Are you teaching your students about the Civil War and looking for primary source documents connected to its outbreak? Have you engaged in a conversation with a friend who doesn’t want to acknowledge the centrality of slavery as a cause of the war and you want to direct them to an accessible online resource? Are you starting your own journey into Civil War causation and not sure where to start?
Look no further than James F. Epperson’s wonderful website, Causes of the Civil War. Started in 1996, Jim has meticulously researched and digitized literally hundreds of speeches, newspaper articles, and statistics related to the secession crisis over the past twenty years. We are fortunate to have these documents preserved and so easily accessible on the internet today. I cannot recommend Jim’s website enough. If I could recommend a starting point, go with the various state Declarations of Secession, especially Mississippi and South Carolina. They clearly tell us why those states attempted to leave the Union.
Also, Jim is an occasional reader of this blog and he recently posted a Letter to the Editor of the Missouri Republican in support of slavery and sectional compromise that I shared on this website not too long ago. That letter was a fascinating insight into the thoughts of a pro-Union border slave state resident as the country was on the brink of disunion.
The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is an organization dedicated to commemorating difficult histories throughout the world. They have done much work in recent years to reshape the field of interpretation with groundbreaking initiatives that place facilitated dialogue front and center in public history programs, and I’ve had the privilege of taking several training courses with ICSC over the past year. I’m a big fan of ICSC and their mission.
The training I received focused on facilitating dialogue at National Parks. In the most recent course I took it was reinforced repeatedly that place is an extremely important element in fostering good conversation; where the dialogue takes place is as important as the topic under discussion. A nineteenth century farm owned by a German-American resident opens up an avenue for discussing immigration to the United States today, whereas if that farm was cultivated by slave labor it could open a different conversation about race or slavery. I took that point to heart at the time, but it was reinforced today after flipping through ICSC’s Facebook page. To commemorate Black History Month, ICSC reached out to a number of different history museums this week asking them to pose a question on their page about race and civil rights in the United States. While this attempt to start a meaningful online dialogue came from a place of good intentions, few followers of the page (which number more than 3,000) chose to engage in the discussion, and the comments that did come were…interesting:
While it’s perfectly valid to ask where the numbers came from for this post, we can also see a troublesome Ben Stein approach to discussing racism which implies that any desire to discuss race or racism in American society is itself a racist act. More broadly the place where this discussion occurred–Facebook–presents a serious barrier to partaking in a meaningful dialogue about this topic. While public historians over the past twenty-five years have embraced the “shared authority” paradigm as a way of including visitors and communities in the creation of history exhibits in museums and other educational programs, I think we continue to struggle with how to put the shared authority paradigm into practice within the world of online websites and social media outlets because they are places we still haven’t figured out yet. Fellow public historian Elizabeth Catte even wonders if shared authority will be around much longer given that many digital audiences use platforms like comment sections for the sole purpose of trolling and being confrontational with others.
A few years ago my local paper decided to get rid of its own internal comment section (which allowed people to post anonymously) and instead outsource this task to Facebook so that all commenters had to post from their personal accounts. The prevailing belief among the paper’s editorial staff was that people would be inclined to tone down their hurtful rhetoric if they had to post something with their name attached to it. That of course never happened, and just about any hot-button issue you read about in this paper will be accompanied by confirmation bias, insulting and racist comments, off-topic rants, silly memes, and much more.
Can we ever get beyond “don’t read the comments!” in internet discourse? While Facebook proclaims itself as a place for making and maintaining relationships with people, the sheer size of the platform and the still relatively easy path for creating a sense of anonymity creates an emotional distance that leads some people to say hurtful things and manufacture outrage at the smallest slight or perceived issue. I gave up trying to have conversations there about politics or current events a long time ago because it was obvious that even people I considered to be great friends would have no qualms about posting rude comments towards me because my views didn’t meet their standards of ideological purity.
