When I conceived of my class on the Ratification of the Constitution, I envisioned using my students as the creators of resources that could help their peers in other classes and at other institutions better understand the conflict surrounding the writing and ratification of the Constitution. Using a class website, hosted by the free blog site Wikidot, the students work collaboratively to create content that could help explain the origins of the U.S. Constitution. The entire class is built around a series of explorations of the causes of the Constitutional Convention, the writing of the Constitution, the ratification debate, and the aftermath of the adoption of the Constitution. In turn, students examine the British constitutional tradition, the political conflicts that presaged the Revolution, state constitutions, the United States under the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention, the ratification debates in the states, and the aftermath of its adoption, including the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Whiskey Rebellion.
Specific assignments include reading a series of state constitutions, comparing and contrasting, for instance, the first Pennsylvania and Massachusetts constitutions. Students use the examination of these constitutions to judge for themselves the types of problems that those involved in framing a government must grapple with: what is the source of the government’s authority, what is the relationship between the government and its source, how will power be divided, etc. This process also gives students a better idea of the models of constitutions that the framers in Philadelphia had available to them. Discipline- specific skills, like comparing the arguments of two historical monographs, are introduced too. Students read Woody Holton’s Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution, and excerpts from Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, two books with radically different arguments that demonstrate to students how a historian’s outlook and research question will influence the work that they produce. These readings and class discussions provide students with the background they need to begin their own website projects. Each student is responsible for creating pages in the class website; deciding what they will research and write is a task I leave entirely up to them.
Having students construct a website as opposed to writing a traditional paper offers more benefits than just functioning as a gimmick to attract the interest of digital natives. Academic papers require students to perform one type of writing task: to generate a closed- form, argument- driven essay. This is a profoundly useful tool, but, it is only one of the many sorts of writing that matter, either in the discipline of history or in my students’ daily lives. Websites offer a venue for students to practice other types of writing. Rather than focus on creating an argument, in a website, students focus on informational writing; meanwhile, the public nature of a website means they have a built-in authentic audience for all of their work.
Websites have another advantage: they allow students to draw connections in new and fascinating ways. Websites allow students to make connections between their topics and related topics in ways that ultimately create a deep understanding of the material. As part of the course, each student chooses one Federalist Paper he or she will concentrate on. One layer of the site presents the paper as it would be read in a book, only, each student is required to gloss any word that they believe might confuse someone reading the document for the first time. They research references to ancient Greek generals, demonstrate how the author is borrowing from the political thought of Montesquieu, and link from a discussion of a topic like sovereignty in one paper to a discussion of the same topic in another. In the process, students learn to interact with the material that they read in different ways—exploring not just the text, but the ideas and events that inspired it.
My favorite thing about this model of teaching is that it shifts the role of the students within the classroom. Rather than being passive recipients of knowledge, students become, instead, knowledge creators, forced to think about issues such as organization, presentation, and audience as well as content. While ostensibly the website the class creates is intended for use by others, it also functions as a tool for helping my students to better understand the ratification debate.