Playing with new technologies

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There’s some small irony in the fact that I bought a new I-Pad on the same day that the AHA sent out a survey about technology adoption in research and teaching. One of the underlying themes of the survey was the issue of early adoption: at what point do historians climb on a technology band wagon?

Will this change how historians research or communicate? Until we play with it, we'll never know

It’s telling that there weren’t any questions in the survey that directly addressed technology innovation: the survey didn’t ask what  AHA members are doing to try to drive the bus. Of course there’s space in the comments section for individual users to address that issue, but the AHA didn’t think to actively solicit that information.

Is that because there aren’t many tangible career benefits to PhD students or permanent faculty member for taking risks with technology? (Dan Cohen notes that the majority of historians are “still analog.”) This question is becoming a well-rehearsed refrain, but I’ll say it again, anyway: in most cases, qualifying exams, the dissertation, and the tenure process don’t recognize or reward the time spent playing with new technologies.  Digital expertise may make a candidate stand out as a job candidate–but only in conjunction with other skills. With good reason, a history department is not going to hire a faculty member with good tech skills but no facility with primary source analysis or familiarity with the relevant literatures.

Of course there are other rewards beyond a degree, a job, tenure or promotion. Playing with emerging technologies might mean producing a print monograph based on data that wouldn’t have been accessible without digital methods. Or it could mean e-format dissemination of work (an  e-book, website, podcast, video, etc) that is able to send a different message than print, or reach a different audience. But those rewards alone don’t typically pay the rent. I don’t know anyone who’s making a living from a scholarly website.

For history to thrive in the classroom and remain relevant to the wider public, it behooves the history profession to recognize myriad forms of production–both in terms of process and finished product. For the most part, we know what a viable dissertation or book in-progress looks like. A plausible outline and a couple of intelligible chapters, and we can have faith that, in time, the finished product will meet some notion of “professional standards.”

Working in emerging technologies can mean that an accomplished scholar with data collected and general goals for a finished product might have a work-in-progress that doesn’t take the shape of draft chapters, and that isn’t intelligible yet, but is nevertheless on the way to a challenging, coherent, provocative piece of work. One point of experiments is that you don’t necessarily know the outcome before you start. It can be fruitful to play with various forms until you find the one that meets your needs.

I use the word “play” here intentionally. The word “experiment” might be more prudent in a memo to the Dean arguing for the importance of recognizing technology adoption or innovation in a performance review, but “play” is what it’s all about. I recently sat on a PhD qualifying committee in the computer science department. I’m surely not breaching any confidences to say that an ICS exam does not look at all like a history exam, but that the conversation among faculty members about the student’s performance felt familiar–except when the student was commended for his enthusiasm to play: with method, with process, with code.

A sample of one is no basis for generalizations about the values of a discipline. But I will use my single experience in ICS to reflect on the practice of historians. I’ve never heard a historian describe the process or the product of a colleague or student as play. I’ve heard them talk about the joy of reading a good book, or the delight of uninterrupted days in the archive, or the challenge of a new argument, but never playing with sources, or methods, or interpretations.

Without the sensibility of “play,” new technologies can seem daunting, indeed. Working in unfamiliar terrain, with undetermined outcomes and uncertain rewards does not seem like a viable career strategy.  The barriers to playing with technologies are real. Some outcomes are extraordinary–and some might well be revolutionary. We just won’t know until we spend some time playing.

Which brings me back to my new I-Pad. What can I do with it that I can’t already do with my computer, my smart phone, my Kindle? I don’t know, yet. Writing this post while lounging on the couch hardly seems worth the purchase price (since last week I would have done this on my laptop with the same result). But give me (and plenty of others) some time to play with it, and I may have something new for you–or for my undergraduate students–by next fall.

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One Response to “Playing with new technologies”

  1. Jana Says:

    Recently I posted some thoughts on my blog about “play” and passion. I’ve found that even in my historical work I need to be pushing boundaries or ‘playing’ with some part of the experience in order to stay engaged. If it’s all ‘work’ and no ‘fun,’ it’s really tough for me to keep going with a project. As a small example: on a history paper that I wrote a few years ago I took a popular song from the era and used various lines from the song to subtitle the sections of my paper. The paper wasn’t about music, but doing so was such fun, and it stretched me in ways that made a rather mundane assignment more grounded in the era that I was examining.

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