The Promise and Peril of using Commercial Sites for Historical Materials

Tom at FoundHistory recently posted on the layoff of one of the architects of Flickr Commons, that incredibly useful source for materials from a number of major archives and museums. Tom sees this as a moment to discuss some of his own concerns about the promise and peril of using commercial sites like Yahoo, Flickr, Second Life, and others for publishing cultural and academic resources online.

This debate is one that I’ve had both internally with myself and externally with my colleagues for several years now. No one wants to think that the time, energy, money, and resources invested in placing something valuable online is just going to go away, but the benefits of a ready-made location and user base are also clear.

It seems to me this is about balancing the ability to reach more people, often with a more polished and supported interface, with the need to protect against the risks of commercial failure and potential loss of access to data. [Although we also need to remember that just because something is hosted on the servers of an educational or cultural institution doesn’t mean it is always going to be there. “Forever” is a long time in the era of government budget cuts and rapid software change.]

Still, in the end for me it comes down to a question of whether or not an institution can get data placed in repositories like Flickr Commons back out with some relative ease (both technically and in terms of copyright).

Digital History and Undergraduate Digital Literacy

As so many of my posts, this began as a comment on someone else’s blog that grew unwieldy as a comment…. In this case, I was joining a discussion about teaching undergraduates digital history begun by the wise Mills Kelly at edwired and continued in the comments by Sterling Fluharty of PhD in History and others. Mills expresses concern about the lack of attention to the question of undergraduate teaching in a recently published panel discussion in the Journal of American History about “The Promise of Digital History” . [As Mills points out, it’s quite a useful panel other than this glaring omission of teaching undergraduates.]

So, my comment (and now this post) is an attempt to explain from my perspective why digital history is important to teach to undergraduates.

My goal in teaching undergraduates digital history is to offer students new ways of approaching their own research and thinking and writing. Our department has agreed that “digital literacy” is core to our expectations for our undergraduates (along with critical thinking and reading, the creation of original ideas, the deployment of evidence to support one’s arguments, and the ability to present those arguments in sophisticated written and oral forms).

Now, I know the notion of “digital literacy” has been overused and has multiple definitions, but I actually like the phrase for people’s familiarity with it and for that very richness of meanings. So, I’ve viewed the goals of my undergraduate digital history course through some of those definitions.

  • One goal of my digital history course is to teach the most conventional form of digital literacy: How does one find and evaluate online materials for scholarly (and non-scholarly) uses? How does one begin to sift through the massive content that is available in an systematic and/or creative way? What are the pitfalls and perils, the promises and potentialities of the online information experience?
  • Another facet of digital literacy is the notion of digital identity: This is a class that, through individual and group online presence (often blogs and wikis, but many other tools are available as well), explicitly engages students in discussions of their digital identity. How should we present ourselves to the online world (personally, professionally, and intellectually, but also individually and in groups)? [In future iterations it might even encourage them to create their own centralized online presence that wouldn’t necessarily be housed by the university (or restricted by a single course). We’ve been engaged recently at UMW in a number of discussions related to this notion of enabling students to take control of their digital identity. See Jim’s post and comments for one take.]
  • Increasingly I have become convinced that a key, but often overlooked, aspect of digital literacy is a willingness to experiment with a variety of online tools, and then to think critically and strategically about a project and to identify those tools that would be most useful to that project. [Note that I’m NOT talking about training in a specific tool or even a set of tools. This is not an MS Word or Blackboard skills class. This digital history class offers students a “digital toolkit” from which to choose. There certainly needs to be some basic exposure and technical support, but part of the goal is to get students to figure out how to figure out how a new tool (system, software, historical process) works on their own.]
  • Broadening the previous point, one of my desires for students is for them to be comfortable with being uncomfortable as they try new things. Figuring how to deal with constantly changing technology is something we all are dealing with, yet in higher education we often put students in new situations only when they first begin. Before long, they’ve got the process and procedures down and can churn out 8-10 page papers in their sleep. Yet what kind of preparation is that for the larger world? I know, I know. There are much larger philosophical and practical and even political issues at work here. But my point is simply that it’s good for college classes to shake students (and faculty) out of their comfort zone. Real learning happens when you’re trying to figure out the controls, not when you’re on autopilot.
  • Finally, I think digital literacy for undergraduates in history should encompass at least some exposure to the complex new approaches to research in the discipline offered by recent advancements in computing, including text-mining or GIS (if only because that those methods are influencing a new generation of scholarship that students will need to understand to assess). As they become more accessible and widely used, there will be more opportunities for students to also engage in the application of these tools in their own work.

