History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web
City University of New York, American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, and George Mason University, Center for History and New Media; maintained by American Social History Productions, Inc.; accessed September 10-19, 2004.
While the majority of people get their news and interpretations of history from the popular media, it is important for historians and, more importantly, history teachers to arm themselves with as many sources and methods as possible to pique the interests of their students. This is especially true when teaching one of the broadest history courses offered in high schools and colleges, the United States history survey. History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web provides a forum in which teachers, both new and experienced, can examine and improve their efforts to develop an effective course of instruction by reviewing the work of colleagues.
History Matters focuses primarily on the social and cultural history of the United States by providing access to "materials that focus on the lives of ordinary Americans."(1) The site is divided into eight primary features, ranging from collections of primary source documents and general reference material to course syllabi and advice from history teachers working at several levels within the educational system. Included in these features is an element that strikes right at the heart of addressing the power of popular culture's influence on interpretations of history. In Past Meets Present, the History Matters staff compile articles and reviews from historians on popular issues within contemporary society. Several articles, including Michael Nelson's commentary on the movie Thirteen Days, help teachers to combat the poetic license taken by the movie industry in presenting the interpretation of an event while taking painstaking efforts to make sure that the actors' costumes fit the period exactly. More importantly, for new teachers, the site suggests ways to incorporate even inaccurate dramatic history in productive ways to reach students in today's ever-increasingly television-driven society.
Perhaps the site's most beneficial aspect is the numerous links to other sites and documents. Site administrators have provided guided paths for visitors and a keyword search option to navigate resources. Despite some inactive links, History Matters is a valuable search engine for the vast history-related resources on the Internet. The site provides introductions to most links, which have been selected by individuals specializing in the field. This makes the site valuable not only to teachers, but also to researchers and students. As more primary documents are presented on the Internet, researchers and students gain increased access to materials that previously may have been available only through great expense of travel and time.
Another beneficial feature of the website is the collection of online forums in which topics in American history are discussed. The moderators for each forum are well-established and respected historians. Examples include Linda Gordon on family history and Eric Foner on Reconstruction. At the time of this review, the last posted messages were from late 2003, giving the impression that the forums are inactive at this time. However, visitors can still access them and benefit from discussions by their peers on topics ranging from new research to methods of teaching.
Another difficulty faced by history teachers and historians is bringing the past to life for their audiences. History Matters provides links to archival resources including original documents, maps, and photographs. The site could benefit from more historic preservation-related links that would provide additional visual interpretation of historic places for the casual visitor or teacher in search of resources.
While professional organizations and conferences provide similar opportunities as History Matters, the immediacy of a website increases teachers' abilities to find materials that respond to the needs of their students. This is especially valuable to teachers at community colleges and universities where students are new to history topics. History Matters can also keep high school and community college teachers abreast of new ideas and research.
History Matters provides a wealth of opportunity for U.S. history teachers to enrich the classroom experience for their students, themselves, and others in the field. Moreover, it offers those interested in heritage stewardship a place to research and discuss history and interpretation.
Northern Virginia Community College
1. "More About History Matters" at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/expansion.html; maintained by American Social History Productions, Inc.; accessed September 10, 2004.