Politically committed academics with humanities skill sets must engage technology and its production, not simply as an object of our scorn, critique, or fascination, but as a productive and generative space that is always emergent and never fully determined.
This statement by Tara McPherson hits at the core of what our readings this week were all about: the need for historians to engage with technology in substantive, active ways. This isn’t an easy proposition, as noted in Jack Dougherty, Kristen Nawrotzki, Charlotte Rochez, and Timothy Burke’s “Conclusions: What We Learned from Writing History in the Digital Age.” “Historians are,” they rightly note, “a skeptical breed.” This can be seen not only in how historians have chosen to utilize [or not utilize] certain technological tools and platforms, but also in their approach to pedagogy and scholarly production. T. Mills Kelly, in the introduction to his text on teaching digital history, points out plainly that, when it comes to change, historians are notoriously slow to evolve. Think about this statement: “for more than 100 years historians have been teaching their courses much the same way.” 100 years, with very little change on an institutional level. Certainly individual professors have shaken things up, like Kelly, whose experiments with teaching history through creation and falsification earned him both attention and contempt, but on a more broad scale, very little has changed. Professors lecture; students read textbooks, primary sources, maybe some literature; students write essays, take exams; et cetera; et cetera; et cetera. But the field of history is changing; not only how we are expected to teach, but also in how we must think about writing, researching, and making ourselves visible online. These changes are due to broader changes in academia as a whole that are increasingly undeniable. Sherman Dorn puts this in stark perspective in his contribution to Writing History in the Digital Age: this is
. . . an era of existential threats to humanities scholarship whose roots lie far from the influence of technological change on the mechanics of scholarship. Long before Amazon.com, scholars have seen declining state support for public universities, vocational rhetoric surrounding the politics of higher education, the growing use of contingent academic labor, and increased pressures for scholarship at institutions that had focused on teaching only a few short years before.
Dougherty et al. provided a similar snapshot of academic publishing in their selection, imploring historians to consider digital publishing since “accepting the status quo is not a fiscally sustainable option.” These realities require historians to change if the discipline is to survive; yes, this seems alarmist and there is no guarantee that this change will happen overnight. The wheels of change are already in motion and historians need to take a stand in this process. But they also need to be active in this process; using the “best of digital history to redraw the discipline’s boundaries,” as Dorn argues. Just as scholars should, on a personal level, “realign our publishing practices to be more consistent with our scholarly values,” historians also should, as these readings make readily apparent, realign their pedagogical approaches to be more consistent with the reality of the increasingly digital world in which their students live and operate. Alex Reid, in an October 2013 blog post, stated quite plainly that professors need to rethink how the assignments that they give students really reflect their own scholarly identities, as opposed to the digital world that their students live in. “Our expectations for undergraduates as writes, the genres in which we ask them to write,” Reid argues, “reflect in some fashion the genres in which we write as scholars. E.g., the literary or rhetorical history or analysis undergraduate essay is a reflection of the journal article.” Is this the best measure for undergraduate performance, especially since, as both Reid and Kelly show, students have the capacity to use digital media in creative, almost tongue-in-cheek ways that may offer interesting avenues to greater engagement with “traditional” historical materials? Though my own experience in digital pedagogy is limited to my brief foray as a TA [a new post on this will be up on this blog later this week] for Professor Alegi’s Culture of Soccer course in summer 2013, the suggestions made by Kelly in this Introduction, and the rest of the text, ring true. In particular, Kelly’s emphasis on the potential of digital methods [expanded upon on his blog] to engage with students rather than just educate them is important to keep in mind not only for junior scholars looking to develop courses, but also for more established professors who may not be considering new methods as they teach classes they have taught numerous times before.
Instead of asking them to sit, listen, and record what we say—a teaching strategy that cognitive science has demonstrated quite conclusively to be unproductive—we can now ask our students to do what we do: make history out of the raw material of the past.
I don’t know about any of you reading, but this sounds pretty damn good to me. Most classes that I’ve either solo-taught or TA’d for are not reflections of this kind of engagement and creativity; students doing history. That kind of active learning is what we should all be aspiring too, whether in traditional “brick-and-mortar” classrooms or virtual forums. History is changing; we have to and should change with it. And change doesn’t have to come at the expense of all of the best that historical scholarship has to offer; even while moving into the digital age, as Kelly notes, “it remains incumbent upon us to guide them through the past, and through the ways digital technology might be used to understand and represent the past.” The same goes for digital writing, as Dougherty et al. similarly argue: “the best of digitally inspired-scholarship integrates technology into the art of composing works that feature what many consider the finest qualities in our field: a compelling narrative that unravels the past supported by insightful argument and persuasive evidence.” We do, as Dorn argued, need to redraw the discipline’s boundaries, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the best of what historical scholarship has to offer. “After all,” Kelly rightly acknowledges, “the values of the professional historian do not change just because the medium changes.” Readings:
- Sherman Dorn, “Is (Digital) History More Than an Argument about the Past?” in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds., Writing History in the Digital Age. Forthcoming from University of Michigan Press. Trinity College (CT) web-book edition, Spring 2012.
- Jack Dougherty, Kristen Nawrotzki, Charlotte Rochez, and Timothy Burke, “Conclusions: What We Learned from Writing History in the Digital Age,” [Spring 2012] in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds. Writing History in the Digital Age. Forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. Trinity College (CT) web-book edition, Spring 2012.
- T. Mills Killy Teaching History in the Digital Age, “Introduction” (2013)
- Tara McPherson, “U.S. operating systems at mid-century: the intertwining of race and UNIX,” in Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White, eds., Race after the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2012).
- Alex Reid “What is academic (digital) discourse?” (October 31, 2013)