Department of the
History of Science
Univ. of Oklahoma
601 Elm Avenue
Norman, OK 73019
tel: 405.325.3427 fax: 405.325.2363
In the fall of 2000, I taught Science and Popular
Culture — a lower-division general education course — for the first time. I knew of a few examples of graduate topics courses on this subject, but I was pretty much working from scratch to figure out how to pull this field together for undergraduates. The huge holes that existed in the literature and the lack of accessible materials (due to their being outdated, or overpriced, or filled with off-putting specialist jargon, or useful but out-of-print, etc.) led me to begin experimenting with preparing my own edited and annotated source documents with weblinks, and presenting them digitally through my course website, as a supplementary webfolio.
After several years of experimenting with student use of the webfolio, thinking through the next, more advanced steps proved to be rather tricky -- the digital landscape was changing with the appearance of what would be called web 2.0 (think wikipedia, social bookmarking, facebook, flickr and youtube for starters), and time had shown that there was more skepticism about digital humanities than support for it in my home academic environment. But working on the webfolio had convinced me about the direction in which I was headed: toward a place where being a digital historian was a realistic option as a core part of my portfolio.
One result of this commitment is that I've reconceptualized how to design and make use of the course's webfolio, upgrading it and other digital materials from a supplementary status to foundational elements -- and thus reworking the course itself from a lecture/discussion format to a hybrid course (a blend of face-to-face and online learning). That's the version that goes online for Fall 2010. I welcome any thoughts, comments, suggestions, and critiques you may have as the webfolio begins taking shape over the summer!
But the webfolio is meant to stand alone as well -- that is, "to make sense" as a resource whether or not someone takes my "Science and Popular Culture" course. Beyond how I and my students make use of it, customize it, and relate it to it in any given year, it will only have fulfilled the sweat equity I have put into it if it serves as a portal about science and popular culture for others to also think with, interact with, and ultimately, appropriate, for their own needs and questions and intellectual purposes.
short-term & long-term goals
The intent behind the webfolio is to stimulate interest in science and popular culture, provide resources for teaching and research, and contribute to wider public discussions about issues related to science and the public (as a start on this, see the scipop blog, petri dish).
Ultimately, the three goals of the webfolio are: 1) to serve as an experiment in public history, becoming part of a larger conversation about science, culture, and history; 2) to bring resources to audiences which don't normally visit archives or have collections of materials at hand; and 3) to provide a space for a community of researchers, both within and outside of the academy, to work with and learn from each other.
In the final analysis, the point will be not simply to transfer familiar forms of historical practice into static digital formats, but to explore new ways of thinking about and doing history. As Edward L. Ayers reflected in words that are still relevant from his 1999 essay, The Pasts and Futures of Digital History:
"New technology has not affected the books and articles that form the foundation of what we [historians] teach. Other parts of the academy have sustained long-running debates over the effect of electronic media on writing, but those discussions have bypassed the historical profession almost entirely. Discussions of epistemology, narrative, and audience that have animated literary studies have had no discernable impact on historians.
…The possibilities and obvious complications of those [digital] archives may create pressures toward, temptations toward, narratives that try to keep more facets of experience and perception in play. We might be able to imagine ways to write that let us deal more effectively with multiple sequences, multiple voices, multiple outcomes, multiple implications."
In short, Ayers, suggests, "a major goal of mature hypertextual history will be to embody complexity as well as to describe it…hypertext, in fact, could represent a new kind of rationality and empiricism." I have come to believe that Ayers is correct, and that the only way to see what may lie ahead is to dust off my dead reckoning skills and push off from shore.
collaborative preparation: thank-yous
As a founding member of the Human-Technology Interaction Center (HTIC) which existed for a decade here at OU, I've been fortunate to work with a number of talented interdisciplinary colleagues over the years from psychology, engineering, computer science, communication, and management and information systems (some still here, others not) on issues related to computer-mediated communication in particular and human-technology interaction in general.
In starting out, cognitive psychologist Francis Durso was especially helpful in encouraging a humanist to join in the fun; our co-taught course on The Past and Future of Humans and Technology in 1997, along with a grant from the College of Arts and Sciences which provided for seven experts to give talks and meet with our seminar students, helped provide me with an education of my own as well (working through ideas from scientists and scholars such as Donald Norman on user-centered design, Peter Pirolli on humans as informavores, Lee Sproull on electronic communities, Carolyn Marvin on when old technologies are new, and Paul Edwards on the legacies of information systems from the cold war).
As part of HTIC's summer NSF-sponsored Research Experiences for Undergraduates program over six years, I also had the good fortune to supervise research — social scientific, historical, and philosophical — on human-technology interaction, and this too helped to spur my interest in not simply studying the digital world but of becoming a participant in it as well through digital humanities. All of this helped me work on my practical skills as well, as I concocted various forms of self-study courses on digital pedagogy from the vantage point of history and the humanities, computer-mediated communication, the rhetoric of digital media, web design (and tools such as Dreamweaver, CSS, image-editing software and more), and then kept moving forward in learning about new apps for the collaborative creation of information and for sharing it (wikis, rss feeds, blogging, podcasts, folksonomies, and so on).
My experiences with supervising these students' research projects and my own on-going web-based explorations led to my proposal to teach a course in the Department of History on the topic of history in the era of the internet: The Future of the Past: History in the Digital Age. As the students and I compared print history with digital history, and public history with academic history, I came to both a deeper understanding of history and new media and a much more tangible sense of how a digital community of inquiry can work, even if only temporarily. I owe these students a deep debt of gratitude for signing on to an experimental course!
I am also grateful for being chosen to participate in 2001 in one of the Echo Project's early workshops on digital archives in the history of science and technology, which helped to support my spadework on a childhood memories database project. OU's Information Technology Committee within the College of Arts and Sciences has provided funding for aspects of this project related to using digital archives in support of undergraduate teaching, and an award from the Faculty Senate to develop a special website that draws on materials contained in scipop allowed for the development of "Little Scientists at Home in Victorian Times." Graduate student Natalie Peck was also of great assistance in helping me plan the early stages of this project, and grad students Cornelia Lambert and Kate Sheppard have been wonderful collaborators during this latest phase of tinkering and planning.
each of us literally chooses, by his way of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself
— william james