Friday, September 25, 2009

Knowing-How and Knowing-That with Wikipedia

Wow. First of all, these four articles took me a long time to get through. I want to re-read these articles again, but I shall post first to solidify some ideas that are flummoxing their way through my head.

In my defence, I am not claiming this to be an intelligent response. If you have read the two philosophy articles, you will get that joke. Or maybe not.

I think this essay is examining the how and what of Wikipedia. My post, not the four essays. The argument as it stands is that Wikipedia is either a good or bad place for students to visit for knowledge. For instance, how does one know who is posting a specific sentence? I know that there are instances of plagiarism on Wikipedia, and I know there are instances of excellence. How do I arrive at that knowledge? You might say that I should do more research, but then I would counter with how should I go about starting that research?

Knowing that Wikipedia is a place for the general masses to assimilate various bits of information does not give me the know how of what to do with that information. I can only ask questions of Wikipedia and attempt to verify or discredit that information.

I am convinced that intelligent people can utilize Wikipedia in a meaningful way, but I am equally convinced that intelligent people can and do utilize Wikipedia in a foolish or silly way. Does this mean that Wikipedia itself is a poor source of information or a vast supplier of mis-information? Honestly, I could not at this point tell you.

I had previously thought of Wikipedia as a perfectly valid, if someone skewed, source of information. I think that I still do view it in this light, but increasingly only as a starting point. The points of Wikipedia that I view to be most valid are the references and discussion sections of the articles. I find that the discussion section of an article will contain pertinent information to the validity or meaning of the article. The references provide a starting point for deeper research of a general area of study. In this respect, Wikipedia is a much more valuable resource than many other online reference tools.

On the other hand, students have demonstrated to me that they are unwilling or unable to utilize Wikipedia in a responsible way, and treat it as a valid source of information without little consideration. I have taught students to use the articles of this encyclopedia as a starting point for research, but all too often they quote the article and use the original reference of the information as their citation.

Another consideration that I have is that we are historians. As Ryle pointed out, we know how to conduct historical research. Should we then work with Wikipedia in a historical sense? What I mean is this: Should we take what we know how to do, and apply it to wiki articles in such a way as to construct a higher meaning out of the jumble of facts that dominate the website? Or should we take our historical knowledge and glean important facts from wikipedia, online using it as a stepping stone on our way to intellectual discovery?

Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know, and what that means to us as everyday people. How then can we establish a reliable epistemological viewpoint on wikipedia? How can we say that we know a specific article on the website is useful or non-useful? You might indicate that it is useful if it is factual, but it might also be useful if it is non-factual. A non-factual entry might be useful in spurring discussion of the facts and an evaluation of how that article is being presented. New research is rarely beneficial if it is simply restating old ideas; but it is very beneficial when it takes previously touted ideas and turns them on their head. To quote science fiction, "They said we would never break the sound barrier: It has been broken. They said we would never go faster than the speed of light, but interstellar travel is common." (I think that this is from Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, but I cannot be certain.) Science, and I would say History, are full of examples where firmly held beliefs were discovered to be false, resulting in a furthering of the field. You can, if you so choose, look at this like the Hegelian dialectic: Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. One idea leads to another which results in a third more powerful idea.

Over all, I think that Wikipedia is both too young and too old. It is too young in that academia is uncertain about what to do with it, and it is too old in that the internet seems to be moving beyond the amature-hour version of crowd sourcing. I look at websites like, which have ranking systems and pay structures to encourage meaningful articles. Is wikipedia past its prime? A recent NPR report evaluated this question and decided that maybe it is. Maybe Wikipedia will cease to exist in a few years and other ideas will replace it.

Only time will tell. In the meantime, academics such as ourselves must wrestle with this behemoth in the room.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Monet Painting

Monet was of the school of art called Impressionism. This is important in passing, to know that the goal was to paint more quickly than traditional academic painting, allowing the artist to capture more immediate and pressing images. Impressionists were also know to include visualizations of their feelings or impressions of the scene. This allows us to see through his eyes into a time long past. Come with me as we examine this painting.

The painting, 'Train in Snow,' was painted in 1875. In this painting I will focus on three things of interest. First, the smoke coming from the train, second the fence next to the rail-road tracks and finally the headlights of the train.

