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H-NET: An Introduction

Harold G. Marcus, H-Net Treasurer, Co-Editor, H-Africa
Michigan State University

Mark Lawrence Kornbluh, Chair, H-Net Executive Committee
Michigan State University

Peter B. Knupfer, H-Net Associate Director
Kansas State University

We are grateful to the OAH and this Newsletter for providing us with a unique opportunity to inform the leadership of the American historical profession about H-Net. As a cooperative effort by scholars worldwide in history and related disciplines, H-Net is a diverse organization engaged in many disparate and wide-ranging projects that maintain high scholarly and pedagogical standards. The energizing force behind H-Net, however, is a shared desire to develop the new opportunities for scholarship and teaching that stem from the rapid technological development in computers and electronic communication.

This collection of essays reveals that the use of H-Net and other electronic media has permitted scholars, academics, teachers, and librarians to achieve their goals more quickly and more efficiently. Their activities have led to fresh approaches to research and publication, innovative pedagogies, new types of scholarship, unprecedented forms of data storage and retrieval, and much more inclusive national and international scholarly discourses. By transforming the working environment of the historian and by introducing new methodologies, H-Net not only has spurred its subscribers to innovate but, as these essays reveal, also to remain true to their discipline and its high scholarly standards.

In part, these qualities stem from H-Net's editors, each of whom is a professional scholar, teacher, and/or librarian. These are serious people who perform scholarly tasks differing little from the work undertaken by the editor of a traditional journal. The H-Net editor, however, is on duty at least two hours daily, editing, organizing, and distributing his/her daily publication. While there is an immediacy to H-Net work that differs from that of print medium, there is no difference in the application of high standards to our posts, point-of-view essays, and book reviews. The last category proceeds through the same stages as required by conventional periodicals but at a much faster pace, and the size of the reviews can match the importance of the book being evaluated.

H-Net has uniquely permitted scholars on the periphery of the Anglo-European scholarly world to participate in its discourse in a timely fashion. Everyday, historians from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Australasia post items defining their views on subjects of interest to them. U.S. Africanists and Asianists now have the great pleasure and advantage of quickly and clearly hearing voices hitherto muted by time and space. International scholars are also interested in American history and studies and daily raise questions and present analysis that challenge our often conventional and parochial notions about ourselves and our history.

H-Net also has eroded other obstacles to communication. H-Net discussion lists are an inherently democratic means of communication. University students, professors hoary and green, librarians, school teachers, journalists, and policy makers participate in what some have described as an on-going and multi-subject seminar. One career ambassador commented that the immediacy of H-Net is helping to break down barriers between "the ivory tower and the policy maker." Through posts he was able quickly to resolve important historical questions that led to the successful conclusion of delicate negotiations.

As significant as H-Net has become in its three years of existence, there is much potential awaiting development. The rapid development of new technology in computers and electronic communication is occurring at a time when the political economy of higher education and scholarly research is undergoing dramatic change. Many scholarly societies and journals, which have been a mainstay of research, find themselves hard pressed by these changes. H-Net can be a vehicle for these organizations to take advantage of new communication technologies and move into the new century with a renewed vigor.

As for teaching, educational technology can provide many opportunities to enhance pedagogy, but only if faculty control its use and insist that gimmicks not substitute for serious teaching. H-Net seeks the cooperation of historians who want to learn the new methodologies in order to transform pedagogy. It is important that course offerings and content not become the killing fields of cost-cutting university administrators and state legislatures who neither understand what "virtual" means nor appreciate the "actual" role of the classroom teacher. If we do not grasp the electronic fulcrum of pedagogical reform, it will be brandished by others as a cost-cutting cudgel harmful to good teaching. This important challenge merits a considerable joint effort by H-Net and the American historical profession.

Finally, these essays affirm that H-Net seeks above all to be a vehicle for scholars and teachers to pioneer new terrain while preserving longstanding scholarly values. As an umbrella organization, we desire to work with all who are interested in the potentials inherent in the application of new technology to our discipline.

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