Mr. Bean Gets His Assignment

Not going to say much about Mr. Bean.  A nice fellow, of course.  Spends a little bit too much time trying to figure out which pants to pack and he definitely needs to be more careful when he goes shopping, but still a nice chap.

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Oh, wait… wrong Bean.  We’re talking John C. Bean, scholar.  Not Mr. Bean, strong silent type.

This Bean…

Not this Bean…

Or this bean…

Engaging Ideas is a great text.  I encountered it for the first time while a graduate student when given the opportunity to take two summer courses on pedagogy.  The first explored “writing across the curriculum,” the second dealt with teaching a big lecture class and emphasized the notion that lecturing is a performance art as much as anything else.

Both were great and Bean’s book continues to play a significant role in defining how I go about things.  In particular, I’ve taken the good doctor’s advice in terms of spelling out assignments in detail (which I include in my admittedly rather vast syllabi).  I’m one of those guys who likes to leave students a lot of room in which to work, so I tend toward his more free-form assignment suggestions.  The idea is generally to create lots of smaller steps that all collectively lead to a larger project while also illustrating by example that good writing is process.


The big assignment for today was to generate the writing assignments that will be used for my class.  I look at this as a work in progress, but here are the steps (which probably need to be better fleshed out) that I’m thinking about:

Assignment 1: Major Research Topic Proposal

Write a short paragraph describing what you plan to write about this semester.  Potential options include youth movements, important bands/musicians, youth-oriented trends in fashion, dance, or some other area, or any of a variety of other topics.

Obviously the number of potential topics is daunting, so think about what we have discussed in lectures and encountered in our readings.  Give thought to your own interests.  The secret is picking something that you’re genuinely interested in and that will maintain your excitement over the rest of the semester.

Assignment 2: Initial Research

Begin gathering newspaper coverage, first-hand accounts, recollections, or memoirs, images, sound files, and/or videos that directly relate to your major research topic.  Find as many examples as you can.  You should find at least thirty such items.

Be sure to keep notes about where you find each item.  You may need to attain permission to use them for your final project and you must be prepared to locate the copyright owner. We will talk about this in greater detail in class.

Write up a list of these materials along with short descriptions.  These descriptions should be factual in nature.  “This video features The Rolling Stones performing their hit ‘Start Me Up.’  The song was released on the album ‘Tattoo You’ and the video was filmed in 1981.  Perhaps more than any other video, it clearly demonstrates what it means to have moves like Jaggar—especially because it features the distinctive looking front man dressed in exercise clothes doing a variety of curious contortions as he belts out the popular song.” YouTube Preview Image

Assignment 3a: Exploring the Artifacts of Youth Culture (Featured Items)

Pick six of the sources that you gathered when completing assignment 2 and begin exploring the significance of each.  For example, if your major project deals with The Beatles, you might choose to examine the group’s fashion aesthetic when they first “hit it big.”  What influence did their hairstyles, suits, and boots have on popular culture?  What was the response of older people?  Scholars often write about “moral panics”; did the way that The Beatles looked result in a moral panic and, if so, what did it look like exactly?

The suits are soothing but the hair is too long. Are these things nice young boys are daughter-stealing monsters? Courtesy: Walter John Williams

You should gather as much information as you can, drawn both from primary and secondary sources.  Then, when you have enough material, write a 600-word essay about each of the six items that you selected. Draw upon your research and be sure to explain the significance of the object/image/film/song/etcetera relative to your larger research topic and to the larger story of youth culture.  In essence, you should answer the question: “why does this thing matter?”

Turn-in all six essays, making sure to provide copies both to your professor and to your editorial team.  These papers will be fully work-shopped and prepared for publication in our magazine as “side-bars.”  Each should be double-spaced.

Assignment 3b: Copyright Permissions

Draft a short email to the copyright owner of each of your six featured items explaining that you are taking this class and that the group is putting together an online magazine about the history of youth culture.  Request permission to utilize the image/audio file/film clip/etcetera, being sure to let the copyright holder know that s/he/it will receive attribution.  Make sure to print hard copies of all correspondence.  Keep one for yourself and provide the other to your professor.

Assignment 4: Major Article Draft

Your major project for this term is to author a 2,500-word essay about the topic you choose earlier in the semester.  This essay should be based on research conducted for assignment 3a as well as upon any additional research that may prove necessary.  It will feature links to the revised shorter essays that you completed earlier in the term.

