Doing History in the Digital Age
Barbara Weinstein, May 2007
I usually don't relish reading my teaching evaluations. Once draped in the cloak of anonymity, students can be quite unkind in their remarks. Even the flattering ones can be less than satisfying, such as the evaluation that declared "Prof. Feinstein is the best teacher I've had at this university." But a couple of years ago I read an evaluation for my introductory course on modern Latin American history that I found genuinely touching. In the section in response to the question "What do you think should be changed, if anything?" the student wrote, "Better classroom! That classroom blows . . . no power point was used . . . no pictures, no movie excerpts . . . just copying outlines and listening." What I found moving was this student's insistence on blaming the course's failings on the physical facilities, rather than my own lack of facility with the new technology—which, truth be told, was the better explanation for its alleged shortcomings.
Having been so charitably given the benefit of the doubt by my anonymous student, I felt I had no choice but to rethink my low-tech approach to historical research and pedagogy. For years I had dismissed visual aids as filler, and told myself that colleagues who routinely used images and films in their courses simply didn't want to invest time and thought in their lectures. I also initially scoffed at the many internet tools and digital databases that could help me with my research, assuring myself that archival research was an artisanal work process in which direct, tactile contact with documents was a meaningful experience and serendipity was a major methodology. But as visual sources came to play an ever larger role in my own research, it seemed indefensible to treat a lecture outline as the consummate visual aid. And as the time I could spend away from home doing research became more and more restricted, it made less and less sense to treat each archival visit as if it were a fishing expedition.
Not that I had ever been a Luddite. By the late 1970s I had traded yellow legal pads and pencils for an IBM Selectric, and a decade later had almost effortlessly transitioned to a word processor. And I loved e-mail from the very first instant: it took me all of five minutes to figure out what a difference electronic messaging would make in my ability to maintain a sense of community across national boundaries. Same thing with Google—I quickly perceived how much time that now ubiquitous search engine could save me. Soon after its debut, I received a late-night call from an anthropologist friend frantically trying to get the exact citation for an article that she wanted to include on her syllabus for a course that was meeting early the next morning. She thought I might have a book that listed the article in its bibliography, and hoped I would be willing to spend the next half hour rummaging through my bookshelves to locate the reference. Instead, I entered the little information she could give me into Google and there it was, the full citation. My anthropologist friend was (briefly) in awe, and for one night, at least, I felt like the Goddess of Google.
Despite these occasional moments of technological lucidity, the fact is that my knowledge of the new technology was, and is, spotty at best. Like many members of my academic generation, I've learned things in fits and starts, mostly when it was absolutely necessary (and sometimes not even then—I wrote an entire book about São Paulo on a computer without ever figuring out how to put the tilde above the "a"). It's as if I had decided to learn another language by periodically eavesdropping on a conversation or painstakingly translating a journal article in that language rather than systematically studying it or figuring out its basic structure.
This is particularly regrettable because, with or without my awareness or complicity, new technology has profoundly reshaped the way we approach scholarship and teaching. Because most of the transformations have occurred gradually, some almost imperceptibly, I have never really stepped back and considered how much my work process has changed over the last two decades. Writing this column for an issue of Perspectives devoted to history and new technology has finally induced me to take stock of the many ways in which our digital age has changed the way we do history.
Some of them are so obvious that they are hardly worth mentioning. Most of us now compose directly on a computer, tapping out our work on a keyboard uninhibited by fears of typos or tedious cutting and pasting (I mean with real scissors and tape). Has that improved our writing? Probably not. After all, a pencil with an eraser allowed for considerable revision prior to the advent of personal computers, and the work involved in revising once a text had been committed to print likely meant that a draft was in very good shape by the time it would be typed. In the age of personal computers, the speed with which thoughts are translated into printed text—and the more final look of a paragraph typed onto a computer screen—may actually mean that our drafts are not as carefully organized and polished when we commit them to print.
We also now have seemingly endless access—through Google Scholar, the online Library of Congress Catalog, WorldCat, Amazon.com—to books and articles related to whatever subject we are teaching or researching. I suppose that's mainly a good thing, but it does have the potential to leave us all feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what's available out there. I remember a review of my first book that took me to task for not citing two monographs the reviewer regarded as directly relevant to my topic. I thought this criticism was not entirely fair since the books had been published (in Brazil) shortly before my own book appeared, and had not yet been reviewed or cited in any other source. These days it would take only the slightest effort to learn of these books' existence and so I would have no excuse for not citing them.
