Part of the process of teaching involves helping students to “see” in a myriad different ways. Most often, I want to students to “see” the text in a more than superficial manner and piece together relationships between different parts of the text, between similar texts, and between texts and the larger narrative or between the text and, as Richard Nixon was fond of saying, “the big picture.” citations or references as sidenotes. Many times I have wished to sit with them as they read and say, “Slow down here. Did you see that? What’s important about what you just read and a previous passage? Or, how does this fit in (or not) with the monograph that you read last week or the one that you read last year?”
On still other occasions, I have wanted them to look at and think about a three-dimensional or built environment as means to gain greater insight or suggest a direction for further research. Part of this grew out of my dissertation research done what now seems like decades ago. A community study, my dissertation, in actuality a part of it, focused on a particular neighborhood—the red light district in Helena, Montana. My goal was to analyze the economic and social milieu of an area entirely dominated by women. It was, however, only when I walked through the neighborhood, climbed through the foundations left by urban renewal, and explored the surrounding terrain that I reached a deeper understanding of my historical subjects and their world.
Granted, much of what I learned did not find its way into the manuscript. These epiphanies were not those that could pass a historian’s test of reasonable assertability, but they did furnish directions for further research and saved me endless hours of exploring archival deadends. In short, looking at the built environment and its geography sharpened the focus of my research, suggested further places that I might look, and raised new and interesting questions. This early insight into the usefulness of analyzing a built environment stayed with me and has informed my undergraduate and graduate teaching and, to a lesser extent, my own research.
All fine and well. I quickly learned, however, that as helpful as this strategy was, it was more attractive in conception than realization. It was difficult and expensive to transport students to a built environment and, in most cases, impossible. In the mid-1980s with the advent of the personal computer, it seemed that this problem might lend itself to a digital solution, so I began to think about the problem: How could I bring three-dimensional historical worlds into my classroom via a computer? And how could they promote historical exploration and analysis?