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Take an Elective: Make Cardinal Newman Proud

Facing the close of the the first decade of the twenty-first century, those of us involved in higher education cannot help but admit that in some very important ways our system is broken. For students finishing graduate programs, the prospects of landing a traditional tenure-track position are slim (see the torrent of bad news from every discipline). For those already in traditional tenure track positions, the stakes for promotion are pinned on a system of academic publishing that is in financial collapse and that does a systematic disservice to mission of scholarly communication and exchange. Our academic societies are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with members openly begging for those organizations to provide them with convincing reasons to renew their memberships. And yet, when I look back to the moments in my own education that convinced me to pursue a career in academia, I have some hope for us going forward.

In the mid-1990s, I spent my undergraduate career in the College at Georgetown University, a place where the values of a liberal arts education were front and center. This environment provided me with an orientation with a number of benefits. A core curriculum demanded significant work in a variety of disciplines in the arts, sciences, and social sciences. I fulfilled many of those requirements in a two semester interdisciplinary seminar on 19th century revolutions that was grounded in Western European History, Literature, Philosophy, and Theology. I found myself quite at home with this liberal focus and chose an interdisciplinary major in American Studies, where I had the freedom to define my own academic path.

The Idea of a University

When asked for a cogent argument about the value of this type of liberal arts education, more often than not members of the faculty and administration at my institution would point to the classic text by John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1852 and 1858). Tasked with establishing a university for Catholics in Ireland, the Cardinal distilled his understanding of the university as a place for teaching, learning, and conversation where inquiry is pushed forward. Though Newman was focused on the undergraduate education of men by men, his insights hold import for all of us, including those of us with advanced degrees. In discussing the importance of exposing students to many perspectives, Newman argued:

the drift and meaning of a branch of knowledge varies with the company in which it is introduced to the student. If his reading is confined simply to one subject, however such division of labour may favour the advancement of a particular pursuit … certainly it has a tendency to contract his mind. If it is incorporated with others, it depends on those others as to the kind of influence which it exerts upon him….

It is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies which a University professes, even for the sake of the students; and, though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it resets, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom (100-101).

Thus, this effort to produce well-rounded human beings rather than intensely specialized practitioners appeared to have significant benefits for both the students and the faculty.

For me, as an undergraduate, it made the task of course selection, after the initial introduction to the various disciplines, an adventure every semester. The habits of mind created through a liberal education rendered the world wide open to serve the needs of my curiosity. I approached the task of reading course descriptions and making my selections with the unrestrained hopefulness that each class held the promise of a new frontier. Sometimes these choices tied back into my interdisciplinary focus, but sometimes they simply did not. Nonetheless, as Newman suggests, the juxtaposition of Modern Foreign Government with the History of the American South, Contemporary American Literature, and Religions of the African Diaspora helped me form an intellectual perspective that privileged the integration of a wide range of materials and questions. Meanwhile, my work at the Center for Electronic Projects in American Cultural Studies began to provide me with a set of digital skills that opened still more possibilities for envisioning scholarly work.

This attraction to making sense out of disparate data and approaching inquiry questions from many perspectives led me to pursue an interdisciplinary graduate degree in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. There I focused on methodological approaches from intellectual and cultural history, anthropology, religious studies, and a smattering of critical and cultural theory. Needless to say, this choice of graduate study did not appear to be the smartest career move, given that individuals with disciplinary degrees were and are having a hard enough time finding traditional employment in the academy. There is little room for those who do not fit neatly within established departmental boundaries. Yet, it seemed like the most logical fit for the way that I’d learned to think and approach the world of scholarly endeavors.

Digital Humanities

While I may not have set myself up for a traditional academic career path, the eclectic nature of my interests and my willingness to apply a wide range of interpretive frameworks to those interests helped me launch an ideal alternative academic career doing digital humanities work. I jumped at the opportunity to work at the Center for History and New Media in part because I suspected that I would find myself quickly bored with the typical research, teaching, and service expectations of a tenure track job. And in many ways, work in the digital humanities embodies the ideals of liberal education that Newman set out in the middle of the nineteenth century, because it calls for us to be at the crossroads of many conversations.

First, current work in the digital humanities guarantees that we have access to the tools that make many methodological approaches not only possible, but relatively easy. In the last five years, we have made great strides in creating software platforms that allow scholars to engage in sophisticated geo-spatial, temporal, textual, visual, computational, and quantitative analyses. The increasing separation of structured data from operational interfaces also means that a scholar can frequently bring many of these perspectives to bear on a single corpus of data at the same time. Even more promising is that these platforms provide the possibility that other scholars can access the same data and the same tools to pursue new questions and create new models of critical inquiry.

