How might students understand a digitised edition of a major documentary series, created at the height of empire and that is perhaps the largest repository about working people from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries? Would differing forms of digitisation affect their understandings of the series? Our research results indicate poorly in answer to the first question and, surprisingly, not at all on the second, because understanding proved to be less a question of form than content. To realise the potential created by the radically democratised access that online sources permit, we first need to understand and respect how 21st century undergraduates see their world. Rather than focusing on form, we need to explain how their experiences as youth in a neo-liberal world on the brink of ecological disaster relate to questions of power, hierarchy and resistance in the past.
In the preliminary stage individual qualitative and intensive examinations of undergraduate students were carried out using two fundamentally different editions of the same digitalised document. One half used a traditional textually-introduced document, the other accessed the same information through individual optional Google pins distributed throughout the document. This research was then supplemented by in-class experiments and work with graduate students and colleagues.
2.1 Preliminary questions
The dramatic increase in primary source material available online fundamentally transforms teaching and research in the humanities. Material that was until recently only available to hundreds or at best thousands of people at select, often unique, repositories is now virtually available to potentially millions of people. Historical sources are an important part of this completely unprecedented and radical reorientation of archival practice. The sheer scale of this newly democratised access to the sources of humanity’s story is already extraordinary, and as more and more of the archival treasures long-housed in former imperial centres becomes available for research, and importantly for our purposes teaching in classrooms around the world, the potential for challenging Eurocentric conceptions of our past is great indeed.
This potential will, however, only be realized if our students are equipped with the tools they need to critically analyse these online resources. But is the historical literacy needed to understand a manuscript the same when encountered as a virtual source? Can a student simply transfer the knowledge and skills learnt in supervised archival research to working on the web? Are there different ways of knowing, distinct epistemologies, which are more appropriate to the qualitatively unique ontology of online sources? If so, should we be using the conventions of the digital world to navigate through these virtual sources? (Krug, 2006) How might such techniques affect the necessary respect of the historical distance between a conscientious researcher in the present and the source from the past that she or he is examining?
When you hold a centuries old artefact in your hands, feel its weight, hear the paper crinkle, notice a stain or perhaps just react to the dust, you sense a connection to the past that is simultaneously humbling and enriching. This experience has been at the heart of research in the humanities for centuries. (A. Burton, 2005 & Steedman, 2005) Can a virtual encounter be as meaningful? (Hayles, 2001 & JDH, 2012) Indeed how useful is to think of these virtual representations as being from the past? Are they for our students anything more than a brief illusory encounter with a largely incomprehensible past?
Discussion of these wide-ranging and difficult questions, posed as pedagogues of history, led the authors of this paper to engage in an on-going exploration we call “Explaining ourselves.” An urgency fueled our discussions, as increasingly we realized that our undergraduate students see the world in fundamentally different ways than those we taught only a short time ago. So how might they encounter a major documentary series that was created at the height of empire, and is perhaps the largest repository with documentary consistency about working people from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries? Close to hand we had the basis for an answer.
2.2 Finding the answers
Memorial University of Newfoundland is a public university with little in the way of endowments. It is the only university in a province that has the highest poverty rates in Canada. Until recently, MUN has been a place where undergraduate teaching was respected. In the early 1970s, young historians raised the necessary funds from the federal government and convinced the local university administration to acquire the bulk of a collection documenting merchant seafarers of the British Empire, held by the Public Record Office in London. (Matthews, 1974) Covering more than a century, the Crew Agreements maintained by MUN’s Maritime History Archive document the workforce of three-quarters of all ocean-going vessels within the British Empire between 1863 and 1939, with declining numbers continuing until the early 1970s. It provides detailed information about the tens of millions of men and women who served aboard the largest merchant marine in history.
Completion of the major public history initiative More Than a List of Crew (V. Burton, 2011) provided the impetus for our study. By asking how would students read digital editions of these complex, multi-layered documents, she reinvigorated her co-author’s decades-long engagement with the use of computers in the classroom (Sweeny, 1988-2010).
We developed two digital editions of the same crew agreement. The first had an extensive, multiple- screen-length, textual introduction, analogous to an introduction to a historical document in a scholarly edition in print. The second used Google pins to provide location specific information to help the user navigate the document. We created two sets of colour-coded pins. The first reproduced in bite-size portions the contents of the textual introduction. The second drew attention to any references to a particular individual onboard. A crew agreement from another vessel a decade later involving the same seafarer was also made available for the students to examine.
We worked with fourteen undergraduate Arts and Science students in individual sessions. We recorded the screen actions for each session. Working alone, students were given up to two hours to familiarize themselves with the document. Half worked with the text edition and half worked with the annotated one. Then the students had two hours to complete two exercises. The first was content-oriented and used a multiple-choice/short answer quiz. The second involved the second crew agreement mentioned above, which was not annotated, but the students could consult the earlier documentation. They were asked to write a brief analytical essay engaging both primary documents. These written assignments were followed up by focused conversations where we asked the students to explain their answers and to identify the problems they had encountered in working with the documents. As we progressed this de-briefing became more effective as we realized the merit of asking students how they would explain these documents to a friend.
In a second phase of the research we broadened our pool. We asked select graduate students in history and colleagues from our department to participate. Students in a third year historical methods class as well as students in a first year introductory course spent a 50 minute class with the documents after having visited the archives, formally in the first case and virtually in the second. They were then asked for written feedback.
The results indicated no significant differences in understanding of the documents, both groups fared poorly. Furthermore, students with substantial historical training did not show appreciable differences. Thus, our presumption that form mattered was misdirected. Instead, student comments and their observed navigation practices both strongly suggest their need to engage directly with the documents in ways which use their existing understandings if they are to explore new ways of seeing.
2.3 Where from here?
We need to consciously transcend the form/content divide, if we are to engender in our students both an appreciation of the internal logic of a source and the ability to engage concept and evidence. In this particular case, how a crew agreement embodies the unequal power relationships between seafarers, masters, ship owners and the state would be the most fruitful pedagogical focus. What are they agreeing to and why? Crew agreements, like almost all historical documents, record unequal relations. Young people today live in an increasingly unequal world and this is the key to a progressive pedagogy that opens up our troubled present to our many and varied pasts. Used critically, it might yet allow our students to realize the democratic potential of all those newly accessible documents.
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