Overall Comments

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

This session has included three very interesting and different papers about the role of the Internet and electronic resources in graduate history studies. Gretchen Adams has described their use in broadening the professional and scholarly community in which graduate students operate; Susan McCormick, in enhancing the presentation of historical scholarship, including dissertations; and William Mulligan, in augmenting and improving upon existing resources in a public history program. What these papers share in common is an appreciation of the Internet's ability to open up communication, to ease the flow of information between graduate students and their peers, advisors, senior scholars, undergraduate students, publishers, potential employers, libraries, archives, historical societies, museums, and government institutions, among others. Whether through individual or group communication, a WWW site, or on a disk, the electronic revolution is viewed as a means of exposing the graduate students to more information and advice than has ever been available before.

Comment on Gretchen Adams' paper

Comment on Susan McCormick's paper

Comment on William Mulligan's paper

As you can see, there are at least two themes that arise in the papers and my comments on them:

  1. The first theme is the need to constantly assess and maintain quality of the content on the Internet, whether it be on Listserv groups or the material on a WWW site. Such an assessment should consider what is available on the Internet relative to what is available through the traditional means of one-to-one meetings, classrooms, conferences, and print publications. Ease of access and amusement value should not be the sole determinant of which medium to use, nor should familiarity with traditional methods and fear of learning new technologies, techniques, and approaches. Ultimately, it is the quality of the information, and a growing understanding of which medium serves which function best -- something that will only come over time -- that should determine what to offer and via which medium.
  2. The second theme that these paper share is that the opening up of communications allowed by the Internet and electronic resources is a positive occurrence, something with which I strongly concur. However, this brings me to a last question, one aimed at Austin Kerr, William Mulligan, and others in the audience who are beyond graduate school and on the other side of electronic communications. Is the electronic revolution as positive for established scholars as for the students who are coming out of graduate school? Are there aspects of electronic communication that create difficulties in teaching in the university? These difficulties might include students presuming to establish one-to-one relationships with highly trained and busy scholars, or an out-pouring of e-mail that adds greatly to the work-load. They also might include the need to learn technology at a late stage or in the midst of an already over-burdened schedule. In taking stock of the effect of the Internet and electronic resources in the university, it is essential to look at all sides, and also to see its integration in academia as an evolutionary process, with new types of etiquette and protocol established to offset some of the negative side effects. Even as today's generation of graduate students experiment and take advantage of the tremendous potential of the Internet, it will be essential to ensure that it preserves the professionalism and high standards of its teachers.

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