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The H-Net Community: Building Bridges

H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences OnLine, May 1998

H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine
By Melanie Shell Weiss and Mark Lawrence Kornbluh

Since early 1993, when H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine began as a collection of discussion networks devoted to the study and teaching of history, H-Net has grown to include over 90 interdisciplinary discussion networks, an extensive website, and a number of additional projects dedicated to increasing the quality and accessibility of teaching resources online. History teachers are well aware that despite promises that the new technologies would revolutionize their classrooms, no technology can replace the teacher's role. No technology is effective if it transforms students into passive recipients of knowledge. Many of the teachers who devote their energies to making the most of these "virtual" tools find their own time even more strained, working solo with minimal institutional support. H-Net aims to break down communication barriers between teachers and scholars around the globe, while facilitating development of classroom tools which empower instructors, provide training, support and models of successful new teaching techniques, and forge new links between historical societies, museums and educational institutions.

H-Net's beginnings, and its continued strengths, lie with its editors. Based on the idea that the Internet is best exploited as a collective enterprise by academics and teachers who mediate an environment many regard as forbidding and hostile, H-Net's editors perform a vital gatekeeping role. They minimize the abrasiveness of faceless, remote communications and they assist academics to harness the Internet to their professional purposes. Unlike the other disparate discussion groups, web sites and data sources available on the Internet, H-Net's resources are operated, managed, and controlled by working scholars and students. H-Net is best described as an international consortium of scholars who establish and coordinate electronic networks to advance humanities and social science teaching and research. It was self-consciously fashioned to provide a positive, supportive, egalitarian environment for the friendly exchange of ideas, scholarly resources, and teaching tools.

Founded in December 1992, H-Net began operations as an experiment in online, electronic mail communication over the Internet under the direction of Richard Jensen, at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Within its first year of operation, H-Net had attracted several existing electronic discussion groups, as well as starting another dozen lists covering many fields of history and related area studies. In spring 1994, most of H-Net's operations and lists began to move to Michigan State University which secured H-Net institutional support. H-Net also wrote and implemented a charter to provide basic structure and direction to its rapid expansion. Outlining the basic relationship between the staff and executive committee, the charter requires that editors, technical staff and persons appointed by the executive committee annually elect representatives to the executive committee which is empowered to set H-Net policy. Seven elected representatives comprise the executive committee, along with its officers -- an elected executive director, associate direction, and appointed treasurer, secretary and editor of the discussion list, H-Staff.

From the beginning, graduate students, young scholars, and teachers at both the university and K-12 levels have been encouraged to join the H-Net lists, or networks. While the vast majority of the H-Net networks devote at least part of their attention teaching as well as research, lists such as H-AfrLitCine (Teaching and Study of African Literature and Cinema), H-AfrTeach (Teaching African History and Studies), H-High-S (Teaching High School History and Social Studies), H-Survey (Teaching United States History Survey Courses), H-Teach (Teaching College History), H-Teachpol (Teaching Post-secondary Political Science), and H-World (World History) are all primarily devoted to teaching in a variety of education settings. Each network is edited, or moderated, by an editorial board and staff of online editors. Using LISTSERV software, which allows the editors to receive messages from members of the discussion network, and edit these messages before posting them to the entire list, editors are able to facilitate discussions as well as group messages into coherent and related discussion strings -- all in a matter of seconds. Today, H-Net's 92 subject oriented discussion networks serve over 70,000 subscribers from around the world. Even more individuals make use of the H-Net website (http://www.h-net.msu.edu). Network specific sites archive list discussions and are searchable by keyword, subject line, author or date. Syllabi and bibliographies which have been published by the network, or submitted by network subscribers, are also archived and accessible via the list homepages, along with longer essays and pictures, maps or graphics which are used as teaching tools, and to supplement and facilitate list discussions. Mirror sites also have been established in West African and Europe to speed access to the H-Net website, and its resources, to users in those countries.

H-Net's main host institution is Michigan State University, where H-Net's major NEH grants and other projects are administered. Michigan State University also houses the MATRIX Center, which serves as H-Net's technical hub for web design, administration of the LISTSERV, book and software review project, job guide, generation of grants, and provides training sessions for H-Net editors and teachers from around the globe. It is the strength of its base of editors, combined with the institutional support of Michigan State University and the MATRIX staff, and affiliated societies and centers which help make H-Net much more than daily discussion networks. In connection with a 1996 Multimedia Teaching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, H-Net also established regional teaching centers at the University of California at Los Angeles, University of Virginia, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, University of Texas at San Antonio, University of Houston, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Northeastern University and the Chicago Historical Society. Each of these centers, as well as the national center at Michigan State University, work to evaluate new software, train faculty to use new technologies in teaching, assist in the development of multimedia-reach and computer equipped classrooms, and develop on-line multimedia instructional resources including maps, charts, visual images, databases, primary sources, texts and sound archives.

