I found the material in James Capshew’s website(“Traditions and Culture of IU”) both informative and entertaining. Yet typically the thought of a university history resurrects images of dusty, year-book-like tomes. As such this project provides a successful example of marrying an old style or tradition (college histories) to the new media. Admittedly, college histories often are interesting, even though the sight of one of these dusty old tomes can make your eyes glaze over.
The website allows the reader to move back and forth through the chapters and then quizzes the readers on their retention of the information at the end of the chapter. The “Notes” sections of each chapter tell the reader which chapters contain similar information. The chapters provide various activities for the topics covered. Finally, I thought the quiz questions were well-crafted and thoughtful.
This website employs the type of images you would expect to find in college histories, for examples, pictures of presidents and buildings, along with pictures of “famous” individuals (such as Jim Thorpe), the “firsts” (such as the first female president or the first African American graduate), and popular sites on campus. The prose employs a number of literary devices to appeal to the audience, including the use of exclamation marks as well as ellipses as mini “cliff hangers,” leading the reader on to the next paragraph. The authors also employ an occasional “HMMMM…” to add emphasis to a topic, which also adds a sense of familiarity and “conversation,” btw the author and the reader. I thought the prose was extremely effective in drawing the reader into the content of the chapters.
The chapters portray IU through a series of topics as well as through individual years. The choice of topics/themes is both expected (as noted above, presidents, fires on campus, the “firsts”) and innovative (for example, the development of Crest toothpaste), and provide a social/cultural history of the university–which is one of the strengths of most college histories that I have seen. Through these themes, the authors situate IU within a national (and even celebratory) narrative. For example the chapter on Crest toothpaste weds research, science, government, and business along with a social history of dental care. This chapter tends to adopt a “benign-to-favorable” narrative. (From someone who works on male merchants, this is not necessarily a criticism.) For example, in 1951 as Muhler searches for funding for his research he turns to the most likely source (in terms of capital), i.e. business. Since most of us view the advancements in dental care and dental hygiene products as beneficial, we would equate the companies involved in funding the research with that sense of positive advancement. The authors, however, also use these discussions to view tensions that existed then and some that persist today. For example, here the authors look at issues of public vs private funding for research. Again, this strikes me as a typical feature of college histories, but also one that is effective in drawing in a contemporary audience.
As noted, since I look at the role of commerce in imperial expansion, I appreciate the significance (at times beneficial) of “business” in development. However, I also thought this chapter fit well with Sam Wineburg’s discussion of the various ways in which different groups read history textbooks. Whereas high school students accepted the textbook chapters/prose as straightforward accounts of the “facts” in American history (specifically the American Revolution), the professional historians saw the same passages as loaded, conveying the events in heroic terms. This does not strike me as a problem of the website, rather it is a comment on the style and the audience. By nature, college histories (like national histories) tend to be celebratory. Assuming a point of the site is to inform students and the general public about IU and its various roles, the site succeeds–and in large part because of its excellent prose.
Capshew’s own webpage demonstrates the degree to which he is integrated not only into IU, but the community as a whole. I was particularly taken by the proposed syllabus for a “Green Web Course.” As one of the humanities, history can readily fulfill the liberal arts mission by teaching students to be informed and active citizens, which this syllabus demonstrates admirably.
Finally, pushing (forcing) the “nature” motif, I chickened-out when it came to posting an entry on Wikipedia, largely because I did not allow myself enough time to complete the task and thus became daunted when reading the various posting “stylistics.” I intended to post a biographical sketch on a Loyalist (of the American Revolution), Nathaniel Whitworth. He ties into a number of topics covered on Wikipedia (such as the Loyalists, the Revolution, Nova Scotia and the Planters, etc.), so seemed a good fit. Moreover, I had an ulterior motive in hoping that genealogists might read Wikipedia, edit my entry, and provide information unknown to me. But as noted, I did not leave enough time to fully explore the site (my fault) and thus feared this might not be an appropriate topic–especially given my selfish designs!