The concept of today’s students as “digital natives” provides the major theme of this week’s readings. This concept, essentially that the younger generation has grown up immersed in technology and is inherently comfortable using it, has proved surprisingly resilient, especially among those who are members of an older generation and learned how to use various digital technologies later in life (“digital immigrants”). Nor is this concept confined to the educational profession; in the military senior officers frequently talk about how young soldiers “grew up on video games” and are those comfortable using advanced military technologies such as drones and remote controlled bomb robots.
Yet, as explored in many of this week’s articles, this concept conceals some important caveats and issues. Danah Boyd engages with these issues most directly, but criticisms of this concept are present, implicitly or explicitly, in almost every article we read this week. Boyd’s criticisms rest on two different but related levels. First, Boyd argues that teens will not become critical contributors to the digital world simply because of the date of their birth and that the ability to navigate facebook and twitter do not imply a mastery of more complex digital tools. Teens will need to be educated to achieve media literacy and technical skills. Furthermore, these two attributes must be accompanied by access, which leads to Boyd’s second criticism. Boyd (and many others) argue that the concept of “digital natives” conceals significant amounts of digital inequality within the younger generation, tied largely to access, which is in itself largely tied to socioeconomic status.
Adam Rabinowitz, in his review of his experience teaching an undergrad course heavily focused on digital tools, likewise criticizes the universality of the digital native concept, pointing out that “students can be avid users of facebook and consumers of Youtube videos and still find it very difficult to use new, often complex or non-intuitive digital tools in a classroom setting” and that students largely prefer their digital content in smaller, manageable doses than is often assumed by educators. Allison Marsh also agrees with this assessment of student skills and interests, claiming that students are not yet convinced by digital humanities and many simply want to be “regular historians.” Mills Kelly, while generally more positive on the digital skills and engagement of students, does agree with Boyd that the profession needs to take a more forward approach to teaching students how to use digital tools.
While these readings do not all completely agree on their assessment of teaching in a digital world and the concept of “digital natives” it seems clear that a more nuanced understanding of the access, media savvy and technical skills of students is critical to the proper teaching of, and with, digital tools. Educators must recognize both the variance within the generation as well as the fact that the prevalence of technology and the use of social media such as facebook and twitter does not necessarily equate to an automatic or intuitive understanding of either the conceptual possibilities or nuts and bolts working of academic digital tools. In order for students to properly understand and implement these digital tools they must still be taught their use, just as we currently teach more traditional historical skill sets such as engaging with historiography and structuring an argument (and writing the papers that Mills Kelly is so critical of).
This weeks readings brought in an issue that touches on much of what we’ve dealt with this semester but that we have not yet addressed. For all the talk of digital media “democratizing” history, the expanded access that pushes this democratization requires the navigation of copyright law. While print historians are largely familiar with the concept of “fair use” without, in many cases, even being familiar with the term, digitization brings in additional concerns, as it does in many other areas. The ability of digital media to rapidly include vast amounts of documents and other media that creates much more copyright concerns than that dealt with by print historians.
The most interesting aspect of this weeks readings, for me, was the section of the embargoing of dissertations. Trevor Owens and Rebecca Anne Goetz raise some very good points about the issues of the AHA statement, and the general benefits of open access. Their articles were especially convincing on the larger issue of tying academic standing to the requirements of for profit press and limiting the focus of academia to scholarly monographs. Despite the strong arguments of Owens and Goetz, and the fact that I think the benefits of embargo vs. open access are still very undecided, it should be noted that the AHA statement does not disavow or call for the elimination of open access, it simply calls for the decision of embargo or open access to be made by the dissertation’s author rather than a unilateral decision by the university. This seems like a rather reasonable request, one that it is hard to argue against even if you believe in open access.
Finally, I thought the Creative Commons Licenses were an intriguing compromise between copyright and open access, although it would be interesting to see some evaluations of its usefulness outside of its own commercial website.
I felt that this weeks’ discussion did a pretty good job of covering the readings and drawing connections between them. Our question were relatively effective in steering the conversation and engaging the class in the major themes of the issue of digital scholarship, although some questions were more effective than others in driving an opened ended conversation than others and, unsurprisingly based on previous class discussions, we answered several questions before we got to them based off of where the discussion went from earlier questions.
Several key issues emerged, some of them new to this week but many echoing themes we’ve dealt with less explicitly earlier in the semester. One of the central topics that threaded throughout the discussion was what make “digital scholarship” and how it relates to the more traditional markers of scholarship as manifested in books, and whether those markers and values are still valid in a digital age. Closely related to this is the issue that digital scholarship is facing in being accepted within the academy, especially within hiring and tenure decisions. The consensus, unfortunately, is that what digital scholarship is capable of doing and what the academy wants don’t mesh well. It does seem that digital history is slowly gaining ground and more jobs, although outside of specifically digital positions the rest of the academy is largely unaware and unconcerned with digital scholarship, even at institutions (like George Mason) with strong digital programs.