The biggest problem I see with a group like ICSC trying to hold a facilitated dialogue on Facebook is that there is no mechanism to establish boundaries and guidelines for maintaining a productive conversation besides deleting comments after they’ve been posted. Facilitated dialogue is premised on the idea that participants seek to gain a better understand of each other and different perspectives rather than trying to convince others of any particular viewpoint, so in that regard the medium is fairly open-ended in terms of content. But dialogue without any regulations is essentially an unproductive newspaper comments section. Directing Facebook users to a moderated space within ICSC’s website could be more productive than trying to host the conversation on Facebook itself. A set of rules on the organization’s website asking all participants to respect each other, put a check their on biases and assumptions, listen to others, and consent to these standards before commenting could provide a useful mechanism for advancing important conversations. It would be no different than providing a disclaimer page similar to the one on this website. My idea is not perfect and I don’t think anyone has really figured out how to make the internet a more civil place, but it’s the start of a much larger conversation we need to have about sharing (or perhaps moderating) authority on the internet when it comes to interpreting the stuff of history.
What do you think?
Last week an Alabama-based Civil Rights organization, Equal Justice Initiative, released a report entitled “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” The report is unique in that it compiles a comprehensive inventory of nearly 4,000 lynching victims throughout the Deep South from 1877 to 1950, including many new names not listed in previous inventories. The New York Times also ran a story on the report with fancy visuals and more background information on Bryan Stevenson, executive director of EJI.
A lot of interesting discussions emerged on my Twitter feed about various strong and weak points of the report and the need to provide more context about the horrifying consequences of lynching so that these victims are not portrayed as mere numbers or crime statistics. Historian Kidada E. Williams covers some of these concerns here.
I’ve been focusing on the public history side of these discussions. Central to Mr. Stevenson’s vision for reckoning with this history is the erection of historical markers in locations where lynchings occurred. By installing these permanent markers at “ground zero” sites, Americans will have daily, tangible reminders of the lives lost by white mob violence in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. I believe the idea of erecting historical markers to commemorate this tough history is necessary, but that it’s only a starting point for further inquiry.
Historical markers come with certain advantages and disadvantages for thinking critically about history outside the classroom. Generally speaking, historical markers are a cost-effective investment in history for towns, cities, and states of all sizes. Besides the initial start-up costs for erecting a marker there is little expense beyond basic maintenance to maintain historical markers, which allows small towns like Kirvin, Texas, and Elaine, Arkansas, to preserve a part of their history without the expense of a museum, historical society, temporary exhibit, or professional staff. And historical markers, combined with digital technology, allow for viewers to write, photograph, collect, and share their experiences at markers through websites like Historypin and The Historical Marker Database. Historical markers also do a good job of emphasizing the importance of local, regional, and state history that often gets passed over in the history classroom. Many of the markers researched and cared for by the Indiana Historical Bureau, for example, do a nice job of connecting local history to national history in a way that demonstrates how small communities throughout Indiana have contributed to the story of the United States.
A historical marker, however, can only take you so far. A marker will not answer any questions in real time that you may have about the content you are reading. Most markers are limited to around 20 to 200 words, and in many cases that text doesn’t go beyond the restatement of basic facts, leaving readers wondering why a particular marker is significant (this marker dedicated to Hannah Milhous Nixon is a great example. Why is this marker important? Who cares?). I personally have had experiences at historic homes, museums, Civil War battlefields, national parks, and even monuments and statues that inspired me to learn more about a given historical topic and, equally important, share that interest with friends and family. With the exception of one uniquely notable historical marker, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such feelings after looking at a historical marker.
It’s one thing to read historical content on a static marker. It’s a whole other experience to engage in active dialogue with an interpreter or educator in a public history setting who has passion, content knowledge, and the ability to craft an interpretive story that creates meaning and raises questions that one may not readily consider when looking at a marker text alone. When at all possible I prefer to listen to and converse with an interpreter than read a marker text. I realize that not everyone would chose to learn in this manner, but the point is that we should strive to create interpretive opportunities in both settings so that interested parties have multiple avenues in which to connect with the past.
