Our guest blogger Mary Louise Roberts is a Professor in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her most recent book, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American G.I. in World War Two France, will be published with the University of Chicago Press in May. This essay was originally written for ”The Public Practice of History In and For a Digital Age,” a plenary session at the 2013 American Historical Association Annual Meeting. Roberts appeared with historians Edward Ayers andWilliam Cronon; editor Niko Pfund; journalist Michael Pollan and your very own Tenured Radical.
I begin with a confession. I resist change. Unlike the other people on this panel, I am a change resister. Unlike them, I have not pioneered digital or digitized approaches to historical inquiry. In fact I have consciously refused them. And when I have embraced new technologies, it was for the wrong reasons. Chief among those reasons was trying to prove I am not old. Resistance to technology has become a perverse measure of age, and I have been reluctant to be counted in a geriatric cohort for which there are neither movie discounts nor early bird specials. I only moved from slides to power point when my teaching assistant informed me, not without condescension, that she did not know how to work a slide projector. You may recall that sometime in the new millennium, a future loomed in which slide projectors would not be made and would not even exist. I was forced to change and so I did.
Being dragged at a distance behind my more forward-thinking colleagues, however, I have nevertheless discovered that change is not bad. When an honor student suggested that my modern European survey could (and I quote) “really use some social media,” I yawned. But when she created a Facebook page with the slogan “Prepare to time warp through 200 years of Modern European History… DeLorean not necessary,” I realized the possibilities. Why didn’t anyone tell me you could get 144 likes for posting a video on Napoleon?
In a similar manner I fell in love with the wired classroom. First, there was YouTube. Stupid dog videos, right? Wrong. One night while writing my lecture about Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight to Paris in 1928, I got curious to see if there were any images of his plane. What I found took my breath away. Some unknown eyewitness had filmed the exact moment Lindbergh landed in Le Bourget to the wild cheers of Parisians; still another unknown person had miraculously uploaded it. It was a magic piece of sorcery, destined to transform my entire lecture by making the landing a real thing. Soon I was sharing Josephine Baker’s banana dance, aerial views of a skeletal 1945 Berlin, and Mick Jagger reciting romantic poetry during a funeral for Brian Jones in 1969. (One’s student response to the last of these was “Do you mean to tell me that Mick Jagger was once actually good looking?”)
But I held the line at Internet use during my lectures. Stalinist measures were taken. Students were to keep their eyes on me, and listen to the lecture! No connecting to the Internet! The teaching assistants were placed in the back of the room to act as watchdogs. One person caught and computer privileges would be taken away!!! Of course such measures failed, but according to my eagle-eyed teaching assistants, no one was shopping. Instead students were consulting Wikipedia to verify dates, and look up names of people I mentioned. Or they were emailing me in the middle of the lecture to ask questions –good questions– about the lecture. I would find them in my inbox later, with apologies, but could you please explain this once again? Or they were sending me links—to a Fresh air program they had seen on Kristallnacht, to pictures of monuments in Yugoslavia, which perfectly captured a point made about the memory of the Second World War. During a lecture on the industrial revolution, one student found a postmodernist version of the David Kasper Friedrich image, “Wanderer in a sea of Clouds,” one in which the clouds had been replaced by industrial Singapore – an ironic comment, the student remarked, on “post-Fordist industrial production.” When I did the student revolutions of 1968, I was linked to Kanye West’s video “No Church in the Wild,” clearly influenced by the tactics of direct action and violence begun in 1968. The video sparked several other emails and links, including one student who wrote that an artist in the video, Frank Ocean, had recently come out as bisexual which, he wrote, “very much ties in with recent class topics about sexuality and sexual freedom.”
And on and on. Somewhere along the way, I realized this is how they learn—this juxtaposition and making of connections, this linking of yesterday and today. What the technologies of the digital age have done for my classroom is to let in the outside world in new and valuable ways, so that more than ever the past is viewed through the lens of the present. This strikes me as a brilliant way to do our work and to make history matter in students’ lives.
But there is one thing about which I will not budge. It is the lecture format itself, declared a dinosaur in a world of long-distance learning and Internet courses. I think not. At the beginning of this school year, a student approached me to ask where she could get podcasts of my lectures on Modern Europe. I told her that there was one way to listen to my lectures: proceed to Room 2650 Humanities at 11am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Period. In a world where virtually everything – from movies to songs to concerts to courses – is available to students anytime and anywhere, isn’t there something valuable about forcing them to listen, just one time, with no second opportunity? And can anything replace the experience of one person at the front of the room, telling a story in the semi-darkness—of Christmas 1914 on the Western Front, or of Auschwitz in January 1945, when Primo Levi sees at last his first Russian liberators? The room grows silent, and you can hear a pin drop. That long past moment is once again living in the dark room, and most importantly, the students are reliving it together – as a new generation and a community dedicated to the dignity of human beings. What can take the place of that?