The American Revolution(s): Digital Tools and Course Redesign in the Age of Covid-19

By Jason Daniels

On March 25, 2020, Shadi Hamid suggested that the “Coronavirus killed the revolution.”[1] Several days later, Rebecca L. Spang asserted that it was misguided to assume that the Covid-19 crisis made people “crave normalcy” over deep structural change. Much to the contrary, she posited that “the revolution [was] under way…and everything [was] up for grabs.”[2] Across the pages of The Atlantic, Hamid and Spang engaged in a public debate about the relationship between social justice, reform, and disease. Little did they know in March 2020, of course, that the world had only just begun to face the realities of an emerging global pandemic. 

Nine months later, as the new realities of the pandemic showed no signs of relenting, their articles remained fixed in my memory. As I prepared for the Spring 2021 semester, I contemplated how to incorporate contemporary debates about social justice, reform, and disease into my upper-level, undergraduate, online, asynchronous, course on the American Revolution. While I wanted to introduce my students to the twenty-first-century world of comparative revolutions, I also desired to create something different: an online section devoid of weekly quizzes and mundane discussion posts. Data collection, narrative construction, and presentations – all utilizing digital tools – were to be key elements of the course.[3]

While I wanted active, student-centered learning to drive the class forward, I also wanted to provide a variety of representative stories about American Indians, Africans, and Europeans across the vast geographies of the Atlantic world; I wanted to explore the causes, processes, and outcomes of the Age of Revolutions; and I wanted to examine the realities of international war and why the promise of the revolutionary ideals didn’t find a broader application at the turn of the nineteenth century. As a student and scholar of the Caribbean, I also wanted them to know something about French colonial Saint Domingue and the figures that transformed it into independent Haiti. Finally, I wanted students to see how pandemics meant something in the world they were living in and in the historical past. 

Because the course, HIST 373: The American Revolution, satisfied a couple of my institution’s general education requirements, upper-level arts and humanities and an “overlay” in social justice, the section enrolled twenty-five students (juniors and seniors) drawn from a wide range of majors.[4] With more than half of the students as non-majors, I needed to craft a course with broad appeal and reasonable expectations. In the syllabus, I described the course as a reading seminar with project-based assignments. I divided the course into five units, each one based on a particular monograph. While we all hope that the material will be engaging enough to compel students to push through the work, was I naïve to think undergraduate students would really read five monographs in one semester, in an asynchronous section, at an especially challenging time? It turns out, leaning into digital tools did the trick.

The first unit of the course, which I based on Wim Klooster’s Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History, served as an introduction to major places and events of the Age of Revolutions.[5] I utilized a relatively new bit of technology geared toward modernizing student presentations, GoReact.[6] GoReact is an interactive cloud-based platform for feedback, grading, and critiquing student video assignments. In short, instructors create video assignments; students upload their video submissions; and instructors and students leave time-coded text, video, and audio feedback.For this introductory assignment, students – utilizing a slideshow – recorded, edited, and produced a fifteen-minute video presentation; I hoped the “protégé effect” would expedite their familiarity with such a vast topic, one that many of the students were coming to for the first time.[7]

Image 1: Marketing image from,

GoReact’s editing software and friendly interface allowed students to produce a variety of presentations, with a range of creative and interpretive perspectives and without the pressure of one-time performances. It also provided space for students to polish their work and ensure they engaged with each element of the prompt. The assignment prompt divided the presentation into three parts.[8] First, students introduced Klooster’s four main themes regarding the conflicts of the Age of Revolutions: one, the realities of enduring social, political, and ethnic inequalities that spurred calls for reform across the Atlantic world; two, the fact that the conflicts and their eventual successes could have been avoided at various moments; three, the elements of each conflict that could be more aptly characterized as civil wars predicated upon class struggle rather than collective revolutionary action; and, finally the failure of these conflicts to result in the “triumphal march of democracy.”[9] The heart of the presentation, however, aimed at a comparative study of the American Revolution with one other of Klooster’s treatments: France, Haiti, or Latin America.[10] Through their discussions of the American Revolution and the events of either the French, Haitian, or Latin American Revolutions, students presented their positions on key causes and outcomes of the conflicts and the parallels they noticed between the two events. After answering these big questions, I required students to provide commentary on how individual “everyday people” played important roles in these revolutions. Finally, students concluded their presentations by examining why it was important that we recognize that these revolutions were not inevitable and why democracy did not immediately flourish in the wake of these conflicts. In other words, I asked them: how do we square revolutionary ideas with their unequal application quickly after the conclusion of each conflict, and what can that tell us about the calls for social justice and reform in the present moment? 

