Last week I had an informal conversation with Digital Humanities interested folks at Northwestern University’s Kaplan Humanities Institute. The group included some department chairs, some faculty, and some digital humanities post docs. They were especially interested in undergraduate teaching and learning. And they asked me introduce the History Harvest.
One of the most interesting questions during this discussion focused on the authenticity of these materials: how do we know their value if we have no way of knowing if they are “real” and how can undergraduate students ever be in a position to know? Undergraduate students could be purveyors of vast myths and distortions derived from family legend filled with inaccuracies and passed to the project by contributors. These could potentially be accepted by our students thankfully but uncritically. An interesting discussion about The History Harvest class and the provenance of its items followed.
In the History Harvest courses we work with students on critical assessment of the provenance of these items, and we do not purport to say that these items are “real” or accurate necessarily. Moreover, we expect to involve undergraduate students in further research about these materials. In this regard we see the History Harvest as a “generative” or layered project, where the materials are collected, and then used and assessed and validated over time. I think the real danger we face for our cultural heritage is not our being passed a “fake” or a “myth” but the ephemerality of much of this family material and its oral history as we move into the digital age.
I believe that in due time the material collected in the History Harvest will be validated and checked against census data and other sources, but until then there is no reason to stop collecting it. Several participants in the Northwestern discussion also pointed out that “myths” and family legend about history are themselves important subjects of study in history, and that the story someone tells about an object, if distorted through memory or by intention, is important to document.
For more on teaching the History Harvest, hang out on Thursday at 4 p.m. EST in the History Harvest Google Hangout with Andrew Witmer, Scot French, Leslie Working, Ally Bousquet, Dan Cohen, Patrick Jones, and me as we discuss how to use the History Harvest concept in the undergraduate curriculum.