Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Age Appropriate Content

Today, a few of my classmates and I watched in on a group of seven year old students as they received a tour of a local art gallery. The tour consisted of three parts: a Smartboard presentation, a viewing of the gallery, and a studio session.

We were particularly interested in the first segment with the Smartboard presentation. Smartboards are essentially large computer monitors that the user can control by touching the screen, much like a self checkout at the grocery store, except way more fun. The gallery has recently purchased one of these boards and some volunteers put together a presentation for school aged children, based on their elementary school curriculum. Today was the first day the presentation went to the test on a real tour. There were a few glitches that need to be worked out, but the technology is new and that’s to be expected. Overall, the experience was a success and the children likely learned a thing or two about primary and secondary colours. Perhaps just as important, their attention stayed firm the whole time.

After half an hour at the interactive station, the guide took the children to view some of the paintings they had seen on the Smartboard. These included a couple of Paul Peel paintings from the 1880s which are the pride of the gallery.

This little lady was the star of the show, and if it hadn’t been for a quick-thinking guide, this image might be the only surviving record of the painting. Kids like to touch. Especially seven year olds. Especially seven year olds who have just been encouraged to touch a Smartboard for the past half hour. And especially seven year olds who are being asked to stand within arms length of a very tactile-looking painting, in a big room with nothing else worth touching.

Nicholas, dear, please don’t touch that.

Even with a lesson to start the tour, reminding students not to touch any of the art, they just couldn’t remember. Any time they were asked a question about the painting, it was accompanied by pointing, far too close to the actual painting for comfort. Even after three warnings to the same child to stand back, the threat loomed. For some of the students, the notion that they weren't allowed to touch it seemed to mean they thought the guide was asking them to get as close as humanly possibly to the painting without actually making contact.

Nicholas, what did I ask you to do with your hands?

I don’t pretend I could have done any better at controlling twelve seven year olds, and I commend the volunteer guide for her efforts and patience. I also don't blame the kids; they were just doing what came natural to them and I imagine I was much the same way at that age. But, I have to wonder if looking at fine art is age appropriate to that group. I think the kids benefited from their experience with the Smartboard, and I’m sure they had a blast in the studio section of the tour after we left, in which they got to mash their hands in paint. But, these kids were clearly bored with the notion of standing around and looking at a painting – which happened to be the only thing all day they weren’t allowed to touch.

If anything, today reinforced to me the importance that when designing educational materials for children, you must be very careful to choose activities and learning experiences that are appropriate to their age, and attention spans. Maybe keep the fine art preserved for those of us who appreciate it, and let the kids spend a little more time interacting?

Nicholas. I’ve asked you not to touch the paintings!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Vandals on the Tube: the Mythbusters?

I was watching the television program Mythbusters last night, in which a group of engineers go about testing urban myths to see if they are true. They’ve tested everything from the myth of the exploding, killer lava lamp to the validity of the “five second rule.

Last night, they sought to show if there was any truth to the myth that two hammers, if hit together, could shatter. They had tried to disprove this myth once before using modern hammers that they superheated to make them more brittle, but fans of the show insisted they had gone about the experiment incorrectly. According to these fans, only antique hammers would shatter in this fashion.

So, being engineers, keen to teach the world about torques and forces, the hosts of the show went out and bought two antique, pre-WWII hammers, attached them to a robotic arm and smashed them together with twice the force that a human could swing. The experiment was a bust. The hammer heads cracked, but would not shatter in an explosive manner as viewers had suggested they would.

Then it struck me, is this not vandalism? Are we going to let a bunch of engineers destroy artifacts like that? Those hammers will never again be produced. What if that had been the last hammer of its kind? Now it’s gone, and for what? To be part of some silly science show to entertain viewers?

Before you think I’m a nut, let me say, I calmed down and took back all the nasty thoughts I had about engineers. I know it’s unfeasible for us to keep everything just so that we will have a record of who we were. The world does not exist so that historians can write about it thirty years later. And after all, perhaps the use the Mythbusters put that hammer toward will tell historians of the future far more about our society than the hammer did about the people who made it eighty years ago.

Thanks to the Mythbusters, we’ve traded one record for another: a hammer for a video clip of humans being curious. So, maybe as historians it’s not our job to worry about what to preserve, but to deal with what is preserved? That way we can focus on our writing, and leave the preservation to the archivists and little old ladies with too many strawberries. It’ll be less stressful that way.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Museum Funding Discrepancies

Yesterday, London Ontario held its “Doors Open London” in which 51 heritage sites opened their doors free of charge and invited the public inside to experience their community’s history. My girlfriend and I went to three of these sites and had three very different experiences.

