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  • The Webs We Weave

    Posted on November 27th, 2013 Rosemary Zlokas No comments

    This week, we read J.R. McNeill and William H. McNeill’s The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History.   The McNeills use this really interesting idea of a web to link different parts of human history, showing how human interaction can take the form of unconscious and unrecognized features of social life (6).  A web is, therefore, a set of connections that link people to one another.  The central argument of this book builds upon the idea of webs and is that “throughout their history humans used symbols to create webs that communicated agreed-upon meanings and so, as time went by, sustained cooperation and conflict among larger and larger groups of people.  Inventions and concerted efforts that enlarged individual and, more especially, collective wealth and power tended to spread through these webs, always and everywhere” (323).

    As I read, I continually asked How is this a web?  Why does it constitute as a web?  Where else do we see these ideas?  Can we understand a group of people that experience change as a web in the same way that we understand a web throughout changes in world history?

    Can we understand our own class as a web?  Can our own little web show how we have experienced change throughout the course of the semester?  Do we not have our own connections that link us to one another?

    Think about it.  The network of our class links us through human interaction.  I argue that we can better understand what has occurred throughout the course of the semester by looking at this web.  When I refer to this change, I mean how we have all progressed as historians, opened our minds to new ideas, and (hopefully) come away with a better sense of how to approach the study of history (and, in many cases, how to approach the world).  We have seen major progress as a class, as well as micro-progress on a daily basis.  I’m sure we can all agree that our own little web leads Lucas to experience change and the way he links ideas each and every class.

    Here are a few of the most salient parts of the text that make me wonder if we are our own micro-web, if we can think of the world as our historical methods class.

    – First off we must acknowledge we have seen improvement through technological innovations (59).  We use our google docs, weekly blogs, and email chains to strengthen our ties and further our progress as a web.  This is a crucial part of our progress.  (Thanks for making us deal with all the technology, Dr. Nelson.)  Also, this way “information circulated faster and more cheaply, fomenting new intellectual outlooks” (211).   Acknowledging this throughout history has been a crucial part of understanding progress, and we cannot overlook it here.  Does understanding technological progress within a framework of using these innovations to “bounce off of each other” help contribute to the idea that we are a web?

    -“At present, human society is one huge web of cooperation and competition, sustained by massive flows of information and energy” (5, 321).  Cooperation has been a crucial part of our course; countless examples where we have helped each other come to mind.  Yet, we must admit, so do a few instances of competition.

    -“The human career on earth is unique, since no other species, not even termites or ants, has ever developed such a flexible and capacious web of communication to concert common effort on anything approaching the human scale” (324).  Communication has been a vital part of our web.  Since a web (or in this case, us) is a set of connections that link people to one another, we cannot accomplish this without communication.   Our own web of communication has been important in our improvement within the wider range of the Historical Methods course.

    We follow the four ideas put forth in the text’s introduction.  The McNeills understand the following as characteristics of a web:

    1. We combine cooperation and competition.
    2. Over time, we have achieved more efficient communication and cooperation, meaning our scale has tended to grow.
    3. Our influence on history (ok, in this case, our Historical Methods course) has grown. By this, I mean our influence on one another and our actions will ultimately dictate, in many ways, whether or not the course has been a success.
    4. The power of human communication, cooperation, and competition shaped the earth’s history as well as human history.  This one is the biggest stretch.  Have we actually accomplished anything outside of our class?  Does the effect of our web make a difference outside of our classroom?  Doe it matter if it makes a difference?

    So, what do you think?  Do you agree with my reasoning? Is our class a web?  If so, what are the implications of this?


  • What say ye, public historians?

    Posted on November 15th, 2013 Rosemary Zlokas No comments

    I really enjoyed this week’s readings. As I read about the “uninterrupted” progression of history, “Blurred Lines” kept playing in my head.  Of course, the feminist in me kept trying to make it stop.  I found Smail’s Deep History and the Brain fascinating, although I must admit I giggled at the explanation on why men have nipples.  Other than admitting to that, I do have a favorite moment in all of the readings and it was this sentence from Akinwumi Ogundrian’s “The End of Prehistory?  An Africanist Comment”:

    “History is not determined by the nature of sources, but rather by the nature of the questions asked about the human condition, especially human intentionality and actions, and the consequent ramifications” (793).

    I could not agree more, but this got me thinking what a lack of dependency on sources means for public historians.  Taking sources out of the equation does pose significant implications for museum professionals in particular.  Many exhibits revolve around artifacts on display for the public.  A lot of content-based critical thinking goes into every exhibit, but it does so in conjunction with what will be on display.  Content boards and artifact labels are often used in exhibits to show display information on the human condition that may or may not have come from the use of sources.  Even if this content was arrived at using sources other than the knowledge of the curator, the public is unaware of this; they are just looking at information on history.  Yet, an exhibit is generally not much of a crowd-pleaser with just content boards.  Exhibits come alive with artifacts, text excerpts, and pictures.  Museum professionals use artifacts to help the public draw connections (and enjoy the presentation of these items) as if these items were sources.  The public takes these tangible items into consideration when forming their own historical interpretations on the exhibit topic.   But, what is a museum professional to do without being able to use artifacts to draw in the public and act as sources to the public?


    Another complication—the “need” or “desire” for artifacts in exhibits also narrows the scope of what items can be put on display.  More recent time periods offer plenty of displayable pieces, pictures, and choices for quotations, while items from deep history are not available, although recreations are sometimes popular in natural history museums.  (The idea of recreated sources is another story entirely, but could be an interesting topic for another time.)

    If museum professionals rely less on artifacts used as sources, how will this change their approach to putting an exhibit together?   Would it open up new channels of critical thinking?  How would an exhibit without artifacts, text excerpts, or pictures look and what type of audience would it attract?  Would this approach prompt historians to think outside the box or pose too much of a limitation?

    I look forward to discussing this idea with the other public historians in the class!