The Course That Never Was

For the first time in eleven years, a class of mine hasn’t filled enough to be worth teaching: I only had two students sign up for it. I’ve had a few other small courses from time to time, but I really felt I needed about six to ten for this course to fly. Not really a problem in that I have a huge overflow for my History of the Future course, so I’ll just offer two sections of that. Nevertheless, disappointing: I’ve spent a lot of time and effort planning this course for the last few years. I think perhaps I didn’t spend enough time promoting it this fall, however, or it may that it simply sounds too off-beat for our students. Or the title may just not convey what I have in mind.

In any event, it’s called Primary Text Workshop, which is really just a label for a course convened around what I think of as “applied history”. In any iteration of the class, the essential idea is that students will be doing project-oriented work in groups, with at least the concept that they’re producing something which is intended for consumption by a wider audience. The hope is that this will introduce practical considerations into the work for the course, and that students with a project constraint will also critique (and make productive use of) each other’s work in a way that’s not ethereal or abstractly intellectualized.

The last time I taught it, the class was small but (I think) went very well. We worked on annotations to Frederick Lugard’s The Dual Mandate In British Tropical Africa that might possibly be made available online. Ultimately I felt that putting them online would have entailed too much work on my end, but the goal still produced the practical constraints I was hoping for.

This time, what I had planned is that we’d divide into teams to write project documents intended to guide the hypothetical development of a virtual-world computer-simulated model of an early 20th Century Johannesburg township (or possibly the mid-century township of Sophiatown, which was destroyed by the apartheid government). One team would tackle the issue of sound and speech; another of how to represent the population; another of architectural history, and so on. Each group would have to discuss methodological and theoretical problems in their area (say, for example, how we can know what the spoken word in the past sounded like) as well as do primary research in their area of interest. But each group would also be constrained by practicalities: in the end, you’d have to write something that could be of use in actually producing the simulation.

The most interesting existing project we would have looked at is Virtual Harlem, which uses a different technical platform to some of the same ends.

Anyway, not going to happen, not this year. I’m increasingly thinking that there’s just something unappealing about the basic concept, much as I think it’s terribly important to teach courses in the humanities that have a practical or applied character. Back to the drawing board.

Syllabus outline: Primary Text Workshop, Spring 2006

Week 1:
Johannesburg’s urban history: an overview
Virtual worlds and historical simulations
Museums, public history, education and memory
William Beinart, Twentieth Century South Africa

Preliminary project discussions:
Focus: Sophiatown or early 20th Century Johannesburg?
Purpose of simulation (K-12 education, general education, research instrument, online museum)

Week 2:
South Africa and Johannesburg, 1890-1976
Don Mattera, Sophiatown
Charles Van Onselen, Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand
Garth Myers, Verandahs of Power: Colonialism and Space in Urban Africa

Week 3:
South Africa and Johannesburg, 1890-1976
Ellen Hellman, Rooiyard
Eskia Mphahlele, Down Second Avenue
Photographic materials
Demographic information; expenditure patterns, 1963
“African Jim” and “Mapantsula”
Musical material; David Coplan, In Township Tonight

Project decision: Sophiatown, early 20th Century Johannesburg, or simulation with multiple eras and/or blurred historical distinctions?

Week 4:
Virtual Worlds
Richard Bartle, Designing Virtual Worlds
Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games

Class meeting in Second Life

Week 5:
Virtual worlds, historical education, public history
Virtual Harlem
Oregon Trail
District Six Museum
Sarah Nuttal, ed., Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa
Annie Coombes, History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa
Leslie Witz, Apartheid’s Festival

Project decision: purpose and audience of virtual world simulation

Week 6:
Methodological and practical problems I: The problem of sound and spoken speech in the past
Bruce R. Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England
Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past

Week 7:
Methodological and practical problems II: Typicality, particularity and social history; populating the simulation

Charles Van Onselen, The Seed Is Mine
Tamara Hareven, Families, History and Social Change
Carlo Ginzberg, The Cheese and the Worms

Project decision: identification and assignment of teams

Week 8:
Methodological and practical problems III: architecture, spatiality, mapping, material culture
Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language
Anne Kelly Knowles, Past Time, Past Place: GIS For History
James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten

Week 9-14

Teams working on project documents

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11 Responses to The Course That Never Was

  1. Joey Headset says:

    I think the course sounds great… it’s the NAME of the course that’s unappealing. “Primary Text Workshop”? It doesn’t really jump out at you, does it? These days, college students expect a little more in the way of marketing – and a catchy course title is absolutely essential. Ideally, you should have put it in front of a focus group before you put it out there. Perhaps if you had tested your infamous “Social History of Consumption” some of us wouldn’t have gotten our hopes up, expecting a blissful semester of tuberculosis research, only to have them dashed by a syllabus crammed full of some nonsense about shopping… or whatever.