Now, one of the issues raised by Sterling on Mills’s blog post was whether the goal of an undergraduate history class was to train students for particular jobs. My response to that is both practical and pedagogical. No, I don’t see this course as preparing them for particular jobs. However, I do see the class as preparing students to be adaptable citizens and workers, with a sound grounding in who they are (on- and off-line) and a willingness to try new things, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Having said that, I’ve had several alums of my first digital history class get jobs that were direct results of the skills (and portfolio of projects) gained in the class. In some cases it was because of a specific tool that they’d worked with; in others it was because of the package they were able to present to their potential employers. Certainly those students felt like the class had been worth it for them.

Finally, although I’ve been talking specifically about one class, aspects of these ideas have made their way into most of my classes, as well as those of several of my departmental colleagues, including that of our methods class for majors. Still, I suspect there will be a need for (at least) one class in my department that is explicitly focused on Digital History for a long time to come.

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Week 2 — Still Chaotic

This week the digital history seminar addressed information architecture and web site design, the open-source presentation software Omeka, and looked at other examples of digital history projects. [With the help of DTLT’s programming, semantic web touting, open-source and server guru, Patrick, of course.] Finally they split into their groups to continue brainstorming about their projects.

I suspect the notion of information architecture is still a bit overwhelming as they are just beginning to narrow down the possible choices for their projects. Figuring out how to lay out their data in a structured way is difficult to comprehend if what that data might be is still not clear. I think they really liked Omeka, though they’ve been running into some problems figuring out how to use it. [I’ve mostly told them to just play with it on their own in the test install Patrick set up, something they’ve had mixed success with.]

For two groups (the James Farmer project and the James Monroe Papers project) the process of deciding on the scope, nature, and form of their project is both enriched and complicated as they are working directly with interested faculty members who have expertise in their area. These two faculty members came to meet with those groups on Thursday and began the process of working with them. Getting to know each other, getting a sense for what each can bring to the process, and getting a feel for various expectations were all part of the process of that meeting.

I’m still very excited about the class and I continue to enjoy going in each day. I’m a little concerned that content is still secondary in the students’ minds as they struggle with the various tools and skills they’re being shown. I’m going to need to continue to remind them (and me) that the digital tools and skills are just different ways of presenting what they want to say.

Starting a New Semester and a New Class: Risk and Fear in 2008

This has been a busy school year for me (hence the long absence of this blog) and this semester is no different. Still, I wanted to talk about this semester a bit as it begins, if only to remind myself later what I hope to accomplish. [Maybe I’ll find time a little later for a recap of what worked and what didn’t in the blogging I used with two of my classes last semester.]

Major projects this semester:

  1. Host a conference (the Virginia Forum in April).
  2. Be part of a campus discussion about the role of digitization and digital initiatives.
  3. Integrate wiki-based weekly pre-discussions into my US History Survey and Women’s history as I’ve done in previous semesters.
  4. Teach a new digital history seminar.
  5. Other work items include a couple of faculty searches, covering some classes for a colleague, serving on four other committees, writing a conference paper and trying to get my book through the later hoops of publishing.

The wiki-based discussions worked really well last fall and last spring and I look forward to using those again. [I introduced the concept of posting comments about the primary sources readings to a group wiki to my survey class which started today and one student asked, with some measure of disbelief, “Has that actually worked before?” When I told him that this was the third semester and the fourth class I’d used this technique with (and that the previous ones had been very successful), he seemed surprised.] Still, at least some in the class were intrigued (and a couple had already posted just a few hours later).

The digital history class is my biggest new project and the point that I’m most interested in laying out here. A little background first: I have wanted to teach a history and new media class since I started adjuncting in 1999. For a variety of reasons (tenure not the least of them) I haven’t managed to get to it. I decided last year that I would teach the class this semester, as a 400-level history department seminar. I began talking to our excellent colleagues in DTLT almost a year ago and we began meetings last fall that started to lay the groundwork for this class. The class as I imagine it won’t easily happen without their help.

So what is the class and what are my goals for it? Well, here’s the course description:

This seminar will focus on the process of creating digital history. The course readings, workshops, and discussions expose students to the philosophy and practice of the emerging field of History and New Media. The course will be centered on the creation of four digital history projects, all of which are related to making local resources available online. These projects include the creation of an online presence for the James Monroe Papers, the construction of a site expanding on the state historical markers in the Fredericksburg area, the expansion of digital work previously done on James Farmer’s presence on campus, and the building of a digital exhibit for UMW’s Centennial.

