From Scarcity to Abundance: A Frame for the Profession's Conversation about Teaching and Learning with Online Resources

History CooperativeSo many technological breakthroughs were supposed to revolutionize teaching and learning, and did not, that many of us are like the villagers in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Is the web the real thing? Will the long-heralded revolution happen? Yes. It is happening all around us. We have moved into an era of abundance, as an everyday example can demonstrate. A decade ago, as a teacher at a small liberal arts college with a good but not outstanding library, I offered up silent thanks every day that the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is less than two miles from my office. Today I still rely upon the AAS but in very different ways. Now I do not normally need to use its collections of scholarly journals. Instead I go to JSTOR or Project Muse or American History and Life. The first is available to members of the American Historical Association or the Organization of American Historians. The latter three are available through library subscriptions. Electronic searches yield fuller lists of articles to consult in a fraction of the time that bibliographic searches previously consumed. Many of the titles are abstracted and/or available online. For those that are not online and are not in my college’s library, I can submit an electronic interlibrary loan request. The browser remembers my name and other information, so the time needed to fill out the forms is drastically reduced. For the materials that are available, I can read some online and download others. What I have just described about myself is true for you as well. I have put together a brief list of bibliographical tools along with a discussion of how to help students use them.

Primary sources also are becoming more available every day. This means that anyone with access to a fast Internet connection has an ever-increasing universe of resources a mouse click away. The Library of Congress’ American Memory alone is putting vast collections online. Other libraries and archives are following suit. Colleges and universities offer web sites dealing with a rapidly growing array of areas and time spans.  For a sample of some of the best, go to EDSITEment, a project co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities that recognizes some of the most outstanding humanities sites. So rapidly do these resources increase it is impossible to keep up with them. I have put together some suggestions for how to find some of the best resources online.

What does this abundance mean? For the researcher it is a bonanza. Projects that had to be put off until travel funds became available are now immediately feasible. Keyword searches reduce the time required to locate relevant materials. The “Find” feature on browsers makes it easier to use those texts. Historians are not about to stop visiting archives or libraries, but more and more of those visits are virtual.

GoogleThe meaning of the new abundance for teaching and learning history is more complex. We are only beginning to think through how to make use of it. And pitfalls are already apparent. One immediate consequence, and not necessarily one to inspire rejoicing, is that our students now routinely turn to Google™ and other search engines when they need to discover the answers to such questions as when did Leonardo paint “The Last Supper”? On August 31, 2004,  Google™ returned over 45,800 links. On September 27, 2004, Google™ found over 1,730,000 links in .34 seconds for “abraham lincoln.” A week earlier there had been 1,450,000. More than a quarter of a million new Lincoln pages appeared in seven days! When students used to thumb through card catalogues and pick the first title that came to hand, there was the assurance that someone with professional training, a faculty member or a librarian, had recommended that work. On the web there is no scholarly filter. Search engines usually rank sites in terms of the number of hits they receive. The most popular need not be the best. The Abraham Lincoln Research Site came up second in both my Lincoln searches. Its opening words are:

I am not an author or an historian; rather I am a former American history teacher who enjoys researching Abraham Lincoln’s life and accomplishments. If you have a specific Lincoln question that you would like me to research for you, please e-mail me using the link near the bottom of the page. I cannot answer broad questions, only very specific ones. I will try to find the answer and get back to you as soon as I possibly can.

It is no surprise this is a popular site, especially, we may assume, with students pursuing term projects. And the developer of this site plays by the rules. He immediately informs the visitor who he is and what his qualifications are. Many web authors do not. Even when they do, the architecture of the web can get in the way of the user ever finding their identity. If I had searched for “lincoln assassination,” I would have found a link to the same site, but not to its home page. Clicking would bring me to an assassination page several layers below. I could find the home page, if I took the trouble to look for a link to it on the assassination page or if I played with the URL. We might do this. Most students will not. As a result, all of us have to develop sufficient expertise in evaluating web sites so that we can provide our students with some rules of thumb. This is only one instance of what is one of the major consequences of the Internet. Students are, in the words of Randy Bass, director of Project Crossroads for the American Studies Association at Georgetown University, “novices in the archives.” But there are no virtual archivists, curators, or reference librarians. We have to fill that gap. Most of us are also novices, however, when it comes to most genres of historical sources. The very abundance found online turns this simple fact into a serious pedagogical challenge. Whether we choose to introduce various materials into our courses or not, students can and will find them. We may not make much use of music, for example, and for the good and previously sufficient reason that we do not know much about it. But one or more of the students in our Twentieth-century U.S. courses will find the Red Hot Jazz Archive with its thousands of audio files of recordings from the 1920s and 1930s. We may not know much about fashion either. Or material culture. Or film. The point is clear. Our courses necessarily delve into areas where we have no particular expertise. This has always been true for anyone who teaches a survey course. But we used to have almost complete control over what those areas would be and we could bone up before class meetings. That is changing.