There are several things to keep in mind.  First, although your article should have a thesis and while you will cite all sources, the audience is educated lay readers, not your professor or some other scholarly audience: smart people who are curious about the development of young people.  It should be entertaining and engaging.

Second, you should have a thesis.  In this case, your argument will explore why your topic matters, how it changed things, or how it fits into the larger narrative of youth culture.  You should both tell a story and make a case.

Third, good writing matters.  After you write your draft, plan to revisit this essay several times over the remainder of the term.  You will workshop each revision, getting as much feedback from your editorial team as possible.

Your essay should be 2,500 words in length (without notes).  Please double-space to make editing easier.

Assignment 5: Publishing!

The final stage of our project will be to post your essays online.  While your prose is now quite polished and you have already selected several images (which will be linked to your short essays), the final hurdle is to put the two together in an aesthetically pleasing manner.  Our final class sessions will be devoted to working on this task.



Time Crunched Again

Once again, I find myself with scant time to organize my thoughts.  Nevertheless, here are a few.

On Booker

I very much enjoyed this article for a variety of reasons.  First, I know the area in question somewhat but had no idea about its environmental history as a salt production center.  It was easy enough to relate this to experiences that I do have, however, as I’ve twice visited places in Scotland with a similar history.  Still, I am conscious of a significant difference between where I’ve been and the Bay Area…

In Scotland, salt making was not uncommon in Fife, but St. Monans had a certain claim to fame.  It is, by all accounts, a lovely village.

Unlike the Bay Area, the environmental history of St. Monans is fairly obvious.  Today, you need not go far to see evidence that this is a fishing village.  The boats make it pretty clear what most locals do for a living.

If you’re still having a rough time, the harbor is rather revealing.

If you wander north, just out of town, the area’s other histories come into play.

There’e the lido, for example.  Lidos were salt water swimming pools that were insanely popular during the 1920s and 1930s.  There were diving and swimming competitions and dreams of tourism wealth.  Towns such as St. Monans invested significant time and effort into building them with the fantasy that people would come from far and wide, bringing plenty of money along with them.  Even if that didn’t happen, town officials were pretty certain that their constituents would be happy.

In recent years, they’ve fallen to ruin and only a handful of active lidos still exist.  As a consequence, the observant visitor to many a Scottish village can now read that past into the landscape.  Here are three shots of the St. Monans lido.  [Visitors to the more famous St. Andrews up the coast ought also to spot one or two… especially since there were three constructed.]

Just north of the ruined lido comes the visible remains of salt production, now signed with instructional panels explaining the story.  Water pumped up by windmill, boiled off in heated pan houses, and the salt then salvaged and sold.

If you look at the landscape, that story is visible if you know what to look for.

First, the windmill.

Then the pan houses…

… with more or less visible remnants.

St. Monans is a relatively poor place.  There are retirees, fishermen, and probably a few who commute to jobs in St. Andrews, Edinburgh, or one of the other larger towns in the area.  Walkers visit here.  Perhaps a few people looking for their roots.  It is not a tourism mecca.  There’s no cause for massive development.  It is a sleepy place.

San Francisco is a different animal and simply reading the past into the available landscape is far from easy.  Matthew Booker certainly does a nice job of describing how an environmental historian goes about trying to see the past.  Historians must do this all the time.  They must use imagination, fueled by available sources, to try to understand what happened and why.

The article did not strike me as terribly “digital” in nature aside from the use of maps and other imagery which appears computer generated.  Fair enough.  Images are useful.  [Though I cannot see any particular value in the word mashup.  Perhaps one of my peers in the seminar can explain its utility.]

On myHistro

While I think that maps are vital historical tools.  I’m unimpressed by this site.  Fine for contemporary stuff.  Certainly great for feeding a culture of narcissism: “It is for everyone who wants to be known and remembered.” Okay for a genealogist (who tends to function on a rather ahistorical level, few actually probing into their family stories very deeply to understand context or broader implications).  Not so useful for serious history.

Why?  Think about the examples above.  St. Monans has changed little by comparison to San Francisco but that does not mean that it has not changed a lot.  There is a housing estate above the old lido.  The old industrial space is now best suited to dog walkers and recreationalists.  If you want to do serious history, you need maps showing these transformations.  You cannot simply graft a timeline onto a contemporary map.  

