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
Johannesburgâ€™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)
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
South Africa and Johannesburg, 1890-1976
Ellen Hellman, Rooiyard
Eskia Mphahlele, Down Second Avenue
Demographic information; expenditure patterns, 1963
â€œAfrican Jimâ€ and â€œMapantsulaâ€
Musical material; David Coplan, In Township Tonight
Project decision: Sophiatown, early 20th Century Johannesburg, or simulation with multiple eras and/or blurred historical distinctions?
Richard Bartle, Designing Virtual Worlds
Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games
Class meeting in Second Life
Virtual worlds, historical education, public history
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, Apartheidâ€™s Festival
Project decision: purpose and audience of virtual world simulation
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
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
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
Teams working on project documents