The History Engine Teacher’s Guide

Table of Contents

I. Introduction

  1. What is the History Engine and what are its goals?
  2. What is the student project and how does it contribute to the History Engine database?
  3. What will I have to do to prepare for and support the project?
  4. What will students have to do for the project?
  5. What do I do if I have a problem with the website?

II. Getting Started

  1. Website Planning and Registration
  2. Setting Your Goals
  3. Knowing Your Resources
  4. Working with Libraries and Librarians
  5. Constructing the Student Assignments
  6. Building Your Syllabus

III. Student Research and Writing

  1. Introducing the Project
  2. Supervising Research
  3. Supervising Writing
  4. Rough Drafts
  5. Final Copies
  6. Uploading

IV. Using the Final Project

  1. Using the database as a resource
  2. Research Project Ideas

I: Introduction

1. What is the History Engine and what are its goals?

The History Engine is an educational tool that gives students the opportunity to learn history by doing the work—researching, writing, and publishing—of an historian. The result is an ever-growing collection of historical articles, or “episodes,” that paint a wide-ranging portrait of life in the United States throughout its history, available in our online database to scholars, teachers, and the general public.

Goals of the History Engine:

  1. The History Engine as a teaching resource. The History Engine allows undergraduate professors to introduce a more collaborative and creative approach to history in their classrooms while maintaining rigorous academic standards. The History Engine provides instructors with a comprehensive guide to using the database project as a learning device in their classrooms. Instructors can also download handouts and templates from the website.
  2. The History Engine as an educational experience. The History Engine project allows students to gain firsthand experience as academic historians as they research and interpret historical events, encapsulate this knowledge in brief online entries, and post their analyses for public use. As students contribute to this archive of historical moments, they become part of a collaborative learning effort both within their classrooms and with other participating classrooms around the country. Episodes contained in the database can then serve as the basis for future research papers and projects.
  3. The History Engine as an academic tool. The value of the History Engine does not end when the student completes the assignment. Rather, the episodes remain in the database for use by researchers and fellow classmates. Episodes also draw from a wide variety of primary documents in both small and large collections from around the country, many of which have yet to appear in scholarly manuscripts. Only registered students can contribute to the database, which helps to keep database material academically sound; student episodes are subjected to a careful screening process on the part of library staff, archivists, professors, and teaching assistants before they can be uploaded.

2. What is the student project and how does it contribute to the History Engine database?

Episodes. The main student project associated with the History Engine is the creation of episodes that make up the cumulative database. An episode is a story about anything from a congressional act to a meeting between two neighbors, from a store receipt to a love letter, from a sheet of music to a children's book. The goal of the episode is not to recount textbook-like facts but to try to understand the past from the perspective of the Americans who lived it. The episode provides the details of these daily occurrences found in one or more primary documents and contextualizes those details with information from secondary sources. A completed episode has the following format:

  • Episode Title: A short (i.e., less than a sentence) but descriptive title for the episode.
  • Start and End Dates: The Database will need to know when the episode began and, if applicable, when it ended. For one-day events, no end date is necessary. For others, however, the episode will have occurred over the course of several days, weeks, or even months.
  • Episode Location: This includes the county (or counties) and state(s) in which an episode occurred. Students will need to select the most applicable state and county to enter their episode into the cumulative database.
  • Episode Narrative: This is the main body of text that makes up an episode. The narrative should showcase the primary source while providing context for the story with secondary source material. The narrative should be brief, in the 250–500 word range. Students receive step-by-step guidelines for constructing their episode narrative in the Writing section of the History Engine website.
  • Episode Tags: Students are required to provide two tags for each episode. A tag is an identifying handle or “keyword,” a way of categorizing the content of each episode. These tags are essential to making episodes easily accessible and searchable on the History Engine website.
  • Episode Primary Source(s): Students will enter the relevant information for each primary source that is showcased in their narrative based on guidelines found in the Citation Guide and on the Writing page.
  • Episode Secondary Source(s): Students will need to give credit to the academic sources used to construct the context for their narrative. Students will not be citing page numbers in the body of their episode text and will need to include these page numbers in the secondary source citation.

