virtual: like . . . umm . . . online
Americana: materials concerning or characteristic of America
"Virtual Americana" may be making history! We are going to use the online resources of the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress as the basis for a whole course! And neither we nor the curators at LOC are aware that anyone has done this. There are, then, no models for such a course, and we -- teachers and students alike -- are all engaged in a genuine curricular experiment.
Here's the deal:
Unfortunately, the traditional way of thinking of history teaching has been conveying a collection of facts by lecture or textbook.
- lecture? Am I the only one ("Anyone? . . . Anyone? . . .") who remembers the classic scene with Ben Stein as the ultra-soporific, zombie-producing teacher ("Anyone? . . . something d - o - o economics . . . voodoo economics . . . Anyone?") who triggers Matthew Broderick's romp in Ferris Bueller's Day Off?!
I exaggerate, of course. Lectures and textbooks have their value. And (I hope) we have all had better classroom experiences than Ferris Bueller.
- textbooks? Who can forget those hump-back-giving monsters with patriotic titles like The Rise of American Democracy that no course ever finished in a semester?!
But the point is that the fun and the challenge (and the "work") of engaging history has till recently been almost totally reserved for scholars with access to the primary sources. And their job has been to tidy up the chaos of the past, select pieces of the past, filter them through their own interpretive lenses, and present the past as pretty much seamless narrative for our easy intellectual digestion.
The job of the student has been that of faithful spectator of processes performed by others, faithful consumers of work produced by others.
This can be not only booooooring, but it blinds us to the important realization that history-making can be a very subjective enterprise.
But the World Wide Web offers new opportunities. More and more primary materials are available on the Web. LOC's American Memory Collection, for instance, currently offers 7 million documents from over 100 collections -- and continues to grow: two new major collections were added in the past two weeks.
This is the astounding opportunity for working with primary materials that we would like to tap in our "Virtual Americana" experiment.
- we are focusing on the Library of Congress American Memory Collection as the leader in digital library resources
- we have selected five American Memory collections that promise to offer a range of interesting topics (racist legislation, dealing with dissenters, reactions to war, etc.) and different materials (essays, newspapers, photographs, cartoons, oral interviews, films, music, etc.)
We hope, then, that you are a "library rat" (or have the potential to be one), that you are curious, that you like to follow your nose on the trail of new information and new insights.
- we plan a variety of exercises appropriate to the use of primary sources but not usually feasible with traditional classroom materials (wide exploration of an event, testing the work of an historian, constructing our own historical narratives, etc.)
We also hope that you have some intellectual stamina. Experiencing the abundance of unfiltered material in an archive can be daunting. And make us realize how used we are to learning through comfortably organized and managed bites of information.
We hope, finally, for a bit of understanding on your part. This is a first-time course. We have no models to follow or experience to guide us. No doubt all will not be perfect. We are exploring, and exploration is an adventure in trial and error. And some explorers never come back!
But, with that dramatic caution, we still invite you . . . onward!