The Future of Casual Learning -Historical Podcasts

Out of my group of freinds, I am the only person that has taken a professional role in history. That being said, a large number of them actively listen to historical podcasts, even after they have left school and gone into the workplace. In the age of the internet, it is easy to toss on a podcast in the background while driving to work, playing games, or browsing social media. Thus, the commitment necessary to pay attention to a podcast is drastically lower than reading a research paper or book. As a result, casually listening to podcasts can provide good general overviews of history, as well as in depth looks at specific time periods.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is a good example of an easy to access, yet informative podcast that covers a wide variety of time periods. In an effort to be as exciting as possible, a lot of topics tend to be about warfare, struggles for power, and other engaging stories that have come become popular in modern times. Hardcore History is definitely one of the more popular podcasts as a result, but it still offers a lot of information and feels less like a lecture and more like storytelling.

Stuff You Missed in History Class has a different objective, but still offers an engaging and fun podcast. Rather than outlining popular tales throughout history, Stuff You Missed in History Class delves into some of the less talked about topics that, for one reason or another, have been left by the wayside. I would categorize this as a more “intermediate” podcast, as it requires some background experience and general understandings of history in order to get the most out of.

Regardless of your experience with history, most people will be able to find something worth listening to. The biggest barrier to entry in history that I hear all the time is that it takes a lot of effort to simply learn the basics before you can understand any arguments. I can foresee that podcasts will become more popular with time, simply because they alleviate the need to sit down and concentrate on nothing but learning. If either of the podcasts listed above seems interesting, I would recommend checking them, or any others out.  The more people learning about history, the better.

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Making Websites for the World of History: The Importance of Flair

I spend a lot of time on the internet. Whether it be for research, leisure, and everything in between, I find myself looking at computer screens far more than I should. This is why I have such a pet peeve for web design. So many times I find websites, GUIs, and menus to be so horribly designed that I can’t believe a normal person thought it was okay. First impressions are huge, and most users can’t be bothered to spend a couple minutes figuring out where the actual information is.

This is especially important in digital history. Finding information quickly is tantamount to all, but that does not mean that visual flair should suffer as a result. The best example of this I can find comes from a website for a video game: Firewatch. This game’s running theme revolves around exploring the vast forests of the Midwest. The parallax scrolling and lack of words immediately trains your eyes on the massive vista on your screen. Even on the website, you’re already having fun exploring the wilderness that awaits you in game. This advertises the game better than almost anything I can imagine. It immediately catches your attention while also showing you information about the game without you even knowing it.

In the world of history, we often never do this. This website is the homepage to the National Museum of American History. On a first glance, it seems fine. Your eyes are drawn to the large scrolling pictures, and blog posts and other links follow below. It gets worse and worse the more you scroll down, however. Rows of red, white, and blue separate links to other parts of the website. These colors, while patriotic, confuse your eyes and distract from the information inside of them.  It becomes hard to discern what each category contains, and why they deserve to be separated by color. Many will also assume that anything in red is related, when in reality, there is no running theme. The web designers here have sacrificed readability for the American flag aesthetic, which is a cardinal sin of the history world.

Museum designers in the future need to look towards a look that compliments the material, not works against it. Like the Firewatch website, the ultimate goal of a history website is to teach through the look alone. If a visitor can get interested in your website without reading anything, then you did a good job.

Peer Review on Wikipedia – The Collaborative Web

The Stereotype behind Wikipedia seems to be that most pages are unreliable because there is no way to track fact from fiction when everybody is constantly editing things. I can see where people are coming from with this sentiment. When you have a website that allows anyone to edit anything, how can that possibly result in accurate information? What people often don’t talk about is the actual logs that people post when editing information. Just as there is a wiki page for everything, there is a historiographical log of each page, dubbed the “talk” page. Here are a couple examples of “talk” pages and what some might look like. Each page is related to World War 1 just to keep things consistent.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:World_War_I

This is the general wiki talk page for all of World War 1. As you can see, there are several posts discussing general changes made to the original wiki, ranging from added bits of information to discussions on grammar and general editing. the astonishing thing is that pretty much every post is productive, informed, and cites additional information. Everyone posting, no matter who or where they are, all has the same plan: to improve the wiki page about World War 1. If the stereotype of constant, inaccurate changes was true, there would be thousands upon thousands more posts that would be muddying the history.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:List_of_World_War_I_battles

