by William Jones, Mt. San Antonio College
When David Smith of Cal Poly Pomona contacted me regarding this project one afternoon in July 1998, he explained that the goal was to develop units related to the use of primary sources in World History survey courses. Would I be interested in participating? I admit the project sounded like a useful one, but I had a few reservations about my ability to play a role in it. Since my research fields are Modern European History and American Intellectual History, working to develop course materials on Ancient World History would be a bit of a stretch. But I tried to focus on the fact that the site would be intended primarily for students and teachers, not for scholarly specialists. As it happened, my most significant obstacle, and one I have never entirely surmounted, was lack of computer expertise and on-hand technical support. In the Summer of 1998, I had only the vaguest idea of what HTML was, I had no idea at all of how to set up a web page, and my computer at that time had 8 megabytes of Ram and a 230 MB hard drive. In view of all this, I have gained a significant education about the possibilities and limitations of History websites over the past two years.
Once it became apparent to me that our project would include generating web pages ourselves, I asked my more knowledgeable colleagues in the cluster (and all of them are more computer-savvy than I am) where to start. They all advised me to use texts and issues that were already part of my instruction. This advice made good sense to me, and it also allowed me to put off the logistical problem of how to turn my unit of introductory historical studied into a set of web pages. So during the first year of the project, I did everything I could think of short of actually generating web pages. I selected my texts, spoke with scholars in out advisory group as well as others, wrote up some preliminary text materials, used these preliminary materials in four of my Ancient World History course sections, evaluated student work on these topics, developed a new wish list of links, and then spent many more hours surfing the net to discover the links that I would want to include in my part of the site. As recently as a year ago, I was still trying to figure out on my own how to build a basic set of web pages. Then last Fall I took the plunge and purchased a new computer system that included web page software as part of the package. I spent my break weeks in December and January stitching together the preliminary version of the pages. The results were, from the standpoint of visual and interactive quality, not yet even mediocre, but the topical content of the pages and accompanying links to related sites would be, I hoped, readily usable by an entering freshman at any American college or university.
I had been using this particular group of creation story texts for several years before building the web pages for the project. Bringing the internet materials to my students demanded some adjustments, however. Until roughly a year ago, computer resources for students and faculty at my college were relatively limited, and many of my students did not own home computers, so I simply generated hard copy pages of my materials on creation stories and epics. Students used these as the basis for writing assignments, class discussions, and essay examination questions. I encouraged those students who did use computers frequently to visit the websites whose URLs I had provided along with the text materials. They also told me of other sites they had discovered that related to these topics. Two Fall semesters of trial and error have been both helpful and encouraging. Some of the best student papers have made use of these handouts and/or online materials. Students have told me how useful it was to start the course with texts and questions that forced them to compare cultures, to consider the history and provenance of ancient manuscripts, and to analyze the role of religious and historical narratives in establishing and sustaining social systems from ancient times down to the present. In short, students have generally responded with interest to both the creation story texts and the supplementary materials on the internet.
On the other hand, there were some difficulties attending my participation in the project. The logistical problem of setting up the pages and links has been, at times, an extremely frustrating and enormously time-consuming task. The appearance and disappearance of primary source websites was a never-ending problem for me. Some three or four translations of the Popol Vuh vanished from the internet over the past two years, for example. Not surprisingly, copyright laws and "open" web access are often at cross purposes, and I wanted to avoid linking to sites that appeared vulnerable to copyright infringement lawsuits. I finally decided to link almost exclusively to scholarly or museum websites and to use "fair use" principles of limited quotation and full source citation for the introductions to each of my primary source texts. Getting my rudimentary pages posted online was another problem. Had it not been for Nancy Fitch's generosity in advising me on some basic technical issues and then posting my simple pages on her website, my continued participation in the project would have been next to impossible.
At this point, I retain a mixed opinion about the value and effects of "teaching and learning in the digital ago." My students were using a mix of hard copy and online sources in any case. And once we are online, we still rely primarily on reading to negotiate our way through layers of information. Moreover, since many of the online sources I visited were an utter waste of time, I still believe that a few hours spent in a reasonably good research library are worth days of surfing the internet. Books remain extraordinarily useful, accessible, and (so far) irreplaceable mechanisms for the storage and retrieval of information. Even so, if historians are willing to put together sites - even sets of well-ordered and thoughtfully selected links - they will have done their students and themselves a true service.
In all, despite my continuing skepticism about the effects of the internet on historical studies and research, my participation in this project has turned me into a persistent - even if not terribly adroit - web surfer. Above all, I have had the chance to get to know and work with several fine historians in the Southern Californian region, and I believe that the diversity of projects we have completed will offer students and teachers a range of models for teaching and learning via the internet.
Return to Jones' cover page | Return to AHA Teaching and Learning Home Page