Saturday, March 29, 2008

Deliberately Writing to Future Historians

Dear Future Historians and English Professors,

I am writing to make your job easier. I know how difficult and frustrating it can be to figure out what people in the past may have been doing or thinking, so I present you with this letter that imparts all the facts (free of bias) about the history of Harry Potter’s readership.

As I’m sure you already know, Harry Potter was the most famous protagonist of the early 21st century. His author, J.K. Rowling, went from rags to riches from the enormous success of the series; children and adults around the world read of Harry’s adventures. But what you may not know is who didn’t read Harry Potter, and why they refused to join in Harry’s magical world.

There are three kinds of people in the twenty-first century that have not read Harry Potter. The Cannot’s, the Must Not’s and the Will Not’s.

The Cannot’s are people too poor, too busy earning a living, illiterate, or unable to read one of the many languages into which Harry Potter has been translated. This group is large and is spread across the world. The absence of Harry Potter in their lives comes of necessity and nothing ill can be spoken of them. The latest estimate is that 4.5 billion people fall into this category.

The Must Not’s are people who are able to read Harry Potter, but choose not to on moral grounds. These people are often – but are not exclusively – Evangelical Christians. They believe witches and wizards are evil and homosexuality immoral; consequently these people choose not to read the books. If you would like to see the passion with which these people reject the series, please see the documentary Jesus Camp. Because I – being an unbiased presenter of plain facts – believe people are entitled to their freedom of religion, I will speak no ill of their decision not to read the books. At this time approximately 300 million people are Must Not’s.

The Will Not’s are people who have the time and money to read the books, have no moral objection, but choose not to read the series because they think this decision makes them unique. They love to tell you how proud they are that they have never read the books. How childish it is to read books targeted at adolescents. And how much they hate what they have never experienced. These people – factually speaking – are unhappy with their lives. Their refusal to read Harry Potter is a cry for help. What they’re really saying is, I want to read them. I want to join the club of fans, but I’m afraid it will rob me of the only thing that makes me unique. The Will Not group is quickly diminishing as they break down, one by one, relinquishing themselves to the wonder and magic of the Harry Potter series. By the time of your reading this note, far off in the future, the Will Not’s will almost certainly not exist. At last count, there were 47 of these people.

You now understand all there is to know – just the facts – about the readership of the Harry Potter series. I hope this letter has helped you in your endeavour to understand what we of the early twenty-first century were like.

Respectfully yours,

Adam Crymble

P.S. Historians write of the past in the hopes that people in the present will understand.

Journalists write of the present in the hopes that people in the present will understand.

Who writes to the people of the future? Ridiculous content aside, can we talk to future historians? Or will we just be considered another source amongst a sea of sources? Is there a difference between a contemporary account (such as a newspaper article), written for contemporaries, and an account specifically generated to explain ourselves to people not yet born?

And more importantly, have YOU read Harry Potter yet? You don’t want the next generation of historians to categorize you as a “Will Not.” I’ve just seen to it that the future will see these people in a negative light.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Our Public History Blogs: a Waste of Time?

I know a few of my classmates think blogs are a waste of time. Some complain that nobody reads them, others think it's an outdated format, a couple don't want to contribute to the growing amount of crap already on the internet, and some just don't feel like it.

There's not much I can say about the don't feel like it crowd; however, I do agree with one criticism: a lot of people do write at least some crap - myself included. But that's just why blogs are important for this program. You don't become proficient at a skill by avoiding it. History is a literate discipline, and unless you plan to be a ticket-taker at the local heritage centre, you will likely write in some capacity during your public history career. That writing might be on text panels, brochures, or in magazine articles. It might be part of your job or a supplement to your income. And if you don't practice, you aren't going to get better.

Poor grammar on a text panel will get your museum a bad review. A sloppy or ineffective style on a brochure might mean no one will show up to your event. And an inability to come up with a good angle will quickly get your magazine article shuffled to the bottom of the pile. So, why not practice now?

Chances are, you won't write anything award-winning on your blog; most of your thoughts won't be as complete as the Cliopatria "best post" written by a member of UWO Public History last year. But, a blog offers you an audience - albeit modest, and a chance to practice your writing. No matter how professional your clothing, or how friendly you are, there's a good chance you will be hired for your ideas and your ability to communicate them.