On Infogram

It is often rather expensive to generate images that illustrate scholarly work.  While I’ve not spent a lot of time with this site (I did not want to sign up, free or no), but it does look like it will generate a range of different charts, graphs, and even rather generic maps.  I can certain imagine using these to illustrate demographic or economic trends, etc., etc.  Will keep this site very much in mind for the moment when I need such images and am willing to sign up.

Computerside Companion

Time.  There isn’t enough of it.

This week our task was to read a book chapter by Carole Palmer and to look through an Omeka exhibit.  Perhaps because I’m buried in a host of tasks, I confess that I do not have much to say in this blog post, but here are a couple of thoughts.

First, as regards Palmer, it may be true that relatively few libraries point the way toward digital exhibits, but at least a few have done for quite some time.  When The Nationalism Project was new, it was quickly integrated into the substantial index of online web resources maintained by the British Library.  It is a shame that more libraries have not followed suit, though in a world of contracting resources for anything and everything that actually matters… I guess I’m not shocked.

I actually looked at three separate Omeka-based sites.  The first must be a marketing tool for the University of North Dakota.  It consists of short interviews with a long list of graduate students enrolled in various programs.  When I first clicked on the site my assumption was that it would offer at least some insight into the graduate experience.  Instead it was a nicely indexed series of happy stories.  Amazing that there are so many such tales.  Most people I know were not exactly so cheerful about the great struggle.  I moved on.

The next exhibit that I explored promised to survey Gilded Age art galleries, clubs, and associations.  Above all, it is a collection of old museum catalogues—again, nicely catalogued using Dublin Core (which I had not seen before this, and will look forward to reading about later on in the term).  Not a bad site, but not terribly robust either.  The fact is that it does not really provide much in the way of narrative and so does not resemble what I’m hoping to do in my class.

The last exhibit that I had a gander at is entitled The Land of Penn and Plenty: Bringing History to the Table.  This one is a mix of short articles and indexed objects.  The content is quite interesting, the images evokative, and the overall sensation while surfing somewhat closer to an old-school museum.  Although the site stands as a very nice example of a “thematic research collect,” it lacks the sort of coherent narrative that I hope my students will create in the planned youth culture course.

Before my last (not even remotely deep… must begin grading my next class) thoughts, I also wanted to check out the Bolles Collection on the History of London—largely because I teach a course on the topic and thought it would be nice to see what they’ve got.  While not quite as extensive as I had hoped, the collection does contain quite a number of texts and images relating to the history of London.  I’m definitely filing this one away and will return when I have time… which I’m quickly running out of now.

So, last thoughts.  More and more I think that what I want my students to do is to create an online history magazine with scholarly pretentions.  As such, it will be possible to utilize images, video, sound, and text to create a comparatively robust collection of materials that will hopefully prove interesting to readers.  Such a format will also invite continual expansion with time, thus rendering it a useful foundation for many future editions of the class.

Right, must grade…

But first… as the winter drags on, and on, and on, and on, and on… I’ve been thinking a lot about Mexico.  Warm…

But cannot shake the reality that it always feels cold…




The assignment for this week’s class was to set up a blog in order to test out the design possibilities in WordPress.  Due to events beyond my control, the free site that was to be set up did not materialize.  Consequently, I tried to establish my own WordPress account.

The idea was simply to develop a proof-of-concept.  The resulting site was not to be the final product to be used in class because that, evidently needs to be on the UNE server.  All of the more interesting templates are rather pricey… and I ain’t gonna pay out of pocket for a proof-of-concept.

I tried to soldier on using what was supposed to be a free template, only to find that even the free template had loads of hidden charges associated.  In addition, it would not do what I wanted it to.  The template shows nice images associated with short teaser paragraphs that ought to attract readers to click (I intended for them to go to another blog site with stories specific to the section topic (“pre-1945,” for example). The text appears but not images and I cannot find anyplace in the various controls that allows for me to alter the setting.  In addition, very often when I attempt to make a change the site tries to charge me.

At this stage, I’m frustrated and need to move on to other tasks.  Grumble…

Here’s what I have so far… hopefully I’ll be able to move ahead with a more functional account in the near future.

