Teaching elementary students, you quickly learn that new concepts in subjects outside the humanities are often best communicated through stories. Students approach lessons on Area and Perimeter more confidently when the formulas are embedded within relatable narratives about fence construction or field seeding, even if few of them have ever engaged in these practices. It is hard to blame them. I suspect that most people with a passion for history find that it is similarly rooted in reading a quality narrative rather than digesting a quantity of facts.
And so, while sitting for an unreasonable length of time at the bus station, my mind wandered back over the first week of classes. Soon the elementary teacher in me constructed a scenario to capture some of the lessons I learned about approaching technology as a scholar. (As you can tell, the bus took its time today).
Suppose you have a friend who asks you to join him for a mountain climb on the condition that you, A) will do everything to reach the summit, and that you B) understand fully that reaching the summit is impossible. (Typically, I would ask my students if they would agree to such a challenge). Lets just say you are someone who likes a challenge, and agree to the climb.
As the two of you approach the mountain you are confronted with a hill that resembles, at best, a moderate ski slope in Ontario. You cannot believe such a mound has bested climbers the world over. Confidently you place your foot on the rocks at the foot of the hillside. At once, a low rumbling from below seems to bring the mountain to life and it ascends five feet towards the clouds. Your friend, noticing your astonishment provides an explanation: The elevation of this mountain is determined by the number of human connections to its surface. Inevitably, more climbers means more mountain to climb.
In fact, more climbers arrive and the low rumbling becomes a loud growl. Within minutes the once traversable hillside is dwarfing Mount Everest. Wearily you sit down and explore your options.1) Despair and Retreat. Who wants to pursue a summit-less mountain? You abandon the mountain and warn others on their ascent about the futility of such a climb. 2) Engagement. You continue to enjoy a challenge and consider how high you might be able to climb by watching others in their attempts.
Watching others who chose to make the climb, you soon learn that there are different approaches being taken. A number work alone, and you notice them make steady progress until a rock slide or faulty hold cripples their efforts. But a number of climbers create a vast connection of lines, pulleys, and anchors and show remarkable progress. In this group there are leaders forging paths and guiding others who may have stumbled to see the clearest route and the most stable holds.
After contemplating despair and retreat you take note of these interconnected climbers and opt for engagement. Yes, the summit may not be attainable, but the view is certainly better.
End of story.
My approach to the internet as a resource for quality research has been typically characterized by despair at the endless growth of less-than-reliable online information and retreat for the safety and reliability of peer-reviewed (and offline) resources.
However, as tools are made readily available for navigating more efficiently through the information provided on the internet I believe my perspective is starting to shift. In Digital History this week we explored search extensions such as World Catalogue, Project Gutenberg, or Merriam-Webster and discussed advanced search pages such as Wolfram Alpha, the Internet Archive Search, and the Hathi Trust Digital Library (to name a few). We also looked at the inter-connectedness of scholars made possible through RSS feeds, allowing us to track and participate in current discussions in our fields.
The mountain is present and it is growing. The tools and the connections are available for navigating your way forward in academia. But just as the drill and hammer in my apartment attest to the truth that neither has made me a gifted carpenter, so too I would argue that scholarship is not attained by more efficient google searches.
As the story relates, the starting point for online scholarship is an attitude of engagement over against despair. We must then recognize our responsibility of taking the tools provided for us and making the connections available in order to practice the craft for which they were designed; that is, creating scholarship. And who knows, that might just mean taking new facts from a class and weaving them into a narrative while waiting for the bus.