A few months ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of Suhi Choi’s recent book about the Korean War and how it has been remembered in both the United States and (South) Korea. Choi, a communications professor at the University of Utah, employs public history techniques throughout the book to analyze oral histories she conducted with victims of the No Gun Ri massacre, media accounts of the massacre, and various monuments that have been erected in both countries to commemorate the war as a whole. I enjoyed reading the book for its content and arguments, but what I enjoyed the most was its brevity. Clocking in at 115 pages of main text and five chapters, the book was a quick read (with the exception of some jargon-y passages throughout) yet thoroughly researched and intellectually stimulating. The book’s shortness reminded me of the Southern Illinois University Press “Concise Lincoln Library” series that has published numerous short studies on various aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life that are typically between 100 and 150 pages long.
While I acknowledge that different historical topics require studies of varying length and depth (I currently have one book on my nightstand that is more than 800 pages long), I find myself increasingly supportive of the idea that academic histories, generally speaking, should be shorter and more concise than what they typically are now. I am no expert on publishing books with an academic press, but I’ve been told by those who’ve been through the process that they normally don’t accept anything less than 75,000 words, or roughly 250 to 300 pages. That makes sense because most PhD dissertations end up being about that length, but I think there should be some sort of system in place to encourage and publish more scholarship that would be more appropriately covered in a study between 100 and 150 pages.
As a scholar who regularly reads books from academic publishers, I crave the analysis, interpretation, and detailed research that such books offer to their readers. As a reader, however, I am more likely to go back to a short book and read it again in the future, whereas with a longer book I feel less inclined to read it in full or go back to read it a second time. It’s important for me to read as many print books as possible to get a more comprehensive understanding of historical topics that fascinate me, but the presence of thoughtful online essays and history blogs has changed how I read and reduced the amount of time I dedicate to reading full-length print books. I admit that nowadays page length plays an extremely important role in determining what I read next. 150 pages is more often compelling to me than 500 pages.
In my time blogging at Exploring the Past I’ve gone on a sort of mini-crusade against conventional understandings within popular media about millennials’ relationship to digital technology and the ways they acquire knowledge. See here, here, and here for examples. Common arguments in this discourse include the belief that millennials acquire knowledge about the world in fundamentally different ways than older people; that old, conventional mediums of learning such as reading books or visiting museums are of little interest to millennials; and that we educators must fundamentally overhaul our approach to working with young students. We must embrace “disruption” in order to unlock the potential of young people. In the teaching world you might hear about the incorporation of digital technology in the form of iPads, computers, and ebooks as a way of making classes more hands-on and interactive, whereas in the public history world you might hear some vague jargon-y gobbledygook about “engagement” or “meeting the needs of a new generation” to get them to visit museums, National Parks, and the like.
I don’t buy into the “disruption” hype that says we must dismantle everything and that we must completely do away with books, textbooks, or lectures (although I agree that educators can and do abuse the lecture medium to their students detriment). The logic of “disruption” fits into a long history of what one scholar describes as “giddy prophecies” about new developments in media technology. Thomas Edison predicted in 1922 that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and . . . in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Similar prophecies have been uttered in recent years about floppy disks, CD-ROMS, and computers.
Well, it turns out that at least a few traditional educational mediums are resilient. A forthcoming study by linguistics professor Naomi Baron asserts that 92 percent of students and millennials prefer print books over ebooks, and that print publications still play an integral role in educational classrooms regardless of grade level. It turns out that print publications still have an important educational purpose nearly 100 years after Edison predicted their eventual demise. Furthermore, millennials actually read more than older adults!
Don’t get me wrong: I support the implementation of digital technology in both formal and informal learning environments, but I’ve always believed that such implementations need to be done with an understanding that these mediums are merely tools. They need to be used carefully towards a larger goal of making our students critical thinkers who ask good questions and demonstrate sharp, analytical thinking. If an “interactive” activity doesn’t accomplish these goals, then it’s worthless in my view. Rather than debating whether or not digital technology should play a role in education (it can and should), we need to discuss what approaches with digital tools work and which ones don’t. And again, the end goal is key. I believe Sam Wineburg is mostly correct when he asserts, with regards to the history classroom, that:
I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as . . . making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to think rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out of the class having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.
When I completed my undergraduate studies in 2011, I did so without the benefit of taking a historical methods class. There was no requirement to take one when I started my studies five years earlier, and I was later grandfathered from having to take one when the requirements changed while I was still in the history program. Sure, I learned a lot of historical content and got better at writing papers while in undergrad, but I lacked the philosophical, theoretical, and methodological foundations necessary for thinking critically about the bigger questions that dominate a historian’s thoughts: what is historical objectivity, and can it be achieved? Is the past a foreign country, and if so, when do we find ourselves back in our native homeland? Can we separate the past and the present? What does it mean to think historically? What is truth? Is there such a thing as multiple truths? Who owns history? What is the importance of history in understanding the human condition?
I don’t necessarily have clear answers to all of these questions today, but my graduate training–especially my studies in public history and museum studies–did much to raise a sense of awareness about the need to always keep the “Why?” questions of history in close proximity to the how, what, and where questions that surround any historical inquiry. Books from the likes of Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, John Lewis Gaddis, and Michel-Rolph Trouillot exposed me to the importance of source criticism, the power structures the shape the documents we use in our research, and the artistic and scientific qualities of historical study. More generally, these books showed me the importance of historical thinking as a way of understanding our contemporary world. Quite frankly, I am obsessed with talking and writing about historical methods these days.
You can only learn so much and be a student for so long before you must move on from graduate school, however. I would surmise that some history graduates probably do away with their historical methods books after graduation, and I don’t blame them. But now that I’m a practicing public historian I think it’s more important than ever to keep pushing myself to think about the “Why?” questions of history because the public audiences I work with ask those sorts of questions all the time. People often come in with a specific conception of history as facts, dates, dead people, and dust, which challenges me to find ways to teach them about history as an interpretive act that is continually up for questioning and revision. Many visitors also ask me questions about things they learned growing up and whether or not they were true. And every once in a while I get questions about the evidence and methods I use in crafting my own interpretations of nineteenth century history.
A good history teacher emphasizes process and method in addition to content. Public historians should also strive to teach their audiences–most of whom don’t engage with the stuff of history on a regular basis–process and method in addition to content whenever possible so that they are empowered to start their own exploration into the past.
Now that I’m out of school and able to read any book I want, I follow a simple method for ensuring my continued growth as a nineteenth century historian, interpreter, and educator. For every two books I read about history, I read one book about “method,” whether that be historical methods, philosophy of history, public history, museum practices, educational theories, or something along those lines. So, for example, I just finished reading Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and Brian Matthew Jordan’s Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending War. Now I am currently reading Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum.
To be sure, the best history books teach us much about historical methods! Broadly defined, what I mean by “history book” is a work of scholarship in which the central thesis contains an argument about historical content and our understanding of the past, whereas “method” scholarship focuses primarily on discussing the specific practices scholars and practitioners employ when they interpret the past.
It’s hard to be a good historian if you omit reading one or the other. Having a lot of knowledge about educational theories and interpretive practices is important, but it’s hard to be an effective communicator if you don’t have any historical knowledge to communicate. Likewise, it’s great to have a lot of historical knowledge, but if you don’t know how to effectively communicate that knowledge to your audiences, you will struggle as a teacher and/or public historian.
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?