At Home He’s A Tourist

It is no accident that Lucy Honeychurch begins A Room With A View with her Baedeker in hand, only to be without it at the end.  To start, she is a slave to convention.  By the end, she makes her own way.  One imagines that E.M. Forster used the notion of the mindless tourist wandering a beaten path to help signal his heroine’s progress toward self-actualization.  There is certainly nothing new in the notion that tourists are one thing, travellers another.  This is a distinction born of the English class system and it harkens back to the very beginnings of modern tourism.

Lucy Honeychurch consumes "what ought to be seen."

Lucia Knoles, an associate professor of English at Assumption College, evidently likes the distinction because she uses it as a metaphor to describe what one hopes to accomplish in a classroom: we do not want to guide mindless tourists on a beaten track, we wish them to branch out on their own.  Students should be like Honeychurch.  They should find their intellectual George Emerson.

The thing is that Knoles and others are not fair to the lowly tourist.  Such a view is snobbish and is as unthinking as the tourists themselves are supposed to be.  As historian Rudy Koshar points out, tourism is about seeking “meaning beyond the marketplace.”  Tourists want “authenticity” in whatever they do.  They want to escape from the everyday and to find something real in their flight.

Visitors to the "Big Pit" encounter exhibits about the history of coal mining in Wales—an experience made real by the long history of mining at the site and by the opportunity to go underground themselves.

Obviously there are unthinking tourists, just as there are insipid students.   Diversity exists in every group.  But there is truth to be found on the beaten track as well as off.  Pedagogical witch hunters seeking to enforce the current wisdom would do well to remember this.

All this is not to condemn Knoles, whose article “Nobody Likes a Tourist (And Who Wants to be a Tour Guide?): A Reflection on the Value of Teaching With Technology” paints a promising picture of how to integrate technology into the classroom.

For Knoles, technology offers a path toward introducing students “to the truly adventurous nature of academic life” while allowing them “to experience the challenges and joys of genuine inquiry.”  But how?

In brief, the web allows for the addition of context.  It makes it possible to juxtapose different versions of a work and so to engage with an author’s creative process, to know her mind.  It makes it possible to use hypertext to take students down the rabbit hole of inquiry, following one link after another.  It gives professors the opportunity to let students work with primary sources.  Finally, it allows for real collaboration among students and for the creation of miniature academic communities of experts on a given topic, sharing information and ideas with ease.  While it is true that all of this takes time and considerable effort, argues Knoles, sometimes less is more.  Perhaps the coverage in a typical introductory course might be reduced, but the increased depth of learning more than offsets such a problem.

All of this is hugely relevant to me and is worthy of consideration.  Let me explain.

My task in the coming weeks is to develop a “digital humanities” course at an introductory college level.  [This blog is part of that assignment.]  I’ve already arrived at a broad outline of a class that will explore the history of youth culture from its roots during the interwar period to the present.  The idea is that students will create a digital museum, with either individual students or groups of students developing displays about discrete aspects of the story but with the overall collection providing site visitors with a sense of narrative.  In theory, this will help students develop research, writing, and critical thinking skills while also pushing them to think deeply about the decisions and thought processes that go into museum development.

Knoles certainly provides plenty of vindication for such a plan.  For example, the idea that students will find meaning by encountering actual sources for themselves bolsters the idea of the digital exhibit.

The problem is that I have doubts.

Above all, remember that tourists/museum goers seek authenticity.  Even when they hope to visit what Dean MacCannell brilliantly describes as the “little hyper-real celluloid animal deities, not dead, and not alive either” that inhabit Disneyland, they still want to enjoy the reality of that experience.  An ice cream eating bovine is simply no substitute for Clarabelle Cow.

Bessie McCow, an inhabitant of Oban, Scotland, is a lovely lass but she just cannot compete with her more famous cousin Clarabelle.

When one visits a museum, they almost never want to see reproductions or fakes.  They feel disappointed, angry, and let down when they find them.  Tourists want patina; they want what Walter Benjamin famously calls “aura.”