    Anyway… I think the problem here centers around your use of the word “workshop”. It conjures up images of students toiling away in a stuffy, windowless room. In the 05/06, students aren’t so much into the concept of “work”… they’re all about play! “Primary Text Playgroup” might have been an interesting choice, harkening back to the innocence of students’ youth. Other promising choices might have included:

    Primary Text Revolution
    Primary Text 360
    1mry txt rofl!!!
    Tonight we Text, for Tomorrow we May Die

  2. Doug says:

    I’m thinking something similar about the title. What about Applied History? That’s surprising enough to at least get someone to read the description, after which the chances of hooking them to sign up are greater.

  3. Wow. That’s like my historiography course (this semester) and my Korean History through Primary Sources course (next semester) put together!

    On the other hand, given the choice between this and the History of the Future, I know what I’d like to take….

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I’m thinking it’s a marketing issue. Part of it is I wanted a generic title so I can shift the class around each time I do it in terms of content. Part of it is also that I didn’t want to get *too many* students, as I needed at least seven but didn’t want more than 15, but we can’t cap classes now unless they’re certain very formal categories of courses. I certainly seem to have achieved the goal of keeping too many students from signing up.

    I’m very undecided about whether to try this again or not.

  5. David Chudzicki says:

    “One team would tackle the issue of sound and speech … methodological and theoretical problems in their area (say, for example, how we can know what the spoken word in the past sounded like) … ”

    This course sounds great. Specifically, I know it’s just one example, but I didn’t realize there was a meeting like that between historical linguistics and history. Wouldn’t it be great if you got people who had previously or were currently taking this and Sean Crist’s course in that (or if not, maybe he would be willing to advise people anyway)? The methods in his course are all about how to figure out the phonology of a language from the past. His focus is more on languages that we would have less information about than something as modern as 19th century, but I’m sure that it would be useful, along with dialectology, sociolinguistics… After figuring out what the language really looked like at that time, finding a way to turn that work into something practical would be just as interesting. Maybe it’s possible to get a speaker of the modern language to learn enough of the phonology (this is the hardest part, I think) to make correct utterances for you? Or perhaps it could be treated as a problem in speech synthesis? Or some combination. Cool stuff. Interdisciplinarity is great.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I think it is. Sometimes that feels like a lonely position, though.

  7. Don’t give up! Primary Text Workshop was the best history course I took at Swarthmore and I still talk about it. It was also a major influence in my desicion to pursue an MLS degree. I think it really is a marketing issue, but not about the name of the course. History majors at Swat really only get exposed to one type of history in the department. PTW is great because of its applied nature and that is just very different from the other courses in the department and hard to get across in a few sentence course description. My advice would be to talk it up more with current students.

  8. David Chudzicki says:

    Re lonely position: Maybe it’s an easy position for undergraduates to take, from our luxurious seat of just taking courses, and being encouraged to take courses in different but connected disciplines. We haven’t yet gotten to the point where we’re asked to focus in on one discipline’s interests and methods to the exclusion of everything else.

  9. ataraxite says:

    I’ve talked to Swatties who’ve said that this was the best class they ever took at Swat.

    I also couldn’t even read the description of the class because it sounded SO BORING.

    Come on Tim. Pander to us! We’re lazy and were raised on television. Call it Queer Eye for the Primary Text; you’ll be beating them off with a stick.

  10. manu says:

    This sounds really cool, I hope you stick to it.

    I had one thought, and wasn’t sure if it crossed your mind but I thought I’d spell it out. The way the project is described it sounds like you are producing a somewhat interactive exhibit. That is, the elements that your class would be learning how to reconstruct in virtual space (i.e., architecture, sound, and population) would allow you to recreate in considerable detail a place like early 20th century Johannesburg.

    I’m wondering if you can take the concept of interactivity further. What if the virtual space was not just an exhibit, but rather, a game in which players could create avatars, exist in the virtual space and otherwise gain a fuller “experiential” knowledge of life in the past? The elements you identify are essential elements of a historical space, I don’t deny that, but I wonder if in the gaming context they would fall more into the background.

    In contrast, how might you research/recreate the historical experience of living under a particular political ideology? Let me move this from apartheid to an area I know a bit better. When I was taking Pieter Judson’s Fascist Europe seminar I remember learning a lot about the experience of totalitarianism and the so-called atomisation of everyday life. Now, imagine a game whose code/rules recreated similar structures of governance. These in turn would affect how the characters in the game would live and interact–and that experience might be very informative. In a way this is not that different from the experience you get from reading first-person literature (I’m thinking about the Diary of Anne Frank), in that by identifying with a first-person narrator we do transport ourselves into a version of a historical past. But virtual space is different, and that’s something to talk about as well.

    Most of all, I’m sure that the idea of “playing” a Jew would raise all sorts of interesting historiographical questions for you to talk about.

    And yes, I agree, interdisciplinarity is pretty great.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    The avatar creation aspect is one of the explicit issues I wanted the class to think about: do they want users to be doing that, what would be involved, etc.? It’s a really neat design problem in virtual worlds material, but also a great historiographical problem that touches on re-enactment.

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