What is Movember?

Well, at least I know I have my priorities straight.  Here it is, 10:00pm on Tuesday night.  I still have to finish my readings for Digital History tomorrow, practice my presentation for the heritage designation meeting tomorrow night, not to mention start chipping away at all of the other assignments and projects that are due in the next few weeks.  However, the most pressing deadline is my Movember submission for Craig.  With just 2 hours left in the month-long campaign to raise awareness for prostate cancer, I figured I better get my post up before the pages on the calender turn…

My Movember submission is dedicated to a true Canadian icon. Mr. George Alexander Trebek.

We all know Alex as the sometimes pretentious, often good-natured host of Jeopardy.  I recently wondered what qualified Alex Trebek to stand in front of three intelligent contestants and mock their incorrect answers, and, in looking at his Wikipedia entry, discovered that he isn’t a Rhodes scholar, Harvard grad or calculated genius.  He graduated from the University of Ottawa with a philosophy degree and then began a career in broadcasting with CBC.  However, for me, this information didn’t detract from Alex’s image or persona and I secretly aspire to earn his respect in a round of final jeopardy.

Alex Trebek sported his iconic mustache for 30 years, until he shaved it off in 2001. My research did not reveal a conclusive reason to explain why Alex made the change, but I can say that many websites, forums and blogs have been dedicated to the topic.

Thus, in honour of one of our country’s greatest mustaches and in in tribute to the man who so sagely sported it for 30 years, I leave you with this classic Alex Trebek moment.


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(Fuzzy) Moments of Inspiration

Last week, we were encouraged to reflect on how we became interested in history.  I’m a bit late with my post, mainly because I felt I didn’t have a particularly interesting or specific story like some of my classmates.

My history career begins with a very vague childhood memory of my Dad taking me to a museum in St. John’s.  It’s one of those memories where you aren’t even sure that it happened or if it was something you dreamed or made up (and I suspect my Dad will be unable to confirm that this occurred, as if it did it was probably just another way to keep me out of the house while my mom rested after working the night shift as a nurse).

In any event, this really is a terrible story, because I don’t remember exactly where we went or what we saw.  I do, however, remember feeling completely fascinated by the objects and thinking that wherever we were, it was very special and cool.

Fast forward to high school, where my memory is a little better (but not much).  I had a boring and grumpy history teacher and I don’t remember the class being particularly interesting to me.  I do, however, have a very clear memory of studying for an exam (or, to be more accurate, cramming for an exam).  I remember sitting on the floor in my basement with all of my notes and text books spread out around me.  As I finally sat down to learn the material, I became totally captivated and interested all of a sudden.  It is here that I would have to add a vote for the Seven Years War to Prof. MacDougall’s tally.  I remember actually processing the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, imagining what it looked like and understanding what it meant for Canada.  My Dad makes another appearance in this memory, as I recall running up the stairs, excited by what I was learning and eager to share it with him.

Lucky for me, my history memories are not restricted to these two moments and I’m continually adding to the collection.  Many more occurred while I was traveling throughout Europe a few years ago and many are being created as I complete this degree.  I guess that’s how you know if you are in the right field – you keep having  these moments of inspiration.

Trying to be “A” Something

The topic of history and education is a hot one in my class right now.  After last week’s readings, many of my classmate’s blogs were dedicated to exploring some of the questions that remained unanswered (to read some of these great posts and conversations, click on just about any link in my blogroll to the right).

The main question our professor challenged us to answer was “why teach history?” Of course, this is a difficult question to answer (it wouldn’t be grad school if we were given easy questions)!

It is difficult to provide an articulate and tangible response to this question.  I remember when I was choosing my high-school classes, I felt pressured to take math and science classes, because they were the most “useful” and “important prerequisites for university.” There was so much emphasis on taking these courses, that I ended up dropping French in grade 11 and taking two Science courses instead (a decision I very much regret now).

