Digitizing Folk Music History: The Students Weigh In

student reflections on digitizing folk music history research seminar.

In their last blog entries for Digitizing Folk Music History, students posted self-reflections about their experiences of the course.

Here was what one student had to say about the usefulness of slowing down the reading, reflection, writing, and research process using the digital, specifically using WordPress platform with various plug-ins (worth remembering that we usually use the digital to speed things up, but can also be quite productive for slowing down the process in more critical and reflective ways):

When I realized that we were going to be using fancy online tools and WordPress for the assignments in this class, I was a bit intimidated. Honestly, I expected the tools were just going to be unnecessary add-ons to assignments. But I was proven wrong, and I actually ended up loving the tools. I liked having different ways to organize and present information, whether it was by using Crocodoc or TimeRime. It also forced me to look at the material in a deeper way. If the assignment was just to write a response post each week, I probably wouldn’t have been as engaged with the material because I wouldn’t have had to be as thorough when reading and analyzing it. I could have just skimmed the material and then gathered some significance from that. But since we had to extensively annotate material for each post through the table, a written post and sometimes a tool like a timeline, I had no other choice but to really dive into the material as much as possible.

Using different tools to analyze information also gave me more opportunities to have a-ha moments. Sometimes I would write something in the “annotation significance” column in the table, then realize that it was connected to something even bigger in the folk movement and I’d put that realization in the “additional comments” column. By having these different waves of analysis—making annotations, pointing out those annotations’ significance, writing about the significance of all of the annotations put together—there was a certain, like I mentioned, involvement with the material that you may not have in a typical research paper where you just read/watch material and then write about it. This method has helped me not only learn about the folk movement in general, but also themes of the folk movement. It’s been fun to do these tables and write these posts and find overarching themes, like community, keep popping up.

The biggest dilemma I’ve had though with writing history in this form is deciding which part of history to include. I mentioned in my timeline assignment that I had lots of trouble figuring out what to include because I felt like I was missing so much of history, and I felt that way with a lot of assignments. It’s extremely difficult to make the decision of what should be considered important in history and what isn’t as important, or to narrow down the important pieces in history without including all of them because there are simply too many important pieces. But once I realized it was normal to have trouble picking apart history and deciding what should be included in the history of the movement, I felt better about my struggle and felt more comfortable doing the assignments.

Another student similarly found himself rethinking writing through digital annotation. He was more conscious of the components of historical writing and of how writing is, in the end, an act of communication—a social act of continual interpretation and renegotiation based on thinking about evidence:

I feel as though using wordpress for a project like this is much like deconstructing an essay. All the same components are there: evidence, an argument, transitions etc. However, wordpress is different because it allows us to show the readers the exact piece of evidence we are citing. Thus, readers are able to assess my claims about a particular topic and think about whether or not he or she agrees upon their own reflection on the evidence. In this way, it is more effective than writing a paper because it allows the reader to interact directly with the sources.

Another student reflected on the differences between Digitizing Folk Music History’s use of WordPress and digital tools in comparison to typical history courses (I think typical history courses are great too, by the way):

Coming into this class I did not really know what to expect out of a digital history course. I imagined that learning would maybe all be done digitally, i.e. no physical books would be assigned. However, I did not expect that all assignments would be completed digitally and posted onto a class website. With that said, I really enjoyed this experience with digital learning and would love to take further classes in this style. Designing a digital history project in this class through weekly blog posts, Meta-Data assignments and the final project has definitely been a challenge as this is my first foray into this method of learning. Working in the digital domain, especially with WordPress, has been an interesting and challenging experience. I think it is clear that this class is MUCH different from typical history classes in both the teaching method and the assignments completed. I am used to a typical history course where a teacher assigns an unbelievable amount of weekly reading and then lectures on that reading in class. From week to week there aren’t many assignments to keep the students engaged in the material and there is plenty of time and opportunity for students to forget about a class for weeks until an essay is due. The weekly assignments in this class ensured that each member of the class was up to date on the material and the discussion based classes created a need for each student to be prepared to talk about what they have been learning.

Completing my assignments for this course via WordPress was a completely new experience for me in a history course. In other classes I have had to do weekly posts and comment on classmates posts via Blackboard, but I have never done it through a site like WordPress that allowed the incorporation of digital tools. Learning how to incorporate audio, video and image annotations as well as timelines and maps into my posts was an amazing experience. I am not great with computers so this was a part of the class I really enjoyed. In this class I not only learned about folk music history but I learned how to use certain tools that can benefit my learning in other classes that have nothing to do with folk music. I always love when I can take away a new skill set in addition to knowledge on a new subject from a class, and I certainly did that in this course. I also found that having a blog as the main vehicle for writing in this course changed the style in everyone’s work. I can truly say I have never written less formally for a history course than I have in this class. That is not a bad thing at all. I have found that by not having the need to construct a perfectly written and researched essay I have actually learned more. Without the rigid constraints of a typical history course, I feel the members of this class have been able to take more risks in our assignments and work through opinions over the course of a few weeks (even after an assignment has been turned in through reflection posts and classmate commentary). Lastly, I liked how we could see everyone’s assignments on the class blog because it allowed me to see the different perspectives everyone had and that is something you don’t get in a typical history course.