Design is the Thing: Declension and the Web

Design matters.  Those who have published books our articles probably know what I’m talking about.  Seeing one’s work in manuscript form is a very different experience from seeing it as a finished product.  A good book designer does beautiful work, elevating one’s labors to a new level.

Unfortunately the current trend seems to be away from design.  E-books were the first wave and they did authors few favors.  Users could increase or reduce font size.  Pages all looked much the same.  Cover art was a lost art.  Thankfully, sales seem to show a drop in e-reader sales.

While there may be hope for print books, even as more and more people are publishing their thoughts online either in 140 character bursts or in more extended blogs, design is evidently a dying art.

Kristin L. Arola exposes the problem in her wonderful essay “The Design of Web 2.0: The Rise of the Template, the Fall of Design”; Web 2.0 is all about templates.  Sites such as Facebook and MySpace offer users few design options.  Blogs such as this one only further illustrate the problem. Choose a few colors, select a handful of photographs and you’re done. Shucks, I couldn’t even set-up my header as I wanted without using Photoshop and some specialized fonts to alter the image.  These days, personas are ready-made, identities pre-defined.  You can have any website as long as its produced in one of three colors, the images are sized as specified, and you want to use a specific arrangement of columns and tabs.  Have fun storming the castle.

The trend has some pretty negative implications, especially for my digital museum-based course idea.

Here’s the big one.  Modern museums sink or swim based on their design.  They function through narrative and the narrative is largely defined by careful floor plans and innovative arrangements.

Back in the nineteenth century when museums first started to gain popularity, the general idea was to collect a bunch of stuff and to put it on display.  What you ended up with looked more or less like this:

Display cases filled with stuff.  Lots to see, no single story to tell.  There is nothing wrong with this type of museum.  Indeed, they can be a lot of fun to meander through when you’ve gotta get outta the house.

Modern museums work differently.  Spaces are carefully utilized.  Technologies are chosen to specific ends.  The items on display serve very specific purposes.  Very often, the narrative evolves through the design itself.  Consider one of my favorite museums, The Big Pit.

The museum tells the story of coal mining in southern Wales, making use of the site itself to help tell its story.

The fact that the site is now used only as a museum (Thank YOU Maggie Thatcher) means that the air is no longer filled with coal dust and that valley is not nearly as populace as it once was.  Even so, you cannot visit the site without getting some sense of the coal mining heritage of the area.  Going down into the pit itself certainly helps.  I know that I’ll never lecture about nineteenth-century child labor in the same way again.

Yet the exhibit functions not simply because of the physical location, it is also exceptionally well designed.  It is worth having a look at how that design works to tell the story.

As with most museums, there is plenty of text.  There’s a mix of long and short panels, a range of font choices and sizes.  Attention is paid to what the display looks like.  One need not think about this fact—they had probably better not—but the design decisions serve to make everything aesthetically pleasing.  The panels draw you in, even before you begin to read.

The real genius, however, is the utilization of physical features of the site to show visitors what life was like.   Consider the following displays.

The danger of coal mining is not simply the possibly of a shaft collapse, the dust is a far more insidious killer.  Cleanliness was a constant concern, both in the mine buildings and in the surrounding homes.  Museum designers used the existing showers and signage to drive this point home.

The appealing design continues.

Interactive displays are very popular in modern museums.  At the Big Pit, carefully placed video consols allow visitors to explore aspects of mine life in more depth (he, he… I made a funny…).

Several sections utilize collage to offer manny stories related to a common theme.  Here we learn about the closing of the mines.

Domestic life is a major theme.  Hanging laundry provides a simple screen upon which to cast images of village life.  The result is a haunting sense of times past, an organic feeling of life encapsulated in objects.

The miner’s life orbited around his locker.  In one of my favorite exhibits, each locker introduces the visitor to an individual miner.

While the Big Pit is particularly good, virtually all museums tell their stories through design.  Take the James Herriot Experience in Thirsk, Yorkshire.  Fans of the book and television series (and I’m one of the biggest fans of both) can experience both the show and the life lived by James, Tristan, Siegfried, Helen, Mrs. Hall, and the rest.

There’s even a (somewhat corny) chance to “be the vet”…

All of this makes me wonder about the potential of a website to function as a truly successful museum.  There is already the problem that I mentioned in my previous post about authenticity, but what of the lack of design potential engendered by Web 2.0?  While it may not be necessary for site users to deliver a calf (besides, few will have my remarkable abilities in large animal practice), it is certainly a requirement that material be presented in a manner that helps to tell the story on offer.

