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As most historians, I have thousands of images of documents that I use on my research. Some are photographs of manuscripts and others are scans of photocopies that I made from a microfilm at the archives. As I collected my documents, I entered information about them on a FileMaker Pro database so that in the future I could search for either a person or a keyword. I collected thousands of royal letters at the archives in Barcelona and my plan was to work on each chapter thematically. When I wrote a paper on conversion from Judaism to Christianity last summer, all I had to do was search for “converso” in my database. That gave me a list of the documents I had on that topic, I pulled them out or printed them, and used them for my paper. So the idea was to make a list of documents related to the larger theme of each chapter, pull all of the documents out (most I have in photocopies and I was willing to print the ones I had only in digital photographs), put them in a separate folder, and work on them. But once it was clear that the list of documents for my current chapter was in the hundreds and that with each document possibly reaching five pages, I needed a better system that didn’t involve shuffling around massive amounts of loose paper. That’s where Adobe Bridge comes in.

Since we have a 24″ iMac, I thought I could simply go through the documents on the screen and take notes on my laptop. My favourite way to browse through images is to use Bridge, which allows me to easily mark files, move them, rename them, etc. It soon became clear that I could be using Bridge for more than simply displaying the images and perhaps moving them to a separate folder dedicated to the theme of the chapter. You see, Bridge allows for tagging. You can add keywords to any file through it. Better yet, you don’t need Bridge to access those keywords. They get embedded onto the file itself so I can actually search for keywords on Spotlight on Mac OS X and the images would come up. Within a folder, it gives me a list of the all th keywords I have assigned in that folder, which allows me to quickly get to the document I want by clicking on the keyword.

Here’s the setup (click on the images for larger size):

Working

These are some of my Bridge Screen shots, notice the keywords on the left bottom side:

Bridge

Bridge

Another neat thing about Bridge. Notice the film strip on the bottom of the page where it displays the images I’m working on. You’ll notice on the picture above that some of them have a number “2” superimposed. Those are two-documents. I can select all the pages that go together and group them. They still display the same way but it means they don’t get separated and count only as one file on Bridge, which gives me a more accurate sense of how many documents I’m dealing with and how many documents relate to a specific keyword.

For my notes, I’ve been using DevonThink Pro, which is simple, allows you to create files of all kinds within it and has very powerful searching capabilities:

DT_screen

You’ll notice that some files are labeled green and some are yellow. Since one of the objectives is to compare Catalunya with Aragon, I decided to assign a colour to each. Catalunya is yellow and Aragon is green. Looks like this might be a system that will work for me. By the way, for those of you who need printed notes to be able to write, DevonThink allows for easy export of all the files you select as word documents or text files (or even PDF). But I think I’ll try to minimize the printing. When it comes time to write, I’ll go to my carrel, where I have a second monitor (just a 17″ flat screen, those can be had for very little money these days) and I can display the notes on one screen while I write on the other.

It looks like I’ll be teaching my very first course next summer. This will be my chance to experiment a bit and get some practice on what kind of teacher I want to become. I have my role models but ultimately, to be successful, our teaching has to agree with our personalities. I have an inclusive personality so I tend to focus on giving everybody a chance to participate and get engaged. The key is to get students to participate. And as I’ve mentioned before, this is where I think blogging can be useful. Blogging has made me not only more aware of my surroundings but also more politically and socially engaged. If that sort of dynamics can be reproduced in the classroom some real learning can be achieved.

But how to do that? How exactly do I get 45 students to actively participate in a course blog? Do I make it an assignment? Do each student has to post something? How often? Under what criteria? How do I integrate it to the curriculum and what goes on in the classroom?

In order to get some ideas, I registered to a workshop last week on blogging offered by the Resource Centre of Academic Techonology, at U of T. I was very excited but unfortunately, unable to attend. A more urgent academic engagement came up and I had to miss it. So today I went by RCAT to ask if there were any handouts from the talk. They gave me not only a copy of the ppt presentation but also the presenter’s blog address where I could find further resources.

Her name is Michelle Mazar and her blog is subtitled Diary of a Subversive Librarian, which I think it’s quite brilliant. She wrote a very inspiring reflection about blogging and academia on the day of the workshop.In it she says:

(…)Which leads me to something that bonked me on the head yesterday while reviewing for Learning Inquiry. I read this fantastic article that used some extremely bang-on terminology: productive failure, and unproductive success.