Even though I knew that I likely wouldn’t be pursuing a science or math degree, I was convinced that I needed the courses because the teachers had a much better answer for the “why teach (or take) this course” question. I needed science if I wanted to be A doctor; I needed math if I wanted to be AN engineer. These courses had much more tangible applications than history.

With a history degree, it is much more difficult to be A something.  Even after this degree, I will never be A something, and my profession will always be defined by my current job title (assuming I get one!).  Although it can be scary not knowing exactly what kind of career I will have (and makes for painful conversations when I’m trying to explain my degree to people), it is also exciting and I like that I won’t necessarily be limited to one type of job.

Unfortunately, the structure of our education system (starting in high-school and continuing throughout university) is designed to make you into A something.  Starting when you are about 14 (depending on what province/country you are in), you essentially start a 10 year education plan, as you select your courses, making sure they will eventually form the correct path of prerequisites. To make sure we all stay on track and up to snuff, we are given standardized tests. This environment is problematic enough for those who know they want to attend university.  Those who don’t plan on going to university spend most of their time in high-school trying to fit into this mould and then feeling bad about themselves (and acting out) when they can’t find their place.

Ideally, it would be nice if our education had less structure.  By university, there is very little room for courses outside your department (unless you count that mandatory math class that you have to take, to which I say, stop it with the math already – after this class I will be using this new device called a calculator and I will never need to know how to derive the quadratic equation).  As much as I love history, there are so many other subjects I would like to study, which I simply can’t do during my degree.  Perhaps the web will address this issue.  I know there are many resources on the web for education – you can access course outlines, lectures from renowned universities and read textbooks online.  All of this makes education more affordable and more accessible.  However, it takes a fair amount of discipline to rid yourself of traditional systems of education (teachers, classrooms, assignments) and learn how to learn by yourself.  I don’t think the web will entirely replace traditional education, but it would be nice if we could use it to address some of the problems in our current educational systems.

I started this blog intending to explore the “why teach history?” question, but it seems that, in doing so, I was sidetracked by trying to understand how we got to a place and time where we are having to answer this question and essentially justify the teaching of history.  I will continue to contemplate the “why teach history” question and report back if I find any answers.

On Clay Shirky, Wikipedia Rejection and Asphalt

This time last weekend I was in the middle of what could only be described as a Shirky-a-thon. Clay Shirky is a currently a teacher of New Media at NYU and has written about the social and economic impact of the internet.  My fiancé,  Mark, who is doing his Masters in Economics, was familiar with Shirky’s work and we were both excited that our fields overlapped momentarily when my Digital History reading was Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody.  Before I knew it, I was watching video interviews of Shirky, watching Ted Talks, and listening to Econ Talk podcasts. It was a bit intense.

The underlying premise of Here Comes Everybody is that the internet has dramatically decreased the transaction costs (meaning money, time and effort) associated with organizing groups.  Because it is so easy for people to gather through the web, we are faced with a vast, new potential for the output we can create collectively (and we are seeing this potential in such forms as Wikipedia and Flickr). We can now afford to write web-articles, attend virtual meetings and create online exhibits for obscure and lesser known topics.

Shirky makes many good observations that are applicable to my field, but here are a few that really stuck with me.

1) Share and then gather. Internet media and social tools have changed the way we share information.  Instead of gathering people together (in a conference or classroom) and sharing information, we are now able to share information (on a blog or on Flickr, for example) and then gather.  If someone is interested in Romanesque sculpture, they don’t need to find an organization dedicated to its study, pay a membership fee or incur the costs of attending a conference.  They could simply join this group on Flickr and participate in the conversations that are happening there.  What’s also exciting about this, to me, is that it allows people to explore interests that don’t necessarily relate to their formal education or their current profession.

2) There is no shelf in the digital world. If you haven’t already watched the video of Shirky speaking at Smithsonian 2.0, I highly recommend it.  He speaks about how systems of arranging and presenting artifacts have been necessarily linear (and therefore limiting) for traditional museums.  He uses the example of the Library of Congress’ history catalog, which was broken down by geographic area (plus a category for Gypsies!).  However, in the digital world, museums don’t need to assign an artifact to a single category or shelf. Rather, they can use a variety of words (or tags) to describe an object, thereby increasing the number of relationships that exist between objects.

