13:1 or 143:1 (A truth nugget?)

Given that we ran out of time to discuss the podcasts in class, I decided that rather than respond with individual comments to each of you on your blog posts in this last week of the semester, I’ll highlight some of the general themes that emerged in your responses that I hoped to discuss in seminar. (Don’t worry—you all did fine on the last weekly post!). I also figure it is better late than never for the instructor to get in on the blogging action. I’ve asked you to write each week and responded with individual private comments, but the least I can do is offer one blog post to each of your baker’s dozen.

I also want to reinforce several points made in the Smithsonian webcasts, namely Chris Anderson’s notion that “messiness is good” and Clay Shirky’s idea that “group action just got easier.” Anderson’s idea may be problematic for an institution like the Smithsonian, but he is clearly reinforcing a theme we’ve seen throughout the semester—the 20th century was a curatorial one where control rested with experts but with the web and the culture of abundance in the 21st century, users have much more control over content and, as we say before Thanksgiving, are pushing new ideas about copyright and access. For Shirky, this environment of abundance means that we can more easily share, collaborate, and act together. In this sense, we can use digital projects to create new communities—be it something like PhilaPlace or the Pepys enthusiasts following his daily exploits centuries ago, or perhaps among some of the listeners to something like Backstory. I leave it to someone else to explore Benedict Anderson’s idea of “imagined communities,” but Shirky, Anderson, and Ferren certainly see possibilities for creating new communities through digital history and archival projects.

The chapter we read from Cohen and Rosenzweig this week suggests that understanding and engaging your audience is crucial. While they are discussing websites, their discussion can certainly apply to podcasts and several of you discussed the issue of audience engagement and expectations. Some like Backstory are meant to appeal to broader audiences by communicating important historical information in a casual, light-hearted manner. As several of you highlighted, tone and style matters for the multi-tasking listener. Perhaps the Nature’s Past and BBC’s In Our Time podcasts engage the public to a more limited extent, with the former focused on specific issues related to Canadian history and the latter covering a wide range of topics in a discussion format. But those of you who listened to these podcasts suggested they weren’t as effective in terms of reaching a broader public. The JAH and Environmental History podcasts have an academic audience in mind, particularly the former which interviews JAH article authors. That being said, several of you pointed out how the format might open up the material to teachers and others who do not have access to the journal. This might be their only way to engage the material, given issues of closed v. open access.

On this issue of access and portability, several of you pointed out how the podcast format makes material available through syndication but is also limited in terms of the resources it can provide. It can be audio or video, but it is hard to embed sources and footnotes in a podcast. For this, one needs a supplementary website or the JAH article. Interactivity may also be more limited—Backstory takes calls from listeners and allows for comments on the webpage (and submissions for program ideas), but many of the other podcasts are more closed to user-generated content and engagement. In this sense, perhaps they don’t fully take Anderson and Shirky’s ideas to heart, using a 21st century medium in a 20th century manner. In Shirky’s terms, perhaps the podcasts are still the Acropolis rather than the agora. Finally, on the issue of audience, one might consider how people learn. Some people respond more effectively to visual cues while others might engage auditory cures.

Unlike some of the other projects we looked at this term, many of the podcasts also seek to connect to current events. This is particularly the case with Backstory and the effort is designed to engage in discussion regarding the historical background of current situations. That being said, several of you pointed out how the podcasts sometimes suffer from a lack of a clear narrative arc. They don’t necessarily tell good stories. This was one of the points Bran Ferren made at the Smithsonian conference—move beyond the artifact and think about the ways in which people can use them to tell stories. For those of you who have read Robert Archibald’s work, you’ll certainly recognize this theme. Artifacts are not knowledge, they are artifacts, it is the stories that we tell about and around the artifacts that produce knowledge.

Finally, several of you pointed out the need to develop content on a regular basis. We’ve certainly seen our share of static websites that seem not to have been updated for years or blog posts that never continue. If you are offering a podcast series, or appearing on the radio (as in Backstory and BBC), you need to maintain a religious production schedule. By developing more content (or in the case of the Smithsonian, opening up more of the collection to the public online), you open up the possibility for more people to offer unique insight and contribute their ideas to further the production of knowledge. Whether one wants to go as far as Anderson suggests in terms of the Smithsonian opening itself up to citizen curators and becoming the Wikipedia of the museum world is perhaps a different story for another day, but an interesting one nonetheless.

So let me close with some final thoughts, first by returning to the syllabus and second by offering a sincere thank you. I’ll look forward to your final projects and encourage you to make them public if you are comfortable doing so. You’ll need to click the appropriate box in Omeka and can also provide a link in your final post, which I’ll be happy to also place on your project pages on the blog.