Obviously websites can (and many do) illustrate superb design.  Consider The Why Files, a science website published by the University of Wisconsin.  The site explores “the science behind the news,” picking stories from the headlines and then exploring the scientific background, whether that be in the social or natural sciences.

From inception, the site merged brilliant writing with top-flight design.  The following images are both special Halloween issues, but each has its visual identity that mirrors the stories told.

Each of the above stories utilizes an image map for navigation, as well as a standardized linear navigation scheme in the lower left and right portions of the screen.

And yet, The Why Files is an online magazine, not a museum.  Each story is designed in much the same way as a print publication. Although the web does make possible the integration of sound, video, and animation, the fact is that museums work differently.

My own course idea was inspired by the Maine Memory Network, a site that also pays considerable attention to design and it looks brilliant as a result.

The problem is that it ends up looking more like a magazine and less like a museum.

Ultimately, I’m left with two significant questions.

1) Can I really expect to generate a “museum” on the web given the need for authenticity (previous post) and the extensive demands of effective museum design?

2) Given the limits of Web 2.0, is it even possible to produce a truly varied and creative magazine when so many templates seem to function more to limit expression than to encourage it?  One could imagine producing a website especially for the class, however that would demand extensive coding experience—probably both in terms of display language and in database design.  It is entirely unrealistic to integrate such requirements into a course that is primarily about historical thought.

Once again, I’m left with more doubts and questions than answers.

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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Journey Into the Valley of the Academicus

I had not intended to spend so much time among the Homo Academicus.  Yet, my ship wrecked, all means of escape seemingly cut off, I was stuck there.   They were hospitable enough, not anxious to drive me from their tribe, and so I stayed.  Eating their food (supplied by an outside tribe called the Sodexos).  Watching them.  Jotting down their behaviors in a little black notebook that I kept squirreled away in my old moth eaten messenger bag.

To the best of my knowledge, few observers have spent so much time among this peculiar people.  To be sure, the great explorer Pierre Bourdieu made a journey similar to mine, but that was many years before.  I recall that he found them a curious bunch, set in their ways, always forcing their young charges to leap through ceremonial hopes and coming of age rituals that might challenge the patience of those not of their kind.

What can be said of them now?

My jottings can hardly do them justice as their complexity is quite beyond my meager ability to express in words.  I can say that they are perhaps more prone to navel gazing and self-assessment than are other tribal peoples with whom I am acquainted.

Take for example Homo Conveniencestorius.  This group goes about its business without any great ceremony.  They distribute chips and soda and dust-encrusted hot dogs with nary a second thought.

Or Homo Truckerus.  Although one might imagine that long hours spent migrating from place to place would engender self-referential thought to an extent unknown among other groups, such behavior is seldom exhibited.

Homo Academicus is different.  These people relentlessly ask: “Who am I?  What do I do?  What is my family group?  What differentiates my family group from others?  What traits do I have in common and what differs between myself, my group?  Are those my feet?”  It is really quite dizzying.

In one instance, a would-be chieftain whom I shall call Unsworth, went so far as to express his interrogations in terms of “primitives.”  [The Academicus like to use such terminology.]  He claimed that all members of the Homo Academicus engage in “discovering, annotating, comparing, referring,” and a host of other behaviors.

My observations showed him to be quite right.  Indeed, he was not alone is seeking to define similarities.  A sub-tribe, the Harvardians of Cambridge, even issued a proclamation drawing attention to the many common features of this people.  It appears that they were anxious to make converts because in their case the goal was evidently to recruit new members.  The features, which they called “skills,” were said to be beneficial for all things—though such widespread applicability definitely caused doubt among more practically minded tribes such as the Homo Politicus, the Homo Reporterus, and the Homo Studentikus.

Yet there were those members of the tribe who seemed truly dubious of Unsworth, seeking instead to differentiate themselves from those around them.  The Historiani, the Literatti, and certainly the Philosophicalitus all claimed to think differently, to see the world around them in different ways, to ask different questions, to wonder at different things.  They often did this with reference to different “lenses.”  (I could not make heads or tails of this word, though it was just one of many they found useful.  For example, a number of members always wanted to “unpack” a “notion,” “gut” a book, or “massage” an idea.  The vagaries of local dialects cannot help but excite the observant traveller!)