The first place we went was the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame. Judging by the extensive list of donors and sponsors posted both on their website and on a plaque in the museum – including a section dedicated to donors of $250 000+, this museum is fairly well funded.

The second stop was the Banting House National Historical Site. This museum not only has a $10 entrance fee on a regular day – about the price of admission to the Louvre but also has a very expensive looking bronze statue of Banting in the garden, an eternal flame (that doesn’t pay for itself) and has undergone extensive restoration work inside, including adding a large addition for the Canadian Diabetes Association.

We enjoyed these first two museums, but it was the third that stood out the most for us

This last stop was at the Secrets of RADAR Museum on a wooded lot overlooking a small lake, just behind Parkwood Hospital in south London. The building in which the museum is housed looks like a community centre in rural Ontario, complete with the overly harsh fluorescent lights reflecting off the 1960s linoleum floor. The lounge resembled my Grandmother’s basement, which has not been entered let alone redecorated in the past fifty years, and I could almost see my mother and her sisters playing Monopoly as children on the floor by the window.

Despite our initial shock by the décor, we were quickly reassured when, as we walked in, a young lady at the front desk greeted us enthusiastically and thanked us for coming. She told us a little bit about the museum, smiled and wished us an enjoyable visit.

Just next to the desk was a bristle board display introducing the museum. At the bottom was a small block of writing that declared,

Because the Secrets of RADAR Museum does not have any full-time employees, we are ineligible for government funding and rely on the support of the community to keep our doors open.

I looked around, and it definitely looked like it lacked funding. The displays in the museum were a mixture of bristle boards that had typed pages glued to them, and professional-looking 5’x4’ display boards. Clearly the museum is in the process of upgrading itself.

I had an opportunity to speak with the President of the Museum, Ryan Fraser, who was enthusiastically telling visitors all about the collection and adding a “human element” to the artifacts. I have to say, he was a fantastic guide. He is clearly passionate about what his museum has to offer and the progress his displays are making. And though he is not old enough to have ever seen the Second World War, he admits he knows more about the history of RADAR than most of the veterans that his museum works with on a regular basis. Of the three sites my girlfriend and I visited yesterday, we definitely felt the most welcome at the Secrets of RADAR Museum. The people volunteering there were excited about what they were working on, and veterans freely mixed with young volunteers. It was a wonderful place and I recommend that you all visit.

Thanks to private donations, the museum now has funding to replace the rest of the bristle board with more professional looking displays, and according to their website, an anonymous donation of $5000 has allowed them to “keep open for another year.” So if all it takes is $5000 to upgrade a wonderful little museum such as this, why does the Canadian government’s Museum Assistance Program insist that anyone applying for funding “employ the equivalent of one full-time paid professional staff”?

Even at minimum wage, that means a museum must spend $17 000 per year on staff wages to be considered legitimate enough for the government. That cost does not include all the money required to heat, light and rent the building as well as pay any insurance or miscellaneous costs.

I find it strange that a group of people willing to volunteer their time in the pursuit of providing Canadians with a site to come and learn about their heritage is somehow less valuable than a group who want to be paid to provide Canadians the same service.

Now, I understand that the government does not want to fund someone’s basement hobby and has decided to place the restriction on their funding to try and ensure the money is not used inappropriately, but could they not just be more prudent about to whom they give money? Would it not make sense that the institution applying for a grant should detail what they intend to spend the money on, and then be expected to show results? Private scholarship grants operate in this manner with great results.

Currently, it seems like a case of keepin’ the little guy down so there’s more money for the bigger museums. But, if the major museums were forced to compete with small outfits such as the Secrets of RADAR Museum, there’s no guarantee the bigger places wouldn’t continue to win all the funding. After all, they have professional, full-time staff with experience working with the government. At least let the little guys play too. Let them try to get some of the money. As it stands, the Canadian government’s funding policy of museums only stifles passion. And passion is a terrible thing to waste.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Canadian War Museum Controversy

The Canadian War Museum recently agreed to re-write a panel from one of its displays at the request of upset Canadian veterans. The panel read as follows:

"The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in German war production until late in the war."[1]

The decision by the Canadian War Museum has sparked a lot of debate, particularly in the historical field. Many people are upset that a lobby group has changed the history we will teach to our children. These same people point to the stacks of academic literature on the subject to show that there is in fact controversy over the morality of the Allied Bombing of Germany.

