Monday, November 16, 2009

History Blogs

Shamelessly cribbed from "In the Middle" this list of medieval history blogs. Current as of this writing.

Each is well worth a visit. Each is well worth a long visit, especially if you are a student in the field, but also if you're an interested amateur or a working historian.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why I don't put a single lecture into a single file

People ask me about this, so I'll answer. They want me to put all of a single essay into a single file.

I ask: why?

Because, they reply, it's easier to print. I also suspect an answer is: because it's easier to copy. I've never heard any argument that doing so would improve learning.

I have no interest in making the information on my sites easier to print. My essays are designed to be read online and take advantage of that environment. This includes ancillary tools such as sound files to help with pronunciation and images like maps that help with understanding, or even just pictures to help with visualization. While the images can be printed, they are never as clear, and in any case you can't zoom them; sound files, of course, don't exist on paper.

I actively discourage such habits as highlighting, which is how some students think studying happens, so that's another reason not to facilitate print.

I do suspect students, especially public school students, of copy/pasting entire passages. It's a near certainty. Putting everything in one file merely makes that job easier, and I have interest in doing that. Beyond that, however, I know for a fact that other sites duplicate my content without permission, and I want to make that task difficult for them as well.

Finally, there's an issue of scope here. If it makes sense to put all the pages of an essay into a single file, why stop there? Why not all the essays in the entire site into a single file? Heck, why not all my classes, just one great long file? On the contrary, if anything, I'm moving towards increasing the granularity of the information.

Are there any benefits to my approach? Well of course there are.

First is readability. I don't try to keep "above the fold" but I do try to keep pages relatively short. Within that very vague guideline, I try to make each page self-contained; in fact, my model comes from the very old-fashioned style of history books that would have inserted headings--not chapter titles nor even section headings, but indicators of a change in topic. Typically these would encompass only two or three paragraphs. I try to break each page at a logical point that would propel the reader on to the next page. Readability is, in other words, a consideration both in terms of screen reading but also in the rhythm of reading.

Second is ease of reference. Discussion is important in my pedagogy and by breaking an essay into many pages I facilitate references, both in discussion and in papers.

Third is findability. Search engines are happiest when each page is about a topic. By breaking an essay into many pages I can title each specifically and adjust keywords as needed.

Finally is performance. Because I make extensive use of media, an entire essay in a single file would actually be pretty hefty, even by modern standards. I try always to be cognizant that my work is on a world stage, so I try to keep the footprint of any single page as light as possible.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Why Study History?

Just about every textbook published feels compelled to say something about the uses of history and why (please oh please) students should study it. I'm here to let everyone off the hook. You don't need to study history. Society doesn't *need* history. My discipline has its merits, but it is a social luxury, adding value to society.

What about the need to learn from the past?

Not important. We don't need to learn from the past. In fact, in most places and most centuries, most people had only a dim and deeply confused idea about their past. And they did fine. They made us. Lacking historians, people simply make stuff up. In fact, even with historians around, they make stuff up, because what we have to say is too nuanced and doesn't fit with their stereotypes.

Now, if you should happen to want genuinely to understand the past, then you need to learn the discipline of history. Not, mind you, read a bunch of books, but to learn the discipline. This is no small task, but it has its rewards. Those rewards accrue to the profession and to the individual; it doesn't do much for "society".

Don't study it because it's "useful" in some way, because it isn't. A hammer is useful. History isn't a hammer.

History doesn't have utility; history has value. You know, like art or friends or travel. These have value because they enrich our lives.

With a hammer, once you get its utility out of it, that's all you get out of it—all you ever can get out of it. But with travel, friends, art and yes with history, you can return over and over. In fact, the more often you travel, the more often you turn to friends or art, and the more often you study history, the more you receive from it.

That's way better than mere usefulness.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cologne Archive Collapses

What a bitter irony that I happen to have chosen a picture (months ago) of Cologne! Here is a link to an article in Der Spiegel (it's in English) about the collapse.,1518,613209,00.html

Two people died in the collapse. How much archival material is permanently lost is hard to say, but there's been extensive water damage, so there's no doubt losses will be significant.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Online Resources

The quantity of material online is getting truly overwhelming. With the exception of modern scholarship, which is still largely confined to print, I do believe there is enough material online for the teaching of any undergraduate history course. At least for European (and probably for U.S.). Really, for many areas, there's even enough to support graduate research, for an enormous number of archival collections are also coming online. Most are free, though some do require a subscription.

The latest impressive resource I've found is at the Internet Archive. A search in their text collection yields an extraordinary treasure trove. True, it's mostly very old, as it must be out of copyright protection, but in some ways this is an important supplement, for these are the very works that tend not to appear on most library shelves.

