January 5, 2009 by Cameron Blevins
AHA-ing (Saturday Recap)
I’d like to tell myself that it was the high quality of writing in yesterday’s post that caused an influx of site visits, but I’m afraid it’s due more to the link from a certain popular Historiann’s blog…
I enjoyed Saturday’s events at the AHA just as much as Friday’s, but in different ways. After meeting and having a very enjoyable conversation with Sterling Fluharty of PhDinhistory, I spent a couple hours at the morning session of the National History Education Clearinghouse Workshop. It was good to hear about teaching history in a pre-college setting, and made me think a fair amount about what the role of primary sources should be in, say, a high-school classroom. Many kids can probably handle reading excerpts from an eighteenth-century manuscript, but the question is: would they want to? I think the process could gain a lot from an interactive, exploratory platform – the first example that comes to mind is the Library of Congresses’ engaging use of touch-screens to display samples of primary sources, which allows people to click on nodes to see more information, or to overlay a transcribed version on top of it if they need help deciphering “necefsary for one people to difsolve.”
Minor rant: I have always thought that academics were the primary culprits of using Q&A sessions to not actually ask questions, but to IM (intellectually masturbate) in front of a captive audience. It turns out the NHEC workshop, despite a lack of pretentious university academics, was not immune to a corrolary of IM-ing: personal anecdote-ing. I don’t mind hearing some personal context, or even a relevant experience. However, I have a low threshold for listening to every detail of the hiring process and administrative politics in your particular high school. Asking pertinent, concise questions in front of a large group is a pretty important skill, but one that people, across the board, tend to lack.
I absolutely loved the afternoon session I attended: Neogeographies/Neohistories: Analyzing, Creating, and Publishing Maps, put on by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media. Four graduate students (Karin Hill, Ammon Shepherd, Christopher King, and Martin McGuirk) presented projects they had completed that grew out of a course under Paula Petrik on historical mapping and cartography. A brief run-down: Karin looked at the tattoos of an American sailor, and in a fit of visual creativity all to rare in historians, ended up actually drawing a map of East Asia using characters from a maritime font that incorporated information and elements from the sailor’s records. Christopher King innovatively examined closet space throughout American history, and charted its growth as a lens for viewing a wide array of other factors – class, cultural, economics, etc. Ammon mapped out underground munitions manufacturing that the Nazis had been planning towards the end of WWII, and spoke extremely thoughtfully on the nuts-and-bolts challenges of dealing with copyright issues (always an issue with graphics). Finally, Martin McGuirk analyzed military maps from the Battle of Monmouth, and recreated his own, presumably more accurate diagram of the battle’s proceedings.
One aspect that I was impressed with, in all of their projects, was their skill in graphic design and their use of relatively basic software in order to produce extremely clean, good-looking visualizations. As someone with a background in ArcGIS software, I was intrigued by the fact that they created these products using some much simpler (and much, much, much cheaper) applications. Additionally, I was blown away at how genuinely collegial the graduate students were. When an audience member asked a specific question to one of them regarding their topic, it became immediately apparent that all of them knew the ins-and-outs of each others’ projects almost as well as they knew their own – certainly a testament to the benefits of academic collaboration. Following the session, I had the chance to sit down in the Hilton bar and talk with Paula Petrik and Christopher King, who generously gave their perspectives on a range of topics, from the state of the field in digital history to applying and deciding on graduate school. They both gave me a lot to mull over, especially regarding graduate school.
The final event of the day was the General Meeting that night, at which Laurel Thatcher Ulrich handed out the annual awards and Gabrielle Spiegel gave her presidential address. Spiegel is a seriously gifted historian and, by all accounts, a phenomenally nice person (and she went to Bryn Mawr, a school I hold quite dear to my heart as my big sister’s alma mater). But between my own lightweight background in historical theory and a massive, beer-infused dinner at Heartland Brewery, I had some trouble keeping up with all of the “irreducable otherness of the past” and “merely fictive postulates” that marked her speech. I then further gave myself away as a mouth-breathing clod, when I gracelessly gorged myself on several plates of tasty (and free – always important on an AmeriCorps budget) food at the reception, and waddled off into the streets of Manhattan.