The September 2008 issue of the Journal of American History contains the transcript of an interchange between eight leaders in the field of digital history. The transcript, which is finally available online (why it wasn’t make open access from the start I can’t imagine), should be required reading, not only for those working in or interested in digital humanities (not just history), but also deans, provosts, and others responsible for institutional investment in digital infrastructure.
The participants’ conversation ranges widely over the most important issues facing digital historians and the communities they serve — everything from definitions of digital scholarship, to teaching graduate students, to research methods, to the infrastructure needed to realize the potential of digital humanities. A careful reading of this piece indicates just how robust this nascent field has become in such a short period of time. There is real diversity of opinion here and some very critical thinking about just what we can expect from digital history and what we ought to demand of ourselves as we practice it.
But as I got closer and closer to the end of the piece I began to wonder what the participants might have to say about the aspect of our work as faculty members that requires well more than 50% of the average professor’s time each week — undergraduate education. Survey after survey bears out the fact that as a group, we spend more of our time teaching undergraduates than we do on anything else. And just as many surveys, if not more, focus on these “digital natives” as a core challenge for higher education as we attempt to create digital resources that will appeal to their sensibilities, their intermediated lifestyles, and their need to be prepared to use digital resources in whatever their chosen careers might be.
I have to admit that I was more than a little surprised that in the 21,000-plus words of the transcript, “undergraduate” appeared only twice…once when Will Thomas mentioned an undergraduate seminar he used to teach and once when Steven Mintz said, “Already, our undergraduate students expect a much higher level of classroom engagement than in the past. Our students take it for granted that our lectures will include multimedia and that our upper division courses will incorporate hands-on, problem- or inquiry-based projects that allow them to do history. We need to ensure that instructors will be prepared to meet these expectations.”
Frankly, I am getting tired of undergraduate students being ignored when it comes to digital history, or, if they come up at all, it is to trot out a version of the canard Mintz offers. If we don’t stop treating our undergraduate students like objects of our work and begin to include them as partners in that work, we can expect them to see us as irrelevant (if they don’t already).
Be honest now. How many undergraduate courses in digital history does your department offer? Not courses with lots of digital resources, but courses that actual interrogate digital history?
Here at George Mason we’re just as guilty as the rest. Despite the presence of the Center for History and New Media in our department, this semester marks only the second time we’ve offered such an undergraduate course. My colleague Paula Petrik taught a course on the history of animation last year and I’m teaching a course on historical hoaxes this year that is, by stealth, actually a digital history course. We have a proposal in front of our general education committee for a more generalized course called “The Digital Past” that we hope will make it into the catalog, and if it does that will be only our first undergraduate digital history course with its own course number.
I hope in future that fruitful discussions like the one hosted by the JAH will include undergraduate education in a much more detailed way. Otherwise, I think the promise of digital history has to be called a broken promise.