History in the Digital Age

First off the title for this week’s blog comes from the title of the book with the same title, edited by Toni Weller. This blog will be focusing on last week’s readings for the digital history course I am taking. Those readings are chapters 7 (studying the past in the digital age: from tourist to explorer by Mark Sandle) and 8 (Beyond ctrl-c, ctrl-v: teaching and learning history in the digital age by Charlotte Lydia Riley) and Jeff McClurken’s article “teaching and learning with omeka”. Each of these readings discusses the topic of using digital technology in history education, but they all do so in a different manner.

Sandle’s work uses the analogy that digital technology is allowing history students to go from being tourists to being explorers. In other words, in traditional history, due among other things to the difficulty of obtaining sources, students were often “guided” through historical topics by their teachers, like a tourist being guided around a site. Now with the internet these students, in addition to being taught by their instructors, can go online and explore historical sources and topics on their own or as part of an assignment. But Sandle is keen to point out that these students should not be expected to be “pioneers”, to be going off into uncharted territories (“without any maps”), in other words to be breaking new scholarly ground. After all pushing a person to learn too fast, or sending them on a task that they are not prepared for can be educationally harmful. An interesting section in Sandle’s chapter is that on the idea of “total research” (p.137), wherein Sandle warns against the idea that the internet allows a scholar to master all the sources in their field and where a scholar may be tempted to always search for more sources in order to make their work more “complete”, even thought there are far too many sources available for a single person to use. In this sense we must bear in mind the old saying that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, and realize that we have to finish our work eventually, instead of feeling compelled to incorporate “one more” source. There simply comes a time when one must be content to finish a particular piece of work, and leave room for future scholars to make their contributions. That part of the chapter reminded me something I had read a few years ago, wherein Vincent Twomey, a former professor at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, tells a story about how when he was working on his thesis for his doctorate in theology, he was asked by his doktorvater, Joseph Ratzinger, if he had completed his thesis yet and Twomey said he still had some work to do, to which Ratzinger replied “have the courage to leave some gaps” (after doing a little internet search I was able to find what Twomey had written: Twomey had been working on his thesis for seven years at the point in which this exchange had occurred!). Granted Twomey’s anecdote is from pre-internet times, but the point is still pertinent to academic research in any age: we have to, as Twomey puts it “be courageous enough to be imperfect”.

Riley’s chapter offers a lot of information about the “digital generation”  and compares and contrasts a lot between how undergraduate students (at least in the United Kingdom) use digital technologies and how teaching assistants (TAs) use it. Much of this chapter is devoted to discussing to which degree digital sources (and analog ones as well) should be treated with some skepticism and how researchers must beware of bias. Riley also encourages professors to contribute to Wikipedia to help make the site’s entries more accurate. One thing I found interesting about the chapter was Riley’s description of the “new undergraduate students” that “grew up with digital technology” (p.149), where she says that an 18 year old students entering college in the 2011-12 school year, born in 1992 or 1993: “have never lived in a world without online technology. Both Google and Wikipedia were founded before these students turned ten years old. The iPod was invented and retailed, alongside the iTunes store, before they started secondary school. Members of this digital generation find it difficult to conceive of a society in which digital and online resources are not a fundamental part of everyday life” (p. 149).  I was born only 2 or 3 years before these people. I had not heard of Google until probably seventh or eigth grade (some of my classmates in computer class where discussing whether Yahoo or Google was better, I had previously only heard of Yahoo from commercials, which I think featured some people in a lake, maybe vacationing). I was a sophomore in high school when I first heard of an iPod (and MySpace as well, which I had quite a negative opinion of back then). In short, I feel that Riley’s description of the digital generation, who “find it difficult to conceive of a society in which digital and online resources are not a fundamental part of everyday life” does not really fit me, as for most of my life I did not use the internet, and I really did not use online technology on an almost-daily basis until about my senior year of high school (when we got AT&T instead of AOL, allowing the internet to be used while someone else was on the phone!).

Finally, McClurken’s article is about the use of Omeka in teaching history. McClurken offers some tips for using Omeka in teaching. The part about his article that most stood out to me was when one of his students told him that she was “uncomfortable” with digital projects, which he had assigned to the class, and he responded “good”. McClurken says he wants his students to be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed”. Indeed isn’t that how we really learn? Learning new things at times requires us to go outside of our comfort zone, but after a while we will grow more comfortable. Granted, when an instructor assigns something that does put the students out of their comfort zone, the grading should be lenient. After all, why give people extra stress?


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