I support the War Museum’s decision.

Not because I think history should be censored, or that we should teach lies, or that we should let lobby groups tell us what to do, but because the panel is insensitive and it’s imbalanced.

It’s easy to be upset that a lobby group has gotten its own way on this one, but we need to remember that this isn’t the nameless, faceless tobacco industry. It’s men like this:


This is Don Elliot. He is one of the men who was involved with Bomber Command during WWII, and he is one of the men who complained about the exhibit. In an interview with CTV, he said the exhibit made him “feel very angry…It gives me the impression by the wording and photographs that they're implying I was a war criminal.”[3]

This isn’t a lobby group. This is a real man. And this exhibit is about him. In essence, this exhibit is inadvertently a biography of living persons. I’ll borrow from Wikipedia to show why this is important: “articles can affect real people's lives. This gives us an ethical and legal responsibility. Biographical material must be written with the greatest care and attention to verifiability [and] neutrality.”[4] If Wikipedia holds these standards for itself, then surely the Canadian War Museum should hold similar, if not more stringent guidelines.

But, just because someone is upset doesn’t mean they have been treated unfairly. It’s important that we determine if this passage is fair and merely shows two sides of the argument, or if it’s biased and depicts Don and his peers as war criminals, as he suggests. I think the best way to show this is to take the passage completely out of context and analyze it as a rhetorical entity:

"The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Mars remains bitterly contested. Space Laser-Squad’s aim was to crush civilian morale and force Mars to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Space Laser-Squad and Jupiterian attacks left 600,000 Martians dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions in Martian war production until late in the war."


Was the Space Laser-Squad justified in its actions?

I’d be willing to bet none of you said yes.

But none of you know anything about the Space Laser-Squad. All you know about them is what you have read in this passage – in my museum exhibit. And I hope most of you can now see that my exhibit is biased. Given the information I have presented you with, it is very difficult to see the Space Laser-Squad in a good light.

This is because of emotionally charged words such as “dead” and “homeless” used to describe the Martians. These words become even more emotionally charged when you attach the numbers, “600,000” dead and “five million homeless.” And for what? “Small reductions in Martian war production.”

I cannot read this passage and come to any conclusion other than that the action of the Space Laser-Squad was wrong. There are no claims to balance the argument that might suggest – perhaps – the bombing was justified. And until it does, you are not providing insight into a controversy; rather, you are making a moral, value judgment against living persons. And that’s not what history does.

disclaimer: I acknowledge that the panel was part of a much larger display and has been taken out of context for the sake of this article.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Multimedia Textbook

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple years now, and it has come up twice now in the last two weeks in articles I have read. [1|2] Digital textbooks were part of my motivation for entering public history. I’ve always thought there was a better way to present a history survey course to undergraduate students (or high school students) than through a bulky monograph.

I found most of my peers resented their textbooks. Many were bought and never opened. In more than one house I moved into during my undergraduate career, the textbooks of the previous tenant were left in the unit.

I think part of the reason for this is that students aren’t that keen. Especially when they first get to university. I know I wasn’t. I read readings to get to the end, often retaining almost nothing. I cheered to myself when pictures took up a lot of space on a page, likewise with footnotes, especially the really long annotated ones – which I never bothered to read until I had nearly graduated.

And apparently, I was one of the good students. Good enough to get into grad school anyway.

For so many kids now, university is that thing you have to do after high school. They are not passionate about their subjects. They certainly don’t get excited at the prospect of reading a book about theory. Not when they know they can get so much more stimulation out of Facebook, or videos, or games, or beer.

So many undergraduate history students I know have no concept of what they studied, because they always did the bare minimum. I have a friend who now has a B.A. in history. He took mostly European history courses, and when we went to Europe together, was unable to locate Barcelona on the map. Apparently the monographs he read didn’t give him enough context.

So if it doesn’t work, maybe we need to fix it? Maybe we need to make the textbooks easier to read. Why can’t the article be linked to a map so that the reader understands where we’re talking about? Why can’t the historical personage be linked to a portrait of them, so that those of us who learn visually can make mental connections? After all, isn't the portrait a valuable piece of historical evidence that the student should be exposed to anyway? Why can’t I be directed to an explanation of a concept I don’t understand/remember, via a hyperlink to a sub-article, rather than having to search through an index to find a page that might explain what I’m looking for?

