Digital History and teaching

Yoni Applebaum has apparently taken a break from filming The Matrix 4 to record a clip on The Historian in The Digital Age. For those of you don’t know him, Yoni is a grad student in history who managed to parlay some blog comments into a gig at the Atlantic. In the clip he talks about Digital History as being able to work with the various digital sources that now exist, will exist in the future, and which will become obsolete. He talks more, however, about finding new places to put your stuff, and finding new audiences to talk about the past with. He stresses that most of what he he does for the Atlantic is the same type of thing he does in his academic work. “synthesize the existing scholarly literature, blend it with new primary research and come to a conclusion.” On the other hand with his Atlantic audience he does not have to do a full-blown scholarly treatment of something. He also does not have to be a real expert in the sense you would need to be to publish academic stuff on these topics. I assume he is a fine academic historian, but pretty much anyone who knows the literature can add a lot to most American/internet discussions of…anything.

Listening to this makes me think about a couple things.

-Feedback. He mentions that you get quicker feedback doing digital history. That is true, but not really the most interesting point. How does an academic historian get feedback? Some of it is book reviews and snide footnotes and lack of job interviews, but all of that is very slow. I think it helps a bit to think of Digital History (which to me is mostly blogging) as a form of teaching. Thus feedback is reading the comment section, checking your website traffic, etc.  Or, of course, grading papers. Neither of these are normally listed among the joys of the job, but they really are important. Grading can be unpleasant, but it is far, far, far, more useful in helping you think about what you are doing than student evaluations or peer observations. Grading is better than a comment section because you have a captive audience that you have power over.1 If students are not answering questions the way you would like maybe you are asking the wrong questions, giving them the wrong sources, or not teaching them how to think about the sources the way you would like. Everyone who teaches had gotten halfway though a pile of student writing and asked themselves what went wrong.

With blogging, or any other forms of digital/public2 history the feedback loop is a lot…loopier. Anyone can show up and say anything, and their agendas may not be yours. Heck, some of them may not even have done the reading!  Some of them are telling you that you are the cat’s pyjamas, which is nice, but does not help much. The ones who have engaged with what you are teaching but are not entirely satisfied are the ones you think the most about. Who is your audience? What do you want them to come away with? Sadly, in order to get enough feedback to really think about, you have to ramp things up to the point where you are also getting a lot of crud. You could deploy some sort of moderation system (run by avid readers/TA’s) but that turns it into a whole different sort of thing.

Applebaum talks about all the places you can put things, but it might help to think more about who the audience is, and why were are doing this, and how we assess (that word!) how well we have done it. Is it just hit count? I know it is for the Atlantic, but I suspect Yoni cares about more than that. Getting some citations in paper? Kind e-mails? I would like to think that digital history, like teaching, is a craft that we practice in part because it satisfies us personally, besides pleasing the powers that be, but a blog needs to go beyond a personal intellectual diary if you want to claim that you are really doing history. I am really not sure to think about all the digital stuff people are doing. It it just the old model, only not on paper? Or something else? Why bother having a site like Frog In A Well?3

-It’s really sad how little historical awareness the historical profession has. Applebaum is, like all the digital history people, filled with the spirit and trying to convert people. But writing about the past actually goes farther back than the birth of the modern research university and the modern Great Wall dividing academic and popular history.4 In China, to choose just one place, there were all sorts of ways of writing and talking about the past (or other things) and even in the West and the gatekeeper role of modern academic credentialing/publishing is pretty recent. Obviously lots of people are aware of this, but I would like to imagine that historians would be -more- aware. Not happening, from what I can see. A historical change is happening, and historians as a group are less aware than others about how to deal with it.

Via Coates


  1. Be as fun-loving and interesting as you want, but when you teach you are The Man

  2. no, they are not the same 

  3. One nice thing about the new model is that if this were an article a nasty editor would tell me I have not yet figured out what to say about this. In the new digital world I can just hit post, and either people will help me figure this out, or it will just vanish 

  4. I call it a Great Wall because it is supposed to be a sharp line, visible from space, that clearly divides the two, but in reality nobody is sure why it is there, it is often not there, and the people on each side are obsessed with what those on the other side are up to. 

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