For more examples of episodes, browse the database or conduct a basic search using the search bar found at the top left of the History Engine site.

Size of the project. The project can be tailored to the instructor’s specific needs. For instance, if an instructor wishes to make the History Engine one of many educational experiences during the term, he/she may choose to assign fewer episodes. Assigning one episode may be a good way to pilot the History Engine or to whet students’ appetites for primary research. Four to six episodes allow students a more involved and substantial learning experience. The History Engine project requires a substantial time commitment from both teachers and students, as teachers will often need to guide students through the difficulties of primary and secondary research in addition to reading multiple drafts of student-crafted episodes. If using the project for the first time, teachers may want to focus on two or three quality episodes.

Uploading to the database. Once students have gone through the extensive research and writing process and instructors have OK’d their work, the episodes are ready for uploading to the database. Uploaded episodes are part of the History Engine and available to Internet users.

3. What will I have to do to prepare for and support the project?

Preparation. Section II: Getting Started extensively covers how and when instructors might prepare for the project. In the early stages, you will simply want to begin to consider the context in which the History Engine will fit into your courses. Begin by identifying what region and time period you hope to contribute to in the database. Then consider how broad or narrow the topic you will cover for the History Engine project will be (e.g., as broad as the ‘American South from 1810-1900’ or as narrow as ‘Agriculture in Pennsylvania from 1810-1861’). It is particularly useful to consider what resources are either on-hand at your university’s library or in nearby public libraries or archives. You may want to tailor the assignment to promote local resources, as students most enjoy the experience of handling primary documents.

Teaching the project. Part III: Student Research and Writing lays out exactly how instructors may present the project and proceed through the research and writing process. You may also want to determine if creating the database will be the terminal project or if you will want students to do an additional project that uses the completed database. Suggestions for additional projects can be found in Part IV: Using the Final Product.

4. What will students have to do for the project?

Direct students to the website. Step-by-step instructions for students detailing the research and writing process are on the History Engine website.

Student goals. In brief, students will be responsible for two main contributions to the database:

  • Episodes that convey historical moments using both primary and secondary sources.
  • Bibliographical information on each primary and secondary source used.

Student requirements. Students should refer to the Style Guide and Citation Guide to be sure they are using the proper structural and grammatical format for the database.

5. What do I do if I have a problem with the website?

Contact us. Please feel free to use the contact us form to submit any questions regarding the Teacher’s Guide or History Engine.

II. Getting Started

This section outlines how to register for the History Engine online, set goals for your project, incorporate available resources into project design, work with librarians and archivists, construct the student assignments, and build the project into a class syllabus.

Website Planning and Registration

  1. Contact us. Before you can register for the History Engine project, you must receive an authentication code. This code protects the site from unauthorized users and helps to maintain the academic integrity of the project. To get a code, please contact us.
  2. Registering. Enter your authentication code on the Registration page of the History Engine to access the Registration form. Once you submit your class information, the website will generate a unique “class code” that is assigned to your individual course (this code will also be emailed to you). Save your class code to give to students when they are ready to upload their episodes. This code will allow you to monitor their progress and also protect the site from unauthorized users.
  3. Knowing the project. The most important preparation you can do is to familiarize yourself with the project as a whole. You will likely want to read through the entire Teacher’s Guide before planning your syllabus. Make sure you know what an episode is and can easily describe it to your students.
  4. Planning. Now you are ready to plan your course. You may want to explore the History Engine website to help make decisions about your goals and syllabus, discussed in the sections below.