Here’s what I’m currently considering: we tend to reward unproductive success more than anything. If a student walks into a class knowing the subject material, that student will probably do extremely well. If a student spends 3/4ths of the class struggling with the material and getting things wrong, not understanding, struggling with concepts, and then really gets it, that student will probably not do as well. But that student is actually learning, and demonstrating learning. We don’t have an effective way of rewarding real learning.

Which is the key reason why I object to switching out the word “student” with the word “learner”, though I know it’s trying to get at the same idea. We don’t know whether we have “learners” or not, on a grand scale. Often we have a group of already-knowledgeable students who will unproductively get As and we feel good about it the learning experience. How do we measure learning? Real learning? Going from confusion to understanding? How do we even see it when undergrads often don’t even open their mouths in class? Do we really have a “Learning Management System”? Really? How do we really support and reward learning rather than merely unproductive success?

So I think blogging done well, set up with good expectations and with a fostered honesty, can reveal the actual learning going on, and can give students the option of displaying the learning they’re doing. And we can reward it that way. If a student struggles for the first half of the course and demonstrates that struggle, and then suddenly GETS IT, you’ll have evidence of their learning. You can reward that, you can grade them according to how they learned and how articulate they can be about the way in which they learned and why. At the moment we grade them based on whether or not they get it fast enough, for the most part. So you can use these tools to support and encourage productive failure as a means toward productive success. I’m not saying it’s enough to just try. Unproductive failure isn’t the goal either. Failure that builds into understanding is productive.

I’ve began to consider this very process lately. I’ve had students who have clearly benefited from the class and through informal interaction with me showed me they “got it” at the end of the course. Yet, I could not reward their learning since these didn’t translate into their first assignments. I think there should be some room for that.

In her powerpoint presentation, Michelle gives some useful tips on using blogs effectively. My favourites are blogs as reflection paper and blogging as conversation. She suggests four possible ways to use a blog as a reflection paper:

  • Pick a quotation from the reading and relate it to the lecture
  • Pick a CC-licensed picture from flickr and relate it to the readings, lecture
  • Pick a comment from a fellow student, agree or disagree with its content
  • Ask a question that remains after the lecture and the reading

I think these could be easy to implement and would create a connection between readings and lecture as well as conversation among the students.

Her powerpoint doesn’t specify what she means by blogging as conversation but I’ll definitely ask her directly. This is very exciting stuff.

I’ll be giving a workshop on El Cid next week and while working on it I found he is in a videogame – The Age of Empires II, Conquerors Expansion. I thought that was neat and included images from the videogame in the powerpoint lecture I prepared. During a practice-run of the lecture to a group of friends, one faculty member asked about the context in the videogame. We were discussing how later legends about El Cid refashion him as the ultimate Christian Knight whose mission it was to fight the Muslim hordes when in fact, he was a mercenary ready to fight for anyone willing to pay, whether Christian or Muslim. So the question came up the angle taken in the videogame – who is the enemy in the game? Does the player have a choice? Or is the enemy always Muslim? Not having played the game myself, I wasn’t sure but the question got me thinking about how popular videogames with a historical component are these days and how little historians have paid attention to them.

As videogames become more and more sophisticated, there’s increasingly more room for narrative within the game. I wonder who writes those and what role these narratives play in popular perception of historical events and characters. On the videogame Total War: Medieval II, the synopsis is telling: “Leadership on and off the battlefield is paramount. With the turn-based campaign map, you’ll control everything from building and improving cities to recruiting and training armies. Employ diplomacy to manipulate allies and enemies, outsmart the dreaded Inquisition, and influence the Pope. Lead the fight in the Crusades and bring victory to Islam or Christianity in the Holy War.”

As historians, we are always discussing the extent to which historical films shape popular perceptions and there is a huge scholarly literature on the topic of film & history. I have found nothing comparable that discusses videogames & history.

In The Age of Empires III, the focus switches from the Crusades in the previous installment of the game to Native Americans. In an interview, Sandy Peterson, the lead designer, argues that their aim was to focus on the Native point of view: ” In effect we are now giving the native nations full control of history. So in some ways we’re empowering them.” In other words, these games are also seen as venues in which history can be not only reshaped but to some extent, rebalanced. In that interview she also mentions that in the Crusades segment of the videogame, they aimed to show it from Saladin’s point of view. It would be interesting to see how that is done.