There was no doubt that during 2020, social justice, reform, and disease were on the minds of many people around the country. It seemed obvious to me, at that particular moment, in a class about the American Revolution, that students should read Elizabeth A. Fenn’s Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82.[11] They were in a unique position to make real connections with the past and the present, then being intimately familiar with the calls for social justice and reform during 2020 and the impact of a global pandemic in 2021. Undoubtedly, Fenn makes clear the destructive and desolating power of smallpox that made for a public-health crises, a heartbreaking human drama, and its consequences for America during the Age of Revolutions. The questions I posed to students was that of the Hamid and Spang debate: were we on the cusp of a new revolution and did disease play a role in derailing its progress? Moreover, if that was the case, how do we find evidence to support that claim?

Undoubtedly, as Hamid and Spang’s volley illustrated, there was a fruitful conversation to be had about the relationship between disease and revolution. Within weeks of their articles, a plethora of pieces from journalists, scholars, undergraduate students, and graduate students appeared across the internet in a variety of publications.[12]The assignment for the second unit was based on Fenn’s Pox Americana and contemporary news articles. For this assignment, students acted as the historian assembling primary source material on disease and revolutions and then crafted an annotated bibliography of those materials. Instead of submitting their annotated bibliographies in a traditional word document or PDF, we utilized Padlet.[13] Padlet provides a cloud-based software-as-a-service, hosting a real-time collaborative web platform in which users can upload, organize, and share content to virtual bulletin boards called “padlets.” 

Padlet Screenshot, Joshua Manuel, “Covid-19 and a New American Revolution,” California State University, East Bay, HIST 371: The American Revolution, Spring 2021

Simply put, I asked students to craft an annotated bibliography of five online news articles that discussed Covid-19 and a “new” American Revolution. The overall objective for the project was to create a useable database of their source material – one that I would use in future sections of this course to unpack the relationship between social justice, reform, and disease in the contemporary world. While these students were not writing a research paper, they were doing the work of a historian – learning the skills of data collection, as well as primary source interpretation and contextualization. 

In the first stages of the project, students were tasked with identifying and gathering five sources (online news articles with open-access links). After reading each source, taking notes on it, and making sure to cite the sources in correct bibliographical format, students crafted a four- to six-sentence annotation of each source. In the context of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” students had to identify each source’s political orientation by utilizing Ad Fontes Media’s Bias Chart.[14] Each annotation included: a sentence about the publication, its political orientation, the general topic of the article, its main argument, and its source material. Finally, students commented specifically on how each article related to themes discussed in Fenn’s Pox Americana. Students uploaded their bibliographical entries as a collective and engaged in a real-time discussion of each other’s source material. After this unit, I conducted an anonymous survey about this project. Students suggested this “out-of-the-box” assignment was unexpected in a history course, that using Padlet, instead of a typical PDF, allowed for students to see each other’s work in progress thereby providing instructive examples for each other, and ultimately that the section was “an effective way of covering the past through the book, the present through the articles, and interconnecting them in the annotated bibliography.” While the assignment would have been essentially the same as a standard bibliography, the integration of Padlet provided a space for students to build community in an asynchronous section and to interactively discuss how disease played a role in both the past and their present moment.

