History's next step

For two decades, revolutionary technologies and methods of observation have been reshaping the study of history. Now a group of Richmond scholars at the forefront of this change aims to revitalize how America’s students learn about the nation’s past.

In 2018, historian and former UR president Edward L. Ayers sat on a stage in Arizona to talk about the value of history with the Education and Workforce Committee of the National Governors Association. Ayers’ language was polite, but what he offered was a very diplomatic scolding.

“Everyone, regardless of party, agrees the nation’s history is the foundation of all that we are, … but here’s the puzzle,” he said. “American history has been diminished in our schools over the last two decades.”

He cited a number of causes, including a seismic shift in emphasis to science and math education, the crowding effect of high-stakes testing, and budget cuts that have decreased or eliminated school field trips to museums and historical sites.

His remarks were an unfamiliar but welcome wave of affirmation to Annie Evans, who at the time was coordinator of social studies education at Charlottesville (Virginia) City Schools.

“Teachers that heard about this — history teachers like me who have followed [Ayers], read his books — we stood up and cheered,” she said. “That was something we’d been waiting for a very long time for people to hear.”

Ayers had ideas about the root causes and consequences behind this devaluation, too, saying they reflect a poverty in how people think about what history actually is.

“History teaches fundamental facts taught nowhere else, and by ‘facts’ I don’t mean the list of presidents and the facts that people I meet on airplanes always think that history teaches,” he said.

“Here are the facts that I mean. The world has not always been this way, and it will not stay the way it is now. People of all kinds move history in ways both terrifying and inspiring. True knowledge of history is based on evidence, not political convenience or wishful thinking or national vanity. There are no more important facts than these, no knowledge more important for all our students to share.”

Even as history has been losing ground in schools for decades, history scholarship has been riding a little-noticed wave of new technologies and methods of observation that are revolutionizing the way historians work, he explained. He compared them to tools that leapfrogged scientific knowledge, saying “For the first time, we have the equivalent of telescopes and microscopes to view the past at new scales, ways to see the entire nation and individuals within it with new clarity.”

Speaking by phone in the fall from a hotel room in Chicago, where he was taping an episode of a new PBS series called The Future of America’s Past, Ayers spoke with fresh enthusiasm because he believes that the University of Richmond is on the cusp of revitalizing public understanding of American history. He outlined a robust and growing set of projects in multiple media coming out of the university that will make substantive engagement with history more possible for more people than ever.

And what’s most exciting to Ayers is that he and colleagues at UR — including, now, Evans — are in the process of packaging them as a remarkable array of free resources for every teacher of American history in the country.

“When I finished the presidency [at UR], I thought, ‘Well, what do I care about now?’” says Ayers, who is now Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and president emeritus. “Our animating goal is to create something at Richmond that nobody else is making and that is cutting-edge. It doesn’t all say ‘University of Richmond’ on it. It’s not advertising. But it’s going to be clear that it’s a gift from UR to the students of the country. That’s what I get up every day thinking about doing, trying to live up to the opportunity that people created for me when I finished my presidency.”
A collage featuring Rob Nelson, director of the digital scholarship lab at the University of Richmond, students working on computers, and maps created as part of the American Panorama  project

“I make this joke,” says Rob Nelson, director of UR’s Digital Scholarship Lab. “The DSL is not just a sweatshop.”

His “sweatshop” crack refers to the often repetitive and admittedly tedious work that undergraduate students contribute to the various digital projects that make up its portfolio at dsl.richmond.edu. Each semester, they put in hundreds of hours transcribing data from print documents, geotagging maps, and doing other tasks to migrate millions of pieces of information from the physical realm to a digital one. The students who do this work often describe it as a welcome respite.

“It’s such a good escape from the world,” says Leah Reistle, ’20, an economics major who began working at DSL at the start of her sophomore year. “You have all the stresses of social life in college and school and finding a job, and then you go there. … We love the DSL.”

Ayers established the DSL in 2007, during his UR presidency, to continue the experimentation in the digital humanities he has been doing since 1991. The centerpiece of its work has become American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History, which the DSL’s site describes as “an historical atlas of the United States for the 21st century.” It is a growing collection of interactive maps that explore aspects of American history in ways previously impossible and has won widespread recognition, most recently the 2019 Roy Rosenzweig Prize for Innovation in Digital History from the American Historical Association.

The map that has made the biggest splash is “Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America, 1935-40.” It also displays what is so innovative about American Panorama generally. “Mapping Inequality” displays maps that were created during the New Deal era by a federal agency called the Home Owners’ Loan Corp. Its charge was to assign grades to neighborhoods in cities across the country that rated the level of risk they presented to banks and other mortgage lenders. HOLC also created a document trail explaining the grades.