Second, because the end products of digital humanities work are so varied in comparison to a print journal article or a traditional print monograph, we have a chance to make new modes of thinking integral to our daily work practice. Work for the web often calls for critical thinking about design, and the ways that visual rhetoric can facilitate a scholarly argument. Just like the process of creating a digital story, the act of designing (or helping to design) a website provides a powerful opportunity for scholars to step outside of the conventions of academic prose in a way that surfaces important insights that may otherwise be obscured by the traditional forms. Similarly, one does not have to be a proficient web developer to appreciate the ways that carefully constructed information architecture is a vehicle for scholarly arguments, or to recognize the elegant logic of code. Intimate involvement in the design and building of digital humanities projects allows scholars to participate in alternative ways of knowing, and to grow in a deep understanding of how those projects fully embody scholarly arguments.

Finally, digital work can be a deeply collaborative venture. As the Hacking the Academy collection and unconferences like THATCamp demonstrate, that collaboration does not necessarily need to be the kind that involves frequent face to face meetings. Though John Henry Newman was convinced that the University could only succeed if it was a physical place of community, we have come to know that the extended community of digital humanities scholars makes it possible for us all to shape one another through our thinking, writing, and production of digital work. Of course, some of us have the good fortune to work in centers and labs that are structured on the understanding that our work can proceed only with the input of a team of designers, developers, and content experts. Both of these types of collaborations result in a work that moves our collective understanding forward because it builds upon a host of different gifts, talents, insights, and proficiencies.

Take an Elective

On a given day, digital humanists in alternative jobs make up only a small percentage of the academy. Nonetheless, that work provides some models for how we might return to the core values of scholarly inquiry and exchange that should be at the heart of our work. If we are to consider how we might change the practices of the academy to help us begin to move past a place of systemic dysfunction, we have to propose solutions that seem realistic to both junior and senior faculty in more traditional positions. In that spirit, I have a small proposal for both junior and senior scholars: take an elective of your own design. Embrace eclecticism, and give yourself permission to dedicate some percentage of your week to learning or investigating something completely new, in the service of having more intellectual fun.

I suggest that everyone remember what it felt like to take an elective that truly excited you—remember the joy of doing something just because it was fun and challenging, in and of itself. Perhaps this is a scholarly version of Google’s 80/20 Rule, where employees get one day a week to work on their own projects. But since as academics we are mostly self-directed, I’m suggesting that this time be dedicated to moving beyond the the core forms of individual work that are the benchmarks of disciplinary promotion and tenure. Consider a new methodological approach. Produce work that takes a non-traditional form. Work with colleagues from other disciplines. Then, step forward and proclaim the results as being central to the future health and welfare of the academy. This elective work has the potential to enlarge the way that we think about and evaluate scholarship. Thus, it can remind the academy as a whole that value of our work is not that it results in a monograph or a bevy of articles in major scholarly journals, but that it opens up new lines of inquiry and pushes our collective understanding of the world forward.

Take an elective: make Cardinal Newman proud.

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21st Century Public History, Part III

This is a revised and expanded version of a talk I gave at MITH’s Digital Dialogue series on April 14. It is Part III of III. Read Part I and Part II.

III. Digital Public History and Knowledge Creation

If we’re not doing enough to help the general audience learn about history, how can we do more? How can we design digital exhibits and experiences that focus on public history collections but that also allow users to learn to think historically?

One answer is to expose some of the cognitive work that public historians do to produce the very polished narrative results that audiences are used to finding in public history settings. The work of content experts starts with questions — with being able to recognize gaps on our knowledge and understanding, and being able to work to bridge those gaps. To expose this process means admitting that the important thing about experts is not that they are bottomless sources of knowledge about particular topic, but rather they have existing knowledge AND the skills to build new knowledge.

For the most part, content work is done by experts, whether they are academic historians, museum curators, archivists, or librarians. Noticing the differences between how experts and novices approach knowledge and knowledge creation can provide us with a set of elements to consider as we try to create more meaningful and engaging digital public history. How People Learn lays out six principles of experts’ knowledge that suggest they have a different relationship to approaching new material and solving problems than novices. This relationship has significant import for how useful and transparent typical narrative exhibits are for an audience of novice learners.

1. Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.

If we want to bring audiences along in critical thinking and problem solving, we need to help them begin to notice the things that experts notice. Providing access to historical materials without taking the time to help users understand what to look for and how to make sense out of it does a disservice to our goals as public historians. We need to carefully explain to users how experts notice those patterns, whether this is through providing a careful scaffolded interaction with historical sources or through providing models of expert practice. More than likely, we need to do both.

2. Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter.

We cannot expect users to have access to the depth of content knowledge that experts have, but we can be clear about the organizing principles that are useful for attacking disciplinary problems. In public history we need to be identify the historical thinking skills that experts use, and the concepts that are central to solving historical problems. These include having an understanding of:

Evidence: Historical sources are not illustrative materials that accent a narrative. Historical sources are the heart of public history and they should be the focus of our work.

Perspective: Historical sources are created, and users need to account for that in their attempts to make meaning from those sources.

Context: Users will have varying degrees of context knowledge to bring to bear on historical questions, but they have to at least understand that asking about surrounding events, issues, and circumstances is central to beginning to understand how to interpret historical sources.

Multiple causality: Unilinear narratives do not always convey the messiness of history. Once users start to grapple with evidence and perspective, they come to learn that historical inquiry rarely results in the discovery of a single causal factor.

Interpretation: Users might grasp that historical actors bring different perspectives to a particular situation, but too often they forget that historians participate in a process of actively constructing meaning out of historical evidence. The notion that historical knowledge is constructed must be connected to the notion that different historians can reasonably come to different conclusions about the past. We must invite users to recognize interpretive differences and to question which interpretation they find most convincing. Placing those differences in interpretation front and center can quickly make audiences aware that history is not a single unified story, but rather a process of engaging with evidence and creating interpretations about what that evidence means. The existence of multiple interpretations automatically engages the visitor with the material because they can assess which interpretation they find most convincing.

Historiography: Related to the concept of interpretation is the idea that historical understanding changes over time, due to the same factors that influence the creation and meaning of historical sources. Users need to realize that historical experts are part of a long-standing conversation about meaning, and that the current dominant interpretations will not likely be the last word on a topic. Similarly, they need to understand that that conversation is subject to the same kind of rigorous analysis as original historical sources. [1]

3. Experts’ knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability: that is, the knowledge is “conditionalized” on a set of circumstances.

Certainly, novice users will not have the foundational knowledge to draw upon that experts have at their disposal, but more importantly visitors with little experience addressing historical questions will have difficulty decided how to use the knowledge they do have to work on a particular historical question. We need to construct digital work that helps model the ways that historians know which elements of their knowledge are useful in what situations. Undoubtedly, being able to quickly locate the useful tools for problem solving is dependent on practice, but we can provide scaffolding and examples that support that practice for users.

4. Experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort.

Once individuals internalize these common cognitive moves, they begin to stop noticing them. This is true of content experts and explains, to some degree, why so few digital public history sites provide the support, models, and tools that users need to begin to be able to ask and answer their own historical questions.

5. Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not guarantee that they are able to teach others.

Experts may not be aware of the kinds of moves they make, so it might be hard for them to make that work explicit. Therefore, we have to re-notice what we do when we interact with historical sources. Additionally, we need to pay more attention to the common missteps novices learners might make when they do historical work, so that we can help move them in the right direction.

6. Experts have varying levels of flexibility in their approach to new situations.

Most experts are aware of these limitations and the level of effort and adjustment necessary for them to engaging in critical analytical work in new contexts. We need to help users develop a similar awareness so that they can adapt to new interpretive challenges. This means being able to assess their own level of understanding and realize where their understanding is inadequate so that they can work to learn something new.

Taking this research into account suggests that we need to fundamentally rethink the way that we address our visitors, both within physical institutions and in digital environments. This moment calls for more than lecture hall experts delivering neatly packaged stories about the past. Instead, we have to showcase the key elements of our disciplinary approaches, providing models of inquiry for the public.

We must find ways to make users aware of the kinds of real intellectual work LAM experts engage in as they labor to construct knowledge and interpretation from collections. How would public engagement with our collections be different if we provided visitors with significant questions to investigate about the past, rather than tidy unilinear narratives? How would public engagement with our collections be different if we provided examples of content experts examining materials from the collections and articulating the gaps in their knowledge and their thinking processes, rather than a polished interpretation? Making these questions and processes visible will begin to provide the key conceptual link for the public between the rich content of our cultural heritage institutions and the more general 21st Century skills.

