For us historians and other academics, one of the most promising developments to come out of the digital revolution is the way that technological change is shrinking distances, making it possible to carry on conversations instantaneously even when hundreds or thousands of miles separate people.
That’s certainly been a benefit of my adventures in blogging and podcasting, and a reason why we’re so intrigued by the idea of a departmental webisode. But in the last few weeks, I’ve also had a chance to experiment with another digital innovation: Skype, the telecommunications software that allows video chats via computers, tablets, smartphones, and other devices.
At the end of March, I got to talk with a group of 8th graders in Kalispell, Montana who are studying their state’s history with Taylor Ferda ’10, one of our many alumni who have gone into teaching social studies for a career.
For forty-five minutes, Taylor’s students asked me how I’d define history, how I became a historian and why it benefits even non-specialists, my favorite classes and books, my family and hobbies, and my memories of being an 8th grader. (And that was quite the trip down memory lane!) I was especially thrilled to find that Taylor has his students already working with primary sources and thinking about one of our department’s favorite themes: historical empathy.
Then earlier this week I got to be on the other end of a Skype conversation, when I invited John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College, to join the first half of our Monday evening seminar in HIS290 Introduction to History.
Our Intro students have been reading John’s book Why Study History? throughout the semester, drawing on it for their most recent essay, on what it means to think both historically and Christianly about the past. They peppered John with good questions about his intellectual autobiography (how a would-be journalist went to seminary and then grad school in history), how our discipline has changed in the last decade (e.g., academics using new media to engage more with popular audiences), his favorite historical sites to visit (colonial Philadelphia and Gettysburg), and how he eliminates personal bias from his studies of Christianity in 18th century America. (John is perhaps best known for his acclaimed book, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?)
Increasingly, I’m interested in using technologies like Skype to bring guest voices like John’s into my classes from afar. But my experience with Taylor’s Montana history class also has me wondering if more of our alumni in middle and high schools would be interested in having their former professors talk to their students… If so, please get in touch and we’ll see if we can set something up!
– Chris Gehrz