The syllabus suggested the course’s key aims were:

1)      To introduce and explore the key issues, analyses, critical debates, opportunities and potential drawbacks in using new media;

2)      To read leading scholarship and think about new media in historical practice;

3)      To discover and evaluate digital tools and resources for your historical scholarship, public projects, and teaching; and,

4)      To put what we read and discuss into practice by learning how to construct, post, maintain, and implement new media in your historical work.

I certainly hope you feel we’ve done this together. I know this has been my experience. I welcome continued discussion here on this blog and in person beyond the semester. I want to thank you all for embarking on a bit of an experiment this term. Many of you have had your comfort zones challenged at times (I think Omeka and my vague conference plan assignment certainly qualify), but I think this has allowed all of us to explore opportunities for integrating digital history into our scholarship, teaching, and public engagement.  I thank you for your thoughtfulness, insight, and engagement throughout the semester. -AS

In Our Time, Podcasts Provide the BackStory

From BackStory, I listened to “American Spirit: A History of the Supernatural.” This “Halloween special” podcast explored Americans’ relationship with ghosts, spirits, and witches. Each podcast has its own page that offers a short summary of the guiding questions for the podcast, as well as further readings and web exclusives. The web exclusives for the “American Spirit” podcast includes an extended version of Ed Ayres’ interview with a spirit medium and a recording of a listener phone call. BackStory also features a variety of ways to share each podcast through social media. Beyond sharing podcasts, users are invited to comment and start their own conversations about the topic on the website.

The second podcast I listened to was “The Aztecs” from BBC’s In Our Time. Like the BackStory podcast, In Our Time offers a short summary of the guiding questions for each podcast. The more recent podcasts offer related links and further readings. “The Aztecs” was produced in 2003, and does not offer this supplementary content. In Our Time did not offer ways for listeners to interact or share podcasts through social media.

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Evolution, Mughals, Mutinies, and awesome ways to supplement history courses

I really enjoyed listening to the podcasts this week. I actually listened to three because I liked them so much and I have subscribed to the BBC podcasts in my Google reader so I’ll remember to go back to it in the future.

The first podcast I listened to was called “In the Beginning: Evolution and Creation in America” on the Backstory site. The podcast featured three history guys, one each from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. They started out by discussing the founding fathers’ views on religion, focusing particularly on Thomas Jefferson, his deism, and his interest in science. Of particular interest was the discussion of Jefferson’s fossilized bones, the lack of understanding of species extinction in the eighteenth century, and the connection between Jefferson’s desire to find these mysterious animals and the Lewis and Clark expeditions. They then moved on to discussing Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and its unremarkable reception in the United States, which was followed by a more critical view as more and more children started attending public school, thus being exposed to the theory of evolution, and as people tried to understand the devastation people could inflict on others through wars such as WWI and WWII. They chronicle the Scopes Trial, including audio segments from the film Inherit the Wind throughout the show and interview a high school biology teacher from Dayton, Tennessee who disagrees with evolution. They next discuss the history of evangelism and creation science in the United States, noting that in its beginnings, creation science attempted to accommodate scientific views of nature that largely excluded religion, but by the 1980s, God was brought into the conversation. The program was very interesting in that it brought it featured the three historians, one of whom was Ed Ayers, who interviewed different people (experts and laypeople) about the subject, and featured audio clips from different time periods to highlight changing viewpoints. The show also featured a segment where callers could speak with the historians about their own thoughts/questions about the topic which generated interesting discussions not featured in the main body of the show. While I enjoyed the show, I also appreciated the extra features built into the site, such as an area for users to discuss the show with each other on the page and the further reading section that featured materials listeners could access about the topics highlighted in the show. For instance, as I was listening to the historians talk about Jefferson’s fossils, I wanted to know more. I found links to this information in the further reading section. Another interesting aspect of the site is the “In the Works” section where ideas for future shows are posted and users of the site can weigh in with ideas and questions they would like covered. The two callers featured on the above mentioned program were contacted because of their participation in this section of the site. Each story also features a series of tags user can access to find more stories of their interest.

On the BBC site, I listened to two podcasts: one about the Mughal Empre and one about the Indian Mutiny. I enjoyed them (obviously because I listened to two), but noticed the tone to be quite different from the Backstory site. While the Backstory site was more of a show featuring different types of discussion, engagement with audience, and audio clips of different media, the BBC podcasts featured historians talking to each other about the topic. No other media was featured. There is no engagement with the audience. People cannot comment or discuss the podcast. It is historians talking and users are meant to download the podcast and listen. I may sound critical, and I am a bit, because I approve of user engagement, but I still felt like the podcasts worked well for their purpose, which is to educate interest listeners by allowing them to listen to a conversation between experts.