The smoke coming from the train lets us know a lot about what is going on. First, we know the train is stopped and waiting for travellers to climb on and off of the train. The smoke is prevalent in the image which lets us know it is important. You might also remember that smoke is a recurrent theme in Monet's paintings, which also shows us the importance of smoke. During this time, trains are becoming more and more common and life is adjusting to accepting trains as an everyday part of life.

The fence tells us of the change happening in society. This is obviously a hastily built fence, not designed to withstand the stress of people either jumping over it or the passing of a fast-moving train. We know this because it has many reinforcer pieces that look to be added in later in an effort to shore up the fence. The fact that the fence was either not properly built, or was built without a full understanding of strong it needed to be lets us know that this society was still adjusting to the industrial revolution. Roads and tracks that were previously innocuous are suddenly becoming dangerous thoroughfares.

Finally, the headlights are probably either whale oil or kerosene lamps. They are, as one might guess, not for the conductor to see ahead, but to warn anyone down the line that a train is coming and it would be best to move along. Beyond their function, these lights give us an insight into the dirt of the world. When you look at the lights, you can clearly see that they are dimly lit and almost seem to have an oily film covering them. This is the world of Charles Dickens. This is the world adjusting to the fact that trains are never going to go away, and everything is moving forward.

As you look at the head lamps on the train, notice that Monet has given a red tint to the train. Possibly from the coal burning hot in the firebox, but the firebox would be much farther back on the locomotive, and thus the red tinge would be unrelated. More likely as an impression of the firery presence of this peice of industry waiting for passangers.

It is clear that this train is not new. It is clear that the people have accepted its existence, but as we are learning with the prevalence of the internet today, innovation often spurs unforeseen changes. Did you honestly think, ten years ago, that you would be interested in the personal stories of people you never met? Did you honestly think that you would be one of those people sharing those personal stories? As this painting shows a world begrudgingly moving into the future, so we are pushing forward and learning more about ourselves through technology.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Benjamin West

The various biographies of Benjamin West serve to illustrate an interesting point of history that seems to be often overlooked. Art and the creators of said medium, often create history themselves by simply existing and being controversial in their work. We look at West through our 21st century lens and see no such controversy, but West's mere birth and birthright accord to him the problems of controversy.

West, born in the New World under English rule, and moving back to England before the American Revolution, settled himself into a very interesting spot. He spent some formative years in the America's where ideas were not nearly so solidified as they were on the Island of Great Britain. This seems to have given him a certain dislike for some of the standards of British life, and allowed him to overcome some of the typical standards that he saw. Previously, the focus of painting had been on old figures. DaVinci's The Last Supper is a perfect example. The focus on modern dress and events was a shift in art that has shaped our national history.

He is mentioned by Rather as being one of the first Historical Painters. This leads one to believe that art had previously been presented as a pleasing medium, and had been generally regarded for purely aesthetic reasons. West added meaning and values to those paintings and created a sense of intimacy with various historical settings. In The Death of General Wolfe, West allows us to see who was concerned with this General's demise. All eyes are on the General, whose eyes are looking toward heaven. We also note the men on the right of the painting making a motion as if they are praying.

The story that this painting gives us is one that is complicated as it is controversial.

I think it is also important to note that West was not attempting to be overly political or controversial in his presentation of General Wolfe. It seems he was being a little idealistic (that is, the placement of the Native American), but it does not seem that he was looking to be overly deviant in his portrayal of the scene. Fryd even tells us that the painting has been looked at, historically, as being fairly valid. Only recently do we learn many of the historical errors in the painting. It is then our goal as historians to evaluate this picture and learn what West was thinking in an effort to understand some of the Historical importance of this painting.

As an aside, my wife and I were watching, “The Woodright's Shop,” this morning on UNC-TV. The host of the show was discussing the historical importance of the furniture and something hit me. Understanding Benjamin West is not just about a single historian, the idea is to move beyond the basic understanding of history into a new and meaningful concept of history in education. All too often we have focus on what happened, and completely ignore the impact that it had on the people and their daily lives.

The show demonstrated a table being built. As he was building the table, he was describing the geography of the Island and it's impact on the furniture. He said, “You see there are three sections, England, Scotland and Wales...” This division was important to a historical group of people, significant enough to use it as a design element in that table.

