H-Net Teaching and Technology Essays
Series Editor - Steven Mintz
H-Net is commissioning a series of essays on teaching and technology.
TeaSearch: Research That Can Also Teach
During the mid-1980s, my career as a historian lurched in a surprising new direction when I became involved in a project to utilize computers in classroom teaching. I ventured into the world of the "new new thing" with little notion that computers, let alone the nascent Internet, were about to revolutionize so much of the way we conduct our lives. My motives were considerably more mundane: If my project was approved, not only would my department be awarded a small lab of personal computers but (and this was the hook) I would receive one for myself. By this time, many of my colleagues were using computers for word processing. The temptation for a free computer was too great to resist.
Two years later, when the project was completed, I could step to the head of the line to testify that there is no free lunch. I could have bought a computer in considerably less time and with incalculably less effort by summer teaching or waiting tables at restaurants, as one of my colleagues did to supplement his income. Nevertheless, I not only had my little MacPlus but also an opening glimpse into how computers were going to affect the future of scholars, both as researchers and teachers.
Although almost exclusively trained in the traditional historical methodology of text analysis--even today, I remain more comfortable with traditional codex texts than hyperlinks and urls--I regularly beat a path between the History building and the nearby Computing Center, acquiring more computer skills and developing new projects. (Significantly, there is still no direct paved route between the two buildings.) I was also spending a lot of time on computing committees, joining a handful of humanities professors among administrators, doctors, and scientists, social and otherwise. My new academic interests were buttressed by new friendships, and my life at Tulane was, depending on my mood, either robustly interdisciplinary or disconcertingly peripheral to the usual activities that bring rewards and recognition.
In my field, History, the standard for professional achievement has been print publication. While research universities reward teaching and service to a degree, advancement is still largely a result of publishing research, not just doing research. Because so much technology discussion has revolved around its use in the classroom, many of my colleagues have, therefore, found it easy to resist the lure of laptop lecturing, Web page design, chat rooms, and so forth. I was reminded yet again of the tight association of technology with teaching, as well as its disconnect with the academic reward structure, by a recent column in the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ (February 22, 2002) aptly entitled "Ever So Slowly, Colleges Start to Count Work With Technology in Tenure Decisions." I quickly found in my file of news clippings the following from the _Chronicle_ of March 3, 1993, published almost a decade earlier: "Professors Report Progress in Gaining Recognition for Their Use of Technology." Even if one assumes that "progress" has been cumulative rather than circular (progress followed by relapse followed by progress and so forth), the two reports reflect a pervasive suspicion by many faculty that time invested in technology projects comes at the expense of more rewarding activities, such as the publication of books and articles.
Of course, conditions have changed during the past decade. In the humanities and social sciences, the number of faculty utilizing technology, as for example in-classroom use of Web pages and PowerPoint lectures, or by participating in professional electronic discussion groups, has increased significantly in the past decade. Happily, there are many cases where such activity is acknowledged and rewarded. But the hard truth remains that in only exceptional cases will these activities be of sufficient merit to trump research, and most faculty will continue to pursue the type of research that, after all, generally drew them to a university in the first place.
One answer to such resistance, which surprisingly receives little discussion, is to rethink how technology can (and will) affect our research agenda. Faculty complaints ("no good deed goes unpunished") about universities failing to reward their endeavors are likely to diminish only when deeds more clearly relate to the dissemination of new knowledge. The immediate issue--and opportunity--that should be addressed in technology, therefore, is not pedagogical but substantive. There is plenty of debate about broadband, virtual classrooms, electronic discussion groups, PowerPoint lectures, and so forth. But are we concerning ourselves enough with the question of how technology might contribute something different to the way in which we conduct and communicate scholarship? Or, to reverse the idea, how might scholars put information in information technology? Ironically, it may well turn out that greater attention to research does not have to come at the expense of teaching.
