THATCamp Switzerland (5a)

This post is a response to several of the graduate students in attendance who, during the lunch break, asked me what I would have discussed in my session on “graduate students and new media” had I not been “occupied.”

My answer is that I think we are in a generation of transition in the historical profession and in the humanities in general. By that I mean that while things digital are rapidly gaining prominence in our field(s), digital humanities remains an activity of a devoted minority. But, and I think this is a big but, I also think that 20 years from now, i.e., one full generation, digital work will be as central to what we do as non-digital work is. That is to say, I don’t expect that 20 years from now no books will be published. But I do think that 20 years from now digital forms of scholarship will be just as important as analog forms.

Note — I think it could take a full 20 years. As I wrote three years ago now, historians are a conservative tribe when it comes to the methods of our scholarship, and so I really do think that it will take 20 years before digital work is considered the same as analog work. There is certainly a degree of ageism in what I’m arguing, because I do think that some of the objection to digital work is that it is new and so suspect among those who have become very comfortable doing history the way we’ve done it for a long time. But there are also not unreasonable objections based in a view that the old forms have worked quite well for a very long time so why should we abandon them for something potentially faddish?

Nevertheless, I think the technological wave washing over us isn’t going to recede and so those studying history now need to take account of that and plan accordingly. What, then, does that mean? Here is what I would have mentioned in my session:

1. Some level of skill with digital technology is going to be essential to the historians who will take over from my generation (my anticipated retirement date, May 15, 2025 in case you were wondering). This “level of skill” could be anything from working comfortably with forms of digital writing (blogs, tweets at present), to building or working with databases, to the design of digital content, to making use of collaborative and mobile tools to further their work;

2. Writing is changing in this digital age. Those studying history today need to be able to work in these new forms, if only at a minimal level, because I’m certain that, 20 years from now, they will need to be able to write digitally as well as in the analog world;

3. Those studying history today need to manage their digital identities very carefully, because who you are online is already who you are as a historian–in fact, it might be more of who you are, because it is the you encountered by others. Now is already too late to begin thinking about that digital identity. I do not mean to suggest that they should conform those digital identities to some set of accepted norms–far from it! Instead, I am arguing that they need to think those online identities through.

Those were the points I was going to raise for sure. If there were time, I also would have mentioned that I think they should be advocating for courses–formal or informal–in the digital skills they need.