27 June 2009

A Web of Intellectual Connections

I just finished listening to a fascinating interview of science and technology historian James Burke by a podcaster named Dan Carlin (who broadcasts Hardcore History). I had not listened to Carlin's podcast before, but was wondering around online hoping to find a new history-related podcast that I could get excited about.

So far the realm of podcasts has not delivered much in the way of "meaty" history that a professional historian who also enjoys mainstream popular culture can get into. Up until now The Napoleon Podcast has been by far my favorite because of the hosts' passion for history and their exploration of its subject on a level anyone with a basic high-school level education could understand. It's entertaining and reflects the type of conversation shared by people who really love to discuss and argue about history for history's sake.

The other day while trolling I-Tunes, one episode of Carlin's Hardcore History caught my eye, "A Fly on James Burke's Wall" (see Show 18 in Carlin's archive) I downloaded it and was instantly transported to a dynamic intellectual exchange between one of my favorite historians, Burke, and an enthusiastic amateur historian, Carlin, with some really thought-provoking insights of his own.

I am one of a generation that grew up learning about history from the likes of James Burke, with his television show Connections, which first broadcast in the US in 1979. I was at an impressionable age, but eager to learn so long as I had fun in doing so. I can remember that I was watching Connections at a time when I actually found the subject of history in school to be quite boring. I was incredibly good at memorizing the names of rulers, places, and dates of events for multiple choice quizzes, but bored to tears with the way it was presented in class by my teachers. Plop me down in front of the Tube, however, and I would watch, and re-watch Connections and its sequels over and over.

What fascinated me most was that Burke's approach appeals to my innate sense of synthesis. My brain is simply wired to draw together ideas quickly. Linear thinking is terribly uninteresting to me. Always was. Destined to be a post-modernist, my wild inclination was to draw two concepts together from different sides of the question and build a theory around them. That's how my fantasy life operated in my child's mind and, later, it's how my scholar's mind turned around sophisticated groups of facts to churn out pages and pages of grad school ramblings. Honed by a youth spent with exploring connections, I understood that history is not simply a string of happenings, but an array of decisions and inventions that might have just as easily gone the other way had circumstances been altered ever so slightly.

Popular scholars and scientists like James Burke, Carl Sagan, and Joseph Campbell showed me that ideas are power and the brain is a tool of exploration. As my education progressed I began to find the voices of scholars who opened up the field of women's history. I can remember being excited by my first readings of "serious" feminist art history in my first year of graduate school. Scholars like Whitney Chadwick and Linda Nochlin raised my awareness of just how much women had been overlooked in the previous views of world history -- not to mention all of the cultures considered "Other" or "Primitive" by First World scholars.

That brings me to the really nifty project that James Burke mentioned in passing during the conversation with Dan Carlin. He's using the Internet as a tool to expand his theories of inter-connectivity among people and moments in history on a website called the Knowledge Web. I encourage you to explore it for yourself. I highly recommend the "Mystery Tours" section which will introduce (or re-introduce) you to Burke's heady style of historic synthesis. My personal favorite tour so far is "Wallpaper to Germ Theory."

My husband and I have often batted around this crazy notion of writing a book together on a certain sub-set of myths about the history of England as filtered down to us from the Victorian era. It's rather crazy on the one hand because we are both really just armchair scholars of the period concerned, but he -- being a scientific/engineering mind with a devotion to folklore -- and I -- with my background in cultural history, archival research, and post-modernist academic training -- might just come up with a perspective on our topic that no one else has ever written. We have between the two of us background, experience, and skills related to intellectual history that combined is actually brilliant (if I do say so myself). The question is: could we produce research that anyone else would care about or want to read? Well, first we have to do the brainstorming and then the research. I'll get back to you on this topic.

I just want to conclude that human knowledge is at a peak. In my culture I am aware of just how fortunate I am to have information almost always at my fingertips. Making it far easier for me to make intellectual leaps than ever before. Its a long way from the paper card catalogues in my elementary school to the high-speed connections of the Internet on my laptop or hand-held device. Almost whenever I have a question, I can within a reasonable amount of time download all kinds of random facts, tidbits, reviews, ramblings, and conspiracy theories about it in a matter of minutes.

Oh, where, I wonder, will the connections lead?

