From the Executive Director

The History Major and Information Fluency

James Grossman, April 2011

This impressionistic essay is based on an even more impressionistic set of reflections presented to a workshop sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges. I'm grateful to the CIC for stimulating me to think about these issues in what I hope will eventually become a coherent manner. Future issues of Perspectives on History will explore how the digital environment provides new opportunities for scholarly societies such as the AHA.

Has the digital environment changed our goals for the undergraduate history major? Or are the various resources now at our disposal merely tools that make it possible to learn and teach about the past in new and exciting ways without reshaping the desired outcome? Do new technologies create opportunities to make history courses more engaging and rewarding—while simultaneously enabling students to do research more efficiently and comprehensively—but without meaningfully changing our objectives? Or, does the importance of digital communication to 21st century culture impel us to rethink some of the purposes of the history major itself as a contribution to liberal learning?

These questions are emerging as a result of two related conversations spreading across the academic landscape: assessment and “information literacy.” I was recently asked to address a group of college librarians and their colleagues in history departments on the intersection of these discourses, but with the house upping the ante to “information fluency.” Foolishly I accepted without having the foggiest notion of what information fluency meant.

I did, however, wade in with some ideas about assessment—or at least about outcomes, having co-authored an essay a few years ago on how the history major can more effectively enhance the goals of liberal learning. In that essay, Stanley Katz and I drew on recent work by the Association of American Colleges and Universities to include the following priorities among these outcomes: a thirst for lifelong learning; a commitment to participation in civic culture; an appreciation for context and contingency; an inclination towards critical thinking and an appreciation for evidence in making judgments; and the ability to communicate those judgments and other ideas. Information fluency, however it might be defined, seems to me to relate most directly to the last two of these goals, which, of course, are themselves intertwined with the others. Our students should know how to find information, process it, and effectively communicate whatever it is they have learned.

The ability to compile, process, and use all sorts of information at some standard that we call “fluency” enables students to be better historians. Increasingly that information is more accessible (in the broadest sense) in digital form. But how does a well-conceived history major curriculum prepare students for those aspects of digital culture that we are especially well suited to address? How can the study of history enhance the ability of a college graduate to integrate the increasingly ubiquitous digital environment into lifelong learning, critical thinking, and effective communication, and thus to participate more usefully in civic culture?

Most of us need to begin this exploration with a degree of humility. Once we have worked through the difficult task of helping students learn how to ask a good question, we ask them to find information. They, and we, are likely to begin with Google. Yet few of us (myself included) understand very much about Google’s algorithms—the system that determines which of the 37,000 possibly relevant web pages arrives on that front page. And few of us venture far beyond that front page. We, the critically thinking scholars and teachers, begin our own quest for information with only the vaguest notion of why we are starting where we are starting, and how our paths are being structured. Many of us ask students to evaluate web sites. But one can evaluate only the web sites one finds. The historian who is thinking about information fluency as a goal is a historian whose former students might have scratched their heads last December when online holiday shoppers found that somehow JC Penney was the most likely place to go for virtually any article of clothing. At least according to Google (and no, they didn’t pay a dime to Google for the privilege).

An exercise: Pick half a dozen controversial topics and check out the top four ranked pages for each. I picked Nathan Bedford Forrest, Stonewall Jackson, the Fort Dearborn “massacre,” Denmark Vesey, “Jefferson and Hemings,” and Patty Hearst. See what you find. See if Wikipedia is not the best of the top four. Again, some humility, since so many of us have long warned students about Wikipedia, rather than helping them learn how best to understand and use it.

One could easily go on in this vein. The point is that we used to emphasize how to find information. Although this remains a challenge in many fields, we now need to emphasize how to sift information. Critical reading skills aren’t enough, because we can’t read everything that Google sends us (632,200 hits for Forrest; only 72,500 on Vesey).

Then there is the form that information takes. We used to emphasize text. Yes, many historians have had students work with numbers, visual images, and even film and music. But the standard has generally been the written word, with other kinds of sources used as illustration. Not so in the digital world, where various forms of information are integrated with and linked to one another in ways that enable us to organize content differently, whether as consumers or as producers.

Information fluency, in the digital sense, extends across nearly the whole process of “doing history”—searching for information, processing it, and finally communicating it. Why assume that the best mode of communication is always through text on paper, or even on a screen? The decision about modes of communication of ideas is in some ways analogous to more traditional decisions about discursive strategies. We have known for some time that some stories are more suited to a narrative treatment, and some to a more analytical approach (to make an admittedly crude distinction). Many of us have even assigned J. H. Hexter’s classic essay using baseball’s World Series to explain the criteria for such decisions. Now we need to determine whether the nonlinear format of a web site is more appropriate to communicate answers to particular historical questions.

It’s not the technology that we have to teach. Students are already, for example, taking visual primary sources (that is, photographs taken with their cell phones), identifying appropriate conceptual themes to organize them (including “History,” signified of course by the use of sepia tones in a new app called “Bubblegum”), and then disseminating them across various social media platforms. The question is whether we can first of all harness these multimedia skills to make historical work more exciting, and second, prepare students for substantive and critical use of these skills—not to mention the exercise of intellectual and ethical judgment—by having a place for such work in the history curriculum.

James Grossman is the executive director of the American Historical Association.