Unit 3 was based on Colin G. Calloway’s Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities and Unit 4 was based on Kathleen DuVal’s Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution.[15] For these units, students completed comparative analyses of the narratives presented in the two monographs. Collectively, students examined a collection of “atypical” experiences during the era of the American Revolution which required them to unpack the interplay between race, geography, and revolution. For both Revolution in Indian Country and Independence Lost, I required students to introduce their reading of the book by briefly exploring the historical narrative, to comment on how Calloway and Duval organized their narratives, and to examine how each author utilized their source material to compose their main arguments. The heart of the essay, however, pressed students to compare the elements of their rich narratives. In other words, I asked them if we could speak of a shared human experience of war, or if racial, cultural, social, political, or economic distinctions make it impossible to generalize? While Calloway shows how Native Americans pursued different strategies and endured a variety of experiences, he suggests they were bequeathed a common legacy as result of the Revolution. Duval suggests that Native Americans and Europeans struck different balances and as a result they both lost in North America. 

For the essay based on Calloway’s Revolution in Indian County, students were asked to compare three (of his eight) different American Indian peoples and the key causes and outcomes of their responses to war. Calloway’s assertion that “in Indian Country the American Revolution translated into an American Civil War” made it easy for students to draw comparisons to Klooster’s work from earlier in the semester.[16] For the essay based on Duval’s Independence Lost, students dug into individual motivations as they compared three (of her eight) narratives of wartime experiences. In the end, I asked them to speculate as to what they thought each person’s vision for their future in a post-war Gulf South would have looked like. While these traditional essays did not utilize digital tools, it was clear that the engagement generated from their previous interactive assignments motivated students to approach these assignments with marked enthusiasm.

With substantial coverage of the American Revolution, I decided to move away from North America and toward the Caribbean. For me, and many other scholars, the American and Haitian Revolutions have always been connected. Therefore, I concluded the class with a four-week study of the Haitian Revolution as a foundational moment in the history of democracy and human rights. We have come a long way since the clarion call of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History in 1995, but work remains left to do in our efforts to center the Haitian Revolution in popular historical thought.[17] As the bibliographies of the illustrate, there is no shortage of scholarly work on the subject. In fact, 74 of the 85 books and articles cited in the AoR bibliography on the Haitian Revolution were published after 2000.[18] While this is not news to scholars of the Atlantic World and the Caribbean, many students remain removed from the Haitian Revolution. Those who know about it, moreover, all too often only get a rough sketch of the events. It was my supposition that students left the previous section of the American Revolution asking: why was the American Revolution not actually revolutionary and what does revolutionary actually mean?  

The Haitian Revolution, as it transformed colonial Saint Domingue into the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere and the first Black republic in the world, certainly was revolutionary, and its history is just as full of compelling individual narratives as the American Revolution. As a product of the previous four units, students were interested in individual stories and prepared to conduct research. To get a greater sense of the people who drove the Haitian Revolution, I wanted students to craft and present biographies of the Haitian Revolution’s most important figures, but they needed a primer to enter its unfamiliar history. The key text for the final section was Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution.[19]

For the final assignment, students were asked to craft five, 250-word annotated biographies of important Haitian Revolutionary figures. These short biographies were to be followed by bibliographical notes. Collectively, the project aimed at creating a group-sourced database of biographies (with links to the online resources) of some of the Haitian Revolution’s most important figures, a database I intend students to continue adding and revising entries for in future sections. I divided the project into two parts: gathering sources and constructing narratives. First, students identified five important Haitian Revolutionary figures drawn from the more than 100 individuals mentioned in Avengers of the New World.[20] Second, students constructed a bibliography of their sources by gathering three different online sources (books, journal articles, chapters in edited volumes, popular histories, blogs, websites, etc.) for each of their five figures. Finally, students crafted a 250-word biography for each of their five figures. Students were asked to include several elements in their summary of each figure: a sentence about their birth/death dates, a sentence on their titles/occupations, a sentence or two on their family (parents, spouse, and/or children), a sentence or two on their role in the Haitian Revolution and a sentence or two on their life after the Haitian Revolution. To submit their work, students returned to Padlet. In the end, students produced biographies for twenty-four different individuals.[21]

Padlet Screenshot, Elva M. Flores, “Haitian Revolutionary Biographies,” California State University, East Bay, HIST 371: The American Revolution, Spring 2021.