I stood agape at it all.  Certainly there seemed to be inter-tribal political motivations behind such claims.  Each sub-group of the Academicus had turf to fight for, after all.  It was not so much that they sought mates as others might—although that was probably part of the underlying motivation—but rather that they were relentlessly interested in resources.

This too was a paradox, though not one that I can go into.  On one hand, the Academicus actually seemed to spurn material wealth, yet on the other hand they spoke of it endlessly, forever claiming to be overlooked, undervalued, unloved.

But the perplexing thing about the Homo Academicus were the conflicting interpretations of the message delivered by Unsworth and his ilk.  Even as the Academicus sought to divide themselves, they were almost equally prone to fits of fashion.  They liked to form alliances.  They enjoyed claiming that while different, they are really the same.  They stressed that their different skills, if combined, might offer real truth—for they were endlessly concerned with the search of truth (though some wondered if it was achievable or even if it exists at all).

As the months passed and I kept up my observations and note-taking, I witnessed the formation of a new alliance that the Academicus called “digital humanities.”  This curious term grew from the mutual affection its members had for various digital tools and software developed by the Homo Technicus, a neighboring people.

Of course, even as the alliance seemed to form, the relentless navel gazing took root.  They questioned what the alliance was, what it should do, how it should do it, and more.  There was an effort to draw in the idea that all “humanists,” for that is what they called themselves, are much the same.  Others were less sure.  It went on and on, a kind of dance, but for what purpose I could not tell.  Clearly, this sort of personality crisis is a defining trait.

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When my rescue finally came and I was able to escape back into the loving embrace of my homeland, I imagined that I could see the beginnings of new alliances and the breaking apart of the one that I had seen form.  For fashion really is the thing among the Academicus.  I imagine that they will not ignore their digital tools—much as knives continue to be used long after the Bronze and Iron Ages—but it does seem to me that perhaps the great dance in which they engaged during my stay might soon be surpassed by the hip new thing, held onto lovingly only by an aging elite who came of age during the heyday of the alliance.

Of course, I did not stay to find out if I surmised correctly.  There was only so much I could take.

Getting Down In Binary

In a series of New York Times articles, Patricia Cohen explores various ways that scholars and instructors make use of tools housed under the digital humanities umbrella.  In one, she describes a “spatial turn” in historical scholarship.  In another, she lists efforts to give “literature a virtual life,” whether by allowing students to place themselves inside of a Shakespeare play or by juxtaposing multiple interpretations of a poem alongside one another.  In a third column, Cohen examines the use of crowd sourcing to help facilitate the democratization of primary source documents.

Having already expressed concern about the over-zealous enthusiasm of Cohen and others to declare a state of “revolution,” it is worth saying that the projects described here are genuinely intriguing.  Each seems to have truly positive benefits, but there are potential downsides worthy of consideration.

Take the Bentham Project.  The idea is simple enough: make the great man’s manuscripts available online and ask vast legions of eager volunteers to transcribe them for eventual publication.  Crowd sourcing at its best.

Jeremy thinks carefully about how to log into the Bentham project without first re-attaching his head to his body. Source: Top Ten World Famous Body Parts,

On many levels, the Bentham Project is exciting.  It is often difficult to gain access to historical documents, especially because travel and research budgets were among the first slashed following the 2008 crash.

Electronic access to material can also expedite the acquisition of important information.  Where once it might have taken months to reconstruct the genealogy of an historical actor, now sites such as make it possible to do the same in just hours, freeing the researcher to work more diligently on interpretation.

Cohen acknowledges practical concerns such as the reality that it can take more energy to supervise non-experts than it takes for an expert to do the task herself.  Errors in transcription are likely.  According to the article, these challenges quickly scuttled an effort to transcribe Abraham Lincoln’s papers.

There are other issues as well.  Perhaps foremost is the reality that the precise context in which a given document is found can influence interpretation.  Just what exactly is contained in a given archival box or folder may shape how an historian identifies patterns.  Likewise, the paper on which something is printed sometimes matters.  My own grandfather, alongside many other GIs during World War II, developed a system of graphic clues designed to communicate with family members about where he was stationed while evading censors.  Do such details make their way into a transcription?