07 June 2009

How Do We Know? Or, Thoughts on Learning in the Digital Age

Learning is a reoccurring theme for me this past week. It has been made abundantly clear that learning is a huge component of my job. In fact, one of the reasons I haven't been updating Pull of the Tides is that I've been expending mental energy to absorb all I need to know about the job I started last summer. This past week I began to learn new software that will enable me to complete some very important assignments during the summer and beyond. I am also learning the larger lessons of how to work within the assigned parameters, whether or not I agree with the methods executives choose to use. And now I'm training two young people for their summer internships, and mentoring has always been a way for me to learn and to grow.

The fact is that I cannot imaging a life without learning. I thrive on it. If my work includes a component that allows me to learn new things and constantly, I'm as happy as a clam. I'm just doing my job to filter through the information, and hopefully the water I output from my shell is clearer than it was before.

I have also encountered the theme of learning in my women's group meeting last Friday. It was one of the dominant themes of an otherwise playful and fun gathering. I remarked on the fact that of the ten women present, nearly all mentioned that they were (or had been) a teacher of some kind or the other. It's remarkable because we came to the meeting from diverse backgrounds and disciplines and lifestyles and, yet, teaching and learning were such common threads that united us and our discussion.

Several women mentioned how the Internet has changed their ways of thinking or processing what they have learned. They talked about how communication and learning walk hand-in-hand and how the Internet brings communities of like-minded people out there together to solve problems or answer questions. The Internet can also be sensory overload -- too much information thrown at you in a small space of time. Like most tools, the Internet becomes a resource and inspiration, but it can also bring on a kind of madness. For me, Facebook has been a fascinating experiment that I have found to be a tool of connection to people in my distant and not so distant past. It's also a site that can play amusing games with the viral method of transmitting fads, mini-games, and trends. Sometimes I find it's traffic so overwhelming I cannot visit it or begin to respond to all of the "pokes" and insistent "requests" from friends. And all because a friend who lives 500-miles distant invited me to join.

In the Digital Age, we see to learn information about events and people in oddly incomplete ways. We may know the latest tragedy or scandal the instant after it happens, but try to find reliable sources for the background on a news story and you really have to use your research skills. It's not easy to find reporters who aren't all quoting the AP wire or a single source or two. This is not to denigrate the work that journalists do, but rather to comment on the fragmented and two-dimensional ways that "easy information" comes to us.

As an archivist who works with primary sources every day at work, I understand all too well how important it is to choose your information sources carefully. A personal letter might tell one side of the story for a family tragedy that results in a court case, while the official record may record very different perspectives and collate a variety of local opinions on the case. Which is true is a question that the scholar has to decide. What case will she make? Whose side will she be one? People write about themselves differently than others may write about them. And what is "Truth" anyway? My graduate education in the humanities has taught me that there is no one version of the Truth. It changes depending upon who you are, what information you have at hand, and the cultural lens with which you see the world.

This brings me to a final way that I've been learning in the past week. Reading is a huge pleasure for me and has been ever since I acquired the skill in early childhood. I read both fiction and non-fiction for fun. At the moment I am reading a book published several years ago by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich named for a phrase she had used in a graduate student research paper that she wrote in the 1970s: Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. In the book she explores the odd ways in which her "radical" phrase has spread through poplar culture since a reporter quoted it in an article. Women and men have interpreted her phrase to mean quite a different set of values and concepts over the years and Ulrich catalogs many of these uses. To her mind some are quite positive and life-affirming, while other uses of the quote have been negative, destructive, and even copyright infringement.

Yet Ulrich does not stop there. She then selects three literary women who made history: one in the wake of the Renaissance in Europe, one in the years of Suffragette struggle in the United States, and one modernist author very dear to my own heart (and past research). I find it fascinating that Ulrich can find threads of meaning between such distant personalities. I find it thrilling that she explores both their struggle as feminists and their struggles to find their own voices. If you are looking for a radical departure in scholarship, you will not find it in this book. You will find -- if you dare to look -- a sense that history has a way of repeating itself, of moving forward slowly. Some battles have been won, but the very popularity of Ulrich's phrase suggests there are still a few to be fought.

I'm still reading this book and still considering Ulrich's arguments. I am swayed by her argument that historians don't control history. Individuals do have the opportunity to make history themselves. Historians can sway opinion, but often they are the servants of history and their own cultural world-views. You can learn all you want about the past, but the knowledge you gain make teach you as much about the present as it has about history.