Digital History – A Selective State of the Field
This post is a selective survey of the state of digital history. My overview is neither exhaustive nor definitive, instead focusing on my own experiences and reflections as an observer and student. So, here are a few recent themes that partially illuminate the contours of digital history:
Digital Sessions at the Annual American Historical Association meeting
I was lucky in that my first annual meeting for my professional association also featured a record amount of sessions devoted to digital history. In fact, Chicago’s program had its own section devoted to digital sessions: The Future is Here: Digital Methods in Research and Teaching in History. The proliferation of digital sessions can be credited to increasing practice and interest in digital work, but having a prominent DH practitioner like Dan Cohen on the program committee also played a big part. Another important benchmark was the first THATCamp at AHA, a fruitful event that included mostly first-timers to the unconference format.
Highlights from AHA 2012:
- A fantastic ‘Hands-On Workshop’ session that included Dan showing off PressFoward and Jeff McClurken demonstrating online tools for teaching digital history. Jeff was able to expand on many of his points from a demo he gave during a National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education Seminar series on teaching DH – the presentation is worth watching and includes demos from Brian Croxall and Ryan Cordell. (More on PressForward below)
- During a THATCamp session discussion on graduate training, tenure, and promotion, I had the opportunity to work with Doug Seefeldt, Jason Heppler, and many others to produce a “Call to Redefine Historical Scholarship in the Digital Turn”. The AHA Research Division has it on the agenda for April.
- While Jim Grossman, an advocate of digital history who has addressed some important issues is no longer president, Bill Cronon promises to be a strong ally and has dedicated his presidential column to things digital.
Publishing and Blogging
…publish scholarly work beyond the traditional research article… select content from open and public discussions in the field, [and] encourage continued discussion through peer-to-peer review.
One of the pieces that made it into the peer-review process for the March edition is an article by Chad Black on using clustering compression to identify patterns in legal records from colonial Spanish America. Another historian, Tim Hitchcock, had his post on academic history writing selected. These digital historians are have their work featured under a broader ‘Digital Humanities’ umbrella, crystallized in this new journal. This is a trend I have found typical for digital historians – working in the interdisciplinary space of DH.
One of the effects of working under the DH umbrella includes a challenge to historical argumentation in the monograph form. Two challenges (or complements?) are blogging and the blending of history and journalism. Two scholars at the London School of Economics recently argued that
Blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now. The paradigm de-emphasizes the traditional journals route, and re-prioritizes faster, real-time academic communication in which blogs play a critical intermediate role.
Dan Cohen writes that historians should be taking more queues from digital journalists and outlines some areas where historians can collaborate and overlap. These are exciting developments that parallel Michael Kramer’s important call to place more value on sharing the process of scholarly production rather than fetishizing the end product as the only think worth circulating. This would be a healthy step for the profession that would distance our image of the ‘lone wolf’ historian, researching alone, in secret, until the monograph or article is complete. This image has never corresponded well to the reality of peer-review and collaboration with colleagues, archivists, and the public. The scale, expertise, and investments required in large (and smaller) digital history projects can also help develop historians into better team players.
AHA Digital Article Prize
The AHA has also announced that it will select a ‘Best Digital Article’ to be published in the April 2014 American Historical Review. The AHA should be applauded for putting some weight and prestige into digital publications and featuring them in its flagship publication. They also have provided a detailed rubric for judging digital articles, a welcome engagement with the nuance of practices in digital work. However I find the rubric a bit restrictive – I invite the reader to peruse them and judge for themselves what sorts of limits there are in the rubric’s conception of worthy scholarship.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki’s Writing History in the Digital Age, a born-digital edited volume that will be published by the University of Michigan Press. The volume provides its own ‘state of the field’ in not only providing a diverse set of readings, but also in the many comments left by readers during the peer-review stages of the project.