There is also an ethnical question.  Those of us fortunate to have jobs can afford to be laudatory of anything that makes our own lives easier.  Easier access to documents?  Grand.  More research time?  Perfect.  The catch is that once a project such as the Bentham crowd sourcing initiative might have generated paid employment for graduate students, post docs, archivists, or others.  It might have spawned ongoing scholarship, new programs of research, as highly trained scholars poured through the many boxes of notes, letters, and other jottings.  Unfortunately, we are often all too willing to act without thinking of consequences.  Young people interested in a life of the mind represent the hand loom weavers of our day, their skills cheapened.

Yet crowd-sourcing transcription projects are not the only programs that deserve further consideration.  Cohen’s description of the use of GPS for historical analysis inspires an immediate “gee whiz, that’s nifty” response.  Anne Kelly Knowles, a geographer at Middlebury College, for example, uses GPS to produce 3D renderings of historic landscapes.  What exactly did the actors involved in famous battles such as Gettysburg see?  While such a question might be of little interest to academic historians (who would ask different questions than this on the one hand and who will depend on concrete evidence, not digital renderings, on the other), it certainly has benefits for public historians and would be very useful in museum exhibits or as illustration for undergraduate-level lectures.

More interesting academic history projects use GPS to trace the spread of witchcraft allegations at Salem and the incidence of dust storms in the American Midwest during the nineteenth century.  Although neither of these approaches demands such complex technology, computer mapping undoubtedly makes them easier to complete quickly.

It is, however, a misnomer to claim that historians have long ignored geography as is suggested in this article.  On the contrary, they have almost always examined demographic change relative to space, the availability of resources such as water or good soil, the implications of various geographies and geologies for human experience, the spread of disease or of ideas, and more.  Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum looked at the geography of the Salem witch trials in their classic study of the case way back in 1976.  William Cronin, the father of U.S. environmental history wrote a brilliant book, Changes in the Land, about the interaction of man with the New England landscape.  Perhaps easier access to mapping software will expedite future research about the spatial side of the past.  This will be a very good thing.  But such a focus is not new.

Finally, Patricia Cohen examines the use of digital tools for the understanding of literature.  She discusses Prof. Katherine Rowe’s use of 3D virtual environments to help students understand how to successfully block scenes in a Shakespeare play.  Cohen mentions another scholar, Jane Hedley, whose students juxtapose poetry and commentary in order to promote deeper readings of a text.  Last, she explains how Rachel Buurma, an assistant professor at Swarthmore, is working to develop a massive online archive of early novels in order to assure easier access to them.

These are stimulating ideas.  Making rare texts available is desirable (although I cannot imagine reading a massive tome on a computer screen and would find taking notes in such an environment very challenging).  Discussing poetry on the web might be very helpful for some people (although this does ignore the theatricality of the aural experience of poetry—film or sound files would help).  Using a computer to design choreography also seems useful (though I wonder whether it threatens to further separate young people from their imaginations).

Each of these tools might be useful in an undergraduate classroom, especially when engaging students who are visual learners.

That said: digital is no panacea.  One student quoted by Cohen mentions an inability to read for content while also editing for grammar.  I can relate.  Another student expressed love for the original book itself.  Right there with you, Charlie Huntington.

Above all, students need to work to develop their imaginations.  There is a value to being comfortable inside one’s own head.  Does the sublimation of the imagination into binary code rob people of this ability?  I do not know, but I have concerns.

Finally, Cohen acknowledges in her article “Giving Literature Virtual Life” that web-based literature projects are “apt to have less focus, fullness and heft than a conventional senior thesis.”  This is worrisome.  Part of the point of such assignments is to confront students with massive projects and dizzying questions, to plunge them into analysis that combines all that they have learned during their tenure in college.  Diluting these goals may be detrimental.

There is also a financial issue.  Nearly all (if not all) of the schools mentioned in these articles are heavily endowed private institutions.  Hardware and software are not cheap (in my own case, my budget is such that I am unable to afford even basic database software needed for a project that I am working on—a project partly designed to employ a promising undergraduate student).  One wonders whether these approaches can be truly far-reaching if not every institution has access.