Setting Your Goals

  1. Time frame. Decide how much of your course you intend to devote to the History Engine. The research assignment generally takes at least four weeks for even one or two episodes, so if you only have a couple of weeks, consider skipping to Part IV: Using the Final Product. To use the History Engine as the central focus of the course, be sure to allot at least eight to ten weeks for up to six episodes.
  2. Course parameters. The History Engine assignments can be tailored to any course, from broad surveys like Nineteenth-Century United States History to more specific topics such as New York Women in 1925. For a more specific assignment, be sure your library or local archive has enough resources for all of your students.
  3. Research goals. Student research for History Engine episodes can be as specific or open-ended as you would like. Students can focus on one particular collection of documents (such as slave narratives or the Abraham Lincoln papers) or you may require them to investigate a broad range of documents, including a different collection for each episode. Librarians are often helpful in determining how much student research is possible in a limited amount of time.
  4. Collaboration. College instructors from around the country use the History Engine in their classrooms. If you intend to make the History Engine the focal point of your syllabus, consider enlisting one or more of these fellow teachers in a cross-institution collaborative final project. Together, you might require each student to submit one episode on a particular subject, such as the New Deal, or time period, such as May, 1876. The result of this uniform assignment will be a plethora of episodes on the same subject or time period based on primary documents from different archives across the United States. A final paper that explores the chosen subject or time period will give students a new perspective on how scholars construct a narrative based on available sources.

Knowing Your Resources

  1. Taking an inventory. The key to making the History Engine successful is readily available and varied primary sources. Students often appreciate the possibility of looking through a large number of documents and selecting the ones they like best. Before constructing the specifics of your assignment you may want to compile a broad list of primary sources available in your own library and in nearby repositories.
  2. Using your libraries. If asked well in advance, librarians may be willing to provide lists for you (for more specifics for how to enlist the help of librarians for the History Engine project, see “Working With Libraries and Librarians” below).
  3. Using local archives. Local museums and archives can be an untapped resource for student projects. Local archivists and librarians may be willing to provide you with a list of primary sources available in their repository for your specified time period and region. As part of the project, you may require students to use the resources in local repositories that are easily accessible. You may want to speak with the archivists before requiring students to go outside the college, however, as a large group of student visitors may disrupt other researchers.
  4. Other colleges/universities. Some schools located nearby may be willing to grant your students temporary access to primary documents with advance notice.

Working With Libraries and Librarians

  1. Working with librarians. Enlisting the help of librarians and archivists for the research portion of the project is highly recommended. Librarians at your college, local libraries, and nearby archives contribute to the project in three main ways: they will help you tailor the project to your class based on the resources available, train students in research techniques, and direct students to proper resources, enhancing the overall quality of episodes. Throughout the research process librarians serve as a secondary check to the integrity of student research.

    How will I convince librarians to help my class? The History Engine is a resource librarians will love! You can get librarians and archivists on board by familiarizing them with the website and the project. Present the History Engine as a learning tool that taps into the emerging field of digital history. Explain that students will not only be required to use library resources, such as rare documents, microform, and ILL, but they also will experience research in a new and exciting way. Most librarians will jump at the chance to help student research and will gladly participate in a class activity that encourages students to delve into library resources. The History Engine uniquely allows instructors, librarians, and students to be part of an educational team. To help summarize the project for librarians, you can provide them the Librarian Guide.

  2. Resources on reserve. You may want to arrange with librarians to set aside major document collections or generally useful secondary sources. That way you know there is a base of resources available that you trust as accurate. However, you will want to balance reserve materials with allowing students to experience the thrill of library/archive exploration. You should be sure to discuss with librarians the dates that students will be conducting research over the course of the semester so as not to overburden the library.
  3. Presentations. If you contact them early enough, librarians may also be willing to become more involved in the project process. Inviting library staff to do a presentation for your class on how use the library and/or research in archives can really benefit those students who are unfamiliar with library etiquette or where to begin researching when they enter a library. It is important to schedule the presentation BEFORE students begin researching.
  4. Keep them in the loop. Keep librarians informed of all the research dates for the project so they know when to look for students in need. Don't forget to share the finished products with librarians who have been generous enough to help out on the project.

