Tona Hangen

The Net of History

I really enjoyed reading and thinking about Cathy Davidson’s brilliant cover story for Times Higher Education last month, “So Last Century.” I read it on my iPhone, captured via Read It Later, which was perhaps ironic given that it was all about how universities excel at preparing their students for obsolete, industrial-era, Taylorized, discipline-specific jobs and not for the fluid, post-industrial, webby world in which we really live. Here’s my favorite quote:

Our educational systems, so far, look as if the internet hasn’t been invented yet. Scratch most conventional academic departments and you see little hint of restructured courses, let alone restructured thinking.

The methods course I’ve just finished teaching this semester (and will teach again in the fall) may not have been profoundly restructured, but at least it acknowledged the existence of the internet, and gestured towards some of its uses as a tool for doing, publishing, and conversing about history. We wove this into many different class sessions, but towards the end of the term we spent one day with me giving a guided tour through parts of the interwebs that I have found useful in my professional life.

Naturally, this was one of my favorite discussions.

Here’s where we went –

Places where historians & humanities scholars network with each other:

Academic Commons
An overview of H-Net lists: what they are, why it might be useful to join one
History Network News (George Mason University)
And: What’s an RSS reader and why you’d want one (see, e.g. Common Craft’s video intro, “RSS in Plain English“)

History Podcasts:

How to subscribe & listen
Some suggestions for history podcasts

History on Twitter:

A quick show&tell of some history-related Twitter feeds including museums, archives, scholars, organizations, and “this day in history”-type feeds. I later sent a list to the one student who’s on Twitter, and I included:

  • @NEHistoryAssoc – because we need followers!
  • @AHAHistorians – the feed for the American Historical Association, which welcomes undergrads also
  • @JQAdams_MHS the tweeting from John Quincy Adams’ diary – at the moment, he’s the US Ambassador to Russia in 1811
  • @NYTcivilwar – tweets about what happened on this day during the civil war 150 years ago
  • @amhistorymuseum – the Smithsonian museum of American history
  • @librarycongress – the Library of Congress
  • @dhnow – a digest of what digital humanities scholars are reading & commenting on in Twitter
  • @GLIAmericanHist – the Twitter feed of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, they tweet an “on this day in American history” every day

We also watched the first 12 minutes or so of Dan Cohen’s recent talk, “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web.” This is the part where he talks about the Burrito Bracket as an example of the vernacular web, and discusses how the academic web has some catching up to do in terms of making use of what makes the web unique from other publishing/broadcasting platforms.

Lastly, I made a handout, a simple cheat sheet borrowed from WebMonkey that provides a few basic html commands. And I showed them two handy webpage tools I use a lot, 1536 HTML color chart, and Color Scheme Designer. I think my students were unsure what to do with these. One of them said, eagerly, “You mean we can use these to make a webpage?” And that reminded me that students take the web’s existence for granted and rarely interrogate its constructedness, or (at least in this group) haven’t been involved in MAKING web content. All the more reason for the special topics course I’m hoping to teach on intro to digital humanities. SO needed.

Note to self, next time around: maybe have a blank blog or something as a sandbox for experimentation and play with html coding? And say something about hosting, CSS, and editing theme codes. Google Sites (which is what we used for the student journals) is not very good for this purpose, it’s not as customizable as either Blogger or WordPress. I used it because it’s supported by our U, but I use the term “supported” VERY loosely because several students had insoluble site problems which we never got someone in IT to resolve… but that’s another post.

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