This other link goes to the talk page for the wiki for World War I battles. This first thing you read is not only an informative and helpful editor, but someone who is applauding the work of those that came before him. This kind of respect for Historiography is surprising for a platform that is supposedly open to all.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Military_production_during_World_War_II

This wiki talk page about military production shows even more. Not only do people post about information they found, but curious scholars have also posted looking for answers to their questions regarding part of the wiki. Other posts talk about whether or not they should post information they found, and ask that people help fact check for them. This kind of crowd sourcing could never happen at a peer-reviewed history journal, as it defeats the whole purpose of what a “peer” is supposed to mean.

So the question now becomes less about how accurate or inaccurate a particular wiki page is, and more about how Wikipedia and its users combat the inaccuracies that do exist. Even if some communities are very reliable in their information, what is to stop a troll account or spam bot from wiping information or doctoring controversial topics? Well, every single edit is logged on Wikipedia’s servers, so if entire sections disappear, it’s an easy fix to simply revert the page back. Smaller wording changes are a lot more difficult to catch, and potentially a lot more sinister. These kinds of edits have a higher chance of not getting detected by algorithms designed to find spam editors, so some do make it on Wikipedia for a good long while.

At the end of the day, Wikipedia will never be as reliable as peer-reviewed, well researched theses, but it definitely does a good job of providing mostly reliable and quick general information that is available to all.

Digital Sources vs Analog Sources: What’s the Difference?

The internet has become an increasingly useful tool for historians to conduct research. Historical databases have now archived countless articles, newspapers, periodicals, surveys, studies, and other smaller pieces of information. Having this available at all times has massively accelerated the rate at which we can find information and analyze it. In the past, if your nearby libraries or museums did not have what you were looking for, you would have to find ways to ship things in, or even travel outside of your region to get to what you were looking for.

Although the ease of access is there with digital sources, some problems still arise, the biggest being availability. Many databases are either very specific, or very general. For example, JSTOR may have millions of different articles to read over, but so much of it is so varied that it becomes hard to find specific information, like local/regional historical records. On the other hand, you might want to find old Waterbury Republican newspaper articles from the 1920’s, but the only Connecticut database you can find is for the Hartford Courant.

Analog sources also give you the advantage of personally looking over exact primary sources. Often times, scans of historical documents do not come out particularly well, so having real documents in your hands can lead to greater results. In addition,  many historians have argued against the legitimacy of digital history in terms of using the same citations. Archivists that have spent countless hours digitizing history, some argue, deserve just as much consideration as the piece of history itself. From a historiographical perspective, digital history can get quite messy.

How does the medium of the World Wide Web change the practice of doing history? Is Digital History qualitatively different from History?

When I was in school learning basic history, books were king. Every single class, no matter what topic, era, or subject, used massive 500+ page textbooks to carry the flow of the class. Back then, the internet was mingling around, and had yet to be fully implemented in the classroom as a serious learning tool. Instead, it was this nebulous thing that people used occasionally to look up cat videos and print out directions on Mapquest.

Today, classrooms are slowly starting to evolve. Online databases make it much easier to filter through primary and secondary sources, while Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit have made finding current news stories instantaneous. This quick and easy access to information can help immensely in the field of history, but it also can just as easily lead to trouble. The desire to get quick and easy answers has created a resurgence in the misinterpretation of historical narrative. The Civil War and the struggle for answers to what caused it are a perfect example. Recently, the battle to solidify slavery as the primary cause of war has started to receive backlash from some who may have read otherwise on sketchy, low-effort sites.

With books, most readers assumed that the majority of the facts residing in them were fact-checked (regardless of whether or not they even were). Now, the latest generation must grapple with the fact that much of what they read online is fabricated in some way, shape, or form. We need to be careful about addressing this as historians.

Intro to Nick’s History

Hey Everyone! I’m Nick Streifel, and this is my blog! I am currently enrolled in the CCSU graduate program for history, with a bachelors degree in history (secondary education). I’ll be posting updates every now and again that talk about the field of history in the 21st century. I am very technologically minded, and feel that the field of history has a lot of room to grow and adapt in the world of the internet. As a teacher, I found great value in using the tools available to me to better connect students to the past, and this blog will serve as a way to justify that. I hope you enjoy!