Intersections: History and New Media

Viewing History at the Intersection of Past and Future

Robert B. Townsend, May 2009

For more than a century now the AHA has been struggling to present new methods and new media to bring fresh vitality to the presentation of history. In one of the first multimedia presentations at an AHA meeting (back in 1909), the history teaching specialist Henry Johnson (at Teachers College, Columbia) presented an exhibition of “aids to visualization of history consisting of lay figures, models, casts, utensils, weapons, coats of arms, and other objects of various kinds as well as pictures, maps, stereoscopic views, lantern slides, etc.”

Johnson’s goal at the time was to get the profession to dispense with the standard teaching method of the day—rote memorization from a book and “recitation” of facts from memory. But the new media and methods of the early 20th century only slowly displaced the older practices of teaching. Some in the profession dismissed such tools as having little pedagogical value, and as a result, the recitation method was still heavily used well into the 1930s.

We seem to be at a similar moment today, with new technologies capable of extending the way we present history not just in the classroom, but also to a much larger audience in the general public. But as the example of Henry Johnson suggests, change often comes at its own pace, as new habits and methods of teaching and presentation are developed and prove their worth over time.

This issue of Perspectives on History takes stock of one of these transition points while it is still in process. The essays consider how the new media of the internet are changing the practice of history in our capacities as scholars, teachers, and general disseminators of knowledge of the past to the general public.

This special issue had its origins in a workshop held at the Association’s January 2008 meeting on the theme, “The Intersection between Teaching and Research in the New Media.” That workshop set about exploring some of the questions and challenges that the digital environment presents for historians in their roles as teachers and researchers—providing an opportunity to discuss some of the practical ways of addressing some of these challenges and demonstrating some of the new tools being created in the field. We offer them here, revised, expanded and with some supplementary pieces, to expand the discussion about how these might serve the profession and how we might develop additional tools to address the new challenges we face.

The new digital media becoming available raise fresh questions about how we as historians approach our work as teachers and scholars. As the articles in this special issue suggest, interactivity allows us to reach a wider audience as scholars and work with students in new ways as teachers. But it also tends to blur settled boundaries between epistemology and practice, and between traditional lines between research and teaching. To get a better handle on the issues involved, we have clustered the essays that follow into three primary sections about theories of practice, the practice of theory, and making it all work in the classroom.

We start with four essays that weigh some of the larger questions about where new media fits into the work of our discipline. Stefan Tanaka, Jan Reiff, Tim Grove, and E. Thomas Ewing address these questions from the perspectives of historians bridging the traditional divide between historical research and audience. The next two essays, by John McClymer and David Jaffee, approach many of the same questions from a more specifically pedagogical perspective.

These essays explore the way history research work—whether done in the setting of a university or a museum—can be brought to a larger audience—or as E. Thomas Ewing suggests, how following research questions in the digital environment can “produce new materials easily integrated into classroom teaching.”

Read together, these essays demonstrate that new media projects open up a number of our seemingly settled research habits, particularly the need for close collaboration with other scholars and other technical specialists—a habit that does not come easily to the solitary habits of research in our discipline. But they also demonstrate that the results of such work can provide new ways of seeing the past, and sharing it with a larger audience. These articles set up many of the questions in the essays that follow.

The next set of articles focuses on particular technologies, and specific projects, raising more practical questions about how digital media changes historical practices. Douglas Seefeldt and William Thomas offer a broad survey of recent work in this area, while Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin talk in detail about the process of building one of these projects (on women’s history) from the ground up. Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Kevin Sheets follow up with essays on some of the newer Web 2.0 technologies (focusing on blogs and wikis, respectively).

A common theme in these essays (as well as those in the section that follows) is the way historians perceive an area of need that can be solved by the technology, and the effort—either by developing a larger collaborative project or by taking advantage of newly available software—to create projects to address those needs.

A recurring question throughout these essays is just how “democratic” history can be—how much freedom scholars or teachers in the discipline are willing to confer on the general public or students in the practice of history. This poses the challenge of deciding how much latitude we can afford to give to those without our expertise to work with the source materials of history, and what that does to the traditional authority of the scholar and teacher. This forum will not settle that question, as the authors here come out on different sides of that issue.

But as Roy Rosenzweig observed a few years ago, “Thus far we have done much better at democratizing access to resources than at providing the kind of instruction that would give meaning to those resources.”1 The essays in the next section try to address how this shift in authority and meaning actually plays out in classroom settings.

Trudi Abel and Lisa Rosner discuss two small-scale projects to produce new tools for their classrooms, and how these might serve a pedagogical purpose. We then turn to a series of essays offering different perspectives on the use of one particular tool—The History Engine developed at the University of Richmond—to present history scholarship in the classroom. The three essays in this section (by Andrew J. Torget with Scott Nesbit; Lloyd Benson, Julian Chambliss, Jamie Martinez, Kathryn Tomasek, and Jim Tuten; and Kathryn S. Meier and Rachel Shapiro) written from the viewpoints of designers and teachers at a wide range of institutions, emphasize the challenges of developing such materials, the collaborative nature of such projects, and the benefits for teachers and students of integrating such materials into the history classroom.

The final essay in this section speaks to the integration of new media into the very different setting of graduate instruction, as Dan Cohen discusses the development of the first doctoral program with a new media component at George Mason University.

In an elegiac coda, Steven Mintz concludes the discussion with a remembrance for Roy Rosenzweig, who was to serve as the keynote speaker for the workshop. He saw the future for history and new media, back when many of us were still struggling to grasp the present, and as a number of the essays indicate, he left a lasting legacy for all who work in this area.

We hope that this tour of the horizon of the discipline’s efforts in the medium will provide added perspective and a sense of the possibilities for the future. J. Franklin Jameson, the first editor of the AHR and one of the leading lights of the Association back in its earliest days, often spoke favorably of the need “to make the publication of materials as much an object of the historical scholar’s care as the publication of results.”2

Digital materials raise important questions about how one evaluates the results of their use and development—a particularly important question for the assistant professor coming up for tenure or the associate professor seeking promotion. As these essays attempt to show, the development of new media materials in history represent a significant original contribution to the discipline and the profession, and as such, needs to be given fair and due consideration, especially in this pioneering stage for the field.

—Robert Townsend is the AHA’s assistant director for research and publications. He places himself at the intersection between history and new media not just by professional necessity, but more, like many other historians today, by personal choice.

Notes

1. Roy Rosenzweig, “Digital Archives Are a Gift of Wisdom to Be Used Wisely,” Chronicle of Higher Education 51 (June 24, 2005), B20; also available online at http://chnm.gmu.edu/resources/essays/d/32.

2. J. Franklin Jameson, History of Historical Writing in America (1891; New York: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1969), 88