Thursday, September 28, 2006

No 'Secret Syllabus' for Digital History

My colleague Rob MacDougall recently suggested that we teach to two syllabi, the one we give to students and a "secret" one:

Every course we teach has two syllabi, I think. There’s the visible one, the actual list of readings and topics we assign to our students. And then there’s the secret syllabus, made up of whatever assortment of books and articles we also happen to be reading while teaching the course. These are the various bees and bats in our belfries and bonnets, the things we’re chewing on as we walk into the classroom, the new interpretations and the rediscovered classics that get us fired up about a topic we may have taught several times before.

It's a fun observation and it rings true for me. It explains the asides that I bring to my survey lectures and the discussions that I have with students about the discrepancies between what I want to talk about in class and what it says in the text. When I talk about the fur trade, I have to make sure that I talk about the staples thesis, but I am really fired up about the kinds of questions that Carolyn Podruchny has been asking. Why did voyageurs practice a mock baptismal rite but not, say, a mock communion? What does this tell us about how they understood space and place? What was the connection between the aboriginal windigo and the European werewolf? (For these and much more, see her wonderful forthcoming book Making the Voyageur World). When I talk about the Jesuits, I have to make sure that they know about Paul Le Jeune and the Jesuit Relations. But in the back of my mind I'm thinking of Peter Goddard's discussion of the degree to which the Jesuits of New France actually believed in the agency of demons.

But not every course has a secret syllabus. Notably, I don't have one for my digital history grad class. The things that I put in the syllabus this year are exactly the things I am struggling with right now. In 20 years, perhaps, when digital history is an established field with a hundred visions and revisions ... maybe then I will feel the impatient tension between what I need to tell them and what I want to tell them. But for now all we have are the visions. When one of my tech-savvy students tells me in a bemused way that he has never felt so lost in all his life, I can agree. Me either. Right now digital history is an exploration. We don't know what we're going to find. We don't even have a map, never mind a secret one. That is why it is such a great time to become a digital historian.

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