As Benjamin wrote, “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.  Chemical analyses of the patina of a bronze can help to establish this, as does the proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century.”  There is no patina on a digital photograph, an image of a manuscript is not the real thing.

A photograph cannot express the visceral reality of a fatal bullet hole that killed an unarmed Bloody Sunday protester during a violent clash with British troops on 30 January 1972.

When I think about my own experience in the archives, I remember the first time that I found a document with the actual signature of a major historical figure about whom I had long studied.  It was exciting.  I couldn’t help but smile, to show it to those around me in the archive.  This was somebody I had read about, lectured about, thought about for years.  Here was a little fragment of him.  It was real.

Is sitting in front of a computer really the same as sitting in an archive surrounded by original documents?

An online display simply cannot replicate a site filled with authentic objects where aura is everywhere.  Is this a problem?  A fatal flaw?  Will students get excited about pouring through digital files in the way that I was by my archival boxes?  Or will the experience be little different for them than their (sadly) regular trips to Wikipedia?  I fear the latter.

Knoles celebrates hypertext, the notion that there are numerous interconnections.  While I would not call it hypertext—a term that seems more buzzword than useful to me—I definitely want my students to find connections.  Indeed, environmental historian William Cronon sums up one of my favorite justifications for a liberal arts education in this way:

More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections that allow one to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways. . . .  listening, reading, talking, writing, puzzle solving, truth seeking, seeing through other people’s eyes, leading, working in a community—is finally about connecting.  A liberal education is about gaining the power and the wisdom, the generosity and the freedom to connect.

History is about connections, about following leads, about trying to piece things together.  It is a cornerstone of what I want students to walk away with.  But will the availability of hyperlinks actually instruct students in the way of connections?  Again, I am skeptical.

If the critique of tourists is that they mindlessly follow their Baedeker, how is this different from blandly clicking a link that is provided for them?  Research is about asking searching questions and then probing for answers by wandering down avenues that may or may not lead someplace worthwhile.  Web links are quite literally a beaten track.

Tourists follow their Baekdeker in Plaza Mayor, Madrid.

Of course, others are every bit as excited by hypertext as is Knoles.  Robert Maloy, Michelle Poirier, Hilary K. Smith, and Sharon A. Edwards, all involved in a K-12 history and social science curriculum project at U-Mass, for example, are certainly jazzed by the range of materials that they can provide to teachers and students via their wiki.  “Hyperlinks are one of the most powerful components of wiki technology,” they write.  “Paper-based historical information cannot provide instantaneous movement to a range of documents and perspectives.”

This is true, but then, what if the pedagogical value comes from pushing students to engage in their own movement?  Historical enquiry is about getting up and moving, about figuring out which site/sight to visit and how to read it for oneself.  Placing a link on a page is to instill that link with a particular meaning simply by including it.  Context drives interpretation, it makes its own argument.

You will only know what is down the street if you actually walk there.

When Maloy et al emphasize “connections to widely recognized public information sources—governmental agencies, historical organizations, museums and libraries, and educational institutions” while minimizing access to Wikipedia or to profit-making dot-com sites that feature advertising for commercial purposes” they make choices for the student.  They define what the student will see and how s/he will see it.  They play Baedeker.

To an extent the same is true of these authors’ discussion of “whose history” should be covered.  Historians inherently act as guides.  They create narratives and interpretations.  They give specific order to information and so tell people how to read it.  College-level history should be about making students aware of this and about helping them to begin making their own connections, building their own tours.  Is it possible to use technology to escape such strictures?  Knoles argues yes, but she then contradicts herself by outlining a how-to guide for building a package tour.

There is one final irony in Knoles’ use of the old tourist/traveller trope.  Computers keep us at home, pulling us away from the eye opening, life altering, spirit affirming experience of travel.  They wed us to inauthenticity and invite us to experience it as authentic.  They make us armchair travelers protected from the realities of life outside of the box.  They make us tourists in our own homes.

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