Nov. 22, 2006

Identify Yourself

I have a confession: I’ve been thinking about class discussions outside of class. Whereas I once used to occasionally contemplate how to transform my essay title into a brilliant eight-word alliteration (historians love alliterations), I now find myself chewing on ideas brought up in class as I walk home.

My reader is probably thinking that I am transforming into an unbearable, over-achieving dork. Well… that might be true, but listen: I’m a Public History student who is still trying to understand what “public history” is. Today I encountered three people who together helped me to understand what a public historian can and can’t do; if I hadn’t been thinking dorky school thoughts, I might not have put the pieces together!

On my walk to school, I unexpectedly ran into a cousin who also attends Western; we rarely see each other outside of family get-togethers, so it was fantastic to be able to catch up while we made our way to campus. After class, I saw a guy who was a part of the same exchange to Trois-Pistoles that I participated in. I never had the opportunity to speak to him in Quebec though, so it didn’t seem meaningful or necessary to talk to him today. On my way home, I walked past a young man who I had gone to high school with. Although we had both been in band, he was a couple years younger than me and I don’t think we ever shared a conversation. Today, I gave him a half-smile and continued on my way.

I felt a little guilty for not taking a minute to say “Hey – I know you!” On the other hand, the only person of the three that I had shared a significant relationship with was my cousin. At best, I am probably a poor networker for not strengthening the other two relationships; at worst I could be called anti-social. I doubt that I am alone in making that choice to not talk to another person. Few people like walking away from a conversation thinking, “Well, that was awkward!” I think I took the time to talk to my cousin because we are connected by stronger links. We have shared the same experiences, are related to the same people, and see each other on a somewhat regular basis. In short, we identify with one another on a number of levels. I had been thinking about national identity as I was walking home (When you’re hungry, you need to keep your mind occupied), and these encounters seem to put some pieces together for me.

It’s important for us to be able to identify with others, isn’t it? Last week in Public History, we tried to understand why people in one country would choose to identify with one another. What makes a person from St. John associate more strongly with a person from Calgary than a person from Bangor, Maine? As Canadians, we supposedly share a set of values and experiences that give us a sense of pride in our identity and distinguish us from the citizens of other nations. Although there are certain current events that we can identify with, the stories from our collective past also form a significant portion of the experiences we would consider “shared.” If this is the case, historians would appear to be essential in developing a Canadian identity.

A Canadian identity? It would appear that historians should also be asking for a raise because it’s a pretty tall order to come up with one, inclusive, grand narrative that tells the story of all Canadians. Recent readings and class discussion have underscored what a Herculean task it would be to create a national story that everybody – scholars, governments, minority groups, and members of the diverse Canadian public – would be happy with. We are also coming to the realization that exhibits will continually change as historians discover new evidence and that, ultimately, public history is strongly influenced by both economic considerations (It’s hard to put up continually put on controversial exhibits if your sources of funding are uninterested in stirring the pot).

The public historian needs to be a touch more pragmatic when facing these problems, so I would be willing to forfeit my raise if I were allowed to develop identities. I chose not renew the relationship I shared with the two men I encountered today. Canadians will place an emphasis on the elements of their identity that they see as most important. My role as a public historian is to present a number of stories and a number of values. In so doing, I hope to encourage people to think critically: “What do I agree with?” What do I think is rubbish?” “Why do I think this way?” Perhaps this sort of public history will entrench more regional identities; however, I said the public historian need to be a touch more pragmatic. The absurdly optimistic public historian inside of me hopes that this sort of history will not only make people feel better about their individual identity but also drive Canadians towards a consensus on what it means to be Canadian.

The Public History students’ exhibit at Museum London seeks to present one identity of London. It is our hope that visitors will come away with the sense that Londoners both embrace inventions and foster innovation. Will everybody who comes to the museum share this sense that London is a city of inventors? Will you identify with this community? Hopefully you’ll be considering these questions while you’re visiting.
And don’t worry – if you keep thinking about what you learned from the exhibit after you leave, I won’t think you’re a dork!

Nov. 15, 2006

A Challenge for Public History

I am concerned.

I am concerned that I have not been using this blog properly or to its full potential. Humility in History is supposed to be a space for publishing my reflections regarding my learning experience as a public historian and a digital historian. I have written a number of posts concerned with the theory of Public History and Digital History, and I like to think that my readers are gaining some insight into what I am learning in the Public History program here at Western. On the other hand, I have written very little about what my class is doing. Yep, it’s true – we Public History students don’t just sit in front of our computers, reading online articles and then blogging about the concepts contained in these articles.