Constructing the Student Assignments

  1. Assignment parameters. After reviewing your resources, decide what the focus of your History Engine assignment will be. If you do not have an assignment in mind before planning your syllabus, you might find it easiest to tailor the parameters to the available sources in your area. For example, if your class is on the twentieth-century American South and your library has a wealth of resources about the civil rights movement, you may want to focus the assignment on this subject. Or, if your class is United States History to 1900 and your libraries house large numbers of documents about Tennessee, students could research how that state fit into the larger story of nineteenth-century America. If you do have an assignment in mind, be sure there are enough primary sources for each student. You may also want to alter the number of episodes based on your resources.
  2. Group assignments. One effective way to facilitate student collaboration and discussion is to create a History Engine assignment for your syllabus that can be split up among several student groups. For instance, you might divide your class into groups based on which location they will research (the database supports divisions down to the county level), time period they will investigate, the subject matter of their episodes, the library collection they will look through, or any combination of these. Previous instructors have split students into counties such as Albemarle County, Virginia, Prince Edward County, Virginia, etc., as well as time periods such as the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. There are several benefits to these small groups. First, students in each group serve as a support network during the primary and secondary research phases of the assignment. Students in small groups often pool their knowledge of secondary sources, for example. Second, the small groups serve as ready-made peer-editing communities when students reach the writing phase of the assignment. Finally, working with a small group will allow students to take interest in the work of their peers from the research phase through the uploading phase. Small group work is not required for the History Engine project, but it can greatly enhance the quality of your students’ work.
  3. Individual assignments. To facilitate a wide array of episodes, you may also decide to give students individual assignments within their group. In the counties example, the nine students in the Albemarle County group were split into 1810s, 1820s, 1830s, etc. Alternatively, groups built around time (1810s, 1820s, 1830s, etc) can be split into location (state, county, etc) or subject matter. Even if you choose to give individual assignments, students may work with their group (and are encouraged to do so) to find useful secondary sources about their region, time period, subject, and source type or trade ideas about primary sources.
  4. Your role. Decide how much you want to provide for students and how much you want them to find on their own. For example, you may want to provide them with a list of useful secondary sources or a list of library collections. You may also want to schedule extra office hours for students who need guidance finding the right kinds of sources.

Building Your Syllabus (also see Part III: Student Research and Writing)

  1. Introduction. Give your students some time to become acquainted with the site. A week to look through existing episodes, pick out previously used primary sources, and read through the Students section of the website will give them a head start on understanding the History Engine project. You may also want to assign a short paper based on episodes already in the database so that students can familiarize themselves with the types of entries they will create over the course of the term.
  2. Primary sources. Be sure to budget ample time for primary source research. For a five- to six-episode assignment, you may want to budget at least two weeks for students to find appropriate sources and turn in a list of primary documents with short descriptions and another week to correct any mistakes (or revise their list). Instructors may want to set incremental due dates for research as it is imperative that students begin researching early. For example, if you have a three-episode assignment, you might require students to turn in a list of primary documents they have looked at or an annotated bibliography of sources. See the teacher resources in the sidebar for a sample annotated bibliography assignment used at the University of Virginia in 2007.
  3. Secondary sources. Students often find secondary sources the most difficult part of the assignment. For a large number of episodes, it may take two weeks for students to find the appropriate sources.
  4. Rough drafts. Once students have both their primary and secondary sources they should begin writing their episodes. Episodes should be approximately 250-500 words, should focus primarily on the primary source, and should be written in narrative form. You can allot anywhere from one to two weeks to write the rough drafts but be sure to budget enough time to read them; six episodes for fifty students can add up! You might consider beginning with peer review to catch Style Guide errors and factual mistakes.
  5. Final drafts. Be sure episodes are polished and ready to upload on the website. Submitted final drafts should include titles, date, location, tags, etc.
  6. Uploading. The Edit Episode page (requires login) gives step-by-step directions for uploading. Students can cut and paste from their word processor directly onto the website.
  7. Using the uploaded episodes. Students often benefit from using their classmates' work in a new assignment. Consider asking students to complete a final paper based on the work of your class. See Part IV: Using the Final Product for sample papers and projects that familiarize students with their classmates’ hard work.

