No doubt many of you are familiar with the Valley of the Shadow, which is an online database created by Edward L. Ayers and maintained by the University of Virginia’s, Center For Digital History. The site is essentially an online archive that compares two Shenandoah Valley counties in the years leading up to and through the Civil War. Needless to say, it is an excellent site for classroom use, and makes it possible for anyone to do serious historical research. The focus on the county level forces you to set aside broad assumptions and appreciate the role of contingency in people’s everyday lives. As the counties were both located in the Shenandoah Valley, you see clearly the difference slavery made to the lives of each county’s residents.
This year I decided to use the Valley project as the centerpiece for my Civil War class. My class is essentially a research seminar. We meet four times a week, but two of those days are spent online doing research. Students go through the entire research process from choosing a topic to developing a thesis to writing the final draft. They are also responsible for sharing their research with others in the class. In fact, today the students will spend the class updating one another on their progress. This allows each student to offer criticism and advice in a scholarly environment. The best part is that my students learn independence. Since they are working on a full range of subjects they are essentially the experts. They must think through what the evidence means rather than relying on the instructor. So far its worked out well. Here is a list of research topics:
Secession in Augusta County
Unit history of the 5th Virginia (analysis of soldier’s dossiers)
Reconstruction in Augusta County
Death in a Civil War community (how residents deal with death on a large-scale)
Jedediah Hotchkiss (how a Northerner became an enthusiastic Confederate)
Camp Life in 1864-65
Fathers and their Children (how fathers maintained connections with their children)
I hope to post the best papers on my personal website.