There is obviously demand for online material. The fact that so many undergraduates turn to Wikipedia to understand course material – often even after being warned against the practice by their professors – shows that students now want something easier to read than the traditional, 1500 page textbook.

So why don’t we give it to them? Is there any reason my Canadian history survey course can’t have a textbook that looks something like this?:


The Battle of Queenston Heights

Map of Southern Ontario showing the location of the Battle:

Sir Isaac Brock (image 1 of 24)

This battle took place on October 13, 1812 between British and American troops. It was an important victory for the British in the War of 1812, and helped ensure that Upper Canada did not fall to the Americans…

Sir Isaac Brock was the commander in charge of the British troops. He was killed at this battle…

yadda, yadda, yadda...

Time Line of Related Events:

Further Reading For Interested Students of my Imaginary Class:


If anyone has ever taken a class in which the professor used an online text - homemade or otherwise, I'd love to hear about it.

Credit Where it is Due:

The Map of Ontario is from GoogleEarth
The Image of Sir Isaac Brock is from the Wikipedia article of Brock

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Defense of Wikipedia

To truly sabotage knowledge is very difficult. Sure, it can be done. See [Essjay|Colbert] for rather successful examples of Wikipedia vandalism. Acts like this are bound to occur on a site that anyone can revise; the more people that edit articles on Wikipedia, statistically, the more saboteurs there will be. But in any peer reviewed system, someone is eventually going to find something fishy and point it out. This is why Wikipedia is great. The more people that edit articles on Wikipedia, the more reviewers we will have.

And isn’t it reviewers that give scholarship much of its authority? To get an article published in a journal, a gauntlet of reviewers must read and meticulously comment on everything from your improper use of the word “data” in line 43, to broad, overarching structural issues he or she has with your paper. You fiddle and tinker, send it back with comments such as, “Thank you for your remark regarding my use of a comma in line 12. I have made changes accordingly,” and if all goes well, there it is: your article will stand as is for all time. It has passed the peer review. You have passed the peer review.

But Wikipedia doesn’t work like that. Wikipedia is ours. All of ours.

Instead of pleasing 4 reviewers and perhaps your supervisor as well as the journal editor, you must please everyone who reads the article, ever again. If you don’t, the article will have changed so much that you won’t be able to call it your own anymore. But it never really was to begin with. Your name won’t appear on it. You can’t put it on your CV. In fact, you’ll likely never personally benefit from it at all if you write an article for Wikipedia. So why do people perform these selfless acts of writing? Why are there 2, 005, 703 articles in English alone?

Because Wikipedia provides us an opportunity to expand the amount of knowledge available to us all. And we’re curious. So we write.

Sure, saboteurs like Essjay and Stephen Colbert relish in stirring up trouble, but given how many of us out there edit, correct, and write in good faith on the pages of Wikipedia, I know that in the long run the interference of a few will not have a significant impact.

The perfect example of why I know this is true comes from the father of the Encyclopedia: Diderot. In his world’s very first Encyclopédie of 1758, full of thoughtful, well planned articles, he allowed one of his writers to include this defamation of the Jesuits:

Qu'est-ce qu'un jésuite ? est-ce un prêtre séculier ? est-ce un prêtre régulier ? est-ce un laic ? est-ce un religieux ? est-ce un homme de communauté ? est-ce un moine ? c'est quelque chose de tout cela, mais ce n'est point cela…

Soumis au despotisme le plus excessif dans leurs maisons, les Jésuites en sont les fauteurs les plus abjects dans l'état. Ils prêchent aux sujets une obéissance sans réserve pour leurs souverains ; aux rois, l'indépendance des loix & l'obéissance aveugle au pape ; ils accordent au pape l'infaillibilité & la domination universelle, afin que maîtres d'un seul, ils soient maîtres de tous.

[Rough Translation], What is a Jesuit? A Secular priest? An ordained priest? A layman? A man of the Church? A man of the community? A monk? He is all of these, but at the same time, he is none...

Subjected to the most excessive despotism in their houses, Jesuits are the most contemptible agitators in the state. They preach on subjects such as obedience without regard for their sovereigns. Like kings, they are independent from law, and they blindly obey only the Pope, whose infallibility and universal domination they support. In order to be masters of one, they are masters of all.


