When undergraduates majoring in history tell people about their academic interests they are usually asked “What are you going to do with that?” or “Are you going into education or law?” This is alarming for two reasons. All employers claim that they want to hire people who can do things like write clearly, conduct research, work independently, and solve abstract problems. History majors should be able to find jobs wherever they want. Many undergraduates who major in history do in fact leverage these skills to find work, but it is overly optimistic to think that the market does not privilege technical knowledge. In a December 2012 New York Times article Professor Homni Bhabha declared that the humanities are now endangered in the developed and developing world. He stated that “In India for example the humanities are more or less dead, and professional schools and the study of business and technology are in the ascendant.” Digital methods can bridge the perceived gap between the scholarly and the technical.
Non-academics have good reason to suspect that historians are disconnected from reality. Since the 1980’s many scholars using post-colonial and post-structural theories have eschewed quantitative and scientific methods. Business, however, never made the cultural turn. Instead, as the aforementioned article indicates, the demand for specialized technical knowledge has increased, hence the perception that the History students might lack skills that the market values.
The incorporation of digital methods in the undergraduate class room can ensure that students have much of the technical knowledge that is in demand without compromising the broader skills that the study of history develops. Today data mining is a research method and web design is form of intellectual output, there is no reason History as a discipline should not embrace this reality.
Earlier this month my advisor asked me to speak to a group of alumni and donors at the opening of MSU’s leader lab. I thought the invitees would like to know exactly the kinds of skills digital history developed and the value of those skills outside the academy. I told them about a project I worked on that adapted the online tools used in market research to collect information on how people remembered Mandela around the world in real-time as the public posted their thoughts to twitter. At the reception I began to think of the numerous other technical skills students at leader will develop and how those skills are important in a variety of fields. In addition to data mining and blogging students will build web sites, create digital archives, use mapping tools, manage digital projects, and network online.
While this post contrasted the turn to the digital against the last important movement in the discipline of history, digital methods are in no way opposed to critical theory of any kind. I am using literary theory to write essays for a website I am developing that introduces undergraduate students to Edward Said. I hope to make the site slick enough that undergrads can use it on those dreaded smart phones and tablets.
While this may not be the innovative marriage of critical theory and digital methods some of my colleagues in the CHI program, like Santos Ramos, are imagining far more creative ways to bring theory to the digital. As technology becomes increasing common in all classrooms scholars will be able to use it to connect their disciplines to the technical skills that are currently in demand in today’s market place.