3) The internet lowers the cost of failing. Shirky argues that we have an opportunity now to experiment with the tools and the potential of the web.  Because the cost of forming groups and sharing information has been lowered, people and institutions can now experiment with projects that they likely could not before.  Historical organizations, which are traditionally limited by resources, finally have an opportunity to be creative, fun and innovative!

4) Public vs. expert discourse. An audience member at Smithsonian 2.0, said that some people in her profession felt that participatory actions, such as tagging in Flickr, resulted in a “trivialization of their content.”  Shirky’s response was the web has created a space that blends the public and expert spheres.  It’s not that the web is fostering a casual or inane culture, it’s that museum professionals are simply hearing audience reactions for the first time.  Although comments such as “awww” or “cool” may not sound particularly intelligent  when posted on a museum’s message board, these are the same responses people have when they are in a traditional museum.  It seems that museum workers should not be too concerned with the quality of audience reactions (however they would define that) and should instead embrace the opportunity to hear and interact with their audience.

5) You don’t need to be an expert (or publish, then filter). The collaborative processes that the web enables (through Wikipedia, for example) mean that people don’t need to be the authoritative voice on a topic in order to contribute.  If you have an idea, it doesn’t need to be completely researched and perfected before you present it. As Shirky points out, the asphalt article on Wikipedia, which is now a fairly substantial two part article, began with just one sentence. This allows ideas and projects to expand organically.

6) Wikipedia is a process, not a product. This idea cannot be attributed to Shirky and it seems that this is a concept that has been out there for awhile.  I wish someone had told me about it earlier, as it really helps me sort out my feelings for Wikipedia.  I personally use Wikipedia for just about all of my (very) preliminary research, but don’t feel comfortable having it as my only source of information, especially for history-related topics.  However, I now understand a bit more about Wikipedia as a process and I see it as much more than an online encyclopedia.  The conversations that occur on the discussion page give you a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the articles and gives you more information about the thoughts and beliefs of the people who are creating an article.

Inspired by Shirky’s positive view on the use and potential of Wikipedia (oh – and because it was assigned homework), I  decided to get in on the conversation.  I mentioned in a previous post that there was very little information on the web about the unveiling ceremony for the Famous Five monument in Ottawa.  I thought that would be a good place to start my Wikipedia experimentation.  In hindsight, I should have taken on a less ambitious article than the one on Parliament Hill.

In the section for the Famous Five monument, I wrote the following sentence: “It was unveiled on October 18, 2000 in a public ceremony that included French and English singers, Inuit dancers and speeches by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and Prime Minister Jean Chretién.” I had to reproduce my sentence in this post, because it  was removed from the Wikipedia site within 8 hours for being an “unneeded detail.”

I knew that my sentence was fairly vague and its relevance was not apparent. But, it didn’t take me very long to write and, after my Shirky-a-thon, I had visions of this one tiny sentence turning into a whole article about the ceremony, thereby solving the “permanence problem” associated with commemoration.  I’m not sure what my next Wikipedia move is going to be.  The assignment is to edit Wikipedia and then monitor your contribution, so I will have to think of some way to get in on the conversation.

I wonder if I know anything about asphalt…..

The Permanence Problem

Historians struggle with the idea of commemoration. Whether it is a historic site, event or a significant person, there are so many questions that need to be asked.  How do we decide what warrants commemoration? Who should decide this? What form will the commemoration take – will it be a statue or a plaque? Where will it be placed? These are just some of the questions that need to be considered.

However, these are also questions that need to be considered by historians who are writing history. What should we write about? Who should we write about? What should we say about them?

So why is it that commemoration is such a hot-button topic that is seldom without controversy?

One (perhaps obvious) answer is that commemorations take on a much more public form.  A lot of our written history affects only those who already have an interest in the subject and actively seek out history books, articles or journals. Works of commemoration, however, affect people on a larger scale.  National historic sites (and the content contained therein) are not only consumed by history enthusiasts, but by tourists and school groups, for example.  Smaller forms of commemoration, such as statues and plaques, can be placed in busy urban areas or central spaces that receive high traffic on a regular basis.

