Tuesday, February 9, 2010

History and the Textbook 2.0?

"Journalism schools across the country are now focused on "convergence" -- the need to impart skills to students in multiple media techniques (video, photography, writing, sound, new media) -- in order to meet the needs of a multiplatform industry. But they miss the essential point: stories will not be told in the same way. The power relationships among author, subject, and reader will evolve, as will the filters, and the linear narrative based on the authority of a single voice, is up for grabs in an increasingly nonlinear, decentralized media environment."
-- Fred Ritchin, After Photography (W.W. Norton, 2009), p.109

While there used to be much excitement about "CD-ROMs" and then "websites" for scholarly publishing, the iPad (and within a couple of years, its imitators), offers academic authors a fundamentally new way to think about our role as "authors" and how we educate the next generation of historians. Since the iPad is still a couple of months from market, this is pure conjecture at this point based on the tantalizing scraps that the unveiling provided and the explosion of commentary among tech geeks and wizards about what they think they know about it. (For two good examples, see the epic coverage provided by Macbreak Weekly or the more concise remarks by John Gruber on CBC's Spark, for example.)

Despite being somewhat heretical for a historian, I want to at least start thinking about what this future might look like. As Ritchin points out, within the university, but not only there, our audiences possess a different cultural and media literacy; while many will choose to wring their hands about a generational pandemic of short-attention spans, there is something else to (re)consider -- the possibilities of multilinear narratives that are both intensive in theme and analytical focus but also extensive as a reading experience. In this admittedly vague future (I am thinking out loud here), this is something that is a hybrid of the traditional book and the movement and flow of web-based hypertext. This is not a future where historians are Jonathan Coulton's code monkeys, but one in which we do what we are trained to do best: produce meaningful cultural engagements with the past.

As the second edition of Home, Work, and Play: Situating Canadian Social History moves closer to print (shameless plug), and as other opportunities present themselves to me, I am thinking a great deal about a future that seems to be more imminent than it was even a month ago. And it is exciting. For while the author may be dead, her authority as the guardian and gatekeeper of historical knowledge remains unchallenged within scholarly publishing. And nowhere is this more true than in the "textbook", that dreaded (and always big and expensive) book upon which students and professors rely so heavily. Yet textbooks represent the best opportunity for scholarly publishing to begin a new phase of experimentation where the context of classroom (ideally with some component of small group learning) can create a social space to extend the kind of dialogic, intensive-and-expansive reading experience that a new kind of textbook might provide.

Allowing our students, and all of our reading audiences, to take a more active role in their learning is not merely the right thing to do if we are to remain relevant. It is also the best way to make our audiences engaged and present, something that enriches both our own time and place and those of the past.

UPDATE: While I appreciate the irony of posting a video that appears in Flash (like the iPhone, the iPad does not support Flash) and deals with an example of a partnership with Adobe, Wired Magazine is getting ahead of the curve. The important part of the video is the kind of reading experience they are going to be providing. This, it seems to me, is where textbook publishing ought to be headed.

UPDATE #2: Penguin Books, UK, is one of the publishers trying to get ahead of the iPad curve, and this video (apologies for the quality) gives their overview.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Persistence of Place

Faro is a small town in the southwestern nook of Yukon. I have never been there, and until recently I did not know it existed. I suspect in both cases, I am firmly within the majority. Faro's story, however, is only too well known. I implore you to clear 10 minutes of your time to hear it:

As we learn in the film, history has not been kind to Faro. The mine and those who worked for it are like ghosts whose absence and loss are made only too apparent by the empty homes that Murray Hampton shows prospective buyers. Despite Mr. Hampton's poignant comments about the pain and suffering the mine closure engendered, the film does not linger very long on it nor on the fate of the mine's workers and families. What happened to those people? Where did they go? How did they cope? What culpability and responsibility does the Cyprus Anvil Mining Corporation hold beyond the generic explanation of "globalization"?

Instead, the film is more interested in the new story that Faro boosters are telling about themselves and which we see vividly at the 2004 Yukon Home Show. This new story is about the "persistence of place" and it is a narrative focused exclusively on those who stayed and those that have arrived since the closure. It is a rather hopeful narrative, which, in the context of the present, is certainly comforting. And the film captures the hopes and dreams of people like Murray Hampton by showing us happy children, houses being filled, folks giving storefronts a makeover, and even a municipal golf course (of a sort).

Storytelling is no mere epiphenomenon for Faro's boosters, a cultural byproduct of other forms of structural change. As we see in the film, and indeed through the film itself, storytelling and narrative are at the forefront of efforts to make such changes possible. When the mines closed and so many went away, Faro's landscape of abandonment must have been a cruel mocking of the words that used to be blazoned on the town's signage:

In their efforts to save Faro's place on the map, boosters have undertaken great efforts to change how the landscape of abandonment is to be seen and known. In this new form, the empty houses and the surrounding wilderness are constitutive of a landscape of opportunity ("only $60,000") and a landscape of renewal (young children and a fresh coat of paint). Faro is, Murray Hampton tells us, "a modern suburb type of installation but right in the wilderness". It is certainly not what it was, as another booster explains: "We're not a mining community anymore. We are just a really nice place to live." Both of these remarks are underlined at the town's website, in the photograph and map of Faro provided there:

Words, photographs, films, websites, and maps are all being put into the service of a new narrative, one that, for the moment, seems to be allowing Faro to maintain itself as a place. Yet I wonder what role(s) public history might play in all this. For while the persistence of place would seem to frame the past as little more than a "problem" to be solved or "challenge" to overcome, it is, like Murray Hampton, too stubborn to go away. As we see in the film, history is inscribed in the landscape and local civic culture, and it has taken residence in both private and public memory. What is not clear, though, is if history might also be part of Faro's salvation and not merely a record of its destruction. A lot, I would suggest, will depend on what kinds of stories and narratives the people of Faro choose to tell about themselves and which others, from away, tell about Faro.