Talking about a difficult and sensitive topic like lynching requires intensive training in both historical content and interpretive techniques, however, and I’m curious to learn more about places where interpreters regularly discuss these topics. What are cultural institutions doing to discuss lynching and rioting in museum exhibits, public programming, and other interpretive mediums within public history?
The floor is yours.
The popular biographer Walter Issacson recently penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he muses on “what could be lost as Einstein’s papers go online.” The essay was sparked by the recent digital publication of the first thirteen volumes of Einstein’s papers by a consortium of institutions that includes Princeton, Caltech, and Hebrew University. Issacson uses this development to explore the nature of online archives more broadly, weighing the potential benefits and consequences of opening primary source documents to what he describes as “the wisdom of the crowd.” There is a tension underlying these thoughts, and as the essay title suggests, Issacson seems fairly preoccupied with what could be lost as the archives go online:
My initial joy about the project was tempered, however, by a pinch of sadness. I realized that most future Einstein researchers would no longer have to make the journey to the cozy house on the edge of the Caltech campus where the scholars of the Einstein Papers Project were eager to embrace their rare visitors and ply them with guidance, insights and tea. They wouldn’t likely spend delightful days there—as I did for my biography of Einstein—with the science historian Diana Kormos-Buchwald and her colleagues as they debated such issues as how to explain what Einstein meant when he referred to quanta as “spatial” or his fellow Jews as Stammesgenossen (tribal comrades).
The next generation of scholars will also lose the tingling inspiration of seeing original documents. I remember how much closer I felt to Benjamin Franklin —suddenly, he seemed like a real person—when, at his archives in Yale’s Sterling Library, I first touched a letter that he had written, marveling that this piece of paper had actually once been in his hands. I even made a pilgrimage to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which Einstein helped to found and where most of his original documents reside, so that I could draw inspiration. What sublime experiences will researchers miss if they simply view the documents online? What will be lost if the archives, with their passionate staffs, morph into unvisited repositories?
Issacson, however, does express some excitement about the power of computing to help us ask new questions about these documents:
My brooding soon gave way to marveling about the benefits that will come when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures. While I was doing research years ago for my biography of Franklin, the Packard Humanities Institute in Los Altos, Calif., was at work on a digital collection of his papers. After a lot of begging, I wheedled a beta version of the CD-ROMs. They let me search all of Franklin’s papers for specific concepts . . . with the new digital version of Einstein, I have been looking at the 237 times he talked about Palestine—and imagining what a smart researcher could do by tracing the evolution of the 6,720 times he used the phrase “light quanta.”
With online archives, research can be crowdsourced. Students from Bangalore to Baton Rouge can drill down into Einstein’s papers and ferret out gems and connections that professional researchers may have missed. That will reinforce a basic truth about the digital age: By empowering everyone to get information unfiltered, it diminishes the role of gatekeepers and intermediaries. Scholars and experts will still play an important role in historical analysis, but their interpretations will be challenged and supplemented by the wisdom of crowds.
I share Issacson’s enthusiasm for the experience of traveling to and conducting research at archival institutions. I’ve conducted research at many different institutions, but I will always fondly remember my own experiences at the Indiana State Library when I lived in Indianapolis. Although I didn’t know it when I first moved to Indy, it turned out that my house was within walking distance to ISL. There were many Saturdays filled with early morning research, lovely lunchtime walks around downtown, and more research in the afternoon. The detective work of research is fun in and of itself, but the adventure of traveling to a new place and soaking in the character of the surrounding area makes the archival experience sublime.
All of this said, however, I don’t find myself as pessimistic as Issacson about this experiential loss with the move to online archives. Doing research online is, of course, also an experience. Digging into archival resources like Google Books, HathiTrust, The Internet Archive, and Chronicling America requires the same sort of detective work and interpretive skills that one uses at a brick-and-mortar institution. And it’s hard to describe the jubilation you feel upon discovering a crucial primary source that you would have never found or had access to at your local archival institution. Likewise, while the tactile experience of holding a real document in your hands is very, very special, the best web designers and archivists can make digital primary sources equally (if not more) accessible to researchers by providing clear scans, zoom in/out functionality, and text transcriptions that make these documents more approachable and understandable (especially for students in a k-12 setting who may be unable to visit an archive in person).
