Last January, I stumbled into a workshop on student blogging, spent the weekend revamping the course I was about to teach on the history of humans and domestic animals, and, without really realizing what was happening, fell into the slipstream of a richly rewarding, compellingly complex, and insistently dynamic network of practices and technologies. I knew these “new media” were reshaping the intellectual and physical landscape of higher education, but had never really thought about them in any sustained or systematic way. The opportunity to do so appeared a few days later, in the form of an invitation from Gardner Campbell (he who dispensed the student-blogging kool-aid the previous week) asking me to join the New Media Faculty-Staff Seminar. I wasn’t sure what might be involved in such a seminar, but found its title alluring: “Awakening the Digital Imagination.”
Over the next twelve weeks I read, watched, talked, listened, blogged, and learned. I met and got to know a talented and diverse group of colleagues, many of whom had shared the university’s physical campus with me for years in that completely anonymous way that is both bizarre and completely normal at a giant institution such as this one. After twenty years of teaching, it was incredibly fun and interesting to be a student again. Taking a couple hours a week to consider the cultural and historical context of technological change and the creative potential of new media started out as a welcome variation in the ordinary routine of the semester, but soon became much more.
By the end of the term I had overhauled my teaching, re-imagined my scholarship, and was having more fun doing both than I’d had in years. Along with working on a book about the Soviet space dogs, the summer held out the promise of developing a crowd-sourced blogging project for my Soviet history students that would use a proprietary database of translated primary materials as well as openly accessible resources on the web. When I heard Gardner was leaving Virginia Tech to become the Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Student Success at VCU we met for a farewell lunch, where I was somewhat shocked to learn that he thought my digital imagination had developed enough for me to carry on his work as facilitator of the NMFS Seminar with new cohorts of seminarians. Over the last several weeks I’ve been working with a quietly persistent learning revolutionist and Tony Brainstorms to do just that.
But I’ve been late to start my own blog. Of course this doesn’t mean I haven’t been blogging: I have several blogs related to various courses at Virginia Tech, including the two predecessors of this one and a monster motherblog my students are using for the Soviet History project this fall. But getting to a place where I am ready to strike out on my own has taken a while. I’ve been tweeting and tumbling and ravelrying and facebooking for years. I’ve embraced the transformative potential of networked learning environments in my classroom and have started to imagine libraries in ways that confound my training and twenty-years of practice as a historian. But I’m a late adopter of the personally-professional blog.
For brevity’s sake I’m laying a large portion of the blame for this on the traditions of my craft. Where their discipline is concerned, historians are pre-occupied with time and venerate print, but tend to distrust speed. And we all know the internet is fast. Furthermore, the solitary and painstaking nature of our research mitigates against the kind of collaborative openness that animates digital scholarship. We like to keep our ideas and our work under wraps until we’re sure “we have it right.” And here’s where my own temperament compounds the challenge of presenting a public, transparent, professionally-informed presence on a blog like this: I don’t write quickly, and I like to revise and revisit what I write a lot before committing it to print or anything else, including, and by that I mean especially, the World Wide Web.
But here I am, ready to relax my grip, at least a bit, on my own predilections, and embrace, or at least try, a digital scholarly practice David Parry describes as an ongoing conversation and process of knowledge formation. I’m starting the NEW New Media Faculty-Staff Seminar on the very edge of my comfort zone. It’s an exciting place to be, and experience suggests that rich rewards await the awakened digital imagination.