The roster is made up of mostly seniors, but also juniors and a sophomore or two. I’ve already surveyed their digital interests, comfort level, and self-reported digital skills (maybe more on that later). We’ve already chosen which projects each student will work on over the course of the semester. Almost every student has already created a blog on UMWBlogs and a del.icio.us account of their own. And we haven’t met yet.

Check out the syllabus and the course site for more on the schedule and the rough outlines I’ve laid out for each group project here. [I should say that I’ve been inspired in the formation of this class by the work and graduate teaching of digital historians Dan Cohen and Bill Turkel, neither of whom I’ve met, but whose work I’ve been able to follow in a particularly New Media way. Equally important has been the work and encouragement of someone I have met (at Faculty Academy last year), namely Barbara Ganley, whose words, blogging, and teaching continue to influence the pedagogical choices I make.]

I’m incredibly excited to teach a class I’ve wanted to teach in some form for my entire professional teaching career. But I’m also nervous. Nervous because I want the students to be able to choose some of the path the course takes. Nervous because I don’t know quite where that means we’ll end up. Nervous to ask many different people (from DTLT, from other faculty departments, from other parts of the institution) to work with me and these students on something that might not look very polished in the end. Nervous because I’m asking a lot of people to trust me that this will be worth it. None of that anxiety is stopping me from doing this class. Excitement overwhelms anxiety this evening before the first class. I hope that it will continue to do so throughout the semester.

I hope that the students in this class will read this (I know one of them will soon, but hopefully the others will find it too). I know some of them are nervous as well. Good. I know that some of them don’t feel like they know what they’re doing. Good. I know that the class as a whole, and as groups, and as individuals, will struggle at times this semester to figure out what it is that their projects and this class is about. Good. I don’t mean that I want them to flounder without purpose. I will be there (with the support of some of the best educators I know) to support them and help them find their own way.

But that’s just it. I want them to find their own way. I could (and have) assigned digital projects where everything that students did was scripted for them. [And many of them have turned out really well.]

But I don’t want that this time. Or, I should say, I want more than that this time. I have given the students broad outlines of digital projects as starting places with some basic structures, and what I see as key components, but I’m not going to dictate what they should do. I’ve arranged with Martha, Jerry, Andy, Patrick, and Jim to provide students with a digital toolkit, an array of possible tools with which to approach those projects, but I’m not going to tell them which tools they have to use. I’ve arranged to have expert faculty come and talk to a few of the groups about their projects, but those faculty aren’t going to determine the students’ projects either.

Those people who still follow this blog after its long absence, I hope you’ll check out the course blog, the syllabus, the students’ blogs narrating their work, and the projects as they begin to emerge. I, and the students, will benefit from your comments and suggestions.

Mary Washington Alum and the Holocaust Museum

In today’s New York Times, there’s an article about a collection of photographs from a Nazi concentration camp. What makes these pictures unusual is that they’re of the camp’s SS officers relaxing in various ways which seemingly ignore the atrocities of which they’re a significant part. The contrast is chilling and alludes directly to what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil.” The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has an online exhibit dedicated to the images here.

I bring this up on this blog because I wanted to share these striking images, but also because the first name mentioned in the story is a former star student from MW, Rebecca Erbelding, a History and American Studies double major who did her senior thesis with me several years ago. [It was a fascinating exploration of the role that an American, Varian Fry, played in getting people out of Nazi Germany.] She interned with the Holocaust Museum, which turned into a full-time job there. She’s now an archivist at that incredible institution. I suppose one of the positive counters to getting older is that you have more chances to see your students succeed. That’s pretty cool indeed.

Rebecca narrates a slideshow of the images here.

UPDATE: She can also be heard on NPR’s Talk of the Nation here.

The Revolution in Technology — Links toward a Presentation

Here’s the list of links from the TAH August 2007 Presentation I did on “The Revolution in (Information) Technology” — These are also at http://del.icio.us/tag/tah2007

  1. Hurricane Digital Memory Bank: Collecting and Preserving the Stories of Katrina and Rita

  2. YouTube – How to Use the Dial Phone (1927)

  3. 2007 Horizon Report | nmc

  4. YouTube – Broadcast Yourself.

  5. Google Reader

  6. Bloglines

  7. Alexander Spotswood’s Journey — as seen in Flickr and Google Maps

  8. YouTube – The Machine is Us/ing Us (Final Version)

  9. My Digital Double: Watch the World(s).

    Very cool representation in SL of Van Gogh’s Starry Night

  10. shifthappens ยป Various Versions of the Presentation

    copies of “Did you know?” presentation

  11. Netvibes

  12. Internet Archive

    A great idea, even without the Wayback Machine. With Wayback, it’s invaluable.