It’s also important to keep Issacson’s thoughts on digitization in context. All of the digital primary source collections he mentions are from noteworthy great white men in U.S. history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Einstein. Historians and archivists pick and choose what history gets digitized, and it remains an open question as to what should be digitized for online publication and whether or not this effort to publish documents related to White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Males over ones connected to women and minorities merely duplicates the same dominant practices in the history book publishing industry since the nineteenth century. There are literally billions of primary source documents that could be digitized, but the lack of time, cost, and labor to digitize will prevent a sizable number of documents from going online in the foreseeable future. For every Smithsonian undertaking a “digitization strategic plan” there are probably hundreds of archival institutions that lack the ability to digitize anything in their collections. In sum, researchers understand that producing good scholarship means still going to the archives and digging through the actual sources – it can’t all be done online.
The real loss with online archives, as I see it, is the loss of interaction with all of the talented and helpful archivists who help researchers accomplish their goals. I suspect that most researchers don’t have tea with their archivists or bump into world-renowned historians of science at the archives like Issacson does, but almost all can recall an instance in which an archivist pointed them towards collection material they were unaware of, helped transcribe a document that seemed unreadable, or took the time to go into the back corner of a dark room to find requested documents. I can recall many such moments, and my own research over the years wouldn’t have been completed without the help of archivists. They are important people, and I think it’s safe to say that we’ll still need their services and expertise well into the future, whether online or offline.
The weather and clocks are changing, but the blogging continues here at Exploring the Past. Here are a few good reads and some personal notes.
- Flawed commemoration in Britain: The Tower of London is currently surrounded by red ceramic poppies in commemoration of British soldiers who died during World War I. Jonathan Jones writes a scathing and largely accurate (in my opinion) criticism of this commemoration, arguing that such a commemoration needs to highlight the horrors of war and the ways WWI was tragic to all of Europe, not just Britain.
- The History Manifesto: Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have recently published a new book, The History Manifesto. Guldi and Armitage argue that “the spectre of the short term” clouds our society and government policy. “Almost every aspect of human life is plotted and judged, packaged and paid for, on time-scales of a few months or years” (1), according to Guldi and Armitage. This method of thinking also dominates the historical enterprise, where historians are told to specialize in historic eras or events that range between four and forty years, privileging the small picture instead of the big one. They argue that historians should aim to think more about the long term and the ways history changes over hundreds of years. Moreover, Guldi and Armitage argue that historians should involve themselves in public policy. The History Manifesto is open access and freely available for PDF download here.
- Do Professors need to use digital technology in the classroom?: Professor and columnist Rebecca Schuman says ‘no.’
- The Specter of Gettysburg: Kevin Lavery, a student at Gettysburg College, writes a sharp criticism of so-called “historic” ghost tours in and around the Gettysburg battlefield, with some pushback from readers in the comment section. A very thought-provoking read.
- Commemorating veterans at sporting events: Acknowledgements for United States veterans’ were ubiquitous during this year’s World Series. Some veterans are questioning the motivations behind these tributes and wondering if they’re really attempts to silence dissent against U.S. foreign policy.
- Slavery in America – Back in the headlines: “People think they know everything about slavery in the United States, but they don’t.”
- Two of the chapters from my Master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, are currently under review for possible publication in scholarly journals. One of these chapters was revised into an article during the spring semester and submitted for review back in August. The blind peer-reviewers just got back to me a few days ago with mostly positive comments but also a few revisions to make the article better. The other chapter was revised throughout the summer and was submitted a couple weeks ago, so I’m still waiting for feedback on that one. I’ll have more info on these articles soon. Stay tuned.