“Mapping Inequality” brings these paper maps and area descriptions together and makes it all intuitively searchable and clickable in an instant. In doing so, it also puts one of the 20th century’s most damaging discriminatory federal policies in plain view. These maps “helped set the rules for nearly a century of real estate practice,” according to the site’s introduction. They disincentivized mortgage lending and other investment in immigrant and minority neighborhoods and gave birth to the term “redlining.” The multiplier effect of this disinvestment has played out across generations, from businesses deciding where to open grocery stores to decisions about which neighborhoods to bulldoze through to build interstate highways.

To borrow Ayers’ analogy, “Mapping Inequality” acts as both telescope and microscope for understanding redlining. A user from, say, Richmond, can zoom in to the neighborhood level and read that the area just north of Belle Isle received the HOLC’s lowest grade because “Negroes crowded out of [another neighborhood] are crowding white men out.” An all-white neighborhood adjacent to the University of Richmond, meanwhile, receives the highest possible grade, with one of its “favorable influences” listed as “restricted area,” presumably covenants that shut out minority and Jewish buyers.

The same user can zoom out, telescope-like, to scan clickable dots across the country that let them dive into more neighborhoods. In Decatur, Georgia, users can read about the all-white Glennwood Estates neighborhood. The HOLC maps give it the highest grade and note that one of the “favorable influences” is an adjacent “negro area D3 for servants” just on the other side of a cemetery. Meanwhile, D3, the Hunter subdivision, gets HOLC’s lowest grade, as did nearly every neighborhood in the country where African Americans lived. One of its “detrimental influences” is listed as “proximity of cemetery,” the same cemetery that top-graded Glennwood Estates borders on the other side.

Immigrant neighborhoods fared little better. A user zooming in on Cleveland can read about a neighborhood “[o]riginally settled by Germans and Irish [that] slowly bowed to Cleveland’s expansion and infiltration of other foreign peoples.” In Portland, Oregon, users can learn that a neighborhood is risky for investment because the “racial composition of its population is subversive,” i.e., people from Russia live there.


The world has not always been this way, and it will not stay the way it is now.

Examples like these abound across the country, and “Mapping Inequality” puts them all at users’ fingertips in a way that encourages discovery. Ava Clarke, ’20, was another of the students transcribing these descriptions, and she often had trouble believing what she was typing.

“I was definitely shocked,” she said. “I just had no idea that government officials could put those things in writing and people would actually abide by them. … To see the effects of what they wrote on people’s lives and then moving forward, how it affects today — I was just like, ‘Wow.’”

How often do traditional tools like textbooks, lectures, and worksheets evoke a “wow” response? Nelson says the key to understanding the unique power of the digital medium lies in how it puts the process of making meaning into the hands of the user.

“Writing is really good at making an argument, right?” he says. “You support your argument in words that fall in a linear pattern that you control as the author.” With the DSL’s digital maps, in contrast, “you don’t know how they’re going to fall through this, and the route that they take is unpredictable. You’ve lost control of the narrative at some point or ceded some control of the narrative to your reader/user and to the documents themselves.”

The result is that users create connections that DSL staff can’t anticipate as they make projects live. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago used data from “Mapping Inequality” to draw a direct line from the HOLC maps, through decades of disinvestment, to arrive at conclusions about their lingering effects today, writing that they “had an economically meaningful and lasting effect on the development of urban neighborhoods.” Researchers have drawn correlations between redlined areas and asthma rates and between them and urban heat islands, reinforcing arguments about poverty’s links to health inequities and the uneven impacts of climate change, respectively. K-12 teachers regularly tweet about using the maps in their classrooms.

“One of the things I’ve really loved about ‘Mapping Inequality’ — and it speaks to my background in American studies — is it gets used in ways I just would never have,” Nelson says. “I wasn’t thinking about gerrymandering. I certainly wasn’t thinking about asthma.”

American Panorama uses a similar formula for all of its projects. It presents historical information in graphically pleasing ways that put the reader in charge of how he or she navigates the evidence. The user has the option of scanning for vast patterns or zooming in on precise information from primary documents.

In the map called “Foreign-born Population, 1850-2010,” for example, sliding a bar on a timeline prompts colors and shapes to shift on a map of the United States, showing the changing distribution of immigrant populations. Simultaneously, a chart listing the origin countries of the foreign-born population dynamically updates. Clicking the map gives users access to hyper-local data. Zoom in to western Pennsylvania, for example, and decades’ worth of data about the origin countries of immigrants to Pittsburgh’s county, Allegheny, is right there. (Spoiler alert: Italy led in every census from 1930 to 2000.)

Similar dynamism animates the other maps that make up American Panorama. “The Forced Migration of Enslaved People in the United States, 1810–1860” documents the displacement of nearly 1 million enslaved men, women, and children in the decades between the end of the transatlantic slave trade and the beginning of the Civil War. On that map, bubbles let users see where enslavers moved enslaved people from, usually via the domestic slave market, and where they moved them to, as well as the number of enslaved people relocated by this process.

