Last week, I planned to do my final project for this class on U.S. World War II propaganda. After thinking about it further and seeing something about other projects done in the class, I have decided to shift my topic. Although my final project will still be related to World War II, I’m now proposing to do a digital project that explores the debate about whether the United States should become involved in the war by aiding Britain. This was one of the great foreign policy debates in U.S. history, but it’s not one many students know about or can easily comprehend. Given the ways in which World War II is typically framed as a war of good against evil, it can seem strange to people that anyone would have opposed American entry into the war or providing aid to Britain, which for most of 1940 was the only country actually still at war with a Germany that had quickly conquered much of western Europe.
I think this topic is particularly well-suited to a project that is meant to grapple with the challenges and opportunities of teaching history. The episode itself—and the popularity of America First and the Fortress America mindset—forces students into an encounter with elements of the past that are strange to them. This topic also can be used to help develop a variety of historical thinking skills. My project will highlight the importance of knowing the historical context to make sense of this debate. It will draw on a variety of primary sources—editorials, speeches, cartoons—that students can be asked to analyze and source. Students can be prompted to anayze the visual and textual vocabularly each side used to make their arguments. The debate thus offers an excellent opportunity for students to grapple with two conflicting worldviews and to try to place themselves in the mindset of people from the past.
The debate over US entry into World War II can also be used to try to get an audience to consider causality: why did Americans become more supportive of entering the war, even before Pearl Harbor? How can we understand changing attitudes? Extensive Gallup Poll data can be used to track how US opinion changed in response to ongoing events, and I am hoping that my site could be interactive enough that students could try to deduce how an event affected public opinion before seeing the evidence. This debate can also encourage students to engage in their own moral and political reasoning, to ask where they would have stood in the debate and why.
All of this will be shaped by the digital environment. The digital arena will enable me, first, to include a wide variety of primary sources of many different formats, including videos and songs. Digital tools will enable me to create a scaffolded narrative that directs users through the exercises. I can use digital tools to highlight chronology, by creating a timeline, or to emphasize spatiality, by offering maps that illuminate arguments made by both sides and that show the locations of American First chapters.
I am less confident in how to create a site that allows students to “make their own” history, although I can imagine having a series of potential assignments at the end that would offer teachers guidance about how to have students use the material to make their own arguments. The images from the site, for example, could be used by students to create short documentary films through Primary Access. I am also not sure what the best tool would be for creating this site—Omeka? A basic website? But I’m excited to start collecting sources and trying to map out a storyboard for the project.