The latest edition of our Digital Campus podcast went up last week. Tom and Dan upped the pressure on me to start tweeting, but I’m proud to say that I stood firm and I still don’t tweet. In addition to my continued struggles to remain true to my principles, we spent the podcast discussing all the news that was fit to blab about in the world of technology, teaching, and the humanities. One of the “sites of the week” worth a close look is the annual meeting of the American Association for History and Computing. This year’s meeting (April 3-5), “Frontiers in Digital History,” will be held here at George Mason and the Center for History and New Media. So, give the podcast a listen and if you are one of those people who stalks others on Twitter, you can start following Digital Campus that way too…however it is that you stalk people that way.
Over the past year or so I’ve written several posts about the future of the American Historical Association. In yesterday’s AHA Today blog, Rob Townsend offers up a concise review of how the reforms of the annual meeting initiated by Roy Rosenzweig have (or have not) taken hold at the meeting.
Roy’s hope was that it would be possible to get away from the tried and true and almost universally boring format of several people reading papers at the audience by offering participants new formats for their sessions. Rob’s piece makes it clear that despite the fact that attendance at those sessions organized in new formats is strong and growing, the vast majority of AHA members still prefer the traditional format.
Can you think of a reason why this would be so?
I’ve been attending the AHA for more than a dozen years (I didn’t make it this year for the first time in ten — budget cuts, don’t you know) and I have yet to attend a session in which more than one of the papers read at me by the panel was so energizing that I felt pleased that I had been there just to hear it. Mostly, I’ve wished that I could have read the paper in advance so that the author could have presented one or two of her main points for discussion, and then we all could have had a discussion about the issues she raised.
I suppose my colleagues — at least those in the vast majority that prefer having papers read at them — find that passive learning is more congenial. I wonder how many of those same historians teach in a lecture only format? Given what I know about college history teachers, I know that it can’t be the same vast majority. Too many historians utilize all sorts of interesting and engaging pedagogial practices in their own classrooms.
So why do they want to be the types of students they lament — the ones who just want to sit back and listen?
I’ve already written a couple of posts about the future of the American Historical Association and my experiences at THATCamp this past weekend have caused me to add an addendum to what I’ve already proposed.
If you read those earlier posts you’ll see that I have suggested radical surgery for the AHA annual meeting to make it more appealing to a broader constituency, but also to liven it up a bit. THATCamp was my first experience with an “unconference” and I have to say I prefer that model to the standard scholarly conference where three or four presenters sit in the front of the room and read papers at the audience.
For those unfamiliar with unconferences–as I was until this past weekend–the short version of how they work is the organizers ask attendees to indicate in advance what it is they want to discuss/work on during the conference and then, somewhere near the last minute, the organizers create a schedule of sessions from the interests of the attendees. So, for instance, I might indicate that I want to spend some time thinking about and discussing new developments in digital pedagogy, assessment of student learning in history, and the latest developments in East European studies.
Rooms are assigned according to the number of people interested in a particular topic or issue and when the attendees arrive, they decide where to go. Once they arrive in a room, they find others who are there because they want to discuss the same topic. A designated facilitator starts off the discussion and then a real honest to goodness discussion ensues. In other words, something a lot more interesting than having to sit and listen while three or four people read to you.
I’m not suggesting that the entire AHA annual meeting turn into an unconference overnight. That would be a logistical disaster. Instead, I’m suggesting that the AHA designate some percentage of its meeting rooms, say five percent at the 2010 annual meeting, for a historical unconference and see what happens.
The major objections to this approach–other than logistical–will fall into two categories. First, how can young scholars present themselves to potential employers in such a venue? By taking part in an intellectual conversation around a topic they are passionate about. But there should (for now) still be a lot of space reserved at the meeting for them to give those papers (please don’t read them!) that present their best ideas to potential employers.
The second objection would be that deans and provosts around the country wouldn’t pay for anyone to attend such a conference because no one would be “giving a paper” nor would they be “in the program.” This is a very valid objection. Like all such objections, it can be dealt with, but will require more thinking.
But if five percent of the 2010 AHA annual meeting turns into a very lively unconference, I’ll bet one of the sessions at the 2011 meeting could be devoted to making the case for travel funding to deans and provosts.