When we understand this, we begin to understand the importance of Benjamin West.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Lincoln Image

The following post attempts to address Werner's 7 ways of reading an image. This is the image:

1.Instrumental This image depicts some pairings as a result of the Dred Scott decision on slavery in the South. Many of the candidates were interested in minority issues. In the upper left hand corner of the image is Brekinridge with Buckanan. Upper right is Lincoln with a black woman, a slur against his alliance with the abolitionists. Below Lincoln (lower right) is John Bell with a Native American brave. The lower left image is Douglas with an Irishman, associating him with the Imigrants and the Catholic church.
2.Narrative The image seems to be playing with the idea that the Dred Scott decision had a large impact on the election and how each of the candidates was able to run their campaign. Each of the candidates is depicted as being able to utilize the Dred Scott decision in their favor, hence the dancing. Brekinridge is happy, because it seems that the decision favors him on the surface – it's a win for slavery! Lincoln is depicted as happy because he can solidify his standing with the abolitionists by standing against the Dred Scott decision. Bell and Douglas seem to be happy because they can ride the wave of anti-slavery feelings.
3.Iconic The image includes icons of dancing and music playing. Dred Scott is sitting in the middle while everyone else is dancing. Dancing is often a sign of merriment, or disregard for more serious issues.
4.Editorial Taking the image holistically, something funny is happening. Dance is not something that people in protest do, nor is dancing something someone does to demonstrate a serious ideal. The artist is obviously trying to indicate that these politicians are dancing around the real issues of race and slavery. The politicians are not addressing the true issue in a meaningful way. The politicians should adjust their thinking and begin addressing the real issues of the election.
5.Indicative Each candidate in this cartoon is listed in a somewhat detrimental manner. The artist seems to be indicating that all of these candidates are putting their best foot forward, and carrying some skeletons in the closet. None of the candidates, in this artist portrayal, are pure and right for the candidacy. There are no icons of righteousness, nor icons of positive meaning in the actions of the characters.
6.Oppositional The ideas presented in the image are generally offensive to all parties involved. For the minorities because they are being regarded as associated with a political cause, and for the politicians because they appear to be playing politics, as we would say in modern parlance. The image is somewhat unfair to the Dred Scott case, as it had been an issue some 2-3 years past. (The Dred Scott decision came in 1857, and this picture is from the 1960 election.) If all fairness were given to the candidates, both positive and negative aspects of their ideals could be depicted, instead of having their ideals depicted purely in a negative light. I also wonder why the author depicted the Irish immigrant in such poor clothing. It would seem the slave girl should be in much worse clothing than an freeman.
7.Reflexive This cartoon tells us of the very complex nature of the political system and prejudices in the 1860's. Prejudice is not a simply matter of liking a majority group, but also of liking certain minorities less than others.


Reflection on this process.

I feel that I should reflect on this process because it was amazingly difficult. I felt like I had to make some very uncomfortable assumptions based on my knowledge in order to create this reading. I don't know if I was uncomfortable with the assumptions because of a lack of comprehending the picture, or perhaps I felt I was not getting the facts correct.

There were some areas of this image that were easier to address. There were, for example, few icons in the image, so the iconic reading was simple. The editorial and indicative readings were difficult because they seemed to be similar. Finally, I ended up making an assumption that a political campaign is a serious thing, and these candidates are being portrayed dancing, which is frivolous. I took this to be a negative view of the candidates and read it as such.

Over all, I think that my reading is uncomfortable because of inexperience in this area of reading an image.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Audio Essay.

This is a story of hurricane Floyd in Tarboro, NC. Almost all of the sound are my own recordings, I wonder if you can tell the sound that I pulled from a video on-line? I think I included all the aspects of the flood, as I know them. As I listen to these sounds, I think about the flood and all the different things that have happened since then. The audio has taken on meaning beyond the meaning that I had originally given it, which is why I'm not explaining it here.

The Audacity project ended up having a total of 8 stereo tracks and consumed 108 Mb on my HDD in it's raw form. In compressed form, Floyd only takes 2.8 Mb, which is substantially less! :-)

Listen and enjoy. I'd rather now put my own meaning into this; please interpret these sounds as you will!

Here is the file!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lincoln Meets Imagery.

Today was an interesting day. I read a great deal about the use of imagery in history, and spent some time reflecting on the importance of sound.

