Comments on "MultiMedia Theses and Dissertations: Variations on A Theme"

Presentation by Susan L. McCormick

AHA '99 January 8, 1999, Washington, D.C.

"Preparing History Graduate Students for the Digital Age: Research and Teaching in the Twenty-First Century"

Wendy Plotkin

8 January 1999

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Next, I would like to comment on Susan McCormick's paper. In her remarks, McCormick emphasizes the potential of the WWW for "expanding the audience." McCormick uses her own dissertation and the multi-media extension of it to demonstrate her point. Her dissertation is itself an interdisciplinary one linking social, labor and women's history. I am gratified at the *intellectual* innovation that has occurred in history since the 1960s that has allowed exploration of these social history topics in the same depth that was earlier applied to political and constitutional history. Such intellectual innovation has provided scholars with a much richer and insightful understanding of human endeavour.

In her work, McCormick is encouraging another type of innovation, in presentation, publication, and teaching. I agree with McCormick completely that in no way should these newer approaches lower the standards associated with the basic research and narration of one's findings. Such standards need to be upheld and maintained regardless of how the findings are eventually presented to academicians, students, and the public.

Having said that, I welcome the work McCormick has done, and is doing, in multi-media history. I believe that her work reveals areas of past weakness in the historical profession, and offers useful solutions that will strengthen these areas. It is assumed by traditionalists and those who still doubt the seriousness of the Internet that print publication of monographs and articles with footnotes alone is the ideal means of sharing one's work with other scholars. These findings are then incorporated into printed textbooks that increasingly use attractive and informative graphics, accompanied occasionally print editions of primary documents.

McCormick's work suggests an alternative means of presenting this information, taking advantage of digital technology. She stresses making available textual, visual, and audio primary source material to augment the monograph, in what is implicitly a more attractive and more accessible format. Attractive, because of the dynamic, nested nature of the digital "document" -- accessible because of its ease of transmission.

What will determine the acceptance of this new technology and its tools of presentation is a demonstration that they *are* superior to past means of presentation. What is it about multi-media that is superior to printed textbooks and primary document collections? Is there more than our own intuition or sensibilities that can convince others that adding these features to scholarly work *is* a move for the better and not just a passing novelty with a shelf-life as long as educational TV?

I should say that *I* believe that the Internet does present an improvement in scholarship, and that, as McCormick suggests, not only will this result in a more meaningful presentation to other scholars and an improvement in teaching to undergraduates, but also a broadening of the non-academic audience that will be able to assimilate this knowledge into its everday experience.

However, I am glad that McCormick raises important issues about the acceptability of electronic and multi-media work in graduate school. She describes the time she had to spend on mastering the skills involved, which are often not offered as part of the history curriculum. This forces one to use the university's general computer courses or to master these skills on one's own. McCormick describes a sympathetic history department in her own case, although she was then faced with a less-understanding university administration in providing the dissertation in a novel, multi-media, format. My own experience has been in a history department in which there is little tolerance for spending time on technology-related learning. Within the department, with some important exceptions, there is a low assessment of the value of the Internet in scholarly work and in pedagogy relative to the need to spend time on traditional reading and writing. My department is not exceptional. Many traditional scholars object to the time and energy that attention to technology takes from the focus on historiography and historical ideas. This impatience, which I've seen in many first-rate scholars, indicates to me a lack of understanding of how the Internet can improve the dissemination of evidence and sources. Because many of these scholars don't use and are uncomfortable with the Internet, they are not aware of the rich resources available from the Library of Congress and the National Archives, as I described in my earlier remarks on Gretchen Adams' paper. They are not yet comfortable with the means and level of authentication of primary sources on the WWW, and insist on seeing the primary document themselves -- a luxury afforded few scholars. Thus, they don't see the benefit of the Internet in the development and presentation of serious scholarship.

Furthermore, I believe that, to a certain extent, enthusiasm for the Internet relates to the level of interest in teaching, and in the type of student body that is targeted. Throughout the discipline, many historians suspect that the use of the Internet in research and teaching is *not* an improvement, but a "dumbing down" to an inarticulate generation that has been nurtured on MTM channel type of television and Nintendo. These critics assert that today's almost illiterate students cannot tolerate text greater than a sentence in length without an intruding graphic. They are satisfied with the more traditional means of presentation in the belief that these have proven successful with the articulate, intelligent, and well-read audience that have comprised their peer groups and the successful group of graduate and undergraduate students -- those whom they deem the appropriate recipients of university education. It may be that those who eschew the use of the new technologies are most satisfied with training an elite, somewhat self-selected, group of students who have responded best to the traditional means of teaching through monographs and classroom lectures and discussion. I myself am one of these students who enjoys long arcane footnotes and prefers texts as complex as possible, and is not dependent on graphics to enjoy a lengthy essay or historical exposition.

However, I think that these scholars are under-estimating the interest and abilities of a whole group of students out there would would benefit from the development of alternative teaching methods. These students -- and I include among these, the general public that can access their WWW from home -- are not among those naturally attracted by lengthy texts and traditional methods. These are individuals who who have previously been uninterested -- for a variety of reasons -- in historical insights and information. It is my guess that the new multi-media can attract this audience to history, and add to the stock of historians as well as enhance the historical interest and understanding of the wider audience.

One might think of a future where more than acceptance is available within the history deparment for digital and multi-media work -- where technological training is integrated into the graduate curriculum so that historians teach graduate students about the Internet, instead of having to rely on computer professionals who will not be familiar with the resources nor nuances of the historical discipline. Whatever is fashioned, the result should be that interest in technology does *not* require serious students to dilute their attainment of the traditional body of knowledge and skills offered in graduate school. It should allow them to pursue them in tandem. Thus, acceptance of technological training in the curriculum -- and possibly specializations in the integration of technology and history -- might also require the development of joint M.A. and/or Ph.D. programs in computing and technology, in the same manner that combined Ph.D. and J.D. programs allow students to obtain research and law degrees to pursue legal history with the appropriate authority.

In Europe, encouraged by the Association for History and Computing, graduate programs in computing and history have been offered for some time. It would be worthwhile to check out their curricula and to explore further the development of graduate-level education in history and computing in the U.S.

Comments on Gretchen A. Adams paper

Comments on William H. Mulligan Jr.'s Paper

Overall Comments on All Papers

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