After discovering Professor Melissa Kravetz’s IWitness “digital essay” assignment on an internet forum for historians, Visiting Assistant Professor of History April Trask
developed her own assignment for her students at Amherst College that many students say is one of the most meaningful they’ve done.
Trask has long been interested in digital pedagogy and wanted to find digital resources for her history students at Amherst that offered more than just a digital presentation of traditional written materials, she said.
While on the H-NET
forum, she saw Kravetz’s digital essay assignment that asks students to use clips of testimony in IWitness to construct an argument, she contacted Kravetz to learn more and to begin adapting the assignment for her own course on Nazi Germany.
Trask’s assignment is for students to draw inspiration from Marion A. Kaplan’s book Between Dignity and Despair, in which Kaplan argues that the transformation of Germany from democracy to dictatorship was in large part due to the personal choices and actions of everyday Germans who gradually rejected Jews and cut them off from society.
“It has less to do with the regulations, Kristallnacht, and the sensationalism of the police state and more about the ways in which the everyday actions of Germans are actually what made this possible,” Trask said.
Working in small groups, students must incorporate IWitness testimony clips, images, personal voice recordings, textual explanations and reflections into a six- to eight-minute video that explores the kinds of changes in everyday life that contributed to the “social death” of Jews in Nazi Germany.
Over the two years that Trask has assigned the digital essay, students have researched school, community groups, the arts, sports and more as environments where Jews experienced antisemitism, exclusion and apathy from their friends, neighbors and colleagues.
“They find these incredible moments in the testimonies not necessarily about a Gestapo person taking you to the camps but a friend who denounces you or looks the other way when something happens,” she said. “Those videos end up being really meaningful and powerful for the students.”
Trask is impressed by the work her students turn in and consistently receives feedback that the assignment is the most meaningful they’ve done.
Professors can be hesitant to incorporate digital tools into their courses for a variety of reasons, from being intimidated by the technology to feeling “digital fatigue” – too many resources to choose from and not enough of a reason why the technology will improve their students’ learning. But what sets IWitness apart, Trask said, are the testimonies.
“What is being missed is 6,000 hours of primary source testimony that you can have your students do anything you want with,” Trask said. “You can’t find those resources anywhere else. It’s incredible.”
Trask pointed out that IWitness is flexible and allows professors to choose how they want to incorporate it into their course – from simply showing a clip to the class to assigning activities and video assignments. A fast-responding help desk also allows students to get their questions answered by a specialist from IWitness instead of relying on their professor for IT support.
The personal testimonies of genocide survivors make the events of the past more real for students, reminding them that they happened to real people and could happen again to them, Trask said.
“It’s been really amazing to see all the testimonies,” she said. “It’s been fantastic to put students in touch with a searchable database.”