Reframing History: A Making Experiment?

I talk about chasing the idea across platform. I'm influenced by the public humanities practice articulated by community engagement ideology that shapes teaching and learning at Rollins College. While I'm leaving Rollins, the scholar/teacher I am is pretty much defined by the idea of marrying the classroom to the real world in some way.  I always caution people that "I'm not expert", but of course expertise is relative. I know more than many and think and act on the those ideas that align with my goal. The critical making ideology that guides my action in and out of the classroom mean I want to take ideas and knowledge and apply them in the project that create objects that demonstrate learning by student makers, but add to public knowledge.  How can I do that if I don't play around myself? 

Podcasts are a D.I.Y. (Do It Yourself) digital form. Indeed, there is an argument among digital humanist whether or not a podcast project is a "digital humanities project."  This came up during the Organization of American Historians meeting this year.

This exchange was meaningful to me as Jeff McCluken is the Digital Review editor for the Journal of American History.  Robert Cassanello is my friend and colleague and he has created a number of noteworthy podcast projects (and other things). Perhaps the most notable is his History of Central Florida podcast, which arguably is a major digital humanities project. I think the core of this argument is that podcasts don't strictly speaking, create knowledge. At least they don't create knowledge in the form that we associate with academic discourse.  History, in particular, is a written art (or science) and therefore, if you don't write it, you didn't do anything.  Ok. I'm making that argument a bit more harshly than I should, but the core critique is not that complicated. Real historians write long, single-authored monographs exhaustly thinking through a topic. Fake historians do not. That construction is not productive and the nature of historical learning requires a multi-tiered approach that places the core meaning around historical analysis on multiple platforms.  If you want the public to know what you know, you might consider how talking about the idea in a podcast might reach people in a way the journal article will not. We see the mediated environment distorting our ability to understand arguments and one way to combat that reality is to create narratives that work for our digital age.  I would not advocate abandoning the kind of serious engagement with material that we talk about with students every day, but I will always stress that communicating ideas across different platforms is an important skill and meaningful exercise.  I'm using Anchor to create the Reframing History podcast. This does three things. First, this is an opportunity to engage the public around the creation of "new" historical narrative for the Winter Park, Florida community. Second, we (Scot French and I ) can provide context to what we are doing when we say "re-write" the history. This question is crucial because this community history project is at some level emblematic of the anxiety linked to academic history. By seeking to tell a more accurate story, we trigger fears within the community we are "erasing history" and we can address in this context and everyone can listen (or not). Third, I get to see how I might use this platform in class. I was fully intending to create a podcast series in a class at Rollins. The podcast idea isn't going away. I always advise students that the simplest tool is best when embarking on a digital project. I follow that advice myself, so the re-design of ANCHOR opened the door to an easy to use widely available podcast tool, your smartphone.  There are always hidden pitfalls for commercial digital products, but if Anchor allows students the opportunity to create podcast easily so they can concentrate on the content instead of the process, I think it is a winner.  The process will always change, but the intent of creating a clear narrative will always be useful.  You can listen my first conversation with my colleague Scot French below and find the podcast online. 

The Tool Rule: Keep it Simple, but...

Anchor is one of those digital tools that came out in the last few years and I was not sure it would survive. Originally Anchor functioned sort of like a personal radio station.  Not surprisingly, they have revamped the app to take advantage of the podcasting culture developing in the United States.  While I think radio and podcasting have some things in common, the reality is that podcasts use a long-form logic and radio is more immediate. So, if you want to tell a story, you can do it on the radio. If you want to tell that same story in a long-form,  you switch to podcasts. You see this logic at play on National Public Radio every day. It seems that almost every show has a companion podcast and it is obvious they record the material in one session, but edit it down to shot snippets for broadcast and use the remaining audio for podcast episodes. The benefit is that people come to the material when they are ready and because they are interested. Anchor's decision to re-design the app to be more podcast specific makes a lot of sense.

I keep my eye on the app landscape, in part because those tools are available for students to use in the free (ish) price point. A big percentage of the population carries a powerful computer in their pocket. The smartphone is the most common digital tool.  We don't often think of it as a tool, but it is a tool and like all tools, it can be put to use for a project. The most common use is talking to the world, but with the application ecosystem, most professional people use the phone as a personal interface with their digital self.  From a teaching standpoint,  allowing students to use their phone for a digital project is not really a difficult argument.  Most of them have smartphones by the time they arrive at college.  They are familiar with the phone and therefore anxiety about technology is cut down by working with that tool. MARA (Mobile Academic Research Application) basically grew from the idea that the functionality of the phone could be leveraged to give students a device they could use in the field to more effectively collect, categorize, and store information while doing a research project.  MARA is in a transition (ask me about my Death Star Problem), but I keep my eye on the app world.  These are tools that have been tested and approved for use. They tend to have good interfaces and they work. The problem is that any data on a commercial tool is basically unsafe. By unsafe, I don't mean that your identity is exposed. While privacy is a real issue and I always talk with students about their digital self and managing it, the reality is that if I work with a tool like Anchor, I must assume at some point it is going to disappear.  Ask people about GitHub and see what they say. The purchase by Microsoft has many people worried about the site's often used function as a repository for digital projects. With Microsoft now in charge, many users will get off GitHub, but many more might join the platform.  

For me, Anchor is worth testing as I pursue the idea of documenting an ongoing project between myself and Scot French.  We have been working on a new narrative of Winter Park History.  Telling the story of that project is not about the academic narrative, it is about a public humanities practice that highlight process.