Older, Not Necessarily Wiser

You know, there are advantages to being older.

I usually wouldn’t say this; I like to be somewhat delusional about my age. You know the old cliche “You are as old as you feel.” Well….. on second thought, let’s not go there.

After reading this week’s selections, my initial thought was “Screw the conventionalities, I’ll do history like I want to do it!” (Ok, nobody send this post to my grandchildren who have never heard their grandmother say ‘screw’.)

I say that somewhat out of frustration. My daughter currently struggles with a desire to apply to a PhD program to do the thing she wants to do – become an English professor.  Her downfall, however, is she is more of a blogger than a conference paper writer. (Check out her latest blog at: http://allicandoiskeepbreathing.wordpress.com/) She is currently trying hard to produce work with “good scholarship” because she knows she must jump through the right “hoops.”

But I’m older than my daughter. Not wiser, just older. And I don’t have to jump through hoops.

Sherman Dorn in Is Digital History More Than an Argument about the Past, states, “…young scholars worry about what counts as scholarship in an online universe, fearing that their senior colleagues will not respect anything other than monographs published by a university press…” (1)  So where does that leave so many young people who grew up in the digital age? Is their desire to do digital history make them less of a historian?

Ben Schmidt does remarkable digital work with the data from ship’s logs. He’s taken the data and digitized it into a visual experience that is informative and far from dry. (The squiggly lines running around really fascinated me as I watched where ships traveled. I also discovered that few ships ever went to Korea – a little bit of information I will store for possible future reference.) He also weighed in on the question of scholarship and history.

Schmidt says, “Historians tend to view…argumentation as the heart of their creative endeavor. But widespread availability of digital sources calls that priority into question.” (1) I wonder if historians have created an “echo chamber” by looking to the monograph and analysis of monographs as the penultimate achievement of a serious, scholarly historian.

David Weinberger, in Too Big to Know talks about the concept of an “echo chamber.” People who surf the web often gravitate to sites that ‘echo’ their own beliefs. Liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites, hispanics groups of all kinds like to talk with and affirm their beliefs with others of like mind.(82) Have scholarly historians done something similar? William Cronon while addressing his colleagues spoke about something he called “professional boredom” which he wrote about in a column earlier.

“What I meant by this,” he explained, “was the tendency of professionals, when talking mainly with each other, to adopt vocabularies and ways of speaking that have the effect of excluding outsiders who do not belong to that profession.”

Sounds like an ‘echo chamber’ to me. People who gravitate toward ‘echo chambers’ on the web develop their own vocabularies, their own way of speaking which in effect excludes others. Maybe some aspects of the scholarship in history are older and not necessarily wiser.

Now I must say, I am not a professional historian. And I’m not in charge of what is considered scholarship.

But I am older.

I’ve seen many things come and go. When businesses, ideas, schools, etc. became irrelevant and didn’t change with the times, they died. Period.

And I don’t want to see that with history.


(Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and not necessarily those of the AARP – or AARP’s history division.)




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3 Responses to Older, Not Necessarily Wiser

  1. I don’t think you will see that with history, Faith! Once again, I love how much ground you cover in this post, and appreciate the subtle (and sometimes abrupt) shifts in your narrative. Inflection can be everything. It looks to me like All I can Do is Keep Breathing is doing way more than that! She’s making her best work available for people to encounter. And I bet she’s following, reading and responding to other writers as well. Thinking about how challenging it was to communicate and cultivate professional networks in the pre-web days, I think she’s lucky to have the power of the web at her disposal now.
    And yes, we’ll be talking about the echo chamber — a lot!

  2. saraevenson

    I agree with Dr. Nelson–I don’t think history is on its way out! I do feel that we are in the midst of a shift, and I feel fortunate to be in school at this particular moment. Schmidt’s point about historians focusing on argument particularly resonated with me; instead of creating echo chambers, historians are (to quote Schmidt) uniquely capable of “assembling the evidence to make those claims convincingly, and knowing how to effectively read the sources so as not to be misled by all their biases.” Historians will just need to reprioritize to make methodology and critical thought the most important facets of their profession!

  3. Kate Good

    Well, I think we’re all here to fight to keep history alive, right? I’d argue that’s why our generation of historians is moving TOWARD digital history, but unfortunately having to metaphorically drag the old guard with us as they attempt to dig their heels in for those “echo chambers.” I’ve been asked by several professors if I had considered doing a digital thesis of some sort. My answer? “Are you nuts? No way. What if I want to go for a PhD?” I’m in that group that sits on the fence and gets their ass poked – on one hand, I want to be on the cutting edge of our field and the scholarship opportunities it holds; on the other, I’d like a future in the field. As we’ve talked about in class, I think it’s a balance still, we just have yet to find it.

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