There are different ways in which scholarship-cum-technology can take place. In History, for example, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Web sites illustrate the varieties of digital scholarship. Robert B. Townsend of the American Historical Association has recently offered a useful scheme to categorize this work. "Textual" sites fundamentally reproduce printed scholarship in electronic form; for example, placing journal essays on the Web for wider and more convenient dissemination. "Supplemental" scholarship, whether as e-publications or Web sites, goes further and uses certain basic aspects of technology, such as hyperlinks and multimedia, to enhance text and provide connections to other information on the Web.
Textual and supplemental projects pose little difficulty to the present evaluation and reward structure. Perhaps unsurprisingly most e-scholarship falls within these two areas. Their scholarly component is transparent and they have generally been peer reviewed before appearing in electronic form. Some electronic essays appear in both print and electronic formats; some in exclusively electronic journals. With the continued growth of networking, we can expect both increased numbers of textual and supplementary electronic "publications" that parallel print editions as well as increased numbers of exclusively electronic journals and Web sites.
Nevertheless, these forms of digital scholarship differ from traditional print publication in only limited ways. Research is conducted with little regard to the technological environment, and for the most part, little information appears in electronic form that could not be conveyed in print form. Technology's contribution lies primarily in the form of audio-visual text enhancements, and the easier, cheaper, and wider dissemination of the project. The basic "message" of scholarship is not affected by the technology "medium."
The real challenge in History (and other humanities and social sciences) is to utilize technology to advance knowledge in a way fundamentally different from print texts. Exactly what such technology-grounded, research-based scholarship will eventually look like is not known at this time, just as the effects of previous technological transformations were only dimly perceived in the early stages of their development. An often cited example from the past is the continued reliance on sails and wind power long after the introduction of steam engines on ships. Only gradually were sails entirely removed and the full effects of steam exploited in ship design, construction, and operation. History scholarship is presently adhering to wind power, the doing and publishing of research little affected by technology. In the future, however, we can expect that technology will radically alter the questions historians ask, the way research is conducted, and the way they communicate their findings. Computers will transform the resources available to historians, their ability to manipulate this data, and they way they tell their story.
Today, we can observe some of the effects of technology in certain scholarly Web sites that have been constructed so that hyperlinks, media, illustrations, navigation, and so forth are as essential to the communication of information as is text. Townsend labels such projects "foundational." The historical subject is presented within a technological framework that could not be replicated in a print format.
One example is the award-winning _Valley of the Shadow_, a presentation of life in two communities in the Civil War era that were both proximate and world's apart. On-line census and tax records provide a wealth of information about the population, black and white, slave and free, male and female, children and adults. Newspapers, maps, diaries, letters, searchable databases, and other material can be accessed and explored to learn about how people lived their lives and experienced the jagged strains of sectionalism and Civil War. A reference section provides a narrative to accompany these resources. Its assembly, organization, and presentation of resources combine with scholarly guidance in a creative fusion of technology and history. This site could only exist in a technology environment.
Like many other History sites, the primary purpose of _Valley of the Shadow_ is to enable users to explore a topic rather than to communicate the results of research. While it is hard to overstate their enormous value, they do not themselves present a coherent account of the past. No one can visit the _Valley of the Shadow_ without learning about the past, but the site, by design, largely avoids telling the story.
My own engagement with two foundational projects (one already on-line, the other soon to be) has increasingly sought to use technology more overtly to convey research findings derived from historical investigation. No one knows better than I that these sites are imperfect, though I much prefer the word "experimental." But they have shown me that the Web is an astonishingly versatile format for presenting research, and done properly, it can also be used to instruct. I call this combination of scholarly and pedagogical purposes _TeaSearch_.
TeaSearch is a way of communicating research results in an interactive way.
Research becomes, in effect, an on-going collaborative project with those who
"read" it. Like any published scholarship, the audience aimed at might
be students, teachers, specialists, or the general public. In _Crisis at Fort
But these sites go beyond enhancements to alter the very way in which scholarship is undertaken and presented. They do so in large part by exploiting two features of technology, interactivity and nonlinearity, that have no real equivalent in print medium. By interactivity, I mean more than just clicking on a button that brings forth an image or sound, or clicking on a link that takes you to a different page or Web site. Interactivity makes the user participate in the knowledge that the Web site presents. Interactivity enables scholars to disseminate research so that the recipient can reconstruct, analyze, and even reinterpret the argument that is being made.
