AHA-ing (Sunday Recap)

My final day at the AHA began with Building the Future of History and Computing, sponsored by the American Association for History and Computing. It consisted of four presentations, two focusing on GIS, the third of data analysis, and the fourth on podcasts. I liked what the speakers had to say, although the presentations weren’t quite as sharp or engaging as I had hoped for. It was interesting to hear Brian Rizzo’s impressive efforts at the University of Mary Washington to build its GIS program, and made me a little itchy to import some shapefiles again. I was also reminded at how widely applicable mapping skills are in general, as Rizzo mentioned that he counted at least 12 departments at UMW that could directly benefit from integrating a GIS component into their curriculum. An admittedly biased viewpoint, but one that is probably true.

The second session was CHNM’s third session of the weekend, “Teaching History in the Digital Age.” The room was encouragingly packed, with people lining the walls, and the presenters didn’t disappoint. Although I thought there was probably one or two more panelists than necessary, it was a fascinating panel. Jeffrey W. McClurken kicked things off by speaking animatedly about his course at the University of Mary Washington that required students to complete a digital project in place of a term paper. He aptly described his intentions of keeping his students in a perpetual state of discomfort, but not paralysis, a description I’ve heard before about teaching students in any kind of new technology. There is a fine line between pushing people to experiment outside of their technological comfort zone and making them completely overwhelmed. Some of the semester projects his students completed were quite impressive displays of digital production.

Also of interest, Jeremy Boggs shared his experience teaching at George Mason University, and his attempts to break down traditional barriers between students-teachers and students-students. I was in awe of his willingness to make himself “radically transparent,” and distribute his AIM screename, friend his students on Facebook, and encourage them to text him. That takes a lot of courage, and is not a route that 99.99% of teachers out there would be willing to take. He also spoke about the successes and challenges of using a blogging platform to organize the class, and having his students make posts and make comments. I absolutely loved his assignment of having each student compose a 500-word Wikipedia article on a historical subject, and then attempt to keep it from being deleted by the Wikipedia community. It not only forced students to delineate between writing an argument and writing historical “fact,” but also educated them about collective intelligence and online collaboration.

As I sat in the session, thrilled to be hearing so many people speaking fluently about digital history, I thought about the self-selective bubble that academic conferences frequently create. The majority of the sessions I attended were on digital history. In that sense, it was a great weekend and one in which I not only met people with similar interests, but heard about new projects and got new ideas. On the other hand, I never sat in on a session that was on a historical topic on which I was completely unfamiliar. In that sense, I didn’t even come close to following McClurken’s advice to his own students at stretching their horizons and making themselves uncomfortable. In retrospect, it would have been healthy to at least take a shot at listening to “Immigrants, Identity, and Popular Culture in Buenos Aires,” or “New Trends in Medieval Spanish History.” One of my problems with the current state of history is an overemphasis on narrow specialization, and these types of conferences, despite a superficial exposure to thousands of historians with different interests, can often create an even greater degree of academic insularity.

Sitting on the bus back to DC that afternoon, I reflected on the singularly strange nature of the AHA Annual Meeting. I fully understand the perspective of its detractors. Sessions can be numbingly boring, self-obsessed, and esoteric. One peek in the job interview room, filled with terrified and resigned looking younger types, was one peek too many for me. I’ll cross that bridge when I have to, and not a moment sooner. The massive scale of the conference makes it unwieldly and inefficient. Despite all of this, I genuinely enjoyed myself during the weekend and felt recharged at the bustling energy of thousands of badged historians scurrying across Manhattan. More importantly, I had taken a drink straight from the historical profession’s biggest firehouse and lived to blog about it.