III. Student Research and Writing

This section is designed to help you lead your students through the classroom experience, including introducing them to the project, supervising their research efforts, and working through drafts.

Introducing the Project

  1. Acting as historians. Explain to students that they will learn to act as historians during the course of the project. They will be expected to investigate primary sources and interpret them using secondary sources.
  2. Defining the project. Refer to I: Introduction for an explanation of “episodes” and the History Engine. If a projector is available, instructors may want to walk students through the website in class.
  3. Primary v. Secondary sources. Many students are unfamiliar with these terms. Instructors may want to define and model how to use these sources.
  4. Setting goals. Explain the aims of the project (refer to What is the History Engine? and I: Introduction). Emphasize that the project is a collaborative effort by the class to create an excellent resource for public use. While much of the work is done individually the end product reflects the efforts of everyone.

Suggested assignment: Have students investigate the History Engine website and select a favorite episode to bring to class to discuss in groups or as a class. This activity can help familiarize students with the concept of a successful episode.

Suggested assignment: Ask students to write a short paper on a subject of their choice (or yours) using only the episodes in the History Engine. For reference, see an example of this assignment used at the University of Virginia in 2007.

Supervising Research

  1. Using academic libraries. Many students will be unfamiliar with their campus libraries and may benefit from a presentation by the library staff. Instructors or librarians might walk students through such library services as Interlibrary Loan and such resources as microfilm.
  2. Special collections libraries. In particular, using libraries that contain actual primary documents are the most rewarding for students. Familiarize students with the etiquette of your library and inform them of any materials on reserve for your class.

Highly recommended assignment: Two-sentence description of each primary document listing what the document is and its contents. Instructors will want to OK these primary materials before students continue on to the writing process. Breaking up the researching time will also prevent students from trying to complete full episodes at the last minute.

Suggested assignments: Early on in the process, students may want to orient themselves in their locations and time periods using encyclopedias or timelines. Instructors may even choose to have students submit a timeline or brief overview of their place and time. Instructors may also choose to OK secondary materials. In that case consider having students turn in a bibliography.

Supervising Writing

  1. Using the website. Before constructing their episodes, students will want to familiarize themselves with the basic Do’s and Don’ts of episode-writing. The Writing section provides students with step-by-step directions. You may also want to print out a copy of Tuten’s Quick Guide to Writing. This guide gives a concise checklist for writing complete and successful History Engine episodes.
  2. Style and content. It is important to reemphasize that an episode pinpoints a story in American history that tells something vital about that time and place. The story should shine through in carefully selected details and avoid all unnecessary quotations. It should be captivating and colorful.
  3. Balancing primary and secondary research. Episodes predominantly display primary research, reserving secondary information for brief contextualization, often at the end. The context should be woven into the story. In some cases students may also need to introduce the episode with a few sentences of context to orient the reader.
  4. Writing mechanics. Instruct students to consult the Style and Citation Guide. Citations should never be included in the text of the episode, as they are entered into a separate field when logged. Episodes should be about two double-spaced pages in length.
  5. Episode uploading information. Emphasize the required information for episode uploading outlined on the History Engine website early in the writing process. In particular, pointing students to the keywords can help them to focus their episodes.

Suggested assignment: Have students workshop an episode one to two weeks before the rough drafts are due. Allow time for in-class peer editing and consider editing and handing back the episode with comments on style, mechanics, and content.