When I think about these sites in the context of what we’ve been discussing throughout the quarter, I think the two sites do a good job of using digital media to accomplish their goals. The Backstory site clearly intends to engage the public, provide open access to different users from different backgrounds, utilize experts and the public in collecting and analyzing history, and connect information in a variety of ways by linking out to other sites, using tags, and encouraging discussion. I believe the BBC site is very different and not meant to engage the public in the same way, but I still think it also meets some of the goals of digital history – it allows the public to access information that they may not otherwise have by placing conversations between experts on the web for free. And I might add, there are a lot of these conversations. I think that the site tends to function as an open access archive to a wealth of information about history, culture, literature, science, and more.

The first thing I thought when listening to the podcasts was, “Awesome. I want to keep listening to these.” The second thing I thought was that these could be very useful in teaching. I have noticed that in the world history course I TA for, it is very difficult to cover all of the topics during lecture and I’m sure many of the students are a little bored from their text. I’m not saying that the text or the lecture should be replaced, but I do think that assigning a couple of podcasts a week, like the BBC podcasts, would be a fun, easy, free, and interesting way to supplement the traditional style.

“Bears, Memory, and National Park Tourism” has now officially been added to my research agenda.

It occurs to me that in order to compare these podcasts to other forms of digital history that we have examined this semester, it first of all bears noting which podcasts I listened to and how they differed from one another. On my way back to Auburn, I listened to the podcast in its intended form—via iPhone. On BackStory, I listened to “Looking for Work: A History of Unemployment.” Being a bit of a labor historian and dabbling a bit with a New Deal program that dealt quite a bit with unemployment, I thought this would be an intriguing program. I was not displeased. I really enjoyed the format and the interactivity between the historians. At one point, it struck me as to how similar their conversation was to what we do in seminar every week—they were bouncing ideas off of each other, embellishing points, and countering others. Additionally, they invited user participation, and their responses to these listeners’ contributions were not demeaning or condescending. In this podcast, I was especially struck by the historians’ discussion of the evolution of the word “unemployed” and their response to a user who asked about the influx of women into the workforce in 1970. On this latter point, each historian rightly noted that women laborers have had a much longer history; with the addition of race and class dimension, that particular discussion was quite enriching. What I thought could have been more fleshed out was the discussion of unemployment in the 20th century. Ed Ayers and Peter Onuf both provided very detailed and interesting concepts of unemployment in the 18th and 19th centuries, but Brian Balogh’s development of unemployment in the 20th century fell flat. It seemed like he did not get the same amount of time as the other historians to develop any points on that account.

The other podcast I listened to was from NiCHE’s Nature’s Past podcast collection. I listened to episode 22, “A Century of Parks Canada.” Probably the first thing that stuck out to me with this podcast was the program’s insistence upon noting that Parks Canada began five years before the National Park Service in America (hey, I guess they should be excited for something). What this podcast did, in stark contrast with BackStory, is to set up a roundtable discussion between contributors to an anthology commemorating the centennial of Parks Canada. This format took away some of the interactivity presented in BackStory and reestablished the Ivory Tower separation that was conspicuously (and gratefully) absent from the former. But the conversation in the roundtable was engaging, historical banter; to me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this particular podcast was George Colpitts’ discussion of his chapter, “Films, Tourists, and Bears in the National Parks: Managing Park Use and the Problematic ‘Highway Bum’ Bear in the 1970s.” So in comparison to one another, BackStory was much more effective at engaging a broad topic and inviting interchange; the Nature’s Past selection, on the other hand, presented a more conference-like experience on a very specific project.

In a way, these two particular podcasts, in their format itself, reflect exactly what we have looked at all semester. The way the content is presented—removing the visual or audible aspect and leaving simply how the message is presented—is quite similar. Using these two podcasts as points of comparison, there are certainly websites that have user friendly content and actively engage user participation (BackStory); likewise, there are websites that are devoted to very specific topics and act as an archive, database, or other tool that benefits the researcher (NiCHE’s Nature’s Past). The podcasts’ concept of audience also represents a range of what we have examined in other digital projects; BackStory would be great for a wider range of laypersons, while perhaps the Nature’s Past podcast would be better suited to a scholar. What is most obviously different between a podcast and a website is literally how the message is conveyed, either visually or audibly. Additionally, much to the benefit to the website over the podcast is that the latter is often a static moment—a piece of research rather than the result; podcasts are often included on websites. Websites, however, are much more dynamic; even BackStory has a website on which they continue dialogue after the podcast has finished.

Ultimately, both formats are needed in the realm of digital history.  Each format is unique and contributes greatly to our understanding of how to proceed with, devise, and understand digital history.