Historical Inquiry in Digital Spaces

Historical Inquiry in Digital Spaces

Written by: Jolie Christine Matthews

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  • Publish Date: 2014
  • ISBN-10: OCLC:889935258
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Book Summary

History educators are confronted with a new set of challenges in the 21st century. The Web provides unprecedented access to a wealth of content, allowing students and the general public to easily explore and search for information on topics of interest to them outside the traditional parameters set by academic and publishing gatekeepers, yet it also sets parameters for where and how to look for content (Cronon, 2012, 2013; Kelly, 2013). Students tend to rely on Wikipedia, Google, Yahoo, and other brand name sites and tools for the majority of their searches. Though aware to varying degrees that sites such as Wikipedia cannot be fully trusted (or so their professors say), most still go to Wikipedia first and do only a cursory comparison on a few other sites to corroborate information -- or perhaps use the sources listed in a Wikipedia entry's reference section as their guide for further investigation. Little do they realize how much Wikipedia, Google, and similar ilk shape the results of what information they even see (Hargittai, Fullerton, Menchen-Trevino, & Thomas, 2010; Menchen-Trevino & Hargattai, 2011; Kelly, 2013). Website appearance -- ease of navigation, quality of graphics, and claims of neutrality -- can also lead students (professionals these days too) to take the information on there as credible because it looks believable, though an afterward investigation into the site's history and who the authors of the content are, instead can reveal a highly biased, unreliable source (Kelly, 2013). Seeming believable extends to other arenas too. Historical films, for example, that fit students aesthetic, moral, narrative, and other contemporary expectations of how the past should be represented are initially assumed to be more credible (Seixas, 1993; 1994), when they are as much a product of their time as earlier works (Davis, 2002; Rosenstone, 1995a; 1995b; Schwebel, 2011). A danger of historical films, novels, or any fictional depictions of the past is that they can be treated as "a reliable source of historical information" instead of "as a historical narrative that has been constructed by a particular person in a particular moment in time, " even by some educators (Schwebel, 2011 p. 12). Yet the lure for historical drama is strong, as students and the general public enjoy the "fantasy of history" (Sturken, 1997), that is, the ability of fiction to grant intimate access into the inner lives and behind the scenes events that are otherwise denied to them of a past long gone. Historians must confine themselves to what the evidence permits (Becker, 1931; Cronon 2013; Kelly, 2013). Even when letters, diaries, and other personal artifacts are available, a complete picture of who the historical figure was is impossible, as well as to ever fully understand all of what really happened (Becker, 1931; Cronon 2012). This is part of the challenge, frustration, joy, mental exhilaration, and richness of history, to attempt reconstructing a past where an "event itself once occurred, but as an actual event it has disappeared; so that in dealing with it the only objective reality we can observe or test is some material trace which the event has left" (Becker, 1931, Section I, para. 2). However, this necessary distance from total intimacy, in addition to other factors such as the shift away from narrative as the disciplinary mode of presenting historical content, the increasing use of insider and dense language by professionals that makes a subject matter impenetrable or outright boring to outsiders, and an embrace of specialization to the point that broader surveys are typically left to popular history, have led to a growing distance between historians and the general public, even within the profession between historians who remain in academia versus those who chose the public history route (Cronon 2013; Lord, 2005). Trained historians think about and approach the past differently from the untrained public, particularly students (Britt & Aglinskas, 2002; Leinhardt & Young, 1996; Seixas, 1993; 1994; Wineburg, 1991; 1998). The youth of today live in a remix culture where source material is malleable, videos and images can be altered to serve a point they wish to make, the Web is the first and maybe the only stop for information, and where their history related activities seem to little resemble what historians do (Kelly, 2013). It is often advocated to push students toward the disciplinary and critical thinking skills employed by historians, but crossing the divide between academic and general history may be more complicated than it appears, not only for the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, but for others. The general public and students are now able to gather online and make their own informal history communities, where members may or may not value the disciplinary skills being promoted in the classroom. Some of that has to do with the disconnect existing between their ideas of history and the educator and historian's ideas about the discipline (Kelly, 2013), and that historians and educators are not necessarily aware of the range of activities that occurs online. This must change if we want students and the general public to understand, appreciate, and practice the more complex elements of the discipline, for it "is our job, not theirs, to persuade them of its importance and teach them its fascinations." (Cronon, 2013 p. 7). To do so, it would be prudent to know what is already important and fascinating to them, or least what they're willing to spend time and energy on, as well as what they discuss, create, remix, and generally do in their online activities. This dissertation, comprised of three articles, examines history within the context of online fan communities -- members' practices and arguments, conceptions of history broadly and in specific instances, as well as their understanding of representation, fantasy, and history in media and culture, focusing on two television shows and two communities: 1) The Tudors, a historical drama about the 16th English monarch, Henry VIII, and The Tudors Fan Wiki, devoted to the show and the historical era, and 2) Game of Thrones, a pseud-historical fantasy series, and A Song of Ice and Fire University, a Tumblr fan community about the show. Though this dissertation concentrates on the content in these spaces rather than delving into the backgrounds of individual participants, each of the articles attempts to examine digital history from a different perspective. Before the first article, there is an introductory chapter that focuses on the various cultural representations of the Tudor dynasty from the 16th century to the present, to give readers a sense of the kind of legacy these figures have in popular consciousness that continues to influence the fans whom I study in my dissertation. This first article examines The Tudors Fan Wiki community, and the ways its members engaged with sources, along with discussion topics and response patterns. Data was collected over a five month period, analyzing posts from the history section of the discussion forum. Even in an informal, online space, traditionally published non-fiction works still predominated, though a range of sources were utilized by members. Key differences also emerged in members' purpose for invoking a scholarly versus media work, for example. Questions about sources further resulted in members searching for more information, leading to "detective work" and the learning of new topics they had not previously thought of or considered. Members reacted to sources and one another's assessments in multiple ways, including the use of disciplinary heuristics such as contextualization and corroboration in traditional and non-traditional manners. The second article continues in The Tudors Wiki community to study the Everyman's (Becker, 1931), or rather the Every-person's, history, and how members relate historical content to their daily lives and personal interests through extended discussion in the 31 most highly commented threads over a four year period. Though one can never know for certain why some threads and topics flourish over others, understanding the identifiable common patterns and participation levels of extended discussion is a step toward understanding some of the "immediate pleasures that often serve as gateways for falling in love with history in the first place" which we can then use as a bridge "to encourage our amateur colleagues and members of the general public to join us in more sophisticated conversations about the past" (Cronon, 2012, para. 9). Though threads' initial topics related primarily to historical figure and less so events/issue etc., conversations shifted, went off tangent, became personal, and evolved in any number of ways. History didn't exist in isolation (Becker, 1931; Cronon, 2013; Schwebel, 2011). For members of the wiki, it offered them the chance to collaboratively discuss and learn about DNA, make and take quizzes, participate in an inter-faith dialogue, debate community behavior norms, and challenge one another on where information derives. They are making the "past live again" (Cronon, 2013 p. 7) by connecting it to their families, jobs, personalities, and contemporary events and figures such as doing genetic testing on Prince William, or that they too are "brazen" women like Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn. Though on the surface this may not seem to explicitly connect to disciplinary history, we need to first know and appreciate what they view and love as history in their own rights before we can convince or interest them that there is more yet to learn and do. The third article turns to the ASOIAF (A Song of Ice and Fire) Tumblr community, looking at fan's understanding of the interplay between history and fantasy as they discuss the historicity of a past that never was. It also explores the diverging opinions that emer ...

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