I got the blowback I anticipated when I shared my students’ most recent digital history project, “If Jefferson had Used Twitter, and if Jefferson were Trump.” More than one teacher said the project, in which students text mined Jefferson’s papers and Trump’s tweets in order to tweet as @notrealTomJeff, was politically biased and inappropriate for the classroom. What I didn’t anticipate was a strong defense of the project. “It’s a bit harsh to criticize an exercise in examining what a historical figure might sound like in a modern President’s favorite media,” remarked one teacher, while others clicked thumbs-up and asked about analyzing word frequencies so they could do something similar in their classes. I was happy to get these questions.
Although I realize there might seem to be political overtones embedded in the assignment, first and foremost I was simply asking students to do a word-frequency analysis consistent with the type of data-driven work past students have completed. This was, in other words, focused on getting students to “do history” in a modern way. While the class did laugh loudly as some tweets were written, we laughed a lot at history throughout the year. And, in the end, I believe that students used @notrealTomJeff to capture the issues Jefferson would have likely tweeted about — without being directly critical of Trump or even questioning anything specific about his policies. In fact, (haha) @notrealTomJeff has said so: “I tweet as Jefferson, on the issues of Jefferson’s time in office, but I use the words and phrases of @realDonaldTrump.”
I shared the project only to give other teachers ideas for practicing digital history in the high school classroom, not to show how to politicize a class. If you see @notrealTomJeff as overly political, hopefully you can still have a laugh at some of his more popular tweets:
- When will people start saying, “thank you, Mr. President, for repealing the whiskey excise tax?” https://bit.ly/2HDLXd6
- Thank you, Hamilton, for setting up a corrupt and failing economic system—a true loser.
- We’re tired of the Barbary Coast pirates taking our cargo. We’re going to build more gunboats and make the pirates pay for them!
- We won with the rich farmer. We won with the poor farmer. I love the poor farmer!