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H-Net at the AHA

H-Net at AHA '97

H-Net wins Robinson Prize!

H-Net has won the AHA's coveted James Harvey Robinson Prize for outstanding contributions to the teaching of history for 1997. Below is the document submitted to the Prize Commitee, which gives an overview of H-Net and its story.

AHA 1996 ROBINSON PRIZE NOMINATION
H-NET, HUMANITIES ONLINE



The Executive Commitee of H-NET wishes to nominate H-NET, Humanities Online for the 1996 Robinson Prize as the teaching innovation that has most positively effected history education over the past biennium. The Internet has in the last two years become an important tool for historians, and H-NET is the leader in humanities computing on the Internet. Fully a quarter of the historians listed in the AHA Guide to Departments of History subscribe to an H-NET interactive discussion list. By following its twin mission of service and leadership in Internet humanities communication, H-NET has made wonderful connections among teachers. After telling you a bit about H-NET, the organization, we will use the balance of this letter to discuss each of these themes in turn: connections, service, and leadership, and the ways in which H-NET has had a profound influence on how history is being taught at the collegiate and secondary levels.

We want the Robinson Prize Committee to know a bit about H-NET as an organization interested in promoting excellent teaching. H-NET was founded in Decmber, 1992, at the University of Illinois-Chicago by Prof. Richard Jensen as an experiment in online, electronic mail communication over the Internet. H-NET began by launching H-URBAN and H-WOMEN as two specialized email groups devoted to daily discussions about scholarly research concerns in the two fields. By the summer of 1993, Prof. Jensen encouraged the start of another dozen lists in fields ranging from British history (H-ALBION) to the American Civil War (H-CIVWAR). From the outset, he insisted that each list be fully moderated, an innovation which insured the maintenance of high scholarly and academic standards.

Each email group operates by using "listserv" software that allows an online editor at any Internet node to receive, edit, and post messages to the entire list, all in a matter of seconds. At the heart of H-NET are eighty subject lists today (please see Appendix A). Those daily email discussion lists are sent to more than 45,000 subscribers across the world, making H-NET an important international institution serving the humanities. A typical list has seven hundred subscribers, mainly historians, but also social scientists, librarians, and journalists.

H-NET is much more than the daily discussion lists. The H-NET World Wide Web host site at Michigan State University features "home pages" for each of the subject lists areas, as well as an entry-way page for itself. Each of the pages has hyper-link connections to book reviews, collections, important publications, libraries, and the like. The World Wide Web is the fastest-growing part of the Internet and H-NET has become an important site for so-called "browsers" looking for material on the historically-oriented humanities. More than 25,000 Internet users look at the H-NET Web site each week in search of specific information about subjects and relevant books (please see Appendix B).

H-NET has offered frequent training seminars on-campus at U.S. and Canadian universities. At first, these seminars focused on introducing historians to electronic mail and the Internet. In the 1995-96 academic year, however, H-NET established regional centers across the U.S. to begin offering seminars in multimedia applications in the humanities, and in 1997, H-NET will convene an international conference on multimedia in the humanities at Michigan State. We fully expect that the conference will guide history educators in the uses of computer-driven multimedia that will serve to aid student learning.

There are several H-NET lists that focus entirely on teaching, including the most popular one, H-TEACH whose 1,500 subscribers teach on every academic level. In addition, H-SURVEY is a list consisting of those who teach the U.S. survey course; H- WORLD and H-WESTCIV do the same for the world history survey and the western civilization survey, respectively. H-NET also recognizes the important role of teaching assistants, particularly in the general education survey classes, and the list H-GRAD devotes considerable time to discussing the issues that confront T.A.s on a daily basis. In 1995, H-NET launched H-HIGH-S as a list run by and for secondary education teachers. The seventy subject lists also discuss teaching on a regular basis. One of the most valuable features of the subject lists is that the online editors seek out leading scholars and ask them to post their classroom syllabi and bibliographies for discussion by the list subscribers.

H-NET has made an impact on history teaching because it has facilitated connections among working classroom teachers who previously only met once or twice a year at the AHA or a regional convention. A subscriber at Jacksonville University reports that H-NET has facilitated discussions of teaching in his department, as colleagues discuss ideas raised on H-NET in the hallways and coffee room. As the Jacksonville historian noted, "reading my daily postings has made me feel part of a larger community of college history teachers. It has been reassuring to learn that so many of us deal with the same intellectual and pedagogical dilemmas."

The hunger for connections is apparent in the numbers of people who make use of H-NET: 45,000 every day on the email lists, and 25,000 per week who visit the Web site. Presumably, these were busy people before 1993, but somehow, they have made H-NET reading and discussion a priority in their professional lives. Good ideas that are raised on an H-NET list spread rapidly into classrooms wherever H-NET subscribers teach. A historian at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi explained for H-SURVEY readers how his college incorporated active learning about historical geography into the U.S. survey course. The creativity shown by the Del Mar faculty soon had an impact on the other side of Texas: a historian at Amarillo College altered his survey to stress the importance of change over time and over place. The Amarillo historian reports that "I was a virtual member of the Del Mar College faculty in terms of access to materials for this unit on historical geography of the United States. My survey courses now do what I promised myself for more than a quarter-century: students are doing history instead of just reading about it." At still another Texas campus, the University of North Texas, a veteran historian reports that he changed how he prepares his classes for taking an essay exam. Where the UNT faculty member formerly lectured the students on the elements of writing an essay, he now follows the example of an H-TEACH colleague who suggested that teachers find the best essay in the class (perhaps from a prior semester), and after securing the permission of the student author, share that essay with the class. "Go ye and do likewise," is the advice that the UNT historian now offers his survey classes, and to his delight, students write better essays on history exams.

