What are the challenges we face as history educators with presenting the past in the digital world?

This is a useful question for me to ask, as distance learning is no longer all that distant. One challenge is the shift that we have seen from secondary and tertiary historiography, or monographs and textbooks, to a glut of primary material. Why is it that we still feel wedded to print when we sit down to draft a syllabus? One reason is the question of veracity that Wikipedia poses. Historiography undergoes a rigorous process of external review and editorial oversight that helps separate weighty, wheaty dissertations from unpublished chaff (forgive the corniness); and not all sites do. Now, it is true that there are plenty out there as we’ve seen, that provide precisely the metadata that Wikipedia doesn’t: an author, the author’s degree and institutional affiliation, and so forth. But even if the author is the dean of the site’s topic, it’s become common wisdom that the internet shortens the attention span, which compels site authors to abbreviate their texts, which in turn compromises the texts’ complexity. The exception to this is to have students read a conventional book chapter or article off of a screen in the traditional page-by-page format. How this works, but writing that same text on a website for public access doesn’t, is a mystery to me. And so we come round the glut of primary sources. Art, radio broadcasts, posters, interviews–it’s all there. But now the teacher must become the secondary scholar. Unless you adopt someone else’s syllabus or lesson plan as your own–something few of us do not just because it feels like a cop-out, but also because we’re not sure it fits–you must pick which sources to show and how to contextualize them (here’s where a nuanced introductory text over 1,000 words would help). To which the best answer is, in my view, YouTube. And here I don’t mean talking head documentaries, but outstanding lectures. Why do yourself what someone else does better, accessible for free at all times of day or night to anyone with a WiFi connection?

I would add to the above concern about too much primary material and too little outstanding secondary text, the fact that text has its limitations. The thousand-word adage is familiar to us, and Powerpoint has helped lecturers cover that base. But what if history is best served by inundating students in primary sources without recourse to anything more than 1,000 word introductory texts? What if, to cite Wineburg, the best way for students to understand slavery is to show them pictures, have them listen to the WPA interviews with former slaves from the ’30s (all of which are online), and look at the wealth of online statistical data on the slave trade, not to mention slave-related crime. Here we get to the method introduced earlier in the course by Caulder (sic?) and others, to turn the classroom into a laboratory. Have students infer from primary source material, maybe even make some themselves, and have them share the results with online hobby-history communities. And here we come full circle. The principal challenge of digital history, it seems to me, is its impatience, combined with its lack of a rigorous editorial process. Natural science has suffered a litany of controversies over the past few years over path-breaking studies based on faulty or outright contrived data. Such is the tenure process, and such is the longing for distinction. As for impatience, information requires interpretation in order for the learner to retain it, and interpretations require a deep knowledge of historical context. This is why summary lectures matter, and why text matters.

This section is more about teaching than about presenting the past, so don’t feel obliged to read it. I just want to keep it for memory’s sake. I I drafted a survey for my first 40 all-online students, and read the answers once I’d submitted their final grades on Sunday. The results were informative. 68% of students said that they prefer asynchronous to synchronous classes, which I found encouraging, as I decided to follow the university’s online teaching guru’s advice and go whole-hog online, leaving students to schedule their time as they see fit, mindful of summer jobs and all else. But when I asked for any further tips on how to make the course teach better, I recognized a pattern. Students praised the volume that they learned, the linkages the assignments encouraged between present social, economic, and political debates and the utopian visions we’d read; they also enjoyed the Zoom groups and recorded discussions that I had them submit. But they missed seeing me only in writing, rather than on the screen; and they missed seeing just a handful of classmates, not the whole group. In short, you can’t have one or the other. When I asked if it would be good for me to join in on the small group discussions, the response was overwhelmingly positive. In sum, I plan to model the class along the lines of your department’s hybrid model–fundamentally asynchronous, but with synchronous opportunities interspersed.

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