Past Voices

May 15, 2012

Digital History: A Field or “the Waters We Swim Through”?

When it comes to practicing their craft today, historians do not share an equal propensity to consider, produce, and discuss their work digitally. University history departments and the individuals that comprise them feature different levels of experience with, what some scholars refer to as, the “digital humanities movement.” Points on this experiential learning curve range from a vague familiarity to active experimentation to advanced content production. Some universities jumped ahead of the pack more than a dozen years ago, founding prolific digital history centers that continue to blaze new trails in online scholarly production – while also attracting impressive levels of grant funding. Still, others are just beginning to ponder what it means to do history in the digital age and think about the tools and methods their students need to learn to be successful in a competitive job market.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am working with a handful of scholars at UWM to integrate the digital humanities – theory and practice – into graduate and undergraduate curricula. As part of the Digital Futures grant, UWM faculty and students recently participated in a THATCamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) at the joint meeting of the National Council on Public History and the Organization of American Historians to learn more about doing digital history. Many in the group approached the un-conference with a fear of the unknown. This is understandable when it comes to academics and technology. Historians like to have a firm handle on topics of interest before they discuss them. No historian wants to appear un-knowledgable in front of his/her peers.

However, historians also share a collective desire to remain current. Therefore, I would argue fears of getting left behind regarding the new ways historians research, write, and present history in digital environments trumped feelings of trepidation. The fact that public historians working with local communities need to stay abreast of how people share, communicate, and present ideas today (i.e. largely online) means that succumbing to one’s fears of technology is not an option. Big questions exist in our discipline and talking to scholars at the opposite (cutting) edge of the digital divide is one way to stay ahead.

That being said, UWM’s THATCampers actively questioned and looked to better understand why, where, and how history is being done digitally. The diversity of session topics and professional backgrounds of participants surely provided some answers. On monday, we held a THATCamp follow-up session to see where UWM’s group stood on the experience. Trinity College’s Jack Dougherty, our “camp counselor,” even skyped in to discuss what we learned, what we wish we learned, and new directions.

A few UWM campers felt they needed to see more project models and hear more feedback before pursuing digital scholarship in earnest. Others started a WordPress blog that night. Becoming aware of and managing one’s online profile, or social graph, with respect to career advancement represented a popular thread. Another valuable comment came from Jack Dougherty: “As historians we care about writing and using evidence smartly. Digital history offers a way to take it up a notch in terms of how we create and distribute historical work.”

Perhaps the most significant question of the day centered on whether “digital history” signifies a sub-field of history or permeates the larger field as both a methodology and tool of research that all practitioners of the craft must reckon with; as one PhD student elegantly put it, “the waters we swim through.” While the discussion was mixed, I hold that digital history signifies both a means and an end, a contested field and an evolving methodology. Real theoretical dilemmas and divergent lines of thought exist among digital historians and these are being actively debated within the digital humanities community on blogs, Twitter, and various learning commons. Questions of, for example, gender, race, sexuality, and environment pervade digital history as a field as much as they do other sub-disciplines of history. At the same time, the ways new media and technology allow us to express novel ideas in innovative ways impact all sub-disciplines of history; such approaches reflect and occasionally refract previous historical forms and genres.

I’d like to know, where do you stand on digital history or the digital humanities as a field? A methodology? A movement?

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By Will Tchakirides | RSS | © 2012 under a CC BY 3.0 license


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