H-NET's subscriber base is overwhelmingly located at colleges and universities which posit excellent teaching as their most important mission. Teaching history is a central concern of every H-NET list. The subscribers to H-TEACH talk daily about the concerns of their professional lives: What is the best textbook on gender relations in this or that history course? How does a teacher pose good essay questions that fairly test students' knowledge and comprehension? How does that same teacher grade the essays? Should Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will be shown to undergraduates? and so forth. Membership on H-NET lists extends beyond those faculty listed in the AHA Guide. For example, H-NET lists welcome adjunct and temporary instructors who teach large numbers of students, but too often are isolated from their colleagues and the profession. Discussion and conversation is particularly important for this group of teaching historians, because as one H-TEACH subscriber reported that "as a semester-to-semester hire, I didn't feel I could ask fellow professors at my institution" for help. Every day, historians, whether they are full professors or so-called "freeway flyers," are talking to their peers about good teaching and how to do more of it. Simply put, H-NET has used information technology to break down barriers among teachers, and the new connections made among teachers have helped restore what Prof. Jensen calls the "Republic of Letters."

H-NET's service function has been to provide Internet access to historians and historically-minded humanists at no charge. By relying on the contributions of two universities, Illinois-Chicago, and especially Michigan State, along with three generous grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, H-NET has been able to offer the daily lists and Web sites at no cost to subscribers and browsers. This is a remarkable service, particularly when considered against the climate of cutbacks and downsizing that most history departments face. At a time when funds for professional development are harder to get on campus, what dean or department chair today would not encourage his or her faculty to join an H-NET list and start trading ideas about teaching and scholarship? Of course, H-NET subscribers discuss subject content as well as teaching techniques. An H-NET subscriber at the University of Melbourne integrates his comparative urban history course into the ongoing discussion on H-URBAN, and with materials on the H-URBAN World Wide Web page. He reports that he had students pose questions to H-URBAN before class, and next has them "access the Web in the classroom to show students the responses and invite them to respond to them." This international cooperation allows the University of Melbourne students to build upon their local history of Melbourne's "Little Lon" slum and compare it with that of New York's Five Points district.

H-NET's subject specialty lists also focus on scholarship and publication. Over the past year, H-NET has commissioned more online book reviews than the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History combined. The H-NET reviews offer several advantages over their print cousins: speed, flexiblity of length, and most important, the opportunity for reviewer, author, and audience to talk about the subject matter in the way of a professional seminar. In this regard, H-NET's service has proven to be a wonderful form of continuing education for its subscribers.

H-NET has assumed an increasingly important leadership role in academic computing. For example, H-NET helps historians at different campuses learn about computers and the Internet, and that knowledge allows historians to be more effective advocates on campus for computing resources to be devoted to the humanities. Gone are the days when the mainframe "big box" was the sole province of the Science Building on campus, but administrators have been somewhat slow to acknowledge the power of desktop computing. An H-NET subscriber at Tennessee Technological University reports that her department's acknowledged leadership in editing several H-NET lists has won it respect from the TTU College of Arts and Sciences, so much so, that the College now looks to the History Department for curricular leadership on academic computing. Other H-NET subscribers report similar stories: at the Louisiana School for the Arts, a historian leads the campus Technology Committee, and was authorized to help spend $80,000 on the first campus Humanities Technology Classroom; at James Cook University in Australia, a historian's H-NET affiliation helped pry loose a $A50,000 grant from the Education Ministry's Committee for the Advancement of Teaching. In sum, H-NET is helping historians become leaders on campus in the decision-making about access to computing resources, and how the resources will be used in teaching.

H-NET lists such as H-MAC and H-MMEDIA help historians learn about new software applications that should be on the desk of every department member. H-MMEDIA is a discussion list that combines a subscriber base of historians and multimedia professionals. Where else can a teaching historian can speak directly to an expert about a particular classroom problem, say, how to link a software presentation package to a laserdisc player? Campuses under-budget for this type of help and training, and H-NET is filling a genuine need. H-NET's most ambitious leadership initiative has been the Multimedia Project, funded by NEH. Based at Michigan State, the H-NET Multimedia Project is nothing less than an effort by H-NET to shape how multimedia will be used in the classroom in the next several years. The project is best understood by reference to two examples getting under way this summer. First, the University of Virginia regional center is teaching thirty historians this summer how to build a World Wide Web site involving text, graphics, and sound that will engage viewers in the primary and secondary sources involving aspects of Virginia history. Second, the H-NET regional center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire will also be busy this summer, inviting historians from seventeen of the twenty-six campuses in the University of Wisconsin System, along with those of the two tribal colleges in the state, to a week-long seminar in building email lists and World Wide Web sites to support students taking the freshman survey in U.S. and World history.

Finally, it is appropriate to nominate H-NET for an award that honors the memory of James Harvey Robinson. Peter Novick writes in That Noble Dream of Robinson's efforts in the 1910s and 1920s in bringing the "New History" to the attention of college teachers and secondary school teachers. In this regard, Robinson had greater influence in reaching large numbers of teachers about the New History than his more famous progressive colleagues Turner, Beard, and Schlesinger, Sr. . The themes of connections, service, and leadership among history teachers, link James Harvey Robinson and H-NET over the span of the twentieth century. Thank you for considering H-NET for this most important AHA award.

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