Saturday, July 9, 2011

July 9-10, 2011 [Tribute post 18]: Web Feat

In regard to my two principal academic roles (as a scholar and a teacher), I generally have two pretty significantly opposed perspectives on the net worth of the worldwide web. For scholars, especially those of us for whom family and finances make extensive or frequent travel next to impossible (ie, almost all  of us!), the web has quickly become an indispensable resource: just the number of primary texts that are now archived and easily searched online is an incredible boon, but it’s similarly so much easier to find and read a high percentage of the work by our fellow scholars (at least for those of us affiliated with institutions and thus with free access to databases), among other benefits. And that’s to say nothing of the new forms of scholarship and community that have sprung up online, including, duh, blogs; whatever the worth of this blog itself (and hey, I’m trying), the daily links are a great indication of the breadth and depth of what we can now find and engage with online.
All of those materials are likewise present and accessible for students, of course, but I’d still have to argue that for teachers the web has been at least as much (and to my mind more) of a curse than a blessing. I have pretty much no meaningful experience with having taught prior to the advent of the web (although my high school years as a student certainly qualify, and would second this point), but it seems likely to me that in the pre-web era plagiarism was nearly always a conscious and extremely premeditated act, one that required finding hard copy sources from which to plagiarize, writing out the plagiarized materials again in one’s own paper, and so on. Now, on the other hand, a brief moment of panic about a paper can lead to a quick Google search which leads to that perfect paragraph on The Great Gatsby which is so easily cut and pasted into that existing paper, making plagiarism an easy and momentary (but hugely damaging) mistake. As hard I have worked and will continue to work to get students to use online materials and resources in positive and productive ways, both individually and in our communal conversations, at times I feel certain that the web’s classroom presence will always remain first and foremost a deeply troubling and potentially destructive one.
But I’m an optimist by nature, and if and when I need a reason to feel more optimistic about what the web can mean for students—as well as a reaffirmation of its incredible value for scholars and all interested AmericanStudiers –I’ve got a particularly exemplary one right in the family. My Dad, University of Virginia English Professor Stephen (Steve) Railton, has spent the past couple of decades developing two incredible scholarly websites: Mark Twain in His Times and Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture (links below). The sites are literally the pitch-perfect combination of old-school scholarship (including tons of primary sources, clear and helpful framing essays and materials by my Dad throughout, pieces by other scholars, bibliographies, and so on) and new-school technology (including ever-expanding use of images, sound, video, search technology, and so on). I can’t imagine anybody who won’t find something of significant interest in both, and that includes people with no explicit interest in the authors and texts in question. (Case in point 1: like to play board games? Did you know that Mark Twain invented one? My Dad’s site does. Case in point 2: collect figurines? Did you know that the characters of Uncle Tom have been turned into hundreds of such figures? Ditto.) But apropos of this post, and perhaps most impressively, I know that numerous educators and classes have made great use of the sites, and that the feedback my Dad has gotten from such users has been among the most deserved and meaningful support he’s gotten for any of his career’s worth of great work.
As with most anything in our world, it’s easy to despair at times of what the web and other modern technologies have meant and done; similarly, it’s easy to wonder if the benefits tend to accrue more to the haves (such as scholars at and institutions of higher education, in this case) and less to the less fortunate (such as students and non-affiliated folks, in this case). But if you need reminders of the incredible potential in the web—and ones that anybody and everybody can access fully and freely—just check out those web feats below. They come with my higher recommendation. More next week,
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      The Tom site:
3)      OPEN: Any great scholarly websites you’d highlight?

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