This year, the Public Historians are putting together an exhibit for Museum London, which is located here in London, ON. The exhibit will focus on invention and innovation in London, and we hope to showcase not only many of the items that citizens of London used in the past but also the process of innovation that continues in this city today. We are not alone in this effort either; we’re collaborating with curators and collectors, professors and inventors – not to mention one another. Our responsibilities range from creating a title to typing out the text for each item to be displayed. For the last month we’ve been busy researching exhibit items, conducting interviews with experts, and working together to figure out what idea we want our audience – you – to walk away from our exhibit with. This project is truly a fantastic opportunity to put into practice the theories and ideas that we read and blog about each week!

I am concerned.

I am concerned that we are blowing this opportunity. Twice over.

First of all, we have made lamentably little use of our Number One means of advertising for this exhibit: our blogs! We aren’t publicizing the project that we are creating for the public! Regardless of the fact that many of our readers are probably family, friends, or romantic interests – people who are already likely aware that we are putting together an exhibit for Museum London – we should still be making an effort to share our excitement for this project. It’s fantastic that we have buddies and relatives who are willing to support us; I fully expect friends from camp, friends from Western, friends from McMaster, friends from Ottawa, and extended family from across southern Ontario to make every effort to check this exhibit out in February! Imagine how much cooler it would be if all these people came to see the exhibit not because I was a part of it but because there was actually a hype for the exhibit itself? As the creators of this exhibit, it is our expectation that visitors will react in some way to the information we present; but in order for that reaction to occur, our audience needs to be genuinely interested in the content of this exhibit. The blogs published by this year’s Public History students are a key way to foster a hype that could make people care!

Secondly, and I think more importantly, I believe that we are blowing the opportunity to develop good habits as intentional public historians. Two weeks ago, Public History students read about the importance of process in putting together an exhibit. In our subsequent discussions, we have done a poor job of following the suggested process. I think that this is a result of both a looming deadline (we need to have all of our text submitted by Nov. 29) as well as our efforts to cope with some assumptions made about the direction of the exhibit earlier on in the semester.

I understand and agree that it is important to stick to deadlines, especially when we are collaborating with bodies outside of the university; however, I also place high value on the learning process, the collaborative process within our class, and on turning out high-quality work. At the beginning of the semester, Alan posed the question: When will we cease to be history students and begin being historians? In a similar vein, I would like to ask, “If we did not get ourselves into the habit of putting out quality public history in an intentional, methodical fashion while we are Public History students, when are we going to get into that habit?” This is our time to learn! It is the time when we are allowed to make mistakes! Choose your cliché: You don’t learn to ride a bike without falling a few times; you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs! This is an opportunity to (dare I suggest it?) decide that we will not be meeting our deadline and to instead decide that we will take the time to ensure that we not only proud of our finished product but also the process by which we made that product. I am not suggesting that we have been inconsiderate when planning this exhibit; the Public History students have had numerous discussions concerning the message we want visitors to leave with and the narrative that we desire to tell. On the other hand, we have not yet had a focused discussion to decide how our main theme is supported by both our narrative and the grouping of exhibit items. We have no consensus regarding the tone or the mood of our exhibit. We are most definitely at the point where we have at the very least a basic understanding of our items purpose and history; therefore, I assume that we should be able to come to a solid (though not inflexible) plan as to where precisely we are headed with this exhibit. The readings that we have been assigned give us clear instructions on where our planning energies need to be focused.

I have devoted a great deal of space to some of the challenges that our group is currently facing and which I am as guilty of contributing to as the rest of the class. By no means do I think that I am better than any of my classmates. I am merely putting forward my observations of our group’s progress based on my interpretation of the class readings as well as previous group experiences. In short, it seems that our process of problem-solving, that is to say, our process of answering the question, “What are we trying to say in this exhibit and how are we going to say it?” has been overly-influenced by timelines and a need for success and not influenced enough by intentional goal setting. Conversely, I am confident that we still have time to develop some concrete conceptual guidelines for this exhibit, which will allow us to try out more of the skills that we are learning about in this program. As a plan of action, I suggest:

It is important for us to create a hype for our exhibit by “teasing” the audience in our respective blogs.

It is important for us to examine our plans as they stand on the class wiki and, though discussion and editing, come to a consensus in regards to the focus, narrative, tone, and categorization of items in our exhibit.

It is important for us to re-visit our deadlines to decide whether adjustments need to be made.

It is important for us to keep in mind the journey as well as the goal.