- I am doing a professional book review for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History that will be posted early next year if all goes according to plan. I’ll be reviewing Jeffrey Trask’s 2013 publication Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Era.
- I have an essay on Oscar Taveras, Stan Musial, and public commemoration in sports that is slated for publication on Sport in American History on November 10. This is my first essay for SAH and I’m really excited for readers to check it out.
Over the past eight or so years there has been a push by educators and school administrators to have students in both k-12 and higher education use e-readers to obtain relevant scholarship and advance their educational careers. Some have argued that e-readers are better suited for so-called “digital natives” that are more comfortable processing information through digital technology than print technology. Others argue that devices like the Amazon Kindle ostensibly provide access to thousands of titles that are not always readily available at a local public or university library (although I would argue that obtaining access to a piece of scholarship is not the same as reading it. The world is full of unread books). This second point is particularly important for humanities students who spend countless hours reading works of literature, philosophy, and history.
A recent thought-provoking essay from American University linguistics professor Naomi S. Baron in The Chronicle of Higher Education, however, turns this logic on its head by suggesting that changing reading habits in the humanities actually threaten the future of the entire discipline. She argues that e-reading–the move from print books to digital devices for reading–“further complicate[s] our struggle to engage students in serious text-based inquiry.”
For some years, the amount of reading we assign university students has been shrinking. A book a week is now at best four or five for the semester; volumes give way to chapters or articles. Our motivation is often a last-ditch attempt to get students to actually read what’s on the syllabus. Other factors include the spiraling cost of textbooks and copyright limitations on how much we may post digitally.
Are students even reading Milton or Thucydides or Wittgenstein these days? More fundamentally, are they studying the humanities, which are based on long-form reading? . . . I contend that the shift from reading in print to reading on digital devices is further reducing students’ pursuit of work in the humanities. Students (and the rest of us) have been reading on computers for many years. Besides searching for web pages, we’ve grown accustomed to reading journal articles online and mining documents in digital archives. However, with the coming of e-readers, tablets, and smartphones, reading styles underwent a sea change.
The bottom line is that while digital devices may be fine for reading that we don’t intend to muse over or reread, text that requires what’s been called “deep reading” is nearly always better done in print . . . Digital reading also encourages distraction and invites multitasking . . . Readings in the humanities tend to be lengthy, intellectually weighty, or both. The challenge of digital reading for the humanities is that screens—particularly those on devices with Internet connections—undermine our encounters with meaty texts. These devices weren’t designed for focused concentration, reading slowly, pausing to argue virtually with the author, or rereading. Rather, they are information and communication machines, best used for searching and skimming—not scrutinizing.
In sum, Baron suggests that the loss of close reading/long-form reading is detrimental to humanistic inquiry. Facing the twin challenges of an increasingly digital world and a society that has fetishized utility and practicality in education, humanists have cut down the amount of required reading for their classes while at the same time called for an increased usage of e-readers to obtain and learn about humanities scholarship.
Is it okay for humanists to cut down on the amount of reading they do? What medium is best for reading humanities scholarship?
In my opinion, close reading/long-form reading is necessary for all humanities scholars, even if they’re interested in using quantitative methods that utilize what Stanford University English professor Franco Moretti describes as “distant reading.” Everyone needs a basic understanding of noteworthy works in literature, philosophy, history, etc. etc. and that requires at least some sort of close reading.
When it comes to the best medium for reading humanities scholarship, I think the design of the medium is crucial. Most websites (including blogs on WordPress) don’t lend themselves for long, concentrated reading that exceeds more than 1,000 or 1,500 words. That number is even smaller for reading on a mobile device. Although I don’t prefer to read on an Amazon Kindle, those devices can help readers concentrate for longer periods of time than with a digital computer or phone screen, so I don’t find myself as dismissive of e-readers as Baron.