While much of the class discussion covered topic I had already thought of when I was preparing for class, several issues were raised that I hadn’t considered. Most notably was the point, drawn from Melissa Terras’ article, of whether historians need to pay attention to how others are using their work…and whether that should drive our future research. While I don’t think we should blindly follow our audience, certainly their is likely some value in paying attention to how our readers interact with our work and if that raises any questions we hadn’t considered. An additional important point, one that is so simple that it is easy to overlook, is the fact that open review (and other digital tools) are such a change from traditional tools that historians struggle to even understand how to use them.
I think the overall discussion was useful in exploring the issue identified above, and provide a good foundation for thinking about digital scholarship. I think in retrospect this discussion of the abstract issues of digital history might have been useful earlier in the semester, but having the practicums out of the way early to allow us to work on our final projects is probably the best structure for the course.
This weeks readings engage directly with many of the issues that have been implicitly raised in previous weeks. While covering various different topics and with significantly differing interpretations, all of this weeks articles are primarily concerned with how to do scholarship on the web, and more fundamentally, whether these new digital tools and mediums alter the basics of scholarship. Broadly, and perhaps overly simplistically, speaking, these articles, and many of those we have read in earlier weeks, attempt to reconcile digital methods and scholarships in one of two opposing ways. Some authors argue that digital media are capable of producing serious scholarship that is different from, but serves similar purposes as that of traditional scholarship. Thus, William Thomas presents digital scholarship as translating “the fundamental components of professional scholarship—evidence, engagement with prior scholarship, and a scholarly argument—into forms that took advantage of the possibilities of electronic media.” This views digital scholarship as analogous to more traditional monograph-based scholarship, but providing additional ways and forms of presenting this scholarship in digital ways that traditional books are incapable of doing. Digital scholarship thus provides a fusion of form and content that is new, but with the same fundamental elements and purpose as earlier scholarship.
A more radical view of digital scholarship argues that traditional definitions of scholarship or “serious history” are constructed around the strengths and weaknesses of the book (“monograph culture” as Edward Ayers terms it), and as such are not a valid universal set of definitions and practices. Thus the rise of digital scholarship presents a fundamentally new way to approach history and scholarship, invalidating or at least questioning definitions of what constitutes scholarship that are based on a single medium (the scholarly monograph). Digital scholarship, instead, freeing historians from the “fascist authority of the format” in the inflammatory words of Tim Hitchcock.
While vastly different in their approach and assumptions, both of these schools of thought argue for the validity of digital scholarship as intellectually credible and valuable history. However, neither of these views of digital scholarship has fully convinced the academy, which remains largely grounded in the traditional “monograph culture.” This, as pointed out by Alex Galarza, Jason Heppler, and Douglas Seefeldt presents significant risks to those who choose to study and produce digital scholarship, as it is largely discredited in the hiring and tenure decisions of many institutions that still hold the written dissertation/monograph as the sole acceptable scholarly product. Until the larger academy reforms it view of digital scholarship and translates that into a wider acceptance of digital scholarship in hiring and tenure decisions, neither of the above arguments will likely gain much traction.
Despite Adam Chapman’s hope that “by no few deny that contemporary game series like Civilization or Assassin’s Creed constitute history,” the validity of games (even less commercial ones such as Pox and the City) as history, and specifically historical scholarship, remains both debated or, for many professional historians, openly denied. Partially, this is part of a larger conversation about what constitutes history, with similar debates occurring around popular histories and historical films. As Chapman points out, much of the argument against games as history rests on an assumption of the scholarly book as equivalent to “history.” Chapman, in an extremely elegant intellectual argument, instead proposes that all forms of history (or any form of representation) necessarily must include simplification and reductionism. Thus the complaints of critics about games are not the result of inherent flaws in the medium, but of inherent flaws in representation of history itself, and merely differ in their manifestation from similar flaws inherent in other mediums such as the literary narrative. Chapman’s argument, with its implication of the impossibility of recovering the past (or the truth?) has a strong flavor of post-modernism, but he does raise important issues and provides a better paradigm for the analysis of games as history with a focus on both form as well as content (which at least is more intellectually useful and interesting then playing “gotcha” with anachronisms).
On a deeper level, however, Chapman’s argument merely recasts the old debate about what constitutes history. While games certainly provide some benefit to the historical field by increasing interest among the general population, there are certainly few commercial games that would meet any wide held definition of a scholarly work. Certainly Civilizations provides no citations to ground its historical-representation decision on primary sources or within the greater historical debate. Additionally, going back to the definition for “serious history” provided by Carl Smith in Week 8, most academics with see an interpretive argument as a critical element of a scholarly work. This is inherently difficult in games, as a large element of the attraction of games is on their interactiveness with users, and the ability to provide non-linearity. This makes it hard to construct and convey an argument. Indeed, as the creators of Pox and the City discovered, a too-tight focus on actual historical facts and events is almost unfeasibly constraining on the construction of appealing game play.
While games may constitute history, broadly defined, they largely lack the attributes of scholarly history, as it is currently recognized. Whether this current definition is valid is a broader question, one that is as hotly debated as the still unrecognized status of games as history, despite the hopes of Adam Chapman