So… reader and future visitor to Museum London’s exhibit on inventions and innovations, you now have a great deal of insight into some of the practical challenges that we Public History students have been facing. What do you think will happen next? Will we be able to produce an exhibit that impresses a central idea on you? What will the reaction be to this post? Will Alan protect me from being lynched by my classmates tomorrow? Will the above words be enough to stir the pot or will we remain complacent and focused on deadlines rather than content? Will you look at our exhibit with a more critical or interested eye now that you have read about some of the challenges that we are struggling with?

Are you concerned?

Nov. 13, 2006

"I never thought that something like this would happen to me!"

It was a red-letter day in my academic career. On Friday, November 3, 2006, I took an enormous leap of faith as a digital historian and downloaded Python onto my computer. Yes, I had decided that I was going to learn a programming language.

As soon as I had the program in which to write Python code up and running, I jumped into an introductory tutorial. Boy, I was ready to get my hands dirty and finally try to do some of the whiz-bang computer magic that we have been talking about in class for the last two months!

Unfortunately, this first “beginner” tutorial proved too advanced for me. I didn’t have a clue what the author was talking about. You can picture me looking blankly at these apparently simple instructions. It was pathetic! I needed a PRE-introductory tutorial on Python. I decided not to let this minor setback phase me though and quickly discovered the package of Non-Programmers Tutorials that were included in the Python software I had downloaded. Hello Success! Or rather, “Hello World.” The first lesson in programming is to make the computer print this statement on the screen. Never fear - I made this statement appear! I should have counted, but I’m pretty sure that by the time I had concluded my first foray in to the world of Python I had typed different versions of “Hello World” at least 18 times. Hey – you need to cling to what you’re familiar with.

It turns out that programming is a lot more interesting to actually do than to read about; sort of in the same way that it’s more interesting to do research for a paper than it is to listen to the school librarian give a 50-minute presentation telling you how to research a paper. Okay, so I’m being a little dramatic - I have to admit that what I’ve learned has reinforced some of the concepts that I learned from the computer science tutorials.

As far as progress goes though, I haven’t gone very far. Oh I’ve written my own program – two in fact – but I don’t think that I’m at the point where I can apply much of what I have learned to researching a historical topic. On the other hand, I am seeing a light forming at the end of this serpentine tunnel. (I know… I apologize for the snake reference. It was too awful to resist.) This past week I learned about using “while”: as long as a certain set of circumstances are not fulfilled, a program will continue to perform a certain number of steps. For example, I might write a program that searches through this post looking snake references; as long as it doesn’t come across a group of letters like “snake,” “serpentine,” or “slither,” it will keep looking at each word. Essentially, I could create a primitive search engine. If I look more broadly at my Python learning experience though, I feel confident saying that I am a lot more comfortable reading lines of code and understanding what they mean; furthermore, I’ve been able to take baby steps beyond what has been required in the practice exercises! Step aside Bill Gates!

Good Riddance!

In an effort to move on to more compelling projects, last week I ploughed through the last of the computer science tutorials and finally completed my rudimentary education on how computers work on the inside. After reading the module on Operating Systems, I came away with the understanding that systems such as Windows XP and Mac OS are the manage what the rest of the computer is doing by saying what program (such as word processors or internet browsers) can run when and how much memory that program can use. I followed up this module by reading about Machine Architecture. Skimming through this information, I realized two things: first, I already had a good general idea about the pieces that make up the guts of a computer; and secondly, to get too deep into these guts is a job best left to hardware engineers and historians interested in the evolution of the computer chip.

As the reader might have guessed, I found it difficult to be really sink my teeth into these online tutorials; however, I do not want to categorize these tutorials as completely useless. As an individual trying to understand what makes a computer do what it does, the take-home message from this body of tutorials was that computers use explicit instructions in order to solve tasks. The more detailed the instructions are, the more complex a process the computer can carry out. As a historian, this message tells me that if I am interested in having a computer fulfil a specific task, I need only give it proper and precise instructions, and it will be able to carry out that task. Of course, that means learning how to speak a computer language…

A second project that I would like to make some concluding remarks about is my use of del.icio.us. I began using deli.cio.us to collect and tag internet sources that I was using for an essay; however, I found that clicking on tags to see what other websites users had tagged infrequently led to more useful information. Although I originally wanted to keep up tagging websites in order to build up a larger database of links relating to aboriginal archives, in the end this process became more of a hurdle in my research. It slowed me down to have to type in the website title, a description, and tags for each. On the other hand, del.icio.us has become a home for those links that I am not willing to commit to in my own Favourites folder. I find that I still do save and tag the odd website that I want to remember for an immediate project; however, these sites are forgotten as soon as the project is finished. I suppose that I am creating a deli.icio.us junkyard – a place of forgotten websites of lost importance.