Now, granted, an 1850 history of medieval Germany is not where I would have most students begin. On the other hand, though, a search on "Reformation" turned up collections of source documents that included a collection of letters sent from English reformers to people like Heinrich Bullinger. You simply are not going to find those letters anywhere except in a specialist library, and then you may not be able to get the work via interlibrary loan, depending on its condition. Because it's online, though, I can make assignments into it for my students. These are voices my students would otherwise never hear.

I encourage my peers to explore these resources. It does take a tremendous amount of time. Perhaps there's work to be done here, compiling references to specific online works (even down to particular pages or passages), in the same way paid scholars once collected materials for a printed collection of teaching resources.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Speak Up

How do you get students to talk?

It's as much a challenge in a virtual course as in a live course. The difference is that in a live course they have to talk with what they have in their brains at the time, whereas in an asynchronous environment, they can look things up and can discourse more intelligently.

This can have a negative effect, though. The better students, able to consult with their texts, can post detailed and intelligent comments that can intimidate other students. Those other students might be shy, or they might be late starters, or they might simply be the sort that bristles at learned discourse. Whatever their reasons, they clam up.

The only way I know to get them to talk is with both the carrot and the stick. The stick is the requirement. They must post N number of messages every week and their discussion counts for a significant portion of their final grade (I usually do around 40%). Not talking hurts. The carrot comes in the form of progress reports where I can ask the non-participators how they are doing, if they're having problems, etc. Language that is supportive and inviting.

Responses tend to fall into two piles. One is of the "yeah, I know" sort. They apologize and say they'll try harder. Sometimes they give reasons, sometimes not. The other type are those who say they can't find anything to say, or that they're intimidated, or confused as to what to say.

For them, I've learned to provide aids. These come in the form of "study questions" tied to the source readings. Some day I may get ambitious and add study questions for the lectures and textbooks as well. I'd rather not, as I don't want to steer the conversation. I also encourage the student to ask questions, even if it's merely about a word or phrase they don't understand. I also encourage them to read the posts of others and to respond to those.

After all that, there are still those who under-participate. A second progress report, stating bluntly that they're failing the discussion portion of the course, can help. But in the end, there are a handful who post 25 of the 45 required messages. Or 30 or 35. Well short. They of course get what they have earned.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Scholarly works online

More and more serious scholarly work is being made available on the web. I talked last time about De Re Militarii, but that's just one example. I was browsing through Andrew Holt's Crusades Encyclopedia and found a page on William Urban, one of the leading authorities on the Baltic Crusades.
That page has links to several of Urban's articles in various journals. There you can read about religion in the Baltic, the organization of armies, and even Teutonic Knights jokes.

The same Encyclopedia has links to the works of other scholars, including Thomas Madden, Malcolm Barber, Christopher Marshall, and many others.

The University of Wisconsin has "The Crusades" edited by Kenneth Setton, all six volumes of it. This work, done in the 1950s, is filled with excellent articles on a surprising variety of topics.

There's even Michaud's history, written almost 200 years ago.

And that's just the Crusades.

The real message here is that there's a considerable body of work in just about every field. Not on every specialty topic, not by a long shot. Nor are the most important works necessarily online. But there's more than enough material for most any given course, even upper division (probably not graduate work, yet).

All of which raises an interesting pedagogical question. Would it be possible to design a course, let's say a course on the Crusades, using *only* online resources?

Certainly it wouldn't be ideal. Most of us would immediately say that our campus library is far richer in resources. Moreover, using on the Web would be designing a course around what happened to be there, not around what was best and most appropriate.

But then I thought about that.

First, don't we all find ourselves constrained by what happens to be at our campus library? Yes there's ILL, but I don't need to tell you the drawbacks of that, especially if you're on the quarter system.

Moreover, it's been a long time since I could design around what was best and most appropriate. Ever since publishers started letting books go out of print left and right, it's been increasingly difficult to use the texts I prefer. Instead, I've had to design around what happened to be in print. So this idea that we currently make assignments into unconstrained resources is simply wrong. In which case, the Web is simply another constrained resource.

I've done more than just think about this. Everything in my Western Civ course is online. I'm seriously considering moving my Crusades course to that format. The Late Middle Ages is problematic because most of the resources are hopelessly "Renaissance" in orientation. The Reformation is a mixed bag: great on primary sources, pretty good on secondary literature as long as it centers on religion or on a couple of specific topics (witchcraft, New World), but dreadfully thin in other areas.

Still, it'd be interesting, even as an exercise, to design a course around what *is* there.