American Social History Project brainstorming 12.02.2008, 8:29 AM
posted by kirsten reach
(Thanks for your patience - the blog is back!)
On Friday November 21st, we met with the American Social History Project and several historians to discuss the possibilities for collaborative learning in history. Attendees included Josh Brown, Steve Brier, Pennee Bender, Ellen Noonan, Eric Beverley, Manan Ahmed, Nina Shen Rastogi, and Aaron Knoll.
There was a general consensus that academics tend to resist the idea of collaboration (for fear they won't get credit, and thus might not achieve tenure) and they prefer not to reveal their work in progress, instead unveiling it only when it achieves publication. There is a popular idea in academia that a single all-knowing expert is more valuable than a team of colleagues who exchange ideas and edit one another's work. In the sciences, research is exchanged more freely; in the humanities, it's kept secret. A published literary or historical work is supposed to be seamless. Nina mentioned that occasionally there is a piece published like the recent Wired interview with Charlie Kaufman where edits are visible (one story that keeps popping up in magazines is Gordon Lish's edits for Raymond Carver). Bob stated that he believes we are on the brink of a whole new sort of editor, one who is recognized for excellent work when the edits she has made are available to readers.
Academics tend to see their goal as becoming the top scholars in their fields. One problem with this is that it limits their digital imaginations. If one becomes transfixed on becoming the single (digital) source for information of a certain subject, or even several subjects, the most one can build is a database. A compilation of such data is not synthesized. In a history textbook, one can read a single person's synthesis of data. In the Who Built America? CD-ROM, one could view original sources as well as that a single person's synthesis, so that one could decide whether that synthesis was any good. The group agreed that they do not want to eliminate the single thread of narrative that holds the original sources together, but they want to figure out a way to use the technology available to its fullest extent.
Another problem that attendees agreed this project would face was appealing to different pedagogical styles. If instead of standing before a class and giving a lecture with a bottom line, the teacher were to give students video, audio, and text that were from original sources, and ask them to do their own synthesis, this would be a completely new way to teach. The textbook exists to aid a teacher in presenting her own synthesis of the content. Some teachers will inevitably resist a change in their teaching methods. Ellen suggested this project may change pedagogy for the better. However, there is value for classes at, say, a large community college, in having a single textbook with concrete bottom lines in every chapter, but these will probably not be the market for our project.
Bob said Voyager was especially interested in producing the American History Project for CD-ROM because it was not a textbook, it was a book for people who like history. The AHP has struggled with marketing itself as anything other than a supplement to textbooks, and worries about losing something by slicing the content into chapters to fit the textbook format. The new project would face these same challenges. On the other hand, the AHP has had success especially with AP classes, and it may be possible to market to a small community of teachers who are interested in nonlinear learning.
We spent much of the meeting parsing the meta-issues of taking on networked textbooks, and we feel strongly that there is something to be gained from shifting our focus from "objective" history to participatory history, a history you can watch, break down, and join. Comment sections, links to related pages, and audio/video materials would enhance the new history project and enable students to better understand the process of how history is written. But most importantly, we want scholars and students to learn history by doing history.
Cheryl Ball on December 2, 2008 10:20 AM:
Thanks for posting the run-down of the history meeting. It's fascinating to me how different disciplines in the humanities have completely different takes on digital work and also on collaboration (as mentioned in the post). Although it's not universal, collaboration is encouraged in fields related to writing studies (rhetoric and composition, computers and composition, digital writing studies, etc.). And there's a good handful of examples (as there may also be in history) of folks showing in-progress work. As an editor, I hope more authors will be willing to make those processes visible in the coming years.
manan Ahmed on December 2, 2008 10:34 AM:
Some additional thoughts on the meet-up are here:
Christian Spielvogel on December 4, 2008 1:27 PM:
I'm not familiar with the AHP, but this seems like a fascinating project, and I would love to know more. I spent the past year on sabbatical at the University of Virginia creating a "living textbook" platform for history education that is rooted in collaborative role-playing. The prototype, entitled the Valley Sim, is built around Ed Ayers' Valley of the Shadow digital archive, and we tested it successfully this past summer with a group of college students and secondary teachers with support from NEH as well as a TAH grant.
If anyone is interested in taking a look at how our open source platform might support your initiatives, please let me know!