At present, HIST 371 is in the recertification process for CSUEB’s general education requirements. As I prepared the required paperwork, I reflected on how well I had incorporated my ideas about comparative revolutions. Students submitted five projects. The GoReact presentation, which allowed students greater intellectual and creative flexibility than a traditional presentation, required students to compare the key causes, processes, and outcomes of the American, French, and Haitian American Revolutions. An annotated bibliography of twenty-first century news articles required students to situate the narratives in the context of the past and contemporary conversations about social justice, reform, and disease. Utilizing Padlet for this assignment allowed the typically disconnected students of an asynchronous section to build community and engage in conversations relevant to their lived realities. Traditional essays required students to compare the experiences of a variety of historical actors, American Indian, African, and European and to examine the intersection of race, geography, and the intellectual currents of freedom during the late eighteenth-century, core elements to a better understanding the Age of Revolutions and the legacies of those histories today. A final project, a series of biographical essays about prominent figures of the Haitian Revolution, required students to think critically about the rhetoric surrounding freedom and the complex interplay between individualism, collective agency, race, international politics, freedom, and equality. In the end, each assignment brought students into Hamid and Spang’s conversation from a different angle. Their enthusiasm for the subject matter and the related projects led me to reframe my course to have a greater emphasis on the elements students gravitated toward most during Spring 2021. 

During the Fall 2023 semester, a new course, “American and Haitian Revolutions: Wars of Independence, 1750-1850,” with its new course description: 

experiences of American Indian/Indigenous, African, and European peoples in rebellions against monarchy, colonialism, and slavery between 1750 and 1850. Revolutions in North America, Haiti, and France compared. Perspectives on social justice movements in the Age of Revolutions; 

and, its new learning outcomes:

identify key causes, processes, and outcomes of the American and Haitian Revolutions; identify and describe the key historical figures of the American and Haitian Revolutions; compare the varied experiences of American Indian/Indigenous, African, and European peoples in the American and Haitian Revolutions; analyze issues of social justice and equity in the American and Haitian Revolutions 

will be offered for the first time at CSUEB. Digital tools and student-centered research will continue to feature prominently across my in-person and online coursework. While it appears, at least in the classroom, changes are underway, I suppose the bigger question Hamid and Spang posed in March 2020 remains ripe for students to debate in future semesters.

Author Bio: Jason Daniels is an Assistant Professor at California State University, East Bay. His research focuses primarily on the Anglophone Atlantic world. His current project examines the socio-economic and cultural histories of the Dickinson family estates in America, England, and Jamaica during the long eighteenth century. He has published articles in the The Journal of Caribbean HistoryThe Florida Historical Quarterly, and Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. A co-authored volume (with Amy Turner Bushnell) examining shipwreck and captivity in the American Southeast during the late seventeenth century is forthcoming in 2023. 

Title Image: Jean Baptiste De Verger, Soldiers in Uniform, 1781. Library of Congress.

Further Reading:

Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian County: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

DuVal, Kathleen. Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution. New York: Random House, 2015.

Fenn, Elizabeth A. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Klooster, Wim. Revolutions in the Atlantic World, A Comparative History, New Edition. New York: New York University Press, 2018.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.


[1] Shadi Hamid, “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” The Atlantic, March 25, 2020,

[2] Rebecca L. Spang, “The Revolution is Under Way Already,” The Atlantic, April 5, 2020,

[3] More specifically, I utilized GoReact and Padlet; both require university subscriptions.