Another reason that commemoration can be so difficult is due to its permanence.  We are used to history being written and rewritten, as society changes and we adopt new ways of thinking about the past.  However, when we commission a stone monument and put it in a public space, very little can be done to change its message.

The example that I have in my head as I write this is the Famous Five monument, which we discussed in class this week.  There are actually two Famous Five monuments, one in Calgary and one in Ottawa (on Parliament Hill) and they serve to honour 5 Canadian suffragists who were key in promoting women’s rights in the early 20th century.  They are best known for the “Person’s Case,” of 1929 in which they challenged the Canadian Senate’s ruling that a woman was not considered a person under the British North America Act of 1867 (and was therefore excluded from sitting in the Senate).  The women then  appealed the Senate’s decision to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and were met with success.

While this was unarguably a defining moment for Canadian women’s rights, creating a monument to honour these individuals proved to be difficult.  These were women of the early 20th century and, aside from their progressive views for women, they maintained what we would perceive today to be racist and elitist mentalities. Some of these women openly participated in Canada’s eugenics movement and advocated for strict immigration laws.  There are some historians who have argued that suffragists were not as concerned with women’s rights as they were with having more power with which they could exert their social values.

It is difficult to commemorate one aspect or contribution of an individual (or group, as in this case), without condoning other actions or beliefs that are perhaps not worthy of commemoration.  In the case of the Famous Five monument in Ottawa, organizers used the unveiling ceremony as an opportunity to frame this particular period of women’s rights as just one in an ongoing history. The ceremony included performers from different cultural and language groups so as to celebrate the inclusiveness that these five suffragists did not.

Although the Canadian government attempted to address the complexities of this particular commemoration, once the celebrations were over Parliament Hill was left with a stone (and, from what I understand, large) structure of these women.  The contextualization that was provided in the unveiling ceremony is no longer available to first time or unknowing visitors.  A cursory search on the web reveals very little information about the unveiling ceremony. The Canadian government’s website for Parliament Hill does not discuss the ceremony, nor does this site from virtualmuseum.ca.

It seems as though the monument’s permanence has prevailed in the commemoration controversy.

Contingency History

I just want to share a blog that I recently started reading and, in particular, its most recent entry.

The blog is called Letters of Note and is edited by a freelance writer and a “self-styled ‘curator of correspondence'” (this is in and of itself interesting, in light of recent discussions about the web and new forms of history / historians that it enables – and, to clarify, I don’t mean that in a negative way).

Letters of Note essentially finds and shares interesting archival material – whether in the form of personal letters, faxes, post-cards, etc.  It doesn’t seem to have any intentional boundaries in subject matter and includes letters from Frederick Banting (!), Mark Chapman, Conan O’Brien and one from the creators of the South Park movie to the Motion Picture Association of America regarding the rating of the movie (that one I’m not going to link – you can guess why).

The most recent entry, was called In the Event of a Moon Disaster and was a contingency speech written for President Nixon to be read should the Apollo 11 astronauts be stranded on the moon.  It is a very eerie look into what could have  easily been a very different (and sad) version of this event.

This letter, to me, demonstrates the value and power of archival material. As historians, we know that we are dealing with at least two versions of history: what we think happened and what actually happened.  This letter forces us to think of history differently – it terms of what almost happened and what people thought might happen.  If you consider what people were thinking (and have evidence of such, like this letter), then you would likely evaluate their actions, motivations and decisions in a different light.

Also, to tie this into Digital History – I just want to point out the way the editor has been able to organize his past posts. Using tags, he is able to categorize his material in several (6) ways, including by author, by correspondence type, and chronologically.  Tagging his entries likely took little time and provided his readers with many ways to search, browse and consider the posts.  Also, by using a “category” tag, it also creates new relationships between the materials that would perhaps not be obvious before.