Rough Drafts

  1. Peer Editing. Peer editing is an essential step of the episode-writing process. You may want to partner students responsible for the same location, time period, or subject matter who can share insights from their own research. It may benefit students to have Style and Citation guides on hand during peer review.
  2. Instructor review. Allow ample time between the return of the drafts and the due date of the final copies.
  3. Common errors:
    1. Secondary sources. Many students have difficulty using secondary sources to contextualize their primary stories leading to misinterpretations, or they fall victim to historical debates. You may want to recommend alternate secondary sources that you trust to preserve the integrity of the project.
    2. Showcasing the story. Some students struggle to write an episode that showcases a primary document because they are used to reading textbooks. Emphasize that this format for history is new and direct students back to successful episodes on the History Engine website.
    3. Citations. Many students struggle when asked to cite primary sources they have never used before. You may want to devote some class time to discussing microfilm and various document citations.
    4. Style Guide. Style guide errors are probably the most common. Keep copies on hand during peer editing to greatly reduce the frequency of Style Guide errors.
    5. Inserting opinions. Students who are unfamiliar with historical writing often default to interpreting documents using personal experience rather than secondary source information. Mark opinion sentences and have students consult historical texts for proper context.

Instructors may want to select a few of the best episodes from the class, covering a variety of times and places, to show as models for final copies. This helps motivate students who are feeling challenged by their particular assignments.

Final Copies

  1. Emphasize common mistakes. In the days before the final copies are due, remind students of common errors to watch out for.
  2. Format. Be sure that students turn in their final copies in the format they will use to log their entries.
  3. Returning the final product. If students still have unacceptable mistakes on their final copies, clarify what they must change before they can upload their episodes. You may choose to withhold grades until the episodes have been properly uploaded.


  1. Registration. When students are ready to upload, give them the unique “class code” you received after you registered; students will need this class code to login to the Edit Episodes page, where they will log final episode drafts.
  2. Uploading finished episodes. The Edit Episodes page gives students step-by-step instructions for uploading their completed work. Students must complete each field on the Edit Episodes page to successfully submit their episodes, including the title, episode date and location, body of the episode, relevant tags, and primary and secondary source citations.
  3. Keeping the History Engine standards high. As instructors, you help determine the quality of content in the History Engine database. If a student has failed to finish the assignment or completed a less-than-satisfactory set of entries, strongly consider asking that student not to upload his/her episodes. The threat of withholding episodes from the site can sometimes provide motivation for students to work harder and submit more polished final drafts.

IV. Using the Final Product

Now that your students have finished building the class database, it is ready for continued use as an educational tool in your classroom. In this section, you will find suggestions for using the entries your class created and the History Engine as a whole for future assignments.

Using the database as a resource. It can be very rewarding for students to be able to use and appreciate the fruits of your class’ collective work. You might consider a research project/paper based on the information in the database, and particularly the episodes your class produced.

Research Project Ideas. As you determine the parameters of the research project, make sure you take into account the strengths of the database. It is particularly easy for users to investigate changes over time or over geographical space.

  1. Allow students to pick a tag to make an argument about change over time and space in a research paper format. For instance, students might investigate how women’s roles in the workplace changed from before the Civil War and after or alternately how women’s roles looked in antebellum Tennessee as compared with antebellum Georgia.
  2. Instead of using tags to generate a topic, have students investigate a current scholarly debate using the database as a resource. For instance, according to the database, what caused the Civil War? Alternatively, ask students how the History Engine episodes reinforce or contradict a textbook they read in your course.
  3. Another research paper possibility is to further investigate a character from the database. If a particular historical person captures a student’s attention have him/her follow up on that character or investigate that character’s past. For instance, a student may encounter an episode about Nat Turner and become intrigued. Have him/her research who Turner was and his role in African American history.
  4. For a less argument-driven paper, have students paint a portrait (cultural, political, economic, etc.) of a certain time and place or compare two places. For instance, a student may write about how Virginia in 1830 had remarkable pockets of industrious free blacks, considering it was also the largest slave-holding state in the country. Or a student might compare Virginia and Pennsylvania in antebellum America and find more similarities then differences despite historical assumptions.

Collaboration across institutions. While planning your syllabus, consider talking with fellow instructors using the History Engine in their classrooms to create a final project across your institutions. See “Planning Your Syllabus” for more suggestions for how to structure such an assignment.