For my own studies I rely on print books for long-form reading. I find that print books are easier on my eyes and help me concentrate better on the material I am reading. I do a lot of reading online and on my mobile phone, but most of that reading consists of blog posts, news articles, opinion pieces, and other short-ish essays. When I read professional articles or books, I prefer print. I would also argue that research via digital archives, while extremely helpful and convenient, cannot fully replace the act of actually going to a brick-and-mortar library and/or archives and having an actual historical artifact in your hands (it’s also important to point out that the vast majority of historical artifacts are not digitized).
What are your thoughts? What is the place of reading in the humanities today, and what medium do you prefer for your own reading?
Several days ago I read a fine piece in The Atlantic from anthropologist Alexis C. Madrigal on real-time internet content/information delivery, what Madrigal refers to as “The Stream.” Whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader (R.I.P.), or the New York Times, many websites have turned to the stream as a means for instantly delivering information that is ostensibly meaningful to readers. The screenshot above is from the “Times Wire”–which is run by the New York Times–and it exemplifies the machinations of the stream: instant updates, individualized content, and and a sense of inclusion, by which I mean a feeling that you are keeping up with and understanding (at least somewhat) what’s going on in the world.
Madrigal explains the stream as such:
The Stream represents the triumph of reverse-chronology, where importance—above-the-foldness—is based exclusively on nowness. There are great reasons for why The Stream triumphed. In a world of infinite variety, it’s difficult to categorize or even find, especially before a thing has been linked. So time, newness, began to stand in for many other things. And now the Internet’s media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free. No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding. There is always something more. Nowness also transmits this sense of presence, of other people, that you get in a city when you go to a highway overpass and look down at all the cars at any time of the day or night.
Given my recent embrace of Twitter and my belief in its enormous potential to deliver information to me that I find important, I am now more than ever a product of the stream. Rather than reading a newspaper, I now check my Twitter stream in the morning to see what’s happening, to find information that “newsworthy” to me. When I find content personally interesting, I contribute my own small part to the stream through tweets, Facebook posts, and essays on Exploring the Past. Since I started this regiment of blogging and tweeting one year ago, I’ve been blown away by the connections I’ve made with people all over the world and the number of visits I’ve had to this blog (more than 10,000 so far).
Yet there are times when I feel as if the stream overwhelms me. Sometimes I feel like I can’t get away. I try to work on projects, school assignments, etc., but the pull of nowness sucks me in, challenging me to stop work to check and see if I’m missing something important in the stream. Equally frustrating, these streams make little distinction between what Robin Sloan refers to as “flow” and “stock.” “Flow” refers to information designed for the here and now: updates and tweets about weather, daily activities, your pumpkin spice latte, etc. “Stock” refers to content that I’d argue is more than information in that it actually contributes to knowledge construction; material that you’d still refer to long after its incorporation into the stream.
Madrigal’s article raised larger questions within me about how we view the internet from a holistic viewpoint. If we rely on the stream for obtaining information, how do we promote and preserve meaningful flow and stock content for the long term? Can we break away from the pull of the now to make room for reflection on what has already occurred in recent memory?
Part of the solution, I think, is understanding that while the internet provides us meaningful information for the here and now, the internet should also be viewed as a historical, archived space. Sure, there are sites like the Internet Archive, Google Books, HathiTrust, and Chroncling America that provide public access to historical events, documents, and artifacts from the twentieth century and earlier, but how do we go about archiving the history we make every day through our interactions on the stream? Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other related sites are not just sources for nowness: they’re also tools and resources for future historians looking to interpret the history of the early twenty-first century.
Viewing the internet as a historical archive will require more discussion and questioning, as far too many website proprietors view the content and interactions on their websites as disposable rather than historical. Ian Milligan points out that major websites such as Yahoo! and MySpace have recently destroyed millions upon millions of historical digital records, embracing the notion of “who needs old stuff when the future is here?” In the case of MySpace, bloggers who used the world’s largest social media website from 2005-2008 to share their thoughts had their information wiped out instantly in June of this year. As Milligan argues, MySpace “meant something to multiple millions of people,” and future historians are now more impoverished thanks to this focus on the now.
