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For high school and college students, online instruction can open a door to archival research

Stanford historian Tom Mullaney envisions a collaborative course that could take students nationwide into special collections in their communities.
Two students examining photographs in the Stanford Library Special Collections
Junior Rosalind Lutzky and sophomore Marco Martinez examine photographs of the 1971 Black Panthers trip to China in the Stanford Library Special Collections for their History of Modern China class.
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Years ago, historian Tom Mullaney decided that he wanted not just to teach undergraduates about eras, cultures, and political shifts, but to involve them in the kind of work that historians do. With the Massively Multiplayer Humanities project, he redesigned several courses with the goal of engaging large numbers of students directly in historical research. He collaborated with Stanford librarians to give students access to special collections and archives on campus, while training TAs to coach them through the process of defining individual research questions. Now he envisions a future course that could extend the experience of archival research to high school and college students across the country. Students in the program would participate in an online class that would give them the tools to connect with local experts, define a research problem, and pursue research in collections in their own communities. 

Mullaney is a professor of Chinese history in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and a Guggenheim Fellow. He spoke with Stanford Digital Education’s Jenny Robinson about his conviction that the practice of conducting research and shaping a narrative from it is essential to the ever-contemporary project of citizenship. His most recent book, Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters to You (and the World), co-authored with Christopher Rea, professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, was published a year ago this April.

Jenny Robinson: We’ve seen the growth of online courses, particularly in computer science, that engage large numbers of students in hands-on learning experiences. Is there potential to scale humanities instruction in a similar way?

Tom Mullaney
Tom Mullaney (photo credit: Michelle Mengsu Chang)

Tom Mullaney: Some might say that it’s impossible to scale the pedagogical experience of hands-on humanities research. But I don't accept that because of what we've seen work at Stanford over the past seven years in the Massively Multiplayer Humanities project. The first phase of this experiment was basically, can we take the experience that we already create in classes of ten or fifteen students, and in a meaningful way, without distortion, scale that to a one-hundred-person class? We did it at the scale of one hundred and fifty students. 

JR: So how do you scale from 150 students at Stanford to hundreds beyond the campus?

TM: Well, what if the lecture part of a class was either online or hybrid in-person online? Students log off, they get on their bicycle, they get on their bus, they drive their car, in some cases they walk down the street. And they go to an archive or special collection that is within a five-mile, ten-mile, maybe at the most twenty-mile distance. The United States is blanketed by special collections, archival collections, historical societies. There are more archival collections than there are McDonald’s.

JR: Would it work like a scaffolded independent study?

TM: Imagine a high school, or a four-year college student or a community college student, in an educational framework where they are receiving credits and taking classes locally. The student goes to their advisor or a faculty member and says, “There's this thing that I was wondering if I could do; it’s online, live lectures; here's the syllabus, and I have to undertake original research where I use local collections. I need to register with you for a directed reading for a class. I need to have weekly meetings with you, so that you have visibility into whether or not this is a legitimate educational experience, but also because I need your help.” 

And so it's local and global at the same time, both pedagogically and research-wise. If you have students logging in from Albuquerque, Anchorage, the suburbs of Cincinnati, New York City, then they will be working in collections that are close to them, that very likely will house things that are related to the ecology, the economy, the culture, the society, and the demography of that of home or place. We're treating these high schoolers or college students like PhD students.  

JR: When you scale up the number of students in a course, how do you maintain the qualities that we associate with smaller, advanced classes?

TM: The distortion that we're avoiding would be if no one gets to really do hands-on research. We figured out how to avoid that. Another distortion is where everybody is all reading the same thing all the time, which, of course, in a lecture class, is always true. If I'm going to do that, then I can only assign English-language material, even if I have a class in which twenty languages are spoken.

If you take a group of twenty historians and you put them together, they can talk to each other and challenge and learn from each other. All of them are reading different things, and yet there is still a common language by which to speak about things that are different. Can we have a scenario in which students are doing hands-on research with their own individual projects?

The last distortion that we avoided was the show-and-tell distortion. We could bring a hundred people to the archives, but the only way we could do that is, if an authority figure stands in front of a really famous object, points at it and says, “This object is awesome.” But that is fundamentally not what archival research is. 

With archival research, there is no one in the room who knows what the thing is you're looking at most of the time. You don't even know what you're supposed to be doing in the first place.

JR: Your goal is to immerse students in the actual work of the discipline. 

