Jenny Reeder

History Polyglot–How to Translate or Interpret in a Digital Age
February 10, 2007, 3:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I am intrigued with Manan Ahmed’s discussion, The Polyglot Manifesto. He raises some important esoteric questions about identity, community responsibility, and public responsibility. But I am most intrigued with his ideas about historian as translator or interpreter. As I commented on Bill’s blog, I believe that digital history changes the way we do history. I think the connection between “past-ese” and “present-ese” is one that we cannot take too lightly. Can we really “toggle” between the two, to borrow Ahmed’s phrase?

I like to hope we can. And yet as I anticipate dealing with job searches and how I will figure out how my skills can match the needs of whatever department, I question how it will all add up. Does my ability to use digital media make me a better historian? Or am I learning how to appeal to the popular masses? Do the two connect? Does plodding through somewhat technical and foreign reading on CSS help me do or interpret history better, or does it help me present history better? I honestly think both skills are vital. And that is exactly why I am pushing and pulling along, trying to piece together the meaning of CSS and design. I have important history to do and I want to know how to present it.


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In my humble opinion, I would say that this technical learning you are doing primarily helps you to present history better. In doing so, however, you may indeed learn to interpret your subject matter in a new way —when one sees her subject matter in a new light, in this case presenting the information on a website intead of a book or lecture, she may add a new perspective that can enhace her own understanding of the material.

You raise Manan Ahmed’s discussion of “past-ese” and “present-ese.” Does anyone else have a negative visceral reaction to this concept? The idea that anyone is able to put himself in the mind-set of an American founding father or Chinese peasant on the eve of revolution and authentically speak with their voices seems pretentious. Certainly, with a grounding in historical texts and images, this is what we historians strive to do. Maybe it is that the term “interpreter” claims too much—too great an accuracy. Maybe there is a difference in getting into the mind-set of a time-period or a historical place and getting into the mind-set of an individual. Maybe I’m over-reacting? Any thoughts?


Comment by Laura

[…] Jenny Reeder’s blog, I raise the question of whether the notion of historian as interpreter claims too much. It does strike me as rather pretentious, but I know from my own research that this […]

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Does plodding through somewhat technical and foreign reading on CSS help me do or interpret history better, or does it help me present history better?

I hope this doesn’t come off as too pithy, but what’s the difference? Can you separate those two things?

Comment by Tad

It’s interesting that you raise the issue of popular masses. That seems to be a discussion in the publication of history books as well. Who is writing for whom? Do more scholars need to “come out of the academy” and write books likely to appeal to more popular distribution? It’s an ongoing discussion that moves over to new media. It seems to me, though, that in an ideal world, history presented with simplicity, yet not dumbed down, can generate as much thought–or more–thought as that obfuscated with heavy theory and vocabulary. I love your home page.

Comment by Lee Ann Ghajar


You asked: “Does my ability to use digital media make me a better historian? Or am I learning how to appeal to the popular masses? Do the two connect? ”

The answers: No. Maybe. Probably.

Seriously, I have never understood the concept of a historian that doesn’t appeal to the masses. Or at least doesn’t want his or her work shared with the largest number of people possible. The internet is simply a new forum for sharing that information. I’m sure some “historian” thousands of years ago was scared silly when suddenly people in the next village over were WRITING their stories down . . . The internet is a tool, and we are lucky enough – or unfortunate enough – to live in an age where it is a necessity. The real challenge, of course, is to separate the wheat from the chaff. The internet offers real anonymity and opportunity to engage in the study of any field without having to show, or necessarily possess, any credentials. But that’s a different issue entirely.

Comment by Marty

Jenny, I think your skills as a digital historian are going to be valued highly. As the vanguard of a new generation of historians, you and I and the others in our class (whether we really want it or not) will be responsible for creating the very foundations of digital history.

Professor Petrik and a very few others (many mentioned by Ahmed) are teaching us the way, but ultimately it will be the younger historians (no offense intended, Professor P!) that will create the paradigms and the methodologies that will allow them/us to craft history in digital media. So our job is to take our skillz and create our own spaces and historical methods. To become that interpreter, not only for the public but also for other historians who are less digitally-savvy. I think you are going to do just fine in the Brave New World!

Comment by Chris

[…] can read Bill’s Waiting on Abdulhamid II, Jenny’s History Polyglot: How to Translate or Interpret in a Digital World, Historiarum’s I’d Love to Take a Public Beating, Misha’s Thank you, Sepoy, and […]

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Comment by beginers credit

very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

Comment by Idetrorce

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