Here’s what another student had to say. This student went on to note that somethings things felt a bit dematerialized (my word, not his). I think he is right. We gain much from going digital, but how do we bring the material experience of having archival objects in front of us into the virtual realm? Can we?:

Much of the difference between working in a digital space versus a traditional research paper has been the difference between showing a reader something and telling a reader something. By giving a reader access to source material not only does it allow them a greater understanding of how conclusions were reached, but it also allows them to draw their own conclusions. This is especially obvious when the class comments on each other’s posts. We are all looking at the same information, but highlighting different aspects and creating a wider discussion. This is also a result of having a communal area to share our research and discoveries. It allows for a sharing of ideas outside of the class structure and time limits placed on those conversations. That being said, the digital structure has an inherent level of removal from the product.

Another student noted the challenges of multimedia materials for historical interpretation and the challenges of studying recent history, when the participants in that historical moment are still around to weigh in (and protest their historicization!):

I think that the biggest challenge for me in working in the digital domain to design an interpretive digital history project has been the translation of a variety of analog material into a digital context. In a typical research essay, I am only asked to synthesize written material into a reformatted written work. In the process of digitalizing folk music history, we are asked to analyze audio, video, and textual elements in a digital realm and compose a re-imagined amalgamation of these elements. The online platform of WordPress can be useful for presenting such research, but in attempting to adhere to a specific question, it is easy for the evidence to distract from the larger topic. I found this balance between evidence and analysis to be a particularly perplexing issue when going about planning my project space.

I feel like this class has given me a really comprehensive grasp on the cultural and musical underpinnings of the folk revival. The conversations about authenticity and intent are important to developing a deeper understanding of music and history in general. The online nature of the class has allowed us to look at a wide variety of materials relevant to this time period while engaging more directly with the digital archive itself. I think the main problem we have run up against is the inherent conflict between folk music and technology. As was somewhat evident in Festival, a sort of self-conscious perspective is necessary when examining history in this way. I recently was talking to an older adult about this class when he remarked “Man, Joan Baez is my age” as if to say, “Am I already history?”. What it means to look at a time period not that long ago and manipulate it through the use of current technology should have ramifications for our discussions. It is this idea that has stayed with me throughout the duration of the course.

This student discovered parallels between her experience of the digital and the folk revival itself, parallels I also often think about:

I felt these challenges in appropriately using new and familiar technologies mirrored that of the folk revivalists, reconciling everything from 1920s recording equipment to 1970s electric rock; exploring digital resources in this course helped me relate to people of the folk revival as they similarly scrutinized the success and validation of various technologies in the folk culture.

And finally, this student similarly reflected upon parallels between the best practices of folk revivalists and what we might use the digital for in our individual and collaborative learning:

I found the learning process in this class very different form that which I am accustomed to.  Instead of being told information I felt like I was actively learning it.  Weekly assignments and the variety of digital tools, allowed me to better conceptualize the main ideas.  Working on WordPress forced me to think through the ideas I was learning by critically and actively analyzing them.  Learning on a shared digital domain, created a collective learning environment, reminiscent of the folk revival itself.  I found the ability to see the work of my peers very beneficial, as it continually exposed me to new perspectives on the material.  Furthermore, this dialogue between the material, my classmates, and myself, changed the way I viewed my own work.  In a sense, I felt more freedom in writing my posts, because my ideas were part of a greater conversation in which provoking thought and discussion seemed more important than exact accuracy.  In general, I got more comfortable with my work, feeling less afraid of criticism from my classmates and more interested in actually seeing and learning from our different interpretations.

One of the main challenges of working in this shared environment was the personal challenge of overcoming a fear of my work being judged by my peers.  Initially, I felt very hesitant, even scared, to post my thoughts.  However, with this class, I am beginning to feel much more confident in my written work.  Much like the folk revival itself, contradictions in opinion can be much more revealing about the complexities of an issue than one set viewpoint or opinion would be.

The students are currently at work on their final projects, with all sorts of fascinating efforts underway to delve deeply into themes of the folk revival, modern U.S. history, the functioning of cultural politics, and other issues. I am eager to see what they will create and discover in the coming weeks.

2 thoughts on “Digitizing Folk Music History: The Students Weigh In

  1. This sounds like an excellent experience! Good for you for making them do it (since I’m sure this was a lot of work for you)! – TL

    1. Thanks Tim. It’s been fascinating developing the course, learning from the ace library and technology folks, and especially from the students, who have worked really hard to figure out the frontiers of digital history. More soon! Michael

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