Nothing, perhaps, has been transformed more dramatically by the new technology than journal editing. Over the last five years I have served as co-editor of the Hispanic American Historical Review, a venerable publication dating back to 1918. When my colleagues at the University of Maryland and I began to edit the HAHR, it was obvious that many of the activities previously conducted by mail could be shifted to e-mail to save time, money, and trees, but we still somehow imagined that submissions would be both electronic and paper. Even that soon went by the wayside as we assured our hesitant colleagues that, really, they only needed to send us an electronic copy. The most momentous change, however, was the decision to make the 10-year index entirely electronic. Previously, a whole issue had been dedicated to this index, but a digital version made more sense not only because it would open up space for more articles and reviews, but it would also allow the index to be searchable. It seemed like a win-win situation until someone asked where the index would be "archived"—a question that, I confess, it took me a minute or two to comprehend. The web site of the HAHR might appear to be the obvious location, but with the journal moving every five years, that didn't seem like a very stable home for it. And since it would no longer be an issue of the journal proper, it seemed unlikely that the index could be preserved on JSTOR. At last report, this dilemma remains unresolved.1
If I've had no choice as a journal editor but to join the modern world, I've been more recalcitrant in the realm in which I have greater autonomy, the classroom. True, my anonymous student would be pleased to hear that I have started to use internet images in my lectures, and I've even done something that approximated a PowerPoint presentation. On my latest undergraduate syllabus I assigned articles that the students could access through JSTOR. But I still lug in videotapes and even, believe it or not, audiotapes when I sparingly incorporate film or music (I do, after all, teach Brazilian history) in my lectures. Anyone hoping for a genuinely multimedia approach to Latin American history will still have to sign up for somebody else's course.2
The flip side of my haphazard embrace of the new technology has been a limited awareness of the dilemmas posed by the digital age. Not everything has escaped my notice: as co-editor of the HAHR, for example, I did realize that online reading of journal articles—though dramatically expanding access—would mean that fewer readers would ever hold a particular issue in their hands and browse it in a way that would lead them to read articles beyond their most immediate interests. Despite the "Browse this journal" option on JSTOR, there's a substantial difference between thumbing through the pages of a periodical and scrolling down a list of titles. Concern about this contributed to our decision to introduce "In this issue" front matter, similar to the longstanding practice of the AHR, that we hope will lure our online public into reading "off topic."3
Like most historians, I readily acknowledge the benefits of having journals, books, and primary sources available online. Not only does this make our work process easier, but it also opens up new possibilities for research in historical documents by undergraduate and graduate students, and is a godsend for scholars working in countries where there is precious little funding available for libraries or research collections. Most of us, however, give very little thought to the cost and effort involved in digitizing books and documents, a consideration that might not be paramount if we lived in an age of abundant public spending on the humanities. But at a time when funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Historic Preservation Records Commission (NHPRC) is either flat or declining, such considerations cannot be ignored. The Association for Documentary Editing (ADE) recently expressed concern to the NEH regarding the Digital Humanities Initiative, which seemed to give preference to grant proposals that included plans for digitalization and open online access. The ADE members' complaints were neither meant as a rejection of new technology nor as a plea for greater exclusivity. Instead, they reflected the practical considerations associated with a condition of limited resources. Some of the larger editing projects could easily accommodate demands for digitalization, but many of the smaller projects would have to skew their operations to meet these guidelines. In a classic case of putting the cart before the horse, they would have to reduce the time and resources devoted to the crucial processes of transcription and tracking down references in order to ensure digital accessibility. The result would be a devaluing of an artisanal/scholarly process in favor of an industrial/technological mandate, with the likelihood that quality would be sacrificed.
The letter from the ADE also noted that open access was not something that the editing projects could easily provide or maintain, especially since few project editors or host institutions control the rights to these editions. "Typically," the letter pointed out, "publishers have made substantial financial investments in these editions with little or no profit to show for it. Asking them to produce free online resources is unrealistic. There is a very strong archival argument to be made for the presses as the best candidates to create electronic resources that will be maintained for future generations, particularly if there is a revenue stream to support this maintenance. If the editions are not put online by publishers, who will guarantee long-term access and pay the costs of maintaining digital editions?"4 In other words, free access is not without costs.5
Over the next decade, as the digital revolution continues to remake the world of scholarship and scholarly resources, many such complications are likely to arise. Not even the most unyielding amongst us will be exempt from its effects. Some of the changes it will bring are likely to be marvelous, while others will raise as many problems as they resolve. Thus, I think we can ill-afford to treat this revolution as a technological juggernaut over which we have no control, nor can we indiscriminately embrace each and every electronic innovation that comes online. In this regard, I am reminded of a colleague who suggested that soon, with all the sources becoming available online or on CD-Rom, it will be possible to do a dissertation in Brazilian history without ever going to Brazil. To which I could only reply, "What would be the fun of that?"
—Barbara Weinstein (NYU) is president of the AHA.
1. In recent testimony to a House Appropriations Subcommittee, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington contended that digital materials "are less stable than analog materials, because digital content is easily altered, corrupted or even lost." He noted that the average web site's life span is between 44 and 75 days. http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2007/07-060.html.
2. For a more encouraging view of multimedia teaching (as well as a very engaging account of early encounters with personal computers), see Lynn Hunt, "What I learned Doing a Multimedia Project on the French Revolution," Perspectives Online, Summer 2002.
3. "When editing a journal in its ninth decade of publication, one does not make changes lightly, but we felt that the time was right to alter the longstanding format. Among our motives for this decision was the advent of the electronic age, the e-journal, which means that our colleagues and students increasingly read the HAHR in online slices, rather than leafing through an entire issue or volume. We hope that an introduction will motivate our readers to explore beyond the article that first drew them to a particular issue." "In this Issue," Hispanic American Historical Review 86:2 (May 2006), 201.
4. Letter from Roger Bruns, president of ADE, to Bruce Cole, chair of the NEH, Sept. 1, 2006. NEH responded by refining the language in its announcement so that it did not exclude proposals without a digital component.
5. On the implications of open access for university presses, see the statement of the American Association of University Presses at http://aaupnet.org/aboutup/issues/oa/statement.pdf. My thanks to Sandy Thatcher for this reference.