Tag Archives: wikipedia

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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Debating History on the Wikipedia Talk Sections

In this blog we will be looking at historical debates that are raised in the talk section of Wikipedia articles. Looking at these “debates”, we can see how history is debated among a public audience (which may or may not include some scholars) as well as the work and discussion that go into producing and improving a Wikipedia article. In case any of you don’t know, you can find the talk section of a Wikipedia article by clicking the little tab that says “Talk” to the right of another tab that says “article”, these to tabs are at the top of the Wikipedia article, right above the name/title of the article. The three related Wikipedia articles that we will be looking at in this blog are articles relating to the Civil War, namely Wikipedia’s articles on Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Naming the American Civil War.

There are currently 4 issues raised in the talk page of the Lincoln Article. In the first issue, a user named pseudobob asks about the context of a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, the quote being “I am not now nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarriages with white people. There is a difference between the white and the black races which will forever forbid the two races living together on social or political equality. There must be a position of superior and inferior, and I am in favor of assigning the superior position to the white man”. Pseudobob doesn’t appear to be referring to a problem with article, he is just asking a question about the quote. Another user (alanscottwalker) answers that the quote probably came from the Lincoln-Douglas Debates where Lincoln was accused of being in favor of blacks and white mingling together. Another user (Lonepilgrim007) responds by pointing out that Lincoln’s beliefs evolved over time. The next two issues are not really big debates or controversies, just suggestions for changes to the article (the first issue being that “boxed biography” in the article left out Lincoln’s tenure as an Illinois state legislator, the second issue essentially being a complaint about the wording of part of the article). The final issue (entitled “Lincoln the War Criminal” is a complaint claiming that this article and similar articles are “slanted” in favor of the Union, and objecting to the article’s claim that the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, which he points out was in South Carolina (what he calls “Southern Territory”) and then accuses Lincoln of being a war criminal. Another user responds by saying that most historians do not view Lincoln as a war criminal and that such a viewpoint is a “fringe” view that should not “dominate an encyclopedia article”.

The talk page of the Robert E. Lee article also has a good number of issues raised. Some issues are relatively minor (like the suggestion that Lee’s father, Henry Lee III’s nickname should be written as “Light-Horse Harry” – as it appears in the article on Henry Lee III – instead of “Light Horse Harry” as it appears on Robert Lee’s article). Others are more important disputes over how the article portrays Lee, including a claim that the part of the article is “whitewashed” and a claim that the article is “scathing and quite prejudiced”  and that it should be written by someone who isn’t as “close minded and biased” as the author who apparently doesn’t know “how great, God fearing, intelligent and noble General Robert E Lee was”. There is also a complaint that part of the article gives inaccurate figures on the Union and Confederate troop numbers and casualties in the Battle of Cheat Mountain in a way that is an “insult” to Lee,  making it look like Lee suffered more casualties compared to the Union forces and tripling the size of Lee’s force while under-representing the Union force.

The third talk page I looked at was that of the article on “Naming the American Civil War”. This talk page has a few questions and controversies over names of the Civil War that are or aren’t used in the article. One user wonders whether or not the article should contain the term “War of Southern Treason” , a term which he has seen used in online forums in response to people using the term “War of Northern Aggression”, but another user suggests that term should not appear in the article unless it can be found in a reliable source. Other questions are whether or not it should be called the “U.S. Civil War” instead of the “Civil War” and how to insert a “needs a reference” marker after sentence a in the article regarding the usage of the phrase “War of Secession”. There is also a big argument/debate about the term “War of Northern Aggression” and whether the North or the South was the aggressor in the War.

It is clear from looking at the talk sections of these articles, that there are a lot of different historical interpretations that people have about the past. Some subjects (such as the Civil War) tend to attract a lot of debate, some of it scholarly and some of it rather heated and not so scholarly (indeed rather personal). Reading and listening to these debates about different views on historical events can be interesting and entertaining. I must say of the issues raised in the talk section that I mentioned in this blog, my favorite was the one on the Robert E. Lee article where the user called the author “biased and close minded”. That was quite humorous to read.