How do you go about preserving your digital records? What would you do if Facebook, Twitter, or WordPress suddenly deleted all of your content, all of your flow and stock?
I have been doing research on teaching students how to assess historical primary sources (both print and digital) and utilize historical thinking in and out of the classroom. One of the best sources I’ve relied upon for this project is the 2011 publication “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking Grades 7-12, written by history teacher Bruce Lesh. The book is wonderful and I really like his lesson plans. Many of Lesh’s activities challenge students to imagine themselves working as curators, archivists, or some other public historian who is interpreting the past for a larger audience. I hope to write more about Lesh’s book in a future post, but for this essay I am going to focus on a brief comment Lesh makes on page 33:
I am always amazed at how visual images, be they photographs, hand drawn, painted, sculpted, stimulate conversation among my students. It is a testament to the much discussed visual generation, of which they are a part. Inundated with images on television and online, combined with the decline of newspapers and print reading, this generation is more inclined to gather information from visual elements or sparse narratives. The predisposition for the visual over the written, particularly complicated text, is also indicative of the fact that students have been trained to see the study of history as one that involves textual sources…to the exclusion of other types of historical sources.
What Lesh essentially argues here is that his students are “digital natives.” They think and understand the world differently than older generations thanks to their participation in what Lesh describes as the “visual generation,” a new era of students who allegedly don’t like reading and who better process information through the use of visual images and short texts. Because our students are more comfortable with visual images, we should cater our lesson plans to that “learning style.”
The concept of a “digital native” was first penned by Marc Prensky in 2001. Digital natives, according to Prensky, are people who were born into what many refer to as “the digital age.” They are inherently different from “digital immigrants” who were born before the “digital age” but who have “immigrated” to this new age. The use of technology, social media, texting, etc. comes naturally to digital natives, whereas this technology is akin to learning a new language for digital immigrants.
While I agree with Lesh that history instruction has unnecessarily relied upon textual sources to the determent of visual sources such as maps, paintings, and photographs, I cannot agree with the idea of an existing “visual generation” that has a natural predisposition for visual items over textual sources. Additionally, I believe there are no such things as “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” Here are a few reasons why:
- Much of the digital technology we use on a daily basis was developed by “digital immigrants” who were not a part of the “visual generation.”
- Since this technology was developed by “digital immigrants,” any notion of a cognitive difference between Millenials, Generation X, Baby Boomers, etc. lies on shaky ground. Rather than creating a dichotomy that differentiates how people process and apply information, perhaps we should consider the idea that all generations have a disposition to prefer visual images and sparse narratives over dense text. If we acknowledge that the teaching of history from the early 20th century to the present has had many shortcomings and that many students hate the way history is taught and not the discipline itself, then it signals a failure of learning theory, content delivery, and the creation of lesson plans with little purpose among educators rather than any cognitive difference in students today. One of the most exciting aspects of the digital humanities is that historians have so many opportunities to utilize sources that go beyond textual descriptions of the past. I would argue that everyone can have their perceptions of the past sharpened through visual imagery, not just the “visual generation.”
- Jonathan Berg, a Washington, D.C. Library Director and author of the awesomely titled blog BeerBrarian, cites a recent study in which 315 college students and recent graduates were surveyed about their use of digital technology. The study concluded that younger people were slightly more comfortable using digital technology than people older than them, but it also concluded that younger people were no more comfortable creating technology than older people. In sum, young people are comfortable being consumers of digital technology, but there is no evidence to suggest that younger people are comfortable in their cognitive ability to create technology. Additionally, the study also shows that not all young people have access to the same technology. Many people use computers that were created ten years ago and/or don’t have access to smartphone technology.
- Just because you have a smartphone or participate on Twitter does not mean that you are a “digital native” or that you understand the technology, source code, or power interests behind the creation of that technology. Again, consumption and creation are two very different concepts.
In sum, the notion of a “visual generation” composed of “digital natives” is a myth.