Blog Post

Digital Projects and Student Engagement in the Era of COVID-19

Anyone teaching this year knows how challenging it continues to be in the era of COVID-19. Wasn’t 2020-2021 supposed to be the most difficult year for educators?! Throughout most of the pandemic, I’ve taught World Studies at the secondary level. I’ve observed students struggling to adjust to unfamiliar structures, where they seem unsure about how to ‘do school.' I’ve witnessed rising mental health issues. I’ve often had to stop class to address what it means to be a respectful student–to classmates, administrators, teachers, and one's self.  And I’ve found student apathy to be particularly taxing. Even when educators strive to create lessons that feel like Broadway Show-caliber performances for their classes, students often appear unimpressed. It’s as if they look as you and say with their eyes, “Is that all you’ve got?” Student engagement can wax and wane depending on the day.  And this (lack of) energy can transfer to teachers. How can digital scholarship projects foster student engagement and help restore teachers’ inspiration for their craft?

I turned to the Slave Voyages Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. The Voyages Database, formerly housed at Emory University and now at Rice University, resulted from decades of collaboration among scholars researching the Atlantic World and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, as well as a multi-disciplinary team that has included cartographers, computer programmers, and web designers.

The interactive nature of the website promotes student engagement. A series of introductory maps highlight different elements of the slave trade. For example, by analyzing Map #1, students quickly grasped the stark contrast between the number of African slaves that arrived in Brazil versus the United States between 1500 and 1900.  By examining Map #7, students identified the African coastal regions where captives departed from Africa. Their observation that approximately 5 million slaves left West Central Africa alone generated rich discussions about Portuguese trade, imperial expansion, and the legacies for contemporary Angola and Brazil. Students also strengthened their map reading skills in the process.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database nurtured student engagement as they documented voyage details and discussed notable observations. What were the connections between the origin of the voyage and principal place of purchase, such as Rio de Janeiro and Luanda, respectively? Why did the vessels generally transport hundreds of slaves at a time, although some carried only a few? Why is it that some of the information in the table remains blank?

The African Name Database provided students a valuable opportunity to analyze how to ‘humanize’ big data. With the maps previously mentioned, students had noted that millions of slaves embarked toward the Americas from one region in West Africa. However, the name database gave some of these enslaved millions names and heights and ages and places of origin. These individuals had families and lives and favorite foods that the slave trade ripped from them. By analyzing the database contents, students guided a larger class discussion.  Why were many of the slaves in their 20s? Why would there be one-year-olds listed? And how could ‘Freetown’ be a common destination for these people who were anything but free? A Gilder Lehrman Master Teacher colleague of mine also suggested pairing analyses of the database with slave narratives to further enhance what I like to call ‘the human component.’  Excerpts from Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad is one example that she mentioned.

The 3-D video of the slaving vessel, L’ Aurore, catalyzed some of the strongest student engagement. To see images of a slave ship posted in a Google Slides presentation is one thing. To enter below deck by way of a 3-D simulation is quite a different learning experience. The video prompted great questions: Why did the crew give slaves the food that they did? Why is it that slaves were forced to remain chained below deck? Why were they sometimes permitted to get fresh air above deck? Wouldn’t it smell with people getting sick and...you know? Their comments and facial expressions (which in no way resembled the familiar blank stares in class), indicated that most students were appalled and horrified and yet also present. Their insightful questions motivated me to do additional research after class, so that I could return with answers the next day. While this digital scholarship project sparked a genuine enthusiasm for learning in my students, it also reminded me that teaching--even in the COVID-19 pandemic--can be really rewarding. 

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