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