These points have significant implications for the ongoing conversation about social media, crowdsourcing, and LAM expertise. If we were to do a better job of moving novices from superficial interaction with content to a place where they can begin to think conceptually about competing and contradictory claims, we might have more satisfaction with the types of audience engagement we see. Participation and engagement is good and interesting. It has lots of benefits to community and good will, but we can do more – we can collaborate in the building of knowledge and understanding and questions.

Digital technologies provide particular promise for creating an environment of inquiry, engagement, and meaning making. Institutions have made tremendous strides digitizing their collections and making them available to the public with full collection searches and APIs. Now we must provide users with both the models of and tools for the critical inquiry that will allow them to make their own meaning out of the collections.


[1] My thinking about this list of concepts and their importance for the teaching and learning of history is heavily indebted to my collaborators on Historical Thinking Matters, Daisy Martin and Sam Wineburg, and my discussions with the project directors the Teaching American History grants in which CHNM has participated, particularly Eleanor Greene (Peopling the American Past) and Sarah Richardson Whelan (Foundations of U.S. History).

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21st Century Public History, Part II

This is a revised and expanded version of a talk I gave at MITH’s Digital Dialogue series on April 14. It is Part II of III. Read Part I.

II. Digital Public History and Traditional Narrative Exhibits

Everyday those of us who work in the digital humanities see new online work that changes the way that we think about evaluating cultural material, whether it be work influenced by the geospatial turn or the results of large-scale text-mining work. Unfortunately, much of the work digital public history produced for a general audience is descriptive and summative rather than inquisitive or analytical. Reproducing the voice of narrative authority in public history projects reinforces the notion that history is just a string of facts, events, dates – not that chronology is not important, but to mask the wonder and questioning that historical sources raise is to misrepresent what history is as a discipline. This is even more important in public history than it is in the academic ranks of digital humanities, because the majority of the public did not receive significant instruction in historical thinking, but rather a steady stream of lecture, dates, and rote memorization. Without modeling authentic historical inquiry, digital public history projects have little chance of actually making a significant impact with their users because those users will be significantly less likely to begin asking their own questions of historical material.

To show the difficulties of many digital public history sites, I am going to focus on two award-winning digital history sites from 2005: NMAH’s The Price of Freedom and Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s Raid on Deerfield. These are sites that required major design and development work, and that show the distinction between work that reproduces a narrative of seeming inevitability and that which allows for the complexity of history. Both sites are several years old now, and have all of the drawbacks of content assembled within a Flash interface. Nonetheless, my concern is with their approach to history and not with their design aesthetic or their accessibility.

First, take for example the 2005 Muse Award honorable mention, Price of Freedom: Americans at War from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Graphically this is a stunning site. This site accompanied the very large exhibit that opened at NMAH at the end of 2004 and is ongoing in Military History Hall. The web developers and designers from Second Story Interactive Studios built an attractive interface that made it possible for users to move chronologically through American History, by focusing on major conflicts. Each conflict presents an introductory movie, and then an array of narrative text and artifacts associated with that conflict. It is clear that there was a major investment of time and resources used to create the site, but it is not clear that it serves any goals other than to reproduce the physical exhibit in a digital form.

That physical exhibit was not stirring success with critics and many of their observations can be applied to the online exhibit. For example, Carole Emberton noted in a Journal of American History review, “The exhibit’s title suggests an interpretive stance that assumes freedom is, and has always been, the objective of American military engagements. But freedom is a problematic term, and in failing to recognize how the meaning of freedom has been contested historically, the exhibit takes the viewer on a whiggish stroll through American social and political history, conveniently indulging any desire he or she might have to rely on a facile belief in the mythic march of progress and democratic expansion.” [1] Emberton was not the only critic of the exhibit. Beth Bailey’s review in the Public Historian took notice of an important aspect of the work: “In many ways, the exhibit calls to mind a high school textbook.” [2] These two reviews point to what might be said of so much of current digital public history—that it unthinkingly reproduces the all-knowing voice of the textbook, and that it often fails to raise hard questions. The unilinear narrative of the exhibit forecloses meaningful engagement and questioning from the audience because it fails to model any sense of rupture in knowledge or difference in interpretation.

