(Live(ish))blogging the survey

First, a long digression:

I got to sit down with reps from Gale today for about five hours to talk about all of the tools they have for teaching.  Among some other fun things, we were able to test drive Artemis, which will eventually aggregate some? many? of Gale’s primary sources (or, what Gale markets as primary sources – a lot of things that aren’t sold as primary sources, like literary criticism, could still be useful in 20th century U.S. history classrooms, for instance), and what they’re calling “term clusters,” which is basically an interactive pie graph that shows the frequency of words that abut your search term.  It looks like it will be a pretty useful and robust search engine once everything is integrated, though like any archive it’s limited by what Gale’s editors acquire, how they subject index what they have, and (particular to digital archives) how well it’s been OCRed.

We were challenged to think about how we’d use Gale resources in the classroom, and there was a lot of talk about how having a not-infinite-but-still-pretty-vast universe of possible primary sources would challenge students to think more creatively about their topics, and how the analytic tools like term cluster will help students identify trends that they might not otherwise have seen.

Two thoughts:

1) Sometimes an infinite, or seemingly infinite universe can be a great thing.  When a student is working on a year-long senior thesis, having millions of pages of documents to draw from could be really productive.  But, there’s also something to be said for well curated small collections of primary sources, especially for introductory courses, where students aren’t sure how to even approach analyzing a primary source, let alone picking one about which they can make an argument that will sustain them throughout the paper writing process.

2) I’m always struck by the ways in which online databases or search engines try to replicate the functionality of a physical library.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that looking in the metadata for a book’s subject, and then looking for the subject headings that immediately follow and precede the one you’re interested in is like browsing the shelves at a library.  I’ve heard similar things about the serindip-o-matic tool, as a way to replicate the lucky happenstance of coming across an unforeseen or mis-filed document in a brick and mortar archive.  I love the serindop-o-matic, and I’ve been doing the proximity subject searches since college, so I’m not saying that these are bad tools or workflows, but I wonder about how effective it is to try to replicate the research experience of a library online.  On the other hand, we know how to research in libraries and archives, and it doesn’t seem so wise to reinvent the research wheel if we don’t have to – but browsing by proximate subject heading, or looking for high frequencies of words that cluster around any given search term will never the same as browsing the stacks.  Finding a document through serindip-o-matic (which I love, by the way – I think that it’s a fantastic tool, and I’m not sure that it’s makers would characterize it as replicating the eureka in the archive experience, I’ve just seen it described that way) will never be the same as coming across a mis-filed pouch of heroin, say – or perhaps more likely, an archivist who knows you’ve been pulling stuff on one subject getting you something related that you hadn’t thought to ask for.

At any rate, I’m not sure if, or how I’m going to be using Gale’s, or anyone else’s online databases for teaching in the future.  For this imminent semester, I’ve settled on the Major Problems in American History reader, because I really like the interpretive essays, and find the transcription and gobbeting of documents by experts in the field, of say, colonial American history, to be far superior to anything I might do on my own, even drawing from a near-infinite corpus.

But as to the point of this post, I’ve been thinking that it might be a useful exercise in my own pedagogical development, and possibly a useful contribution to the conversation started on the Junto blog last week about teaching the survey, to periodically check in about this, my first time teaching U.S. to 1877 on my own.  Consider this the first post of that project, and if I’m really systematic perhaps I’ll go the digital document reader route next semester and compare notes.

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