At the AHA (Thursday Morning)

I’m at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association today and tomorrow. Today’s event is a pre-conference workshop: “The Intersection of Teaching and Research in the New Media.”

In his Keynote Address, Ed Ayers talked about two new projects that he is working on–one that has students at multiple campuses writing what he called “episodes” in American history from primary sources, and one that displays historical data (census, voting) on a map of the United States in an animated (time sequenced) mode.

In the second session, which I chaired, David Jaffee showed a couple of examples from the digital history project he runs at CUNY and discussed a number of the challenges we as historians face when trying to help our students to a richer understanding of the past through online primary sources.

Kitty Sklar showed the Women and Social Movements website, focusing on the decision to create deep and detailed resources rather than briefer, more easily accessed resources. I would link to the project site, but it has been moved behind a subscription-only gate and so is now inaccessible to the general public, as well as the vast majority of K-12 teachers. Closing the site off is unfortunate, because the resources there are quite valuable. But now that they are behind a gate (thereby running counter to the trend of making premium content free), the largest possible potential universe of users (the general public, high school teachers/students, and most community college students) will never see the project.

Finally, John McClymer, author of the AHA’s Guide to Teaching and Learning With New Media, showed a single example from one course as a way of talking about how he uses online sources to unsettle his student’s understanding of the past.

In my own remarks, I tried to be the contrarian. While complimenting all three of the presenters and their work, I pointed out that we don’t really know much of anything about what happens when our students use the resources we are creating. What we do know is that our students are creators of content online, that they use Wikipedia as their number one historical resource, and that the majority of them participate in multiple social networks like Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr.

But what do they do when they are doing it?

What we know is what they produce from the resources we create for them. Until we know how they go about producing those end products, we’re still shooting in the dark when we create those resources. Or, to use an example from popular culture, we’re a little bit like Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles. In the film, when he sends the bad guys off to wreck havoc, he says, “Go do that doo-doo that you do so well.” When we create resources without a clear knowledge of how they are used, we’re not much better than Korman.

For now, we’re stuck knowing that they create, share, manipulate (mash up), and consume content online. Now it’s time to find out how those things happen while they’re happening.

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