A ‘Not-so-New’ Practice

I used to believe that certain practices from the past were lost to current society as time moved on. For example, how often do you find a piece of paper today that has been made by hand? It came as a startling eye-opener then when I learned that the practice of shortening words to write quicker was not as new as I initially thought. Avid texters and tweeters should be made aware of the fact that, though the actual abbreviations change throughout history, part of the reasoning for this habit remains the same.

Prior to the ‘lols’ and ‘btw’ that currently dominate text messages, medieval scribes possibly used abbreviations to lessen the amount of time it took them to transcribe. Does this sound familiar to anyone? When you look at a manuscript with abbreviations there can be various dashes and amalgamations of letters (for example xpi and di) that represent condensed words. Also, as a student I often use punctuation to shorten words in my class notes (n. often stands in for the word ‘north’) because it means I can keep up with the professor. This is not an original idea or practice because Adriano Capelli notes this exact form of abbreviation in his dictionary on medieval abbreviations. With the realization that abbreviations are part of our history, ’lols’ and ‘omgs’ then signify the present generation’s role in the story of human communication.

For anyone investigating medieval abbreviations, they know that it can be a frustrating process. The urge to scream ‘what does this mean’ or ‘why would you write that’ indicates that what was once common knowledge to these scribes has disappeared over time. It is interesting to make a comparison between a modern historian studying medieval abbreviations and one who, centuries from now, investigates twenty-first century abbreviations. No doubt this scholar will experience a similar frustration considering how rapidly our abbreviations change. Furthermore, the understanding that ‘lol’ does not necessarily mean someone literally ‘laughed out loud’ is important contextual information future academics might not possess. This comparison demonstrates the importance of the context that lies in every abbreviation. I know that ‘g2g’ stands for ‘got to go’ because I grew up with this knowledge, just as a scribe might have known that ‘xpi’ represents ‘Christi’ because he transcribed it multiple times. Additionally, future historians will have a difficult time decoding our abbreviations due to the emotional meaning often lurking in our text messages. While sometimes I lament the task of decoding a medieval manuscript I certainly do not envy historians who examine twenty-first century abbreviation.

Abbreviations did not magically appear alongside the growth in texting. This is a practice with strong historical roots, evident in the presence of abbreviations in medieval manuscripts. Even students today who try to transcribe their professor’s lecture employ a technique these monks used, suggesting that the technique lingers as well. Next time I hear someone complain that texting words like ‘ppl’ (people) and ‘pls’ (please) signals the downfall of written language I hope this person is ready for an impromptu history lesson.

A Whole New World

Prior to my first year in university I remember various high school teachers cautioning me about laptop use in the classroom. “You’re in the Arts, you don’t need that computer for much” they said, installing in me a belief that Arts students should only use their computers for research, essays and nothing more. Flash forward to fourth year where I learned that the digital world can benefit Arts students as they use online platforms to share ideas and work together on projects. Although this will be a gradual process presenting certain challenges, students who engage online with one another (for educational purposes) expand their understanding of what it means to be in academia.

My university experience largely consists of various one-way exchanges with professors in which I research, outline an argument and then hand in an essay for a mark. When I read about academics using open source notebooks to share their research it came as a startling revelation. It turns out that my research process and essay crafting has the possibility for a much more dynamic life. In articles discussing the academic use of Github and Twitter, the imaginary wall existing between the online community and university students shattered. Through talking with classmates on Slack and ‘following’ scholars on Twitter I realized that there is a community out there (potentially) interested in my academic pursuits. Or, at the very least, this community can point out inconsistencies and errors along the way.

It will take a while before others scholars share the view that students should interact with academics on Twitter and collaborate on projects through online platforms. Unless a course focuses explicitly on digital humanities or the professor is an avid spokesperson for online platforms, Arts students will not discover their place in the digital world. There is still too strong of a belief that Arts programs should not go anywhere near platforms used by computer science majors. Until students consistently use online platforms for academic purposes, the barrier between the Arts and the digital world will remain stronger than ever.

For students to benefit from online academic engagement they must first be able to access these resources. If we want to encourage students to use online programs is the onus on educational facilities to provide laptops or tablets for everyone? If universities decide to provide these resources will it increase tuition? I can say that students should use their laptops to work together along but I speak from the privileged assumption that everyone has to access a computer.

Using online platforms to share ideas and research as well as social media to observe interactions between academics expands my understanding of how one can learn. A history degree does not necessarily exclude me from learning about Markdown or Github, instead I can develop my research through these (initially) computer-science based programs. For all those high school teachers warning Arts students about computers in the classroom rather than contributing to this barrier they should consider the positive side to embracing technology and the digital world. 

Hi Everybody!

I moved to Ottawa from Aylmer, Ontario four years ago to pursue a History B.A. Honours at Carleton University. My areas of interest are quite wide-ranging as my previous courses include discussions on the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Vikings’ arrival in Britain, France after 1871 and a thorough history of Russia. I prefer to engage with various areas, periods and approaches to history because this helps to broaden my view on the world. I found it fascinating to take two courses on late nineteenth/early twentieth century Ireland at the same time as I learned about similar events from a male-centred narrative alongside a neglected, less traditional female viewpoint.

I centred my fourth year on two seminars entitled American Madness and Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts. Though these classes sound incredibly different from each other their relationship to the present (along with my interest) links them together. Given mental illness’ awareness in our society I want to investigate exactly how people treated and understood mental illness in the past. The course’s specific focus in America feels suitable, as U.S. history—from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement—has been a reoccurring subject throughout my undergraduate degree.

Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts stood out due to the rising growth in digital history and my own personal aspirations for a graduate degree in Library Sciences. Through this course I hope to explore a new technological world and develop important skills to carry on after graduation. Additionally, my interest in the medieval significantly increased during my year in the United Kingdom where I investigated popular accounts of ‘ghost stories’ and religious vs. societal ideas around sanctity.

Finally, as an avid reader I love uncovering the ‘story’ within historical documents, events and people. I hope to one-day work in an environment (whether that is a library, a museum or an archive) in which I can surround myself daily with documents and artefacts that make history come alive.