Chances are you haven't mastered it yet. I find it amusing every week when a few of the teaching assistants in my seminar class complain about how terrible their students' essays are, and then these same teaching assistants proceed to read aloud a terribly written presentation, word-for-word from their notes. I can only imagine our professors, sitting in the lounge, are making the same comments about the overconfident Masters students' poorly written papers. You can always improve.

And, while you might think it's a waste of time to blog because nobody reads it, who, I wonder, was reading your academic essays? Was that a waste of time? If your blog traffic is anything like mine - which is nothing to brag about - more people have read your blog in the past month than all the people that have ever read one of your academic history essays. While I concede that what you write on your blog may never get you a job, or even an interview, it will give you a chance to work out a few kinks in an important skill. For that alone, the blog is not a waste of time.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Assignments and the Internet

I had an assignment earlier this year to use the internet to find archival materials relating to the beer industry. It was a lot more frustrating than I had expected because the wording of the assignment hadn't made it quite clear if I was doing what was expected. Then, I went to google, and typed in the professor's exact question in quotation marks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a former student's responses to the same assignment popped up on my screen. I already had more than enough to submit my response, but I was able to use what I found from my search to reassure myself that I was doing the assignment correctly.

The fact that the answers to this assignment are on the internet rather compromises the integrity of it as a learning experience. But, who is to blame in this case?

Is it the student, who has self-published an answer key to an assignment? Or is it the teacher who has tried to save time by reusing something that is now obsolete?

This year, I have been encouraged to publish everything I write on the internet or otherwise. It is certainly an excellent way to produce a portfolio of work that could be used to get further in academia or in the writing industry. Yet, I know in many cases, by posting my work I will ruin an assignment for a professor and force them to either do more work and think of something new, or continue to use what is now a poor test of critical thought.

Right now, I am working on an assignment that asks me to write a compare and contrast review of the only two histories written on the eighteenth century trial of Mrs. Rudd for forgery. These two histories also happened to be written within a year of each other, and it appears neither author knew what the other had been working on. This certainly doesn't happen every day, and it provides a unique and important exercise for students trying to learn more about historiography. But, if I post my review, next year students will be able to use it as a guide. Be able to quote it even. The assignment won't require the same level of critical analysis.

Journals won't publish an article that too closely resembles something they've already published, because it's already been done. Scholarship exists to fill in the gaps in knowledge, not to repeat it in slightly different words. And if I publish it, I will have done this topic.

But, is this my concern?

It has become very clear this year that many students are better with the internet than are their professors. I'm sure my professor this year was entirely unaware that a google search of his question would lead me to someone's responses. But, if unchecked, a problem like this can practically ruin an entire course.

I know of a course this year in which the professor was unaware that the students had access to the textbook's solution manual through the internet. The students had been copying out all their responses without learning a thing (as their failing midterm marks made abundantly clear). And yet the professor did not seem to catch the signs. Not only were the questions from an old textbook, but the students were strikingly efficient with them. Even though the questions were handed out at the beginning of lecture and should have taken 2 hours to complete, many students had no problem perfectly completing the assignments while taking lecture notes by the end of the 1 hour class. Of course, they had just been copying out the answers and ignoring their professor.

Is this the student's fault for being lazy and cheating? Or is it the professor's for using teaching material that is obsolete and fails to engage the students?

Or, is anyone at fault?

The internet now means questions are no longer recyclable. And while I know many students are more comfortable with the internet than are their professors, that's going to have to change pretty quickly or assignments are going to become obsolete.

Will I post my double review?

I guess we'll see.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Women and Family History

In my on-going search for my family history, I've noticed one striking absence: the Women.

In my previous post, Researching Family History: It's Really Just a Title, I noted that for the most part, genealogy is just the history of a surname as it is passed from male to male in an unending line.

But, what about the histories of the women who marry and whose history is utterly ignored? It is easy to follow a male line. For me, anyone with the last name "Crymble" is almost certainly somewhere on the family tree and I need merely to find the common male in both our pasts to know what the relation is. But what of my grandmothers? Where did they come from?

I realized I know eleven generations of my family tree on the male line, dating back over four centuries.