Hardly NPOV . But it certainly didn’t damn encyclopedias as unreliable drivel. In fact, it didn’t seem to hurt Diderot at all. People still bought his Encyclopédie in large numbers. Most of his readers likely never came across the passage about the Jesuits – after all, who reads an encyclopedia from cover to cover – and those who did find the article either chuckled or were offended, and then they went on with their day. Now, two hundred and fifty years later, most people have no idea Diderot’s Encyclopédie ever made such claims about the Jesuits. Most modern Jesuits likely don’t even know. This is because the mistakes were not copied. In subsequent encyclopedias, the editors decided humanity was better served with a more neutral description of the Jesuits. As a result, the Jesuits recovered from the attempt to misinform the public.

And so did the elephants. The Wikipedia article that Stephen Colbert’s viewers vandalized, falsely claiming that the elephant population had tripled in the past six months, has been peer edited over twenty times in the two months since the incident. As far as I know, no scholarly journals published this unexplained increase in the elephant population. And in five years, no one will even remember that elephants mysteriously and briefly had a massive population increase.

On a long enough time frame, with enough people who believe in the value of an encyclopedia like Wikipedia, the vandals will lose and the majority of the articles will improve their factual content. There isn’t anything wrong with Wikipedia; it’s just a work in progress. And it’s there for all of us. So please, peer review something on Wikipedia that interests you. And don’t be afraid to read it to learn about whatever it is that peaks your curiosity. No matter what that is, be it King George II, house hippos, or chainsaw jeans.


Friday, September 7, 2007

Can Academics Be Creative?

I am going to write the world’s greatest novel. So great that it will never be taught as “Canadian Literature,” only as Literature. The people who compile the Norton and Longman’s anthologies will be knocking on my door by my fortieth birthday, and shortly after I die, Oxford World Classics will battle Penguin for the rights to my story. At least that’s been the plan ever since I was ten years old. Back then I wrote murder mysteries using the various characters from the board game Clue as my protagonists. Some of my whodunits were so interwoven and complex that I’m still not quite sure I blamed the right guy at the end. Since then I’ve learned to make my sentences my clear, use fewer adjectives, adverbs, gerunds, nominalizations, words, and I’ve learned it’s important that my story makes sense.

I continued to write whenever the inclination hit me, but for the past five years and since I’ve been in university, my works have taken a distinctly nonfiction flavour. I wrote eighty eight essays during my undergraduate career and only two were fiction. Those both came while taking courses through the writing department. I fell in love with the writing department at the University of Western Ontario. I remember I got so excited when I learned how to properly use a semicolon; sometimes I use them completely frivolously just because I know how. I became such a grammar geek that I actually read the entire Bedford Handbook and enjoyed every minute of it.

The more writing courses I took, the more I loved to write, and the better my grades became on my history essays. By the end of my undergraduate days, I was a pretty good nonfiction writer, and an acceptable researcher. Despite this, my heart still lies with the world’s greatest novel, of which I am currently on page ten and I expect to be finished sometime in the next three years.

But I’m worried. Did I already spoil myself?

Last summer I read perhaps Canada’s greatest novel, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. One line made my stomach churn. “Alice Flett’s first novel should be a warning to all academics who aspire toward literary creativity.” “Posturing.” “Donnish.” “Didactic.” “Cold porridge on a paper plate.”

I intend to write rainbows and sugar drops, not cold porridge.

Of course, Alice Flett isn’t real, and she never wrote a book. But in Shields’ imaginary world, Alice does exactly what I hope to accomplish: she’s an academic and an aspiring novelist.

Now far be it from me to put words into the illustrious pen of Carol Shields. This quote is taken out of context and in fact, should you read this wonderful book you will see that Shields is not damning the academics to unimaginative writing. She was however, showing that this opinion of academics is out there. Alice’s imaginary reviewer reflects a school of thought that academics should stay in their Ivory Towers and explain things to each other. The good writing should be left to the storytellers.

Are academics too didactic to reach the hearts of the people? Perhaps. Michael Ignatieff would agree after he recently had a heck of a time convincing the Liberal party caucus that he wasn’t out of touch with the common voter after years pent up in Harvard. Maybe Shields’ invisible reviewer is right. After all, the only novelist I can think of that is an accomplished academic is Michael Ondaatje. But wait, even Shields had an M.A. from the University of Ottawa.

So maybe the way to keep my writing from becoming “donnish” is to quit after an M.A…