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American Social History Project
How do you like your history -- in atoms or bits? The American Social History Project's Who Built America -- at least the first four chapters of volume two -- is available in both?
In his book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte, one of the prophets of the computer revolution, compares the advantages of providing information in atoms and bits. Not surprisingly, he pronounces in favor of bits, although he does have a sense of irony about using traditional print (atoms) to promote his views. Negroponte points out that information communicated in the form of atoms, or what we call books, is bulky, unwieldy, one-dimensional, costly to ship, subject to inspection by customs officials, liable to fines by librarians, destructive to trees and other living things, and too often inaccessible as a result of being lost, misplaced, stolen or out-of-print. On the other hand, bits travel the internet across international borders at the speed of light; facilitate interaction between producers and receivers of information; are easily revised, corrected, updated, linked, expanded, manipulated, and re-formulated; and translate into many different shapes and media -- text, audio, pictures and moving images.
The CD-rom version of Who Built America (From the Centennial Celebration of 1876 to the Great War of 1914) showcases these advantages. With much greater capacity and considerably less bulk and weight than a bound, print history, A CD-ROM disk can hold 650 megabytes, equivalent to 300,000 typed pages or 500 book volumes. Mercifully, WBA -- The CD-ROM, is not quite so overwhelming. Still, it contains considerable text -- 5,000 pages -- as well as 700 pictures, 60 graphs, charts and maps, 4 hours of audio, 45 minutes of film and an extensive time line that moves readers across continents and the boundaries of political, social and economic history. Compare all of this material on just 38 years of U.S. history (1876-1914) to the two print volumes of WBA covering five-centuries of American life. Each 600-page volume is plump when measured in atoms, but svelte next to the digital version.
Nevertheless, I'm partial to my dog-eared Gutenberg version of volume two ofWBA, it's coffee-stained pages annotated in my own distinctive handwriting and decorated by my peculiar taste in day-glo green hi-liter. The CD-ROM does enable the user to take notes, annotate margins, underline, boldface and even electronically dog-ear pages. But it cannot reproduce green day-glo hilites let alone the sensual, tactile qualities of a book. I like the bound version's feel, bulk and -- despite its weight -- portability. While the CD-ROM takes up less space in my bag, it is useless without hardware, which does not travel well on New York City's subways where I do a lot of work for my classes. The print version of WBA always provides good company, even in the tight spaces of the "D" train during rush hour.
There's another advantage to the print version: it is easier on the eye. I say this after recently reading chapter one of WBA, The CD-ROM on my computer screen. It's not an experience I wish to repeat.
Yet I am convinced that WBA, The CD-ROM is an invaluable tool for teaching history. Used in tandem with the print version, it enables students to demystify the historian's craft by opening an archive that suggests the richness and complexity of human interaction and historical evidence. That archive, when used properly, becomes history as inquiry rather than history as received knowledge. With the crucial help of the classroom teacher as facilitator, WBA, The CD-ROM invites students through hypertext to interpret and link human experience, and to interrogate historical sources that come in many different shapes and forms: oral, visual; moving and still. By studying political tracts, deciphering economic and demographic data, sampling songs, movies, advertisements, comics, vaudeville routines and other variants of an emerging consumer culture, and listening to the diverse voices of ordinary and extraordinary Americans, students can bring drama and context to history in sound, images, events, objects and popular icons.
Who Built America, the print version, has always resonated with students in my classroom. I teach at an urban community college where almost 40% of the student population is immigrant and the majority are women, people of color, gainfully employed, and over twenty-five years of age. When they read WBA, they still find the usual suspects: Presidents, corporate leaders, generals and other famous Americans. But there is a difference. WBA's pages are filled with more ordinary than extraordinary Americans: immigrants, ex-slaves, industrial and clerical workers, farmers, Native Americans, infantry soldiers, families, heroes and villains who are both shaped by and shape history. My students recognize themselves in this history, but also discover diversity and experiences very different from their own. WBA is not the only text that seeks to integrate (1) political, economic and social history; (2) famous events and everyday life, and (3) narrative and primary documents. But I think it is one of the most successful in forging such an integration, and in doing so, it actively connects readers to history.
By building on the historical and pedagogical strategy of the printed text, the CD-ROM puts students in the center of a history that is multi-media and multidimensional. The spine of the CD-ROM is the narrative, word for word, found in the initial chapters of volume two of the print version. That narrative offers those who want or need it a guide to literally thousands of bits of primary sources. The difference between the print and digital version is not simply atoms versus bits, but that the sheer volume of primary source material reverses the ratio of documents to narrative. It not only reverses it: it overwhelms it. The CD-ROM is full of raw material that allows students, if so inclined, to deconstruct its own narrative.