Location markers connect to enslaved people’s place-specific, firsthand accounts of the slave trade. On “Electing the House of Representatives,” the changing strength of political parties in every district over every House election since the Civil War is readily visible. Animations that shift with timeline clicks highlight regional and urban/rural patterns across nearly 180 years of congressional elections.

Change over time is something that all of the maps of American Panorama depict, reinforcing Ayers’ dictum that the world will not stay as it is today. As time passes, we can better understand the history that has brought us to where we are, Ayers says.

“The past is the past, but history is constantly changing,” he says. “What has happened has happened, but we see it from a different perspective with each passing year, as our own place moves. It’s like something on the horizon. The horizon is constantly moving as we watch. … The farther we get from the past, the more clearly we see it. It turns out that living through something is actually a pretty poor way of understanding it.”

Bunk, a second digital project being produced at Richmond, tries to help us do just that — understand our times — by immersing the news and opinions of today in diverse streams of history. Available at bunkhistory.org, the site takes its name as a wry twist on Henry Ford’s 1916 dismissal of history as “more or less bunk.” It publishes a daily stream of excerpts of new articles from a wide array of online sources, both popular and scholarly. It then links the articles thematically to others catalogued in Bunk.

“The issue isn’t that terrific, historically minded media isn’t out there — to the contrary, there’s more of it now than ever — but rather that people don’t have many opportunities to connect the dots,” says Bunk editor Tony Field. “What we’re trying to do is not only to collect the best history content we can find but also to create tools that enable curious people to move back and forth across time and space. It’s like we’re setting out to give 3D glasses to everybody who’s only ever seen the story of the American past in a regular, 2D theater.”

The innovation of Bunk lies in a back-end tagging system that generates an often surprising set of connections based on what articles are about, who’s in them, and where and when they take place. For example, an October Boston Globe article about the threat that rising sea levels pose to Chesapeake Bay historical sites related to Harriet Tubman connected to a Gothamist article about fights over Walt Whitman’s last surviving New York City home. And to a California Sunday Magazine story about the birth of modern environmentalism. And to an article in The Bitter Southerner about the ruins of the first free black settlement in what would become the United States.

Nat Berry, ’20, a philosophy, politics, economics, and law major from Richmond, Kentucky, who has worked for Bunk since the spring of his freshman year, says that as a result of Bunk, “I’ve really blurred that line between what is the past and what is over and what’s today.”

He calls history “the best reality TV you could ever have because there are so many hidden stories, and it’s dramatic and complicated.” His work for Bunk involves writing teasers, choosing excerpts, and deciding on connection tags. It has changed how he reads, he says (and he predicts benefits for his upcoming LSAT — “being able to read fast and pull out major themes, major points”). But more broadly, it has changed how he understands the news that comes at him every day.

“There are [always] historical links to politics that are going on,” he says. “There are historical links to the economy, to social issues, to cultural issues, even with the Emmys or whenever there’s a big award show. There’s always going to be a Bunk article that’s contextualizing this current event through history.”

New American History is getting [history education] to the point where it should have always been.

Gabby Kiser, ’21, an English major from Williamsburg, Virginia, has been at Bunk for a little more than a year.

“It’s always exciting for me to be able to connect something that happened in the past with what’s happening right now,” she says. “Or something that I’m familiar with now — how did it come into existence? … I wish that it had been there for me when I was in high school because it’s just exciting to go there and find a more interesting story about the constitutional convention or Cold War diplomacy. All of that can be found on Bunk.”

She’s also drawn to some of the quirkier subjects that end up on Bunk.

“I always think back to the oral history of the StairMaster,” she says, referring to an article that appeared on Medium.com in February 2019. (Subtitle: “The untold story of an iconic workout machine, told one step at a time.”)

The tags that Kiser applied for Bunk resulted in the article being connected to a dozen articles on subjects as wide-ranging as the rise of protein bars, the invention of LSD, and the role of the Cold War in the creation of the President’s Fitness Council.

Like Berry, Kiser says she thinks differently from how she used to about what history is and why it matters. Before working at Bunk, history was to her “stuff that happened, and it’s interesting to find out … but I think that Bunk has definitely helped me to realize how important it is to think about what’s happened before when thinking about what’s happening now.”

Ayers is hopeful that a project like Bunk can help more people become more aware of how an understanding of the past frames how they think about the future.

“We are harvesting what our own time is making available — which is all of the representations of the past — in ways that we can see them all, connect them all, and then convey them all in ways that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago,” he says.

For evidence of why this is important, he points to the core slogans of the current U.S. president and his immediate predecessor.

