HIST 698 Week 5/Week 6

It’s hard to write–or speak–when you don’t know your audience. Especially when you’re asked by your audience to write something as ill-defined as a blog post. Thankfully, this will be the last of my late blog posts because I think I understand the nature of the class now.

I think I might have bought into the “participatory discussion” idea a bit too much. I was planning on visiting a local museum in Leesburg, VA, and sincerely wish I had done my site review on that. By going to the Natural History Museum I thought I was being clever–yes, it’s a science museum, but it also presents human history from a position of authority. Yes, they do have an “easy out” for not providing, inviting, or at all encouraging historical context-making, but does the public understand the difference? Should historians not care at all because of their “easy out?” Maybe. But I thought it would give the class conversation material. Instead, I simply made myself look foolish for going to a museum that presents human history and attracts thousands of visitors each year but doesn’t count. (I think I finished my assignment about a week ahead of time. Couldn’t I have been notified that I did it wrong?) Ouch.

Despite what it looked like, yes, I did read the Owens posts. When I said that he wrote we should treat the public like unpaid servants, or whatever, it was a joke. A bad joke, and I am sorry for it. I would never have said it had there not been thirty or so seconds of dead silence and bowed heads after the class was prompted to talk about it. I don’t like talking either, but that was too much. I was trying to get the rest of the class to talk by making myself an easy target for argument since no one seemed to know what to say. Instead, I made myself a target for the discussion leader and cast myself as the one student accused of not reading the assignment. Double ouch.

This isn’t angry rambling, please. It’s rare you get this kind of feedback from class discussion alone. Harsh, but necessary, if I’m going to better my performance.

The essays and interviews in Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World prove beyond a doubt, I think, that the public deserves an even greater share of authority in history-making than is currently practiced.

I thought City of Memory was a great idea, but I hope that it doesn’t prove to be a bad example of over-moderation. Imagine if we could read thousands of little stories of ordinary people in New York from two centuries ago? It would be an historical gold mine, and I think even what people of the day would have labeled “unimportant stories” would prove fascinating. It also demonstrates to cynics that the tools that make user-based history possible and in demand also makes projects like these easy to police. You can’t really moderate what people write into a logbook, but admins can easily reject a lewd and irrelevant comment. However, I can’t help but wonder if the project’s moderation leaves out some good stuff. When the project’s creator said they could easily delete sexual content, does he mean irrelevant spam or simply stories that make people uncomfortable? I’m not saying that the website should be turned into a voyeuristic log of people’s sexual adventures, no. But imagine what we might have learned about early 19th Century subculture and “underculture” if any city dweller had been allowed to write anything, and reading comments from the clients of prostitutes who were later murdered and sensationalized by a genteel media, etc. But of course I digress, the point of the project is not to serve as an archive.. Still, missed opportunity, I think.

The worst part about Letting Go is, paradoxically, the best. Sometimes the book’s arguments, implicit and explicit, are so powerful that I wonder why the issue is still discussed–the question of engaging and working with the public seems like it deserves to be stowed away into the dustbin of the profession, alongside “Should we study the histories of colonized peoples?” or “Should we allow women into college?”.

My favorite example of this is that, though the essays have different authors, many works in the book implicitly highlight the public’s capacity for poetry in writing. “Before the Other People Came” is not only a more respectful name for an exhibit on a First Nation tribe, but we can all agree that it’s a beautiful title. The “Case Study” section that begins with Minnesotans making their own histories on film cleverly ends not with a cold, academic conclusion (yes, I noticed that many of the essays take a casual format that echoes oral history itself) but how oral history and engaging the public can bring ordinary people’s hidden talents to the national stage. A skeptic can dissect the historical reality of a soldier’s defining of World War II as “sportsloving youngsters who were pitted against bitterly fanatical men who knew no rules, and yet won” all he or she wants. Only the most stonehearted could exorcise historical interpretations like that from the soul and declare it “bad history.” That the author of those words is a war veteran only enhances the meaning of what he had to say–the actual authority of his history comes not from being a combatant but from being a history-conscious member of the public.

I had a few questions to ask about the Bentham Project in class last week, but I don’t think it came up. Does anyone have any ideas for how the project could have been even more successful?

I thought it was a cool idea at first… but incredibly one-sided. The Building a Volunteer Community: Results and Findings from Transcribe Bentham is all I know about the project, though. I don’t know if it was assigned reading because it’s a perfect example of academic-public cooperation (if it was, I’m sorry) but it seems like a good example of crowdsourcing exploitation in the manner that Owens warned against. Rather than posting leaderboards to make irregular users feel inferior, why not offer more personalized rewards that encourage the public to take part? Transcribe x many pages, and you get to annotate y number of sentences for everyone else to see. Transcribe z many pages, and you get to post a short essay on the front page.

Maybe my line of thinking is stupid, or maybe the Bentham Project does it and I missed it (the article really emphasized other things intended to excite the crowd, things that marketing experts would have rolled their eyes at five years ago). I think Owens is on my side here, but I didn’t read the assignment, so what do I know, eh? Aren’t the people transcribing turning Bentham’s work into a kind of discovery zone for themselves? Who cares about points if you’re having fun? If you really want people to stay involved, why not appeal to their sense of purpose? I had heard of the Bentham Project before, but didn’t know why I should care. There are plenty of things that need transcribing, why should I worry about this project when I have court-record chicken scratches from Kew to transcribe? Now, had you told me that studying his work would provide insight into the history of legal positivism, atheism, and homosexual rights like Wikipedia does in their opening on Bentham (I admit I have no idea if this is true or not) I would have been a lot more likely to sign up than if I saw some boring Google AdWords.

Again, it seems like if you’re going to ask the public to help transcribe something, why not ask them to help you read it, too? It’s like asking someone to help you set up a board game and then playing without them. Kinda mean.

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