Many CD-ROM versions of college texts are constructed with little thought of what it means to use a different medium, let alone how to negotiate the relationship between historical narrative and primary sources. In fact, there are many CD-ROMs rushed to serve a new, trendy computer-education market that are little more than digital versions, with a few documents added, of what the reader would find in the printed text.
WBA, the CD-ROM, makes its narrative central to its organization, yet at the same time, develops the possibility for students to create their own narratives by engaging an incredible variety of primary sources. Students can gain access to these resources in one of several ways: (1) accessing an resource index organized by title, type (text, film, audio) and topic; (2) using its search capacity to research a subject; or (3) taking an "excursion."
Excursions are from the narrative to a primary source or sources. Many pages of the narrative, but not all, have excursions. To take a journey from secondary to primary sources, you click an icon (in the form of railroad tracks) at the bottom right of the screen. On page 33, for example, where the narrative introduces students to the central role of the railroad in the economic development of the Gilded Age America, there is an excursion entitled "Iron Bars, from Shore to Shore." Click and you are transported to a menu that gives you choice of celebrating the railroad in Walt Whitman's verse, protesting and praising it in song, exposing its monopolistic practices to the patrician analysis of Charles Francis Adams, " viewing its creative and destructive powers through the work of gilded-age artists and photographers, and experiencing "The Great Train Robbery" in silent film.
Together, these excursions in audio, text and moving and still images give the student a sense of central importance of the railroad to the economy, politics, culture and creative imagination of late nineteenth century America. The narrative, from which the excursion began, could not in the same way communicate to students the railroad's power to inspire, anger and touch the lives of so many people.
The excursion -- and those like it throughout the CD-ROM -- changes the relationship between the narrative and the student, or between what too often are the active creators of historical interpretation and the passive receivers of information. The excursions enable students to examine some of the raw material that the historian, in this case the ASHP, uses in creating a "finished" narrative. By examining sources in such close proximity and relationship to the narrative, students can respond to the ASHP text more critically by expanding, revising, questioning or even rejecting its interpretation. Even more important, the volume and variety of digital source material easily accessible on the CD disk -- and on the internet, provide students more of a basis to shape their own interpretations.
The railroad is an important point of departure for the study of late nineteenth century history. When I have students study the railroad or any other historical phenomenon, I want them to be able to identify, contextualize and analyze change, make connections, understand the sequence of history, and hypothesize cause and effect in the interaction between human actors, their material world and events. These goals are much more easily stated than realized. But the CD-ROM opens new possibilities for promoting such historical skills.
For example, type the word railroad on the "find" screen of the CD-ROM and it will generate almost 500 references on 203 pages of narrative text, documents and excursions. Each reference is hot, and a click will take you to the page. You can focus the search by asking for references only in photo captions or excursion introductions or the time line. Like any good search tool, you can type railroad followed by a second word and a third linked by the connector "and." Railroads and markets, women, buffalo, Irish, politics, Indians, Chinese, monopoly, farmers, accidents, workers, songs and a list of possibilities too long to reproduce will yield all sorts of interesting connections.
Students could be easily become lost in such a search, which underscores the role of teacher intervention. The CD-ROM by itself does not teach skills of historical synthesis, interrogation, narration and research. Just as with books or libraries, it is used to best advantage when teachers frame tasks and screen materials. Structure provided by the instructor does not stop students from exploring new avenues, but rather provides the necessary road map to get them started.
A framework for the railroad search might ask students, working in groups over several weeks, to complete a number of tasks. Task one could be to generate and a list of a dozen major changes prompted by the railroad, and then rank them in order of importance. To complete the assignment, students would have to categorize, sort and make connections between the development of railroads and political, economic, demographic, cultural/social, environmental and scientific/technological changes.
Task two might call for another list, this one categorizing the main groups of actors whose lives intersected with the railroad. Let the students define the categories of actors, whether they be more general, like farmers, or specific, like Populist Party. A third task could require that students pick the six documents (text, visual and/or audio) that best tell the story of how the railroad changed America during the Gilded Age. The possibilities are intriguing, given the range of documents from good and bad poetry, song, film, art and photography...to court and legislative decisions...to muckraking tracts... to farm and labor protest...to the military metaphors of a scientific manager's treatise on railroad organization...to a New York Times report on how the railroads changed and standardized our notions of time.
What these assignments do is ask students to go through the same kind of decision-making process that a historian might employ in creating a narrative.
