My self-directed learningDuring the first half of the semester, we were asked to investigate aspects of the time periods we discussed each week that interested us. I'll discuss the investigations that I enjoyed the most. I will warn you that for each time period up until our modern era (1900s and beyond), I was drawn to how that period connected with the oldest period we discussed in this class, and so I often delved deeper into the 1500s history.
Stylometry - After hearing about how Lorenzo Valla proved that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery in 1439, I researched stylometry, or the use of linguistics to analyze a work, usually to make claims about its historicity or authorship. I wound up reading about writer invariant analysis, function words and forensic linguistics, all of which led me to a web site where you can download an author analysis tool called Signature for personal use, after which I played with it a bit.
Columbus's letters - Later in the semester, while reading the textbook section assigned to me, I heard about Christopher Columbus's letter detailing his first voyage to the Americas. I was very interested in his description of the natives, their lifestyle, and how horrifically ethnocentric they were. I researched the early American inhabitants, and found very little about them, and that similarly worded. This got me thinking: all history I've been taught since grade school is horribly ethnocentric, focused on Europe and America. I hardly hear about Africa or Asia other than their interactions with Europeans. It made me sick, and searching online for a while yielded no satisfying results of world history focused on Asia or Africa or South America that wasn't colored to be European.
Glass blowing - While checking world news, I saw an article that discussed Venetian glass blowing. This technique produced beautiful glasswork, and after the glassblowing industry collapsed, such works couldn't be reproduced again for centuries, and people have been trying to figure out how they did it for quite some time. The article talked about William Gudenrath, who has been trying to work out the technique, and thinks he has. He shared the techniques in instructional videos, which were a lot of fun to watch.
Nuremberg Chronicle - One of the first world history books every published (1493). You can download a PDF of the original Latin here. I was fascinated by the over 1800 pictures in it, as well as translations and descriptions of contents. I noted that it taught that heaven consisted of three different levels, each sub-divided into three groups, which is very similar to a doctrine that I believe, but few other Christians do, so it was interesting to see that taught so long ago.
I went to BYU's special collections, and got several books about it, ranging from a discussion of the content of the book to the typography and planning of the book. There was even a book with a leaf of one of the original copies published over 500 years ago. One book summarized the Nuremberg Chronicle's sections, and I spent several hours reading their summaries while looking through the Latin PDF I had downloaded.
Researching these things made the past come to life for me, and made the characters of my history book become real people, and got me emotionally invested in events and people from times long past. It was a neat experience.
My evolving projectMy topic began by thinking about what the biggest problem in communication is, and how that can be overcome. As an engineer working in nuclear, I came to the conclusion that misinformation and confusion about how to use and verify new information is a huge problem, and one that causes people to oppose life-saving medical isotopes, money-saving sensors, and world-altering food treatment methods (among other things, but that's a topic for another discussion).
I had a main personal project, as well as a proposed solution that I addressed more or less simultaneously. I will differentiate with italics when talking about the solution posts.
My first project post used the notecards that we made to present our idea, taking input from my classmates and putting it in. I didn't like the direction it was going, though, and was very wordy and didn't have a lot of substance. I took the ideas and developed them on my own and with friends and family.
Seven days later, I took that initial feedback and completely overhauled the idea in my second project post. I synthesized some of the figures I was using, used different examples that are significantly stronger, specified the four major problems with misinformation, and presented common solutions to the problem. I also introduced my solution, which improves on all suggested solutions significantly.
This post was discussed extensively, and generated a lot of discussion. The problem was that the discussion wound up being on Facebook, in person, or through email, and nobody actually commented on the post, so I created an update post 5 days later with the discussion. I later realized that combining the discussion for the solution and the problem posts was large and unwieldy so I broke out the discussion on the problem post in a separate post.
My first solution post basically discussed many of the same problems again, using examples that would appeal to academics, and described the rough form of the solution. This would undergo a lot of discussion with professors, students, and friends. After 5 days, I updated my post to clarify some of the form and function which came up most often in discussion for my second solution post.
After a couple weeks, I posted my third project post, in which I cleaned up my graphics, added headings and formatting to make things more clear, and included a explanatory video. I was pretty happy with it, except for it's length. Connected to that was the final post for my solution.
The final solution post included a draft drawing of basic outline with much more detailed section information and is strengthened by a TED talk which describes a lot of similar ideas, though I feel my solution offers a more elegant and powerful adaptation of her proposed solutions. This was also taking a lot of time, and since I'm graduating, I will need to leave development of the idea to somebody else anyway, so this final post is good enough to get the idea across to potential collaborators later.
My final project post matched the expected format (video first), and improved the introduction and other content, trimming out some that wasn't necessary and adding some argument strengthening ideas. A comic strip was added, because comics are awesome and it fit my argument very well. Overall, I feel good about leaving my project on this post, even though it is still longer than I would like.
During the evolution of my project, I mostly worked apart from the class, though I did take the idea of proposing solutions from Spencer Marks, who has an unpublished post that describes basically the "sorting out problematic information" problem that became the second half of my project. After the index card pitch, he approached me and asked if I would want to take his project, as he pursues a different topic, so I did.
Communication and HistoryStudying history helps me understand why things are the way they are. I clearly saw how the Renaissance came from events before it, and how each time period we study is really an artificial separation of tends and events in the world that gain momentum from previous events. History clearly shows us that no event can be studied in isolation, by itself--the events leading up to it are are critical as the event itself, and often explain why the event happened.
Let me illustrate by discussing communication through the European history of this class: 1500s-today (the 2010s).
The ability to understand each other is what enabled us as a species to form communities in the first place. Communication enables collaboration, work sharing, and knowledge transfer. When communication evolved to writing, we were able to store information, communicate with others not physically present, and even communicate with people in other times. The Renaissance was largely spurred by Europeans finally catching up to the Arabs in reading philosophical works of ancient Greece and thinking about the world around them.
This communication from the past caused the societies of the time to drastically rethink their world, breeding new ideas during the Enlightenment and Reformation on science, thinking, worldviews, religion, nature, and being. This great expansion in thinking was also facilitated by the Enlightenment's emphasis on discussions, like with salons and coffeehouses. People began to communicate their new ideas, and European society was propelled into the Industrial Revolution.
Even now, governments have been toppled simply by the people communicating together and deciding to take a stand against their current government (ie Arab Spring). America landed on the moon thanks to communication. WWII was fought and won because of superior communication and code techniques. Without communication, we are simply intelligent creatures of limited capacity. When we effectively communicate as a species, there is no limit to what we can achieve.