So is the type of knowledge we need to acquire. We still need to master content on the order of: “Who, besides Armstrong and Ellington, were the most important early jazz musicians and composers?” But we also have to serve as curators over collections we did not create. If students are going to use popular culture materials, and they are, irrespective of our preference in the matter, then we have to show them how to do so. This is a direct outcome of abundance.

Also changing is our desire to engage our students with new sources. We may, for example, want our students to work with photographs of trench warfare during World War I. Or we may want them to compare paintings of the war with the photographs. Most of us are not trained as art historians. So to use the materials effectively, we have to acquire new kinds of expertise. And, as with so much that concerns teaching with new media, this is labor intensive. Because it is, and because we all have other demands on our time, we may want to proceed gradually. This is, generally speaking, a good idea. It is usually better to do a few things well than many poorly. Students, however, will force our hands. They turn to the web first. Dawn Thistle, head librarian at Assumption College where I teach, did her doctoral dissertation on changing uses of the college library. Students use the library more intensively now than in the past, but foot traffic is down. They use it from their dorm rooms or apartments. They use the library web page of databases far more than their predecessors used the print equivalents. The students who are in the library at any given moment can be found using the public access computers as often as sitting in one of the study carrels. Those in the carrels have their laptops with them along with a “whip,” a connection to the Internet.

Another direct consequence of abundance is that the web enables students to become more active learners. We no longer have to choose a handful of works that “typify” Renaissance painting and sculpture, to cite a challenge that every teacher of Western Civilization has faced. We can instead choose sites for our students to explore. For example, we can direct them to a site where they can find most of the works discussed by Vasari in his Lives of the Artists. We can pair this with the text of that work at Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook. I ask students to browse through some of the images, find an artist they find intriguing, and read that chapter of Vasari’s Lives. Then I ask them to choose two works they especially like and briefly say what they find significant about them. Instead of showing slides, I organize a class exhibit online for which students write labels for the art they selected.

Listening to me talk about a slide is, for most students, a passive experience. Only strong students listen actively. Most scribble down notes: names, titles, definitions, and whatever else they suspect might turn up on a quiz or exam. Choosing images themselves and writing brief discussions, on the other hand, gets them to engage with the materials. They do not memorize a definition of perspective; they find examples. This type of assignment also requires that we function as curators. Or find sites that will serve that function. Vasari’s Lives works very well here in a Western Civ or analogous context because it guides students in looking at the art. In class I ask them to discuss the ways in which reading Vasari deepened, complicated, and/or confused their understanding of the artist and the works. And I assign a chapter from Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (2000) in which he discusses many of the artists as well as Vasari’s influence on how we look at Renaissance art. They read Barzun much more closely because the chapter directly bears upon their assignment.

Web sites have the additional advantage of enabling users  to look at the images of their choosing at the time of their choosing. Judging by the e-mails my students send, this is usually after 11:00 p.m. This is very important. Students do not have access to the slides when they are actually working on the course. They cannot do anything with them. Web sites also often allow the user to manipulate images in various ways. We have all seen the slide showing the hand of Michelangelo’s “David.” On some sites, the user can zoom in on any quadrant or rotate the image. Students again become more active learners.

The abundance the web literally puts at our fingertips requires us to think through the pedagogical implications.  The publication of The AHA Guide to Teaching and Learning with New Media comes near the beginning of a very involved conversation the historical profession will continue to have over the next several decades. So it is useful to gauge our starting point. We are all products of pedagogies of scarcity. They dictated how our teachers taught us and, whether we realize it or not, they continue to influence how we teach.

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