I’m going to start collecting these snapshots. It might be worth engaging with students about these issues…

Like most TAs, I tell my students to stay away from Wikipedia when writing their essays. To be fair, I don’t simply condemn it as the source of all evil, I merely point out how problematic it is to rely on information posted anonymously unless it can be checked elsewhere and that encyclopedias and dictionaries, while very useful to get started, do not provide enough information to support the kind of essays they need to write in history courses.

A friend of mine argues that better than blankly forbidding the use of Wikipedia, we would do the students a better service by teaching them how to use Wikipedia effectively. She talks about creating an assignment that would require the students to do extensive research on a given topic and either create a Wikipedia entry for it, if that doesn’t exist, or edit the existing entry with the information they gathered. That would teach them that anybody can create a Wikipedia entry and perhaps help them use it more critically in the future.

While Wikipedia has a big no-no in many academic circles – and historians are perhaps the most critical of it – some articles suggest it’s not all bad:

David Parry, “Wikipedia and the new curriculum: digital literacy is knowing how we store what we know” in Science Progress, 11 Feb 2008.

Nicholson Baker, “The Charms of Wikipedia,” review of Wikipedia: The Missing Journal by  John Broughton, in The New York Review of Books, 55 (4), published 20 March 2008.

Michael Booth, “Grading Wikipedia“, in The Dever Post, 30 March 2007.

All the articles above suggest we need not dismiss Wikipedia completely, that it can be very useful and its dynamic nature means that many subjects in it reflect some of the latest developments in a given field. An example is the entry on global warming, considered by specialists in the field to be “a great primer on the subject, suitable for just the kinds of use one might put to a traditional encyclopedia. Following the links takes the interested reader into greater and greater depth, probably further than any traditional encyclopedia…”(Scott Denning, Monfort Professor of Atomespheric Science).

I confess I have no prejudice against Wikipedia as I often find myself using it for general information and if I tell my students no to use it, it is simply because I don’t want them relying on either encyclopedias or textbooks to write their essays. But maybe we need to discuss more the reasons behind that.

I found a neat article at Digital History Hack about how to easily and quickly be up-to-date with the current literature in your field. Check it out here. I set a site to keep track on Jewish history and it’s pretty neat although there aren’t as many online resources (particularly on the form of RSS feeds) for medieval Jewish history or medieval Spanish history as I would like…

Hmmm, seems I’m not the only one to think it could be useful. Check this out.

Scribe is turning out to be very buggy for importing info from my Bookends bibliography database. I came across DEVONthink, a really powerful information manager that seems VERY flexible and can index, search, organize, create wiki-style links, cross-reference, all kinds of files. It’s not free but it might be a good investment…

Take a look on the video here. Hmm, another toy to play with…

I’ve been playing with scribe 3.2 recently and I have to say, it has a LOT of potential. I tried to old version back when I was an undergrad but found it very slow and had to use. I couldn’t automatic input my sources – no importo available – the printing didn’t really work for me. It felt heavy and cumbersome. I ended up simply using Word to organize my notes for my undergrad research. I’m now working on my dissertation and need something a little more sophisticated. I have Bookends to handle my secondary bibliography and I created a simple database on FileMaker Pro to input my documents from the archives. Now I need something to bridge the two, something where I can organize all my subject notes – be it from primary or secondary sources. Scribe seems to be the tool I need.

My friend Jen P. has said many good things about it. The new version is much speedier and easy to use. Plus, having FileMaker Pro – which is what was used to design Scribe 3.2 – already means I have more flexibility with Scribe since I can edit some of its features to suit my needs as well as create as many databases with it as I want. I could even design a filter to easily import from my research database into scribe.

Yesterday I discovered two features that can prove very useful. One is the list of keywords. I knew you could add keywords to every source or notecard created and I figured it was just to make it easier to search.  And in a way that’s what it does but in a much easier way – it works more like an index. You go to Lists->Keywords and a window with a list of all the keywords you’ve created shows up. You then click on a particular keyword and you end up with a list of all the notes/sources with that keyword. I think this could make the writing process much easier… Here’s some screenshots (don’t pay attention of the keywords I have, I was just testing the software):

Lists

Keywords window

Keywords

Very nifty indeed… Of course, a lot of the fields are more appropriate to modern historians than to those of us pre-modernists but many of them can be adapted nonetheless. Need to play with it more and see…

Dan Cohen, an Assistant Professor of history at George Mason University and a director of the Center for History and New Media issued a public call for professors to embrace the blogosphere. Among other advantages, it would make the exchange of ideas and information easier and faster than the current book-journal format.