Similarly, the ability to navigate freely around a site, to go via links outside the site, or to follow two (or more) paths of information at the same time enables information to be presented and received in a way that differs fundamentally from print publication. When interactivity and nonlinearity become integral aspects of the research design, the technology medium does more than transmit information, it becomes a part of the message.
For example, the Fort Sumter program examines how sectional conflict culminated in the firing on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War. Specifically, it looks at a series of decisions made by Lincoln during the period between his election in November 1860 and the Battle of Fort Sumter in April 1861. Following his election, all but four federal forts were taken over by seceding states. The two most important federal holdouts were Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, the epicenter of radical secessionist sentiment, and Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida. As events unfolded, Lincoln had to decide whether to retain or abandon these forts, whether and when to send relief expeditions, and how to organize these expeditions. At each juncture, he had to weigh conflicting advice and consider the potential consequences of any course of action--or of no course of action.
To cite one case, "readers" learn that in mid-March 1861, Lincoln asked his cabinet whether, "Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort Sumter, under all the circumstances is it wise to attempt it?" They are aware of the conflicting advice Lincoln received as to whether to abandon the fort or attempt to hold and even reinforce it. They know the context in which the decision would be rendered. Would a show of resolve at that time, for example, risk pushing the upper South, still precariously in the Union, into secession?
Lincoln's decision to delay a final decision and await further development is presented along with various explanations of his reasoning, including my own - which is that Lincoln's "deliberateness" enabled him to better establish his own authority as President while freeing him to gain more information about the situation he confronted. Yet in a fundamental sense, the site also tells other stories. Many users, perhaps knowing the ultimate outcome, prefer that Lincoln adopt a different course and abandon Sumter in order to conciliate the secessionists and attract them back to the Union.
Although there is a considerable literature about Lincoln and the Sumter crisis, it has insufficiently conveyed the complexity and contingent nature of this event. But the electronic medium makes it possible to reconstruct the movement of events and decision-making while simultaneously insinuating that they could have taken a different course. The structural blending of text and technology imparts one of the most important interpretative messages of the program: that there were a host of conditional, unpredictable, and uncontrollable circumstances that affected the outcome of the Sumter crisis. Events take on a contingent quality, and history resembles a series of crossroads, each path leading to multiple possible outcomes.
Whatever its limitations, the Sumter site as a whole is intended to present the results of scholarly investigation. It most closely resembles a work of historical synthesis directed at an audience of scholars, students, and the general public. But its format is nontraditional. It adopts the idea that research is, in essence, a form of teaching and that the interactive and nonlinear elements of technology provide a medium to present research findings as a pedagogical device, allowing information to be reanalyzed and reconstructed in new ways.
At present, foundational projects are only first generation explorations into the effects of technology on the conduct and communication of research. As the saying goes, they are "under construction." There is no template for what electronic history is or should be, and much trial and error is necessarily involved. My forthcoming Salem Web site, for example, will assay a much more direct line of interpretive argument while maintaining an interactive interface.
Perhaps in another decade, the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ will still be headlining technology's victims. I hope not. While I trust that no one would argue that efforts to improve teaching and provide service to the profession should fail to be rewarded, the disproportionate association of technology with teaching has been a deterrence to faculty from exploring opportunities to advance scholarship in ways only few imagined when I first hit the power switch of that "free" MacPlus. It's even possible that improvements in teaching and advances in scholarship can be one and the same.Editor's note
Richard Latner, Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at Tulane University, has been at the forefront of efforts to integrate new technologies into history teaching and scholarship. His "Crisis at Fort Sumter" website <http://www.tulane.edu/~latner/> is a model of "hyper-history," bringing to bear an extraordinary range of evidence on the critical junctures and decisions that resulted in the outbreak of the American Civil War.
He is currently developing "The Salem Witchcraft Website," which will provide users with a remarkable range of data sets that will demonstrate how quantitative analysis and the application of statistics can further our understanding of the witchcraft episode. He demonstrates decisively that new technologies can allow us not only to enhance teaching, but address basic historiographical questions in new ways.