I know two on the female, and both of those are still alive.

Even on my maternal grandfather's side, I know the history of his family name back to the 18th century. Of my grandmother: I know she was born Gertrude Wendt on August 1, 1927. Beyond that, it is lost to me. Who were my grandmothers?

Perhaps it is they whose history I should be pursuing? Whose stories I should be seeking to uncover.

Maybe I will.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Researching Family History: It's Really Just a Title

I've been looking into the Crymble family history the last month or so, and I've found the experience pretty exciting. I am lucky in that my name is very uncommon, and I know exactly from which part of Ireland my ancestors emmigrated, so I can pinpoint my search to very specific regions.

I'm also lucky in that a distant cousin of mine has already done most of the legwork and has found our relatives back to 1585. I even was able to go to the Weldon Library here at the University of Western Ontario and find a brief family history that was printed as part of a regional history of Carrickfergus, back in 1823. I was pretty excited. So, I called my father and told him all about the details I had found, which I won't bore you with here. And his response was, "Yea, but, everyone in Ireland is related."

And I began to wonder what that meant for my search. In a sense, he's absolutely right, and what I'm doing is not researching my family history, but the history of a name as it was passed between men, in an uninterrupted line.

There are 11 generations between that man from 1585 and myself. That means that (based on what I learned in health class), I am directly descended from 4094 people between 1585 and now. And, my search for the Crymble family history is only concerned with the 11 of them born with the surname "Crymble." As if the other 4083 were utterly unimportant.

Mapping where you came from is not as straight forward as I once thought. Each generation you push your search back, the number of relatives you have doubles. Each came from somewhere different, with a different background, a different family history of their own. And if you only search one line, you're only scratching the surface of where you came from.

Ultimately, what you're researching is a title. The title that you still happen to carry around on your credit cards and drivers license, today. Your family history is much more complex than that.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Pre-Historic Park and Keepin' it Simple

I caught a program on TVO last night called “Prehistoric Park.” It originally aired on Animal Planet, and combines Jurassic Park with Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, and adds a little time travel in for good measure.

It’s a kid’s show, but it is filmed like a nature program, where a camera crew follows around the fearless host through the wilderness. Except, rather than seeking out King Cobra’s, or Crocodiles, the host travels back in time to bring near-extinct species such as the Microraptor or the Triceratops, into the present where they are kept at “Prehistoric Park” in what amounts to a Dino-zoo. Computer graphics bring the beasts back to life, and if you suspend your disbelief, you can easily imagine that he’s actually there.

But, what I found the most intriguing, was the way in which information was presented to the audience. I’m no paleontologist, but I’m pretty sure the level of detail given by the narrator is at best theory. Last night, for instance, he caught four Microraptors, which were “half-bird, half-dinosaur.” These Microraptors had a few feathers, which according to the host, were used to keep the animal warm, as well as for use in elaborate courtship displays such as those performed by modern Birds of Paradise.

This information was presented plainly, factually and not unlike you’d expect from Steve Irwin explaining crocodile behaviour. But, the difference is, Microraptors have never been seen alive by humans. Not even close. All we have are some impressions in rocks and perhaps some fossils. There’s no way we could conclusively know this level of detail about the Microraptor’s courtship rituals. Steve Irwin, on the other hand, spent a lifetime studying crocodiles, and was able to see first-hand how they react to various stimuli.

Does this program lie?

We, as viewers, know that the dinosaurs aren’t real (even though the graphics are pretty good). We also know he isn’t really time-traveling. So, are they merely trying to entertain us with some graphics, and some dramatic scenes in which the host routinely almost doesn’t make it back alive? Or are they trying to teach us about these creatures in an intriguing and innovative way?

I’m more inclined to say it’s the later. The content is important.

But, evidently – at least for the producers – the fact that the information presented are theories and not 100% for-sure truths is unimportant. Certainly, we cannot expect children watching this show to understand this distinction between academic theory and certitude. Even most adults probably wouldn’t pick up on the distinction.

But, does it matter?

Is the purpose of shows like these, or even of paleontologists, to brief the world on the latest research and theories? Or, is it to broadly educate those interested in some part of paleontology that they might never have known before, and to do it in an exciting and entertaining way?

There’s something to be said about simplicity.