Since 1994, H-Net has also sponsored an extensive book Review Project (http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~reviews), which over the past year has begun to review history and social science related software as well. By the end of 1998, the Review Project will have published over 2500 reviews, with more than 500 reviews published by 1996, 800 in 1997 alone, and nearly 1000 since January 1998. While these reviews are assigned and edited according to a model that is similar to that used by hard copy scholarly journals, because the reviews are published and distributed via the WWW and electronic discussion lists, the time between publication of a specific work, and publication of the review is much shorter. Reviewers are given roughly the same length of time to write the reviews as with other scholarly journals. The speed comes at the beginning of the process, when Jim Sleight, an assistant director for H-Net and Review Project Coordinator, and his staff collect books for the editors from publishers. As the reviews are published, time is also saved because there is no need to wait for printing, binding and mailing. Unlike print reviews, the H-Net reviews are also interactive and easily searchable by reviewer, author, title, subject, publisher, and ISBN number. At the end of each review is a place for comments about teaching the work being reviewed, or the review itself. This feature makes possible a dynamic exchange about the reviewed books and software with particular attention to their classroom use. H-Net's Job Guide, searchable database of conference, grant, and fellowship announcements and calls for papers are also popular and valuable resources, which are accessible through the H-Net website.

H-Net also sponsors and organizes a number of teacher training sessions for teachers from around the globe, and in September 1997 hosted major conference at Michigan State University, "Envisioning the Future: Creating the Humanities Classroom of the 21st Century," devoted to multimedia and teaching. Over three hundred people attended the physical conference. The materials and exchanges generated by the conference are preserved and continue to grow through an extensive website (http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~envision) where conference presentations, teaching modules, projects, and papers are archived in hypertext, video and sound are archived. "Envisioning the Future" provided an opportunity for pioneers in the field of teaching in the digital age, as well as many of what Page Putnam Miller has referred to as "teachers in trenches," who are struggling to make the most of new opportunities and changing demands of university administrators, to meet with each other, share ideas and concerns, as well as forging new ground through cooperative endeavors.

While it was NEH funding that largely made the "Envisioning the Future" conference possible, thanks to another two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, H-Net and MATRIX are launching an online multimedia teaching journal, and a project to digitize "Historical Voices," speeches and oral histories, for classroom use. Under the direction of an international editorial board, the online multimedia teaching journal will establish both a new model for web-based publication while stimulating and facilitation development of teaching materials and modules that are ready for classroom use. Articles will contain embedded links to additional resources and texts, as well as delivering data sets, sound and video. These materials can be further manipulated and used through electronic medium by users. Responses and follow-up articles will allow for interactivity, as well as contributing to classroom use. An article on reinterpreting Mark Twain, for example, may be interlaced with images and hypertext links to specific points in the full text of Twain's works, allowing these passages to be interpreted in context. A social science article on twentieth century American voting patterns could let readers manipulate data sets and explore alternative hypotheses. Likewise, an author exploring international labor migrations from North Africa to France, could also provide data sets which could be manipulated by readers to predict future trends, and provide comparisons with other migrant groups. And article on working class theatre in South Africa could develop two alternative explanations and then come together in the end. While an exploration of seventeenth century slave trade in Brazil could embed textual images of diaries and records within the body of the article itself. These images could then be examined in greater detail themselves, or saved, or printed for classroom use.

The "Historical Voices" project will digitize speeches and sound clips of historical value, that fall under fair use accessibility guidelines, from the resources of the Michigan State University Vincent Voice Library and through cooperation with Jerry Goldman's Oyez, Oyez, Oyez project and files. Goldman is affiliated with Northwestern University. "Historical Voices" promises to provide a wealth of materials to teachers at all levels for use in their classrooms. This collection includes a wide range of speeches and oral histories. By bringing these materials online, teachers around the globe will be able to easily access and download these sound files for use in their own classrooms and syllabi. While some historical sound recordings are currently available to teachers via the WWW, they are currently so diffuse that locating these resources is a painstaking, hit-or-miss process. The "Historical Voices" Project will make more historical resources readily available for classroom use and integration into teaching modules, in an easily searchable and accessible form. Teachers will be able to visit the website, and, guided by an interface that is designed specifically for designing classroom tools, pick and choose from among the offerings to create a teaching module that is custom designed for their use.

As significant as these projects and advancements have been there remains much potential awaiting development. H-Net continues to seek the cooperation of historians who want to learn the new technological methodologies in order to transform pedagogy, to continue to push for faculty control of the uses of technology, and to insist that gimmicks not substitute for serious teaching. It is H-Net's aim to continue to facilitate exchange of teaching materials, bridge communication gaps between institutions and faculty, and to use new technology to enhance relationships between teachers and their students. [an error occurred while processing this directive]