Such a project could play out in many variations. Student groups might have to make a class presentation, together with a justification, of their prioritized selections of changes, actors and documents. And/or prepare a one-page thesis statement for a narrative on "Railroads and Change during the Gilded Age". And/or write a research paper. My intent here is not to provide a precise blueprint, but to be broadly suggestive about how the WBA, The CD-ROM can be used to help history students develop interpretative and analytical skills.
The variety, breadth and depth of materials in WBA, The CD-ROM allow for ambitious assignments, or very brief ones. Roy Rosensweig, one of the authors of WBA, the CD-ROM, asks students in survey classes at George Mason University to choose a single primary source "about the values and beliefs (culture and ideology) of group of Americans" in late nineteenth and early twentieth century (1876-1914). Students pick one of seven groups of Americans to assess: African-Americans, women, Native Americans, radicals, businessmen, industrial workers, or farmers. In teams, students then choose a document, write down what they learn from it, assess its uses and limits, make a judgement about its value as a source, and decide whether it sustains the textbook's analysis of the values of Americans in this period. Given the variety of documents to choose from in form and content, an assignment like this aims to make students more conscious of the relationship between different kinds of primary sources and historical interpretation. By making decisions in teams, students also develop skills in negotiation, argument, listening and collaboration.
While the electronic WBA presents source material in many media, it displays visual evidence to particular advantage. Seven hundred high resolution images give electronic readers a range of photographs, art and graphics whose cost of reproduction would have been prohibitive in the print version. Images appear as one-bit sketches on each narrative page, but when clicked, turn into high quality pictures accompanied by captions and source information. When images are too compressed and detailed for viewing on a small computer screen, WBA, The CD-Rom provides a computerized magnifying glass for close-up examination.
The electronic book presents interesting possibilities for training students in visual literacy. Consider, for example, the twenty-one images accessible in a twelve-page section subtitled "A New Urban World." While diverse in format, viewpoint, approach, message, focus and intended audience, almost all the images portray city scenes. Most are photographs, a few are comics and satirical cartoons, one is a "New York fish market on film," another a representation by an ash-can artist, and still another a modernist rendition in water colors and graphite of the Woolworth Building, then the world's largest skyscraper. Creative mediation by the instructor can help students give these images meaning and context. A good teacher can frame -- or get students to formulate -- questions for inquiry. Probes about point of view, methods, audience, content and nuance can tell a student a lot about the "new urban world's" class, race, ethnic, gender, cultural and power relationships. My point here is not to prescribe a specific activity, but rather an approach to visual literacy that is enabled by the rich resources of a smartly-constructed digital history.
The CD-ROM can also build student skills in exploring and creating oral history. There are thirty-five oral interviews in the digital version, many of which are immigrants recounting their passage to the new world, work, play, everyday life and cultural tensions. Such interviews confront students with a question: what role does memory play in reconstructing the past? Here again, we as teachers need to provide students a structure for assessing oral history. In a teachers' handbook prepared for WBA, The CD-ROM, Kevin Smead suggests a student checklist "including such items as the subject's name, age, date interviewed, race/ethnicity, issue interviewed about, reason this person was chosen to be interviewed, and the number of years between the event discussed and the interview." How do students appraise a subject's background, self-interest, assumptions and first or second-hand knowledge? How do they corroborate information? How do they evaluate an interview's usefulness as historical evidence? How do they translate the skills they develop analyzing oral history into techniques for conducting their own family neighborhood or immigration histories? With the print version, these are questions that I never even had the opportunity to ask.
My survey of the classroom possibilities of the digital version of WBA has stressed a constructivist approach to education. But WBA, The CD-ROM is a powerful presentation tool that supports more traditional, didactic teaching strategies. With a single computer, overhead projection and use of WBA's resource collector, a teacher can collect, arrange and present history in four media: text, sound, pictures and moving images. As we have noted, using oral and visual sources, students can construct their own narratives on immigration. But an instructor can introduce them to the subject with a presentation that might include (among many possible variations) graphs, time lines, film footage of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, memories and poems from Asian detainees on Angel Island, lovelorn advice from the Jewish Daily Forward, recollections of a garment sweatshop, Japanese and Mexican farm workers on strike, and "Rube and Mandy" in film on an outing to Coney Island.
In sum, faculty with very different agendas and cultures can use the electronic book to enhance teaching. In a recent issue of the American Prospect, sociologist Paul Starr wrote:
Multimedia permits an extraordinary flexibility in conveying concepts -- through word, pictures and sounds as something that can be built or played as well as read and watched. The connections change old genre and make possible new ones.
Who Built America, The CD-ROM has shown us some of the possibilities.