“Very often the claims that people are making about where we should be going are claims about where we’ve been,” Ayers says. “‘Make America Great Again’ is a historical argument, right? It’s assuming that we were great at one time, and there’s been quite a bit of arguing about when was that, but it’s an implicit argument. But so was President Obama’s, talking about hope and change. Every argument about the future is an argument about the past. It assumes a trajectory that we are on that we can either sustain or reverse. Even though all of these arguments are based in history, they are seldom framed as such.”

In Ayers’ experience, students don’t arrive at college thinking about history in these ways. As he told the governors in 2018, part of the fault lay in how schools have traditionally taught history, and he offered a promise, if the governors would take him up on it.

“We are ready to teach history much better than we did in the past,” he said, “when we too often relied on dull textbooks, rote memorization, uninspiring lists, vacuous vocabulary words, and putatively important events whose significance students didn’t really understand even if they knew when they happened, more or less.”

One audience particularly hungry for new ways to teach history are America’s K-12 history teachers, according to Evans, the former K-12 social studies curriculum coordinator in Charlottesville. Before that, she taught middle school social studies in Henrico County, Virginia, for more than 20 years, and she now sits on the Virginia Department of Education’s state steering committee for social studies.

“The ‘Let’s start on Chapter 1 in September and let’s end on Chapter 30 in June’ way of teaching history has never been OK with me,” she says. “I didn’t like it as a kid.”

The textbooks she grew up with told the story of history from a limited point of view — “a white, male, upper middle class perspective,” she says — and focused on a limited cast of characters taught over and over. They were boring and left an awful lot out.

In projects like American Panorama and Bunk, she sees exciting new ways for engaging students at all grade levels across the country, so much so that in the spring she signed on to join Ayers on a new project called New American History. Through it, the University of Richmond aims to pool the resources of American Panorama, Bunk, Ayers’ new PBS show, and his longtime podcast BackStory to create learning resources available for free to K-12 teachers everywhere. Evans’ role is to provide educational outreach, supporting teachers integrating New American History tools and resources into their classrooms.

“New American History is getting [history education] to the point where it should have always been, which is that history is happening every day, and we’re constantly uncovering new things about history,” she says.

“With the technology we now have available, we can make more stories accessible, relevant, and compelling. Instead of just a flat map that a teacher pulls down on the wall or that students look at in National Geographic magazine — not that there aren’t still great uses for those, but now that we’ve got the ability to digitize this information, we can constantly update it as things change and as the world evolves. More importantly, as we keep uncovering more stories and narratives about history, we’re telling different narratives now. That’s what I’m most excited about with New American History.”

She says that when Ayers and Field, Bunk’s editor, first began discussing New American History with her, they said something along the lines of, “We’re thinking that these tools might be of use to an AP U.S. history class or an 11th-grade history class.” She told them, sure, but they should be thinking about much earlier grades, too.

“I took the American Panorama map on immigration, developed a fourth-grade lesson, and went and piloted it with a class in Charlottesville,” she says. “And they loved it. I mean, they had a great time. They looked up where many of them came from, because some of them were recent immigrants themselves. And then other kids were looking up where they thought their ancestors or grandparents came from.”

Those inquiries led to class discussions about everything from DNA testing kits to historical events that help explain past immigration patterns and the current events that are driving immigration in the world today.

“Our kids are very much aware of the fact that there’s a high refugee and a high immigrant population in our schools today,” she says. “Even though these kids are being integrated into your own classroom and sitting right next to you, we almost never talk about it in most schools. It opened up a lot of really great conversations with the students amongst themselves and with the students and the teachers.”

I want revisionist history, just like I want revisionist medicine. What are the latest things you've learned? Good, I want that.

This approach to the study of history — active, inquiry-based, grounded in the latest evidence — gives students the tools to develop deep understanding of history — and then, importantly, to revise that understanding when new information becomes available. The word “revisionism” is sometimes tossed at historians as an epithet. Bring it on, Ayers says.

“People will say, ‘Well, this is revisionist history.’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I want revisionist history, just like I want revisionist medicine. What are the latest things you’ve learned? Good, I want that.’ People who want the past to remain static and fixed don’t understand the past, and they don’t actually value it. To claim that it only meant what it meant when you were a child, what you were taught, is not to honor it.”

As he points out, we never see less of the past, only more. Distance and discovery continually increase the amount of information available about everything that happened before today. The nimble technologies that underpin American Panorama and Bunk are built for expansion with new evidence and the newest perspectives. With a teacher-focused boost from New American History, they also stand a chance of competing for the attention of todays’ students in a way textbooks have not for decades and of reshaping how the next generation thinks about the past, and the future.

Matthew Dewald is editor of University of Richmond Magazine and a frequent Bunk reader.