Redrawing the Boundaries of Historical Scholarship and Pedagogy

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: 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. T. Mills Killy Teaching History in the Digital Age, “Introduction” (2013)
  4. 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).
  5. Alex Reid “What is academic (digital) discourse?” (October 31, 2013)

This post is one of the requirements for South African History in a Digital Age, a graduate course in history which I am enrolled in this semester, drawing on the assigned readings for January 23.

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8 thoughts on “Redrawing the Boundaries of Historical Scholarship and Pedagogy

  1. I agree with many of the general assertions that both you and the readings for this week are making–listening to lectures has been shown to be less than the most effective way to learn, history is changing and has changed significantly over the past 100 years so our teaching methods should keep up with these changes, undergraduate survey courses don’t teach any of the skills needed for actually doing history, and the slick lecture on agreed upon facts is both boring and misrepresentative of the field as a whole. I can accept all of these points.

    And yet… at some point some sort of historical narrative should be learned by students. If professors are already spending an entire semester attempting to get students to learn the basic outlines of a historical narrative, when is all this interactive skill building supposed to happen? Given that a semester is a very limited block of time, to what extent should a basic knowledge of actual events (what we currently try to teach students) be replaced by the perhaps more constructive, but also more time consuming, activities of allowing students to puzzle through sources and learn the skills of actually being a historian?

    Related to this question is another: is the goal of an undergraduate survey course to impart historical knowledge to future members of an educated public? or is it to impart knowledge of history as a field to future members of an educated public? or is it to begin the training of future historians and those non-historians in the room can take away what they want from the class and leave the rest? Each of these implies a different set of priorities for the instructor.

    PS: sorry this is being posted so late, it totally slipped my mind.

    1. I see your point about the limited time in the semester, but I’m not sold on the idea that history classes are only about imparting basic historical outlines. I also think history courses have to be about teaching students how to learn (especially when you’re teaching non-history majors in large undergrad classes). Active learning and engagement seem like a good options compared to just asking students to memorize historical facts. Not sure about the specific ways to do that, but it seems like it could be decided on a class-to-class basis?

    2. I don’t think it helps anyone to teach them only about facts or methods. Every school will be a little different, but I am sure you already agree that some critical thinking should be passed on to undergrads along side the narratives. Do you think digital humanities poses a real threat to the narrative quality of history? Postmodernism has already posed this challenge, and the narrative is still quite relevant.

      Liz is making a good point here about actively engaging with the way technology is changing learning. Digital technology is shaping the way people think. Ignoring that or failing to take an active role takes us out of the process. Not everyone agrees with that.

      1. I do not mean to suggest that it is an either/or choice between teaching methodologies or narrative, nor that I disagree with the critique brought by postmodernism and digital historians alike that simply offering students a narrative is not enough. Of course, a mixture of methods is ideal and finding innovative teaching methods that engage students in new ways should be encouraged. However, I mean to raise two points: (1) at some point choices about what is most important have to be made due to the time constraints of a semester so “do everything” is not a realistic goal. What then should be prioritized? Obviously the answer depends on the goals of the instructor, the level of the students, and the subject matter. And (2) in our eagerness to embrace innovative new ways of teaching, which I share with you, let us not disparage too harshly a well-crafted lecture. Lectures are not always a dry list of names and dates to memorize. Done well, they should be stories. They should be historical arguments. They should be a performance art. They are not perfect, but there is something worth defending in them. Many of the courses that I enjoyed most as an undergraduate were lecture courses taught by passionate lecturers. I still enjoy listening to a good lecture. Surely we as educators should be at least as interested in learning how to lecture well as we are about experimenting with new teaching methods.

  2. And yes, Liz is making a good point here about “actively engaging with the way technology is changing learning.” I certainly don’t want to detract from that, as it is an important point to make. And yes, decision making on a class-by-class basis is a practical answer.

    1. Jodie, I am with you about the beauty of a well-crafted lecture. And I, like you, still remember my history courses from undergrad that were beautifully “performed,” as you call it. But I also know, from teaching high school students, community college students, and university undergrads, that sometimes that’s not enough. We were both students who loved history; who were there because we wanted to know more. At the undergraduate level, you’re hardly ever going to get a room full of students like that, especially in large survey classes. You can have the best lecture in the world, but, from what I’ve seen, those students who aren’t aural learners have to be engaged as well. And since they’re going to sit in class looking at social media anyway, maybe they could be using their laptops to engage with historical materials and actually “doing history” (whether or not all of us agree that the Mills Kelly model is true history). I, personally, feel like the lecture can only take you so far. It’s up to the instructor to craft dynamic courses that attempt to engage a variety of learning styles through a variety of means that actually speak to the students, their learning styles, and their (maybe hidden) talents.

  3. Joey and Liz, I find myself more on your side, despite the fact that like Jodie, I also generally loved undergraduate lectures (and wish there was a little of that in grad school). But we also have a lot of evidence that students only retain so much in lectures. We can have our students do a lot of the legwork of acquiring facts with homework assignments, then have them use those in a constructive way together in class. If the professor finds that some piece of necessary historical knowledge is missing during class, he can then use that time to fill the gap. Full disclosure: even as a devoted history undergraduate and future PhD student, I spent a lot of my time tuning out during lectures. I even once watched a Red Sox game during class on my computer.

  4. The best history classes I had as an undergrad used lecture and a handful of select readings to provide context. The assignments were not so much about demonstrating a mastery of a given historical narrative, but about making an argument (usually with a handful of primary sources selected and made available by the professor) within the context provided in lecture. I can still tell you about the differing attitudes of conquistadors and clergymen toward Indians in early Spanish America because of a paper I wrote using a variety of primary source materials. I couldn’t tell you anything about Ottoman fealty systems or land titles, even though I aced that test in a different class.

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