First, the imagery. Wow. My wife and I had a lengthy conversation about D.J. Staley's ideas of imagery, and I took part of Staley's statement and used it to understand what the article was talking about. I said, "Imagine if history were told like Spiderman or Dick Tracy. You don't read about how Spiderman defeats Dr. Octopus with a left hook, you see the left-hook!" She said, "Oh! I understand what you're saying about images in education... I think I would have learned more if I could have seen what was taking place..."

This forces me to reflect also on the use of imagery in general. When we see a picture, we don't just look at it, we interpret it. There is the stylized B for my accounts. There is the stylized G for Google. Mac has the apple, Linux has the Penguin. All of these images tell me a lot about those companies. Mac is the stylish, usually grey image. Linux's penguin (Tux, by name) is usually portrayed doing something cool or just being cool itself. These images bring forth a myriad of ideas, but with the current approach to social studies, we're generally ignoring them!

In an effort to conduct a (rather lame) experiment, I will now stand up from my laptop, walk over to one of my bookshelves, and at random, select a book of history. Wait a second, here it comes.

Was it worth the wait? Here we go. "The Middle East: A Brief History of The last 2,000 Years," by Bernard Lewis. I hope there are some images of marauders taking their religion across the landscape. Page 199 contains no such images... Another random page. Page 213 has an image. Constantine the great looking stoic with a caption explaining who he was... (Good, now I don't have to read pages 1-37...) Many captioned images later, I know what these people looked like, and I'm given many captions, but I'm not left to understand anything greater based on these images. All exploration of the imagery has been taken away from me with these captions, which is exactly what Werner referenced in his article.

Why is it that we know so much about what helps student's to learn, but we completely ignore it when it comes to the study of history? Odd.

I find it very interesting that when I was reading Werner's article, I kept thinking about what New York does to train their students. The students are required to learn how to interpret images (it's part of their regent's test, their version of our EOC). The students are graded on their knowledge of the context of the image as well as the message the image is portraying. They are not graded on the exactitude of dates, they are graded on whether they could identify the events being described (and sometimes mocked) in the images.

Which brings me to my exploration of 21st Century Abe and the Library of Congress selection of Lincoln pictures. There is a particular video (which you can find here) that I found to be pretty interesting. It progresses through a series of photos, and they really show some great images of Lincoln. A biography I am reading refers to Lincoln's good sense of humor. Many of the images selected by that video show Lincoln almost smiling. If you have seen many pictures from the Lincoln era, you will know that few of the images from that era show good nature or humor. It was simply not the culture that surrounded imagery that accepted smiling.

I am happy that I have been avoiding this tendency with my AVID class. My students are engaged in asking questions of the pictures they see. They are currently asking the George Howard collection, "Where is this building located?" They are asking images of Somerset Plantation artifacts, "How would a slave utilize you?" They are engaging in historical enquiry in such a way that will (hopefully) leave a meaningful impact on their lives and encourage them to move beyond their immediate understanding of the world.

Overall, I think that by the exploration of this week's materials I have become much more aware of what is going on around me and how I can influence my students to increase their understanding of historical topics through the use of images.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Post about Audio

I just discovered something interesting. I've been walking around with my borrowed Olympus audio device and recording things that I think sound interesting.

I feel crazy.

You might wonder why, but you need not wonder for long! People looked at me like I was out of my gourd. I had people walk past me at the aquarium who almost ran into pillars and other displays of fish. I had one mother shoot me a dirty look before she pushed her child on to the next tank.

What the heck?

I wonder about this. Why is it so strange to have an audio recording of something? Why is it not equally invasive to be taking pictures of random strangers? I was (probably am) in at least 2 dozen photos from a young couple at the sand dunes in Kitty Hawk. They were playing and taking pictures of each other in my general direction. Should I not be offended that they selected my spot to take pictures? I mean, with facial recognition technology what it is, they could use my face to identify me, and blackmail me with sitting on top of a dune with borrowed NCSU equipment. (Sorry, that steals your thunder, oh brazen youth!)

Yet me, with my quiet little audio recording device, I am the devil walking around trying to steal peoples souls. Yes, images are apparently fine, but audio? That is just an evil idea.

I also discovered that purely audio recordings of events are interesting. Very interesting. My son playing on a sand dune is wonderfully enjoyable to listen to. A crowded aquarium on Labor day conveys they hectic emotions that one feels surrounded by hundreds of toddlers and their families. Listening to the sound on the dunes creates a sadness for those things lost (silence, for one).

Keep an eye here for more historical things... Or not.