This is the third in a series of posts designed to capture and preserve the activity and conversation at the Playing With Technology in History conference. After the morning break we shifted from gaming to making.
[11:00] How can making or remaking things from the past help us to understand the past? What do the tactile experiences intrinsic to making objects or handling/manipulating objects have to do with thinking about the past? A number of the papers/projects here are about making and how the act of making opens up new ways to understand the past. As new and entrepreneurial as the games are, my own sense is that the work of the “makers” here is closer to something we might call the bleeding edge of digital humanities. In particular, I like the way using digital tools to make analog objects, thereby making the intangible tangible holds some real promise for finding new ways for our students to think about the past. How we might measure that, however, is the big issue all the “makers” are facing. We don’t yet know how to measure such things, but measure them we will.
[11:45] For the various authors one of the issues we need to confront is the degree to which the papers are analytical or encouraging. If they are only encouraging, then they aren’t scholarship (in my view anyway), but if they are only analytical, they will both be more than a little boring and will appeal less to the intended audience for the book, namely those who are both interested in the work we’re doing and in possibly doing something similar themselves. By being both encouraging and analytical we will help others see that this kind of fun/work is possible, but also — and I think this is critical — that it is scholarly work, not just fun.
[12:30] A theme that emerged during the two days is how much of this sort of techno-play in history requires the historian to be a technical expert (or semi-expert) and how much can be done with simple to use, off the shelf products like Google Earth, Google Sketchup, etc.? The more the latter are useful for this kind of work, the more likely we’ll be to find a wider audience.
[2:00] In the context of the Great Unsolved Mysteries of Canadian History site, we spent some time discussing the ways that really worthy projects like this one sustain themselves over time. This conversation, well known to everyone working in digital humanities, was not about play, making, or any of the other conversations in the conference, but still we needed to have it.
[2:30] How do you work with a million books? How do you teach students to think differently with such an embarrassment of riches? See Steve Ramsey’s paper (a Digital Campus Irregular) on the conference website. Steve makes some very important points about the value of teaching students to screw around as a research methodology. I like the fact that this idea is so completely the opposite of the standard notion of teaching students to be overly structured in their approach to browsing and searching. His conclusion is great: “There are so many books. There is so little time. Your ethical obligation is neither to read them all nor to pretend that you have read them all, but to understand each path through the vast archive as an important moment in the world’s duration—as an invitation to community, relationship, and play.” Read the paper when it comes out in the book. If you teach, you need to.
[3:00] What are the ethics of using “casual games” to get museum or archive visitors to help you classify materials in their collections (in the model of Recaptcha)?
[3:20] Another advantage of the small, informal, but still structured conference format is that we’ve formed a community of practice that is already interconnected in a whole variety of ways — digital and analog. The book project will keep us glued together for a while, but the links we’ve forged here the past two days will outlast that project. That these links are both transdisciplinary and transnational makes the experience that much more powerful. More unconferences please…
[4:10] A nice moment when we discussed Stephane Levesque’s paper in which he described students complaining about having to use a digital history module in a course — one of them said “Why can’t you just tell us?” — instead of just being lectured at. To what degree is that schoolish behavior? Are they just unhappy that they can’t use the techniques they’ve mastered already, i.e., taking notes, memorizing facts, passing tests? Or is there something about the digital that they don’t like. For a book like the one we’re envisioning, it’s important to keep in mind that digital doesn’t always work.