TM: This is something that STEM, to their credit, is really good at. STEM does not infantilize their students. They have first-year students that are working in product realization labs where there are plenty of tools that if they're used wrong, will cut off their fingers. There are freshmen who are pithing mice and performing surgery on organisms. 

But in the humanities, we save that experience for grad school, or maybe for small classes in advanced levels of undergrad. The end result is that those classes become exceedingly unrepresentative of the actual diversity of the student body.

JR: You’ve talked about how the process of archival research can facilitate inclusion and belonging. Tell me a little bit about that.

TM: Here one comes to the issue of languages and mother tongues. If we craft the basic introductory educational experience as one where everyone's reading the same thing, and that's how we've solved the problem of scale, then just by definition, we are going to have, in any given lecture hall, dozens of mother tongues that will never be put to use. 

When research is centered in the self, that doesn't mean it's autobiographical, it just means that the question, the problem, that one is working on, is one that emanates from the way we're constituted in life. That's why we notice what we notice, and why we ask what we ask. 

JR: Can you give an example? 

TM: I had a student in my “History of Modern China” course, not of Chinese descent, with no heritage connection, who was able to use their mother tongue to look at Spanish-language labor contracts for Chinese workers in Cuba. They were able to bring out a fuller part of their being. 

It doesn’t need to be identity-framed. The student can belong in a question that at face value is quite distant from them. Again, that doesn't mean writing a memoir. It means: I want to work on the thing that is my problem. My problem is my home. It's who I am.

JR: What are the skills that students take away from your archival research courses? What do they know how to do? 

TM: They know how to stand in the middle of a hurricane, and hold fast. In this case, the hurricane is uncertainty, ambiguity, confusion. The first skill that you learn as a researcher, especially in historical research, is staying with the discomfort of not having a clue what you're doing, or a clue what you're supposed to be reading or taking notes on. 

When I throw my students into the pool of uncertainty for the first time, the first thing that they try to do is clean it all up, put it into a very nice package, and impress me that they have an interesting opinion or observation. 

I have to sort of gently shatter that approach and say, “You know, you've been with the source for five seconds, thirty seconds. So there is not a snowball’s chance that you have any idea what it's saying. I don’t.” 

JR: How does a researcher make sense of the uncertainty without prematurely packaging it, as you say? 

TM: I tell students, “What you're here to do is simply to begin the process of transforming this source into dozens and hundreds of questions that have no ambition, no aspiration to sound smart.” It's literally just like, What's that guy in the background doing? Why are they all wearing different hats? How many buttons are on that jacket? Where did they get the leather for that jacket? 

Through that process they gain a feeling of gravity again, because suddenly they start to hear themselves asking questions. It's sort of a cybernetic loop. We instinctively know that some of the questions that we ask of the world are brilliant. And so the research process is simultaneously one of studying the object that's in front of you and yourself at the same time. 

But we only have ten weeks, and we have a vast backlog of students who have never ever ever had this experience. And that's scary for democracy. We have more and more people on this earth who cannot deal with the hurricane of uncertainty. 

JR: Tell me more about how it connects with democracy. Why does it matter that people who are not necessarily going to be professional historians learn to have an intuitive understanding of the research process, or learn how to define a research question? 

TM: A revulsion towards ambiguity and uncertainty is fundamentally antidemocratic, because, you know, democracy is just painfully messy. 

In every eighties movie, there's some sort of verbal duel between two people, and there's one guy you're rooting for, and one guy you're not. And at some point the guy you're rooting for says some zinger that totally shuts down the other side. And then the scene ends and moves on. 

Those kinds of movies almost train us for a totalitarian mindset. They foster this belief that there are final words, and they're stopping the bad person in their tracks. If your instinct is silence, which is what happens when the scene cuts, you've silenced the person you think is the idiot. That's not democracy, right? 

There's so much uncertainty in the research process. What do I cut? What do I leave in? It's ambiguous all the way down. And yet the student knows that out of all that, their job is to fashion something like a followable narrative, a followable argument, but the more they do it, they realize how the sausage is made. Suddenly the idea of simple answers, magic bullets, secret recipes all goes away.

Published April 18, 2023

Jenny Robinson is the digital community and social media specialist for Stanford Digital Education.

This is the fourth installment in Stanford Digital Education’s “Changing Course” feature, which spotlights innovative ways in which members of the Stanford community are leveraging digital education techniques to better meet their learning goals and enrich students' experiences. If you would like to be showcased, please reach out to Jonathan Rabinovitz,

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