students doing scholarship," Torget said.

Some professors at Marquette worry about the impact sites like History Engine could have on academics as a whole, however. Kristen Foster, assistant professor of history, is one of the concerned professors.

"I think it's great for students to analyze documents," Foster said. "But I'm not sure why it needs to be online."

Foster said she thinks the site gives students access to students' analyses of documents, but not the documents themselves.

"Someone else has already grappled with the document," Foster said. "I probably wouldn't use it in my classes because I want students to do their own grappling."

Adjunct professor David McDaniel also worries that plagiarism could result, with students lifting parts of episodes without attributing to the original writer.

"The potential for expanding knowledge is vast, but the pitfalls are much greater," McDaniel said.

While it's not implicitly stated in the site's name, History Engine only focuses on American history.

Both Torget and Nelson said they were not planning on expanding the site to include subjects outside the history of the United States.

Nelson said, however, that he and the other directors considered History Engine to really be two projects: the History Engine Web site and the software that makes the Web site possible. He said the latter might eventually be released as open source software, so others could make their own "Engine" sites.

"We'd like to do that at a future point," Nelson said.