Facebooking the past

This post was written in 2013 for Profhacker. It is no longer on their site. I have published the draft I sent here before editorial interventions. As we start to think about community building in the classroom and how to use digital resources imaginatively, I thought I would share this example.

Digital databases have provided scholars with new ways to access source material. Have we been quick enough to extend these benefits to our students? As a history lecturer, I am keen to encourage students to get their ‘hands dirty’ by exploring a number of different kinds of primary source databases. Just before Christmas, I decided that I wanted to use digital sources in a different way. I wanted my students not just to find source material but also to use it, digitally, in ways that showed their understanding of lecture topics. There was also a practical reason for this change of gear. Having recently been appointed to a new lectureship, I was faced with a new challenge: how to devise a 28 week long nineteenth-century gender history module that would not necessarily rely on the traditional lecture/seminar format that I had been used to.  

What should I do? I stumbled on the idea of using Facebook as a way of providing relief from the traditional lecturing format. ‘Facebook’, as its website declares, ‘is a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them. People use Facebook to keep up with friends’. It might seem odd that I should decide to use Facebook in a classroom. Surely, you might think, my students should keep their Facebook socialising to their own time. However, I realised that Facebook would in fact be an interesting format through which to explore primary sources. I knew that my students would have some familiarity with Facebook, indeed most of them were very regular users. Using Facebook in a way that my students had never conceived of would, I hoped, encourage them to really bring our primary sources to life in way that wouldn’t really have been possible in a simple blogging project.

First, I had to find someone to create a Facebook account for. I wanted this to be someone who had lived in the period that we were studying and not a fictional character of our invention or a character from a novel. It was only when I read Kate Summerscale’s biography of Isabella Robinson that I released that I had discovered a Victorian lady who neatly summed up the themes of the first semester of my module. Until now students had considered the private dimensions of what it meant to be a British woman or a man in the long nineteenth century. We had explored domesticity, the private sphere, housewives, men at home, gendered objects, marriage, love and courtship, and heterosexuality. Behind much of our class discussion has been how both men and women negotiated, understood and expanded on their gendered roles.

Isabella Robinson was ideal for a Facebook project. Born in 1813, she achieved notoriety in 1858 when her husband Henry Walker petitioned for divorce after discovering that she had had a sexual liaison with their friend Edward Lane. What made the case even more intriguing for the British press was that she had written about her desire and sexual longing for Edward (along with others) in her diary. It also revealed that she resented and disliked her husband, didn’t always like her children, and lusted after other men. Although there is only one veiled reference to a sexual liaison, it was enough for her husband to bring a case against Isabella and Edward Lane. As Kate Summerscale explains:

I was also attracted to Isabella Robinson because she provided us with the means to create a narrative through Facebook statuses. Her diary provided students with insights into her private thoughts which translated well into the world of Facebook. By asking contributors to write statuses, Facebook encourages us to think about how we present ourselves and think about the life stories we want to tell. A private diary and Facebook are not equivalents, of course. As I found when talking to my students, it is unlikely that such personal and intimate details as Isabella discussed in her diary would end up in a ‘public platform’ like Facebook for friends or strangers to see.

Nevertheless, what struck me as we discussed and formalised the task in our first week was how enthused my students were about the task. For instance, they felt that Facebook accounts should be created for other people referred to in Summerscale’s biography, which, in turn, would create a more authentic experience. Similarly, they felt that these additional accounts would enable them to better utilise the features of Facebook. They thought that the idea of tagging people into statuses was important, while the ability to ‘like’ and comment on statuses would enable greater dialogue. Consequently, Isabella became friends with a number of her contemporaries, including Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin (named Charles Beagle because Facebook wouldn’t let an account be created using Darwin’s surname) along with other actors in the Robinson drama, such as Edward Lane’s mother-in-law, Lady Elizabeth Dysdale, and his wife Mary Lane and finally Henry Lane. We also created a Facebook account for Queen Victoria who was there to provide comments or explanations on specific statuses.

Thinking about Isabella’s statuses enabled students to consider the fractured nature of individual identity. Class discussions revolved around how Isabella could be one thing at one time and a completely different person at another time. This was evident in the profile picture that we created for Isabella. Each student was given a copy of the biography and asked to read it before class. I asked them to consider what adjectives they would use to describe Isabella and to relate these to the images popularly displayed in nineteenth-century advice/conduct literature. Did she confirm or challenge this? It is perhaps not surprising that the words students came up with incorporated both the ‘image’ and ‘reality’ of Victorian womanhood. As there are no images of Isabella Robinson, we decided that we would use these words to create her profile picture by placing them into tagxedo.com, a website that turns words into a visual image. Together we decided that it should be arranged in a heart space to reflect the ‘sexuality’ and ‘lust’ behind her diary entries and the reason for Isabella’s notoriety. The pink and purple was used to heighten her femininity, while a purple background was deemed inappropriate.

Figure 1: Isabella Robinson’s profile picture

To create Isabella’s Facebook statuses, students were separated into pairs and asked to go through specific chapters of the biography. They were asked to think about the status that they would like to include and what voice they should use. For instance, should they use a contemporary voice or just Isabella Robinson’s diary entries? It was decided that we would have a mixed economy to bring variety but also because some of the excerpts used in the biography were quite long. Statuses were written on post it notes and grouped together by period. This was needed because Summerscale’s biography is not strictly chronological. We then interwove these statues into a narrative. At first this was quite difficult to do because we had to think about the order. It was at times made much more difficult because of the other Facebook accounts created. We had to think about how to arrange statues so that they fitted correctly on her timeline.

There were also other problems that we encountered:

  1. The timeline features are set to modern day timings and you can’t adjust them. As such, status had to start with the date. As the above screen grab shows, this was sometimes forgotten.
  2. This was a three week project and some people didn’t attend every week. It meant that some accounts were not used.
  3. I created the account which means that I had to use my own details to set it up.
  4. We decided to make this a public resource.
  5. I’ve already received ‘private’ messages asking Isabella to become a virtual friend and a friend request
  6. Also, I wonder how useful this Facebook page is to anyone outside the classroom.
  7. We spent 9 hours of class time on this project and yet I still felt we needed another week!

Nevertheless, this was a great class project. It has given me the confidence to think about doing future class projects using Facebook and similar online resources. My students seemed to be as excited by this project as me.


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