There is an assumption in each of these articles that I have not experienced in practice: the notion that undergraduates are highly computer literate.  Most are perfectly adept at Facebook, email, and texting.  Fewer know how to make use of even basic features in mass market software such as Word or Excel.  One can only assume that a tiny minority know anything about 3D modeling or GPS applications.  Given existing time constraints, the need to provide disciplinary instruction, and the reality that all too many students lack basic reading and writing skills, is it desirable to put further strain on class time by adding computer instruction into the mix?

With all of this in mind, how might I use the above in my own classes?  I can certainly imagine asking students to transcribe documents for online publication (as long as the original file is presented alongside the transcription when finally posted to the web).  Reading difficult handwriting is part of being an historian.  It is a skill that must be learned.

Mapping software could add much to an upper level course (assuming successful completion of prerequisite course addressing the necessary computer skills) and I would welcome being able to draw on such technology to help illustrate lectures and facilitate discussions.  Indeed, at present I am attempting to do precisely this for a course about the history of London; it is slow-going without a budget for more sophisticated software.

I am less keen on introducing virtual environments into my classes, favoring instead a more thoughtful discussion-based approach that pushes students to engage their own minds without recourse to a virtual crutch.

The Revolution Will Not Be . . .

Apparently, I am a conservative.  I have just learned that I am a stuck in the mud too blind to see that the revolution may not be televised, but that it is online.  Accept this or be declared the “enemy,” a “great diminisher,” a “false fellow traveler,” too mired in a nostalgic reverie to realize that the revolution is here and it is made up of zeros and ones.

Badass Humanist, a now extinct ground sloth, caught off-guard by revolutionary change.

I am, of course, referring to The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, an over-the-top polemic that seeks to sell technology as an all-in proposition. If you are not with us you are against us. If you dare think that the digital humanities do not represent a “revolution” or propose that new technologies represent anything less than the vanguard of an XML army set to free us from the tyranny of books, newspapers, and magazines then you must be embarrassed into silence.

We live in an age when meaningful words are frequently diminished by overuse. Everybody is a hero. All the children are above average. Revolutions happen almost weekly.

Revolutions, true revolutions, are extremely rare.  They involve profound breaks with the past, yet history has few such clear divisions.  Scholars might like to declare them in order to sell books, those anxious to sell a new product might like to invoke the word, but that does not change the reality.  Talkin’ ’bout a revolution does not conjure one into being.

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Is this to say that computers, the Web, tablets and all the rest are not important examples of historical change?  No.  But do they mark a break with the past?

What do we really do with computers that would suggest such a brave new world?  Most of us use them as typewriters.  Some of us utilize their abilities to function as fancy calculators.  More than a few play games.  Quite a lot surf blue websites.  Many explore the latest incarnation of the encyclopedia.  In most cases, if we’re really honest, the display has changed, but little else.

Ah, but wait.  What about “big data?”  Certainly the American Historical Association is making much of the use of computers to crunch numbers.  E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield, directors of the ESRC Cambridge Groups for the History of Population and Social Structure back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, authored a massive study of demographic change across England between 1541 and 1871.  To crunch their truly “big” datasets comprised of piles upon piles of parish records, they drew upon a team of researchers instead of a microchip.  Different tool, similar results.  Likewise, the first wave Annals historians, Fernand Braudel, for example, managed to cover some pretty astonishing ground back in the 1930s and 1940s—long before scanners, blogs, and technology celebrating manifestos.

So, for my money, digital tools are nifty but not revolutionary. Computers, the web and all the rest are tools.  Nothing more.  Tools that will only take us as far as the people who use them.  Ultimately, whatever we do in terms of research or in our classrooms is a result of our humanity and how we use it.

The problem with this latest “manifesto” is that it seeks to dehumanize in favor of Wikis, crowd sourcing, blogs, and blinking clipart.  It seeks to squeeze out differing viewpoints.  It creates a sense that there is an “us” and a “them” and that insiders and outsiders are defined by their willingness to fall down before a consumerist alter of excess.

In the end, The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 is little more than an interesting historical document.  It marks a moment, little more.  Something to move beyond rather than something to take seriously or follow.

This said, I do hope that people will prove able and willing to make creative use of these new tools.  That we will do more with computers in classrooms than show how “with it” we are relative to the “digital generation” or to encourage students to do “research” by trolling for factoids instead of undertaking rigorous critical examination of information.

Who knows, perhaps down the road there might actually BE a revolution . . . but that time has not yet come.

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