[4] The majors included: Art (1), Chemistry (1), Communication (1), Criminal Justice (1), Environmental Science (1), Kinesiology (1), Recreation (1), Business Administration (2), Political Science (2), Psychology (2), History (10), and Other (2). At California State University, East Bay, General Education/Breadth course requirements for Upper-division Arts and Humanities include: one, demonstrate an understanding of and ability to apply the principles, methodologies, value systems, and thought processes employed in the arts and humanities; two, analyze cultural production as an expression of, or reflection upon, what it means to be human; and three, demonstrate how the perspectives of the arts and humanities are used by informed, engaged, and reflective citizens to benefit local and global communities. There are also certain course characteristics a General Education/Breadth course must satisfy: one, advanced writing requiring a minimum of 4,000 assigned words (including informal writing, drafts of papers tests, exams, and other written work) with timely critical feedback provided to students throughout the semester by an instructor; two, critical thinking and information literacy skills, including at least one assessable activity/assignment requiring analysis and/or research, using evidence to support a conclusion; three, oral communication or manual communication (sign language) skills, including at least one assessable activity/assignment requiring oral or manual communication (may include an original recorded presentation); four, collaboration with peers, including at least one assessable activity/assignment requiring students to collaborate with their peers. The social justice “overlay” requirements include: one, use a disciplinary perspective to analyze issues of social justice and equity; two, describe the challenges to achieving social justice; and three, identify ways in which individuals and/or groups can contribute to social justice within local communities, nations, or the world.

[5] Wim Klooster, Revolutions in the Atlantic World, A Comparative History, New Edition (New York: New York University Press, 2018).


[7] The “protégé effect” is a psychological phenomenon where teaching, pretending to teach, or preparing to teach information to others helps a person learn that information.

[8] I modeled elements of this assignment after workshop materials from the 2018 Bennion Teachers’ Workshop, “Revolution, Representation, Propaganda: Democracy in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic,” sponsored by Utah State University and the Mountain West Center for Regional Studies. 

[9] Klooster, Revolutions in the Atlantic World, 4-5.

[10] Thirteen students selected France, seven students selected Haiti, two students selected Latin America, and two students did not complete the assignment.

[11] Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).

[12] A cursory Google search produced nearly a dozen articles published on the subject during the summer of 2020. In addition to Hamid’s, “The Coronavirus Killed the Revolution,” and Spang’s, “The Revolution is Under Way Already,” see: Robert Merry, “Will Pandemic Finally Unleash the American Populist Revolution?,” The American Conservative, April 8, 2020,; Will. C. De Man, “Our Father’s Freedom: The American Revolution and the Covid Crisis, Historical Horizons: Calvin University Historical Studies Department Blog, April 17, 2020,; Robin Wright, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Covid-19: A History,”, April 27, 2020,; Simon Tisdall, “Covid-19 has changed everything. Now we need a revolution for a born-again world, The Guardian, May 24, 2020,; Christine Adams, “Are we on the brink of revolution?,” The Washington Post, June 4, 2020,; Daniel Araya, “American Revolution American Renewal,” Forbes, June 9, 2020,; Daniel S. Hamilton, “The post-coronavirus revolution,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 12, 2020,; Virginia Heffernan, “Covid-19 and Living Through a New American Revolution, Wired, June 23, 2020,; Mike Gonzalez, “The Revolution is Upon Us,” The Heritage Foundation, September 7 2020,



[15] Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian County: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 2015).

[16] Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country, 26.

[17] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).

[18] See

[19] Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).

[20] Dubois, Avengers of the New World, 349-357.

[21] The top ten highest returns included: Toussaint Louverture (24), Jean-Jacques Dessalines (20), Henri Christophe (13), Alexander Pétion (11), Vincent Ogé (9), Julien Raimond (8), François Makandal (6), André Rigaud (6), Dutty Boukman (4) and, interestingly, the historian, Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry (4). Lesser-known figures in Saint Domingue, however, also piqued the interest of students. Students returned at least one, two, or three entries for Sanité Bélair, Jean-Baptiste Belley, Georges Biassou, Fraçois Capois, Étienne Maynaud de Bizefranc de Laveaux, Jean-François Papillon, and a few entries for individuals from France including: Jacques Pierre Brissot, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, Henri Grégoire, Charles Leclrec, Étienne Polverel, and Léger-Félicité Sonthonax. 

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