It is important to note that every narrative exhibit site answers an implicit inquiry question. Those questions, however, may be completely obscured from a novice user by the tone inevitability that is present in the narrative. There are scores of digital history exhibits that follow the traditional narrative model. Some of these even give users access to an archive of materials and sources that supplements those used in the narrative exhibit. In some cases this works to a very good effect for users who are familiar with historical inquiry or for the teachers who want to draw upon the site and the archive to work with their students. But for others, access to the unmediated archive ends up feeling like access to more isolated items—curiosities, not elements in a larger body of evidence.

At CHNM, our own digital history exhibits, which are the result of the intellectual work of George Mason University historians, graduate research assistants, and a team of staff and web developers, provide both a narrative exhibit and an archive of sources. Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives presents a complex portrayal of the lived experience of the Soviet Gulag for the thousands of prisoners who did not fit stereotypical profile of political prisoners. Users have the option of navigating a rich exhibit that has a strong narrative voice, but is populated by documents, art work, and interviews. Users also have the possibility of querying a deep archive of related sources and materials to answer their own questions about the lived-experience of the Gulag. Martha Washington: A Life presents a biographical narrative about the nation’s first First Lady that links her experiences to larger trends in early American history and life. In addition to the narrative exhibit, users can access an archive of Martha Washington’s surviving correspondence. Both of these sites were premised on an inquiry question—Was the Gulag the same everywhere for all prisoners? What was Martha Washington’s life like and what can it tell us about the experiences of planter-class women in the Early Republic?—but neither site exposes the process of forming or investigating those questions for the user. Rather, both present beautifully polished answers (of which we are very proud).

In contrast to these narrative-driven sites, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association/Memorial Hall Museum’s ambitious website Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704 is built around issues of multiple perspective—a concept that is central to historical thinking. This approach drew significant recognition from reviewers, garnering the site an honorable mention for best online exhibition in the 2004 Archimuse Best of the Web Awards, and prompting Journal of American History reviewer Richard Rabinowitz to call it a “brilliantly executed and comprehensively organized electronic exhibition.” [3] Examining the Pocumtuck raid on a English settlement in 1704, the site asks users to approach the inquiry questions by considering the constituencies involved: “Was this dramatic pre-dawn assault in contested lands an unprovoked, brutal attack on an innocent village of English settlers? Was it a justified military action against a stockaded settlement in a Native homeland? Or was it something else?” First, the five cultures involved in the events are introduced first to provide users with a base of background knowledge. Then, the user moves through the conflict chronologically, often facing a question about the situation that asks them to consider the issue of perspective.

In reflecting on the site for participants of the 2005 Museums and the Web conference, Lynne Spichger and Juliet Jacobsen explicitly noted the public import of their work: “The role of museums in the 21st century is an expanded one, moving away from a focus on collections for collections’ sake, toward the conscious use and interpretation of collections for the purpose of engaging and educating a wide public audience in informal lifelong learning.” They argued that their goal was to “develop a powerful and engaging educational experience for a broad public audience” that was structured around the importance of multiple points of view. [4] Focusing on multiple perspectives allows the audience to always be engaged in an effort to piece together a complete story and a complex interpretation that takes into account the partiality of historical sources, and recognizes historians’ inability to fully and definitely know the past.

These few sites are by no means representative of all of the work that is being done in digital history, but they do represent the a large percentage work that is being produced with a general audience in mind. Those creating digital work to serve scholars and to serve students and teachers are doing a wonderful array of work that puts inquiry and process front and center. Others are diligently creating vast digital archives with varying degrees of contextual metadata. Still others are using geospatial interfaces to display historical collections, connecting users to very particular local places (Philaplace, Euclid Corridor History Project, etc.). But, digital history projects targeted at general users do not often enough go beyond traditional narrative exhibits to model inquiry, to speak self-reflexively about cognitive processes, or to provide users with the tools and support to conduct similar kinds of inquiry on their own. We owe our audiences more.


1. Carole Emberton, Web site Review [The Price of Freedom], Journal of American History 92:1 (June 2005) paragraph 3 and 7.

2. Beth Bailey, Review [The Price of Freedom], The Public Historian 27:3 (Summer, 2005) 89-92. Quote from 90.

3. Richard Rabinowitz, Web site Review [Raid on Deerfield], Journal of American History 92:2 (Sept. 2005) 709-710.

4. Lynne Spichiger and Juliet Jacobson, “Telling an Old Story in a New Way: Raid on Deerfield: The Many Stories of 1704 ,” in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings (Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2005) <http://www.archimuse.com/mw2005/papers/spichiger/spichiger.html>.

Read Part III.

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