The Old meets the New

The two pieces that talked rather well to one another were American Digital History and Ivory Tower and the Open Web. What was especially interesting and important was that the projects mentioned in the Ivory Tower all started small as ideas of an individual and from there quickly developed a following. This might be a good moment to remind oneself that for the two or three successful website or blog we talk about there are hundreds that failed. Nevertheless, there is also the message that one has to dare and try. The tools are all available to develop a successful online presence. At the same time, what was rather reminiscent of last week’s readings, especially the division between books and ebooks, was the reluctance of scholars to embrace these new technologies. The statement about how liberal professors are with regard to politics and economic but how much they lack ingenuity in technical affairs was so true. My dissertation advisor still handwrote his first drafts for book manuscripts and I had a series of professors or colleagues who still use flip phone and have no Internet at home. I honestly am more with this group since technology has let me down too often. At the same time, those who are willing to embrace the difficult world of digital humanities should get their reward from tenure committees just like those who publish excellent monographs.

Orville Burton shows rather nicely how much the humanities have embraced technological opportunities. Considering Burton’s age, one can clearly see some of his own growth of a historian through the article. The use of new computer technology was a hallmark of the new Social History quantitative analysis. However, here is a good example of how much technology has become useful. Only about a decade ago, historians tended to find job posting once a week on the website of the American Historical Association or the monthly publications. Today all jobs are posted on h-net and available immediately. Nevertheless, some groups, such as H-Diplo, have done much to utilize the opportunities provided by h-net to their fullest potential. Others, like H-South barely engage in posting news updates and do not even do reviews of important books.

The list Burton provides with digital history projects was great since it offered a glance at the various possibilities. Impressive, potentially also depressing, is that there were “only” 800 websites related to U.S. History. Many of these websites provide great tools in the classrooms. I have not yet done much in this regard, but especially in my research seminar this semester, I have already pointed students to a number of websites to locate primary sources. For undergraduate, who cannot travel to locate their resources or who work with a small campus library, these resources are essential.

The statement that caught my attention with Burton’s articles was that history has a low standing among students in high school, and this probably still holds true in college. I think that is where Hayden White comes in. As a historian primarily interested in historiography, White traces the uses of narrative since the early nineteenth century historians. He concludes that it is important to tell the human past, which is a set of events, in a narrative fashion. He seems it is the best way to “imagine” the past and communicate it to people. This is where I feel Burton’s statement and White intersect. Teachers, and I purposefully use the word here in contrast to historian, have increasingly abandoned the good lecture based narrative in contrast to some half-witted powerpoint presentation that has neither narrative or story.

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