Originally published June 2005 at Cliopatria
ASPAC 2005 is done and it was a very successful conference. I’ll be writing up some of the interesting research and discussions in the near future, distributing it among the relevantblogs, but I wanted to start by sharing some thoughts I presented on how historians use the Internet. A fair bit of my talk covered ground which my colleagues, Ralph Luker and Manan Ahmed, paved for me recently, and plenty of material which has come out of our various discussions here and elsewhere.
The centers of gravity for my talk were twofold, like the points which define an ellipse: blogging and the isolation of Asianists. Most of the scholars at ASPAC share something in common: after an education at a Research I institution deep with Asian specialists, we moved on to be”the Asianist” in our departments (sometimes at our institutions). Isolated from the intense intellectual resources of our graduate school days, we find ways to cope, but it’s my belief that the internet, blogs in particular, provides a way of replicating and expanding the best elements of the graduate experience beyond institutional and temporal limitations.
As an organizational tool, I broke down the functions of the University and the tools of the internet into categories which I could cross-reference:
|yes, if you can keep up
|some, if you can keep up
|catalog, JSTOR, e-texts, etc.
|if you have access
|data sharing (Gopher)
|increasingly subject of study, useful coordinating venue
|most of my out-of-
class student contacts
|can be done
|both for teachers and students
|if you want to be found
|works in progress, if you dare
Blogs can carry out most of the functions of listservs and static webpages, and have some distinct advantages: the balance of static (permalink post-pages, and ongoing discussions) and dynamic (easy update, auto-archive) enables substantial asynchronous interaction. Of course, one of the greatest values of blogging is that it can, done properly, attract any sort of audience you like — dedicated specialists, interested amateurs, gawking voyeurs — depending on how you approach and present your material. There are technical problems, which are increased by the addition of Asian languages to the mix, but they are manageable.
The internet gives us all the opportunity to be connected daily to wider circles of scholars and projects and students than we would be just with our”face-to-face” colleagues (I almost said”brick and mortar,” which invokes the mathematician’s”ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls”) and our”dead tree” journals. ASPAC is not just a conference committee: it is the publisher of a peer-reviewed journal whose web directory is getting, at last count, twenty-nine thousand hits per month. There are hundreds hours of work which go into it, of course, both in article selection and review as well as technical support, but total out-of-pocket expenditures for e-AsPac are less than six hundred dollars per year; most of the costs are for tech-savvy student employee hours. A print journal with a similar budget would be a vanity project, mostly read by tenure committees. The Frog in a Well is not just an Asian history blog, but they get (last time I checked with Konrad) a few hundred hits per day, an order of magnitude greater than my class attendance on any given day.
On the other hand, of course, there’s a structure to my courses that doesn’t exist on my blog, and there’s a (potential) permanence to printed journals that the (potential) transience of digital storage and addressing does not yet promise. But some of what makes graduate school great — the day-to-day challenges and supports of a community of scholarship, the resources (that’s the database stuff, which we’ll have to talk about another time), the continuing education — can be replicated on-line for scholars — Asianists, adjuncts, independents, etc. — who are otherwise quite isolated by institutional and geographic realities.
It’s quite a shock, really, to look at the History Blogroll and realize that there are only a few hundred blogging historians that we know about. There are millions of blogs, and tens of thousands of professional historians (not to mention the substantial cadres of other academics and non-academics whose work we include because it is substantial and historical) and under two hundred blogs on our lists. So I ended the talk with a call for my fellow Asianists to take up this new technology, these new structures, which really could benefit them substantially.
To be honest, I was floundering around a bit in the presentation, as opposed to my co-presenter, Jeffrey Barlow, who was demonstrating Skype and NetMeeting and talking about”Trans-Pacific Interactive Classrooms.” His presentation was interesting not because of the concept of distance education, which is old, but because it was the end result of a”proof of concept” grant showing that it could be done with”off the shelf” software and hardware. As usual, the hard part is finding courses and faculty who can and will use the interfaces well, but the technology has developed to the point that it’s now a function of pedagogy rather than techno-savvy. That was part of my presentation as well — the ease of blogging — but what really binds our presentations together is the concept of the internet as a”force multiplier” (a term neither of us used in Claremont) which allows the best teachers and smartest writers and most dogged researchers to find bigger and more receptive audiences.