  13. YouTube – Introducing the book

    Medieval Helpdesk

Wikis, Wikis, Everywhere–Part I

This semester I’m using wikis (MediaWiki to be precise) in two of my classes, though in different ways. I’m doing so at Jerry‘s suggestion, despite my greatest previous interaction with wikis being arguing with students about why they can’t use Wikipedia as the scholarly source for their research papers. In two separate posts, I’ll describe the two classes, the plans for the wiki use in each class, and the progress so far.

In my senior readings seminar, I used to have students email me comments and questions about the reading for a particular day a couple of hours before class starts. I would then take those comments and questions and shape the class discussion for the day based on the particular areas of need or interest expressed by the students. This semester, the students post their comments and questions to a wiki page. [I set up one page for each day’s discussion for the semester.] Of course, a large change under this new system is that they now see each others’ postings. [I’ve resisted this before, fearing repetitiveness, copying, and an unfair burden on those who posted first to carry the class.] I’ve found that so far, I was completely wrong. The quality of the questions and comments have gone up from previous semesters. What’s more, they’ve begun to respond to each others’ questions, answering the factual queries and starting to engage the open-ended ones. In other words, the discussion begins before class does.

Of course, I could have just used a forum on Blackboard or some other open-source software (and I’ve used such forums with varying degrees of success in other classes with other assignments). They’d still be able to see what the other students had written and respond to those comments. The advantage of the wiki is that students can more easily edit and/or comment on each others’ work than in a forum, which is either hierarchical or linear (or both). Using the past version function of the wiki I can actually trace the evolution of the conversation as students add material to the ongoing discussion, sometimes inserting themselves in between other people’s comments, sometimes using bold to emphasize particular points that others have made. They haven’t taken to truly editing each others’ work, a common issue from what I’ve heard from those who have used wikis in teaching. [There was a comment deleted by someone else, but that was an accident, for which there was much apologizing. ๐Ÿ™‚ ] And I don’t see this lack of editing each others’ work as a problem since I haven’t explicitly asked them to do that.

I hope the quality of posting and interaction remains at the level that it’s at for the rest of the semester. If so, I’ll see it as a great success.

Next time, I’ll discuss the wiki as used in an upper-level lecture & discussion class.

Historians Moving on Up

So news reports indicate that the new president of Harvard is going to be Drew Gilpin Faust, a prominent historian whose specialties include the Civil War, US Women’s History and Social History. This news comes just a few weeks after Ed Ayers, eminent Southern historian and academic technology pioneer, was announced as the new president of the University of Richmond. [Full Disclosure: I worked on the Valley of the Shadow Project with Ed Ayers for a couple of years before heading off to graduate school.]

At my very first academic conference, the 1997 Southern Historical Association conference in Atlanta, I attended a panel on which both of these eminent historians presented. I remember being impressed at their presence, poise, and good-natured interactions. Who knew that these two would become University presidents within a few months of each other 10 years later?

I’m happy for both of them, because I like and respect them, but also because it suggests that, despite the reputation of historians as out of touch with today’s world, that these two have found ways to make themselves (and more importantly, their ideas) relevant to much larger audiences.

Both Ayers and Faust, despite a number of years as Deans (Ayers at UVA, Faust at Harvard’s Ratcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) remain active, productive scholars in their fields. I can only imagine how difficult that is given the many drains on their time. As a fellow scholar in their fields of interest, I can only hope that their presidencies will not prevent them from continuing to contribute their significant gifts to the discipline. As an academic, I believe that continuing to do so will also make them better administrators of faculty. As Dean, Ayers also managed to continue teaching a class or two a year, something else I hope he’s able to hold on to in his new position. [UPDATE: The front-page February 10 Washington Post article on Faust’s appointment suggests she’s also continued teaching as Dean.] Such activities remind presidents of where their faculties and student bodies are focused.

I know that this perspective is not shared by all academics, many of whom feel that the president’s job is first and foremost to raise money. As important as that is, I have a great deal of respect for those university presidents who continue to teach and research. Leading by example applies to the administrative side of academia as much as it does the classroom.