A Broken Promise?

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.

10 thoughts on “A Broken Promise?

  1. Jeff McClurken

    We’ve just begun to move in that direction in our department. I’ve taught a Digital History seminar for juniors and seniors that begins to address the issues you discuss here. Unfortunately, given other demands, I can only teach it once every couple of years.

    You are right to bring up the troubling common response about undergraduates and digital history (or digital humanities or even digital literacy), namely that “we have to be ready for them (so-called digital natives)” yet there have few meaningful attempts to actually get ready at most institutions or in the discipline. But I wonder, is it possible that the problem here is not just about an ignoring of digital history in undergraduate education, but an (ongoing) ignoring of undergraduate education in general at the level of most journals?

  2. Rob MacD

    Excellent point, Mills. But the question that ends Jeff’s comment above is on point too: two mentions of the word “undergraduate” in 21,000 words is surely two more times than the word comes up in most JAH articles.

  3. Pete Jones

    I definitely agree with your post’s sentiment and the comments.

    The history of animation and historical hoaxes seem like very cool ways to approach our nascent discipline’s major issues. I love “hoaxes” final project, by the way.

    A couple reasons why I think digital history is making it into the JAH before the classroom:
    1) Classroom structure- the tools of digital history are more likely to be found in the computer science department.
    2) Interdisciplinary nature- Digital History can broadly be grouped with “Digital Humanities” in my opinion. Often the “centers” where this expertise is concentrated self identify this way (UVA, Michigan State, Nebraska, Maryland). CHNM is really in the minority (though with its success, I bet it won’t stay this way). While the different branches of humanities use digital techniques for very different reasons, these frequently overlap. Think literature scholars and historians using data/text mining or oral historians and anthropologists using digital collection and manipulation of interviews. Likewise, an art historian could use Omeka just as well as a small historical society. This is all to say that maybe “INTR 1XX: Digital Humanities” makes more sense today than “HIST 1XX: Digital History.”
    3) Unfortunately, many teachers use technology as a sort of dessert on top of their bread and butter lecture. Perhaps this thinking affects general education committees who don’t see the necessity of a class on digital techniques when these techniques could be folded into existing courses.

    These are just a couple guesses which might be way off the mark, considering I’m not a professor.

    A couple questions on your course ideas: What do you hope to convey in teaching a survey of digital history? Which aspects of collection, methodology, and presentation will you focus on? What sort of skills and knowledge does an undergrad who has gone through this type of course ideally have? Any programming?

  4. Mills Post author

    Thanks for the responses thus far. As for Jeff’s question about the general inattention to undergraduate education in the main history journals, I’d say the picture is mixed. The JAH has actually run a number of articles over the past few years on undergraduate education, most notably Lendol Calder’s “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey” (March 2006). In fact, I’d say that the JAH is more attentive to undergraduate education than most history journals. But the top end journals (AHR, Journal of Modern History, etc.) see themselves as research journals and so teaching — graduate or undergraduate — would distract from that mission. I don’t think we’ll see this change any time soon, especially as “academic history” becomes every more esoteric.

    In response to Pete’s question about the course we’ve proposed, it operates on two levels simultaneously. It’s not a survey of digital history per se, but rather, a survey of modes of communication and how, as these modes have changed, our understandings of the past have changed. Each week focuses on a particular topic and on a particular digital skill. Our state (Virginia) mandates that all graduates of public universities emerge with a set of “technology competencies” — broadly defined. The course ensures that each student passing the class will be able to claim each of the competencies under the state’s rubric (word processing, spreadsheets, databases, ethics in a digital world, etc.). Programming is actually where we draw the line. Beyond simple html, we won’t be teaching any programming in the course. That’s a skill for a follow on course — a course I think we also need to teach.

  5. Ollie @ History Times

    Mills I think we’re really in the infancy of digital history and at present we can only see it’s importance “through a glass darkly” – considering that the ‘web’ in essence is only just over 5000 days old (yep, that young) there is every reason to believe that what may have a been a faltering pioneer work of digitising history will suddenly burst into being as the lynchpin of all historical work in the future.

    Maybe a pretty bold statement but I think this Kevin Kelly lecture below shows exactly why I believe this will happen beyond a shadow of a doubt…



  6. Mills Post author

    HI Ollie:

    Thanks for the link to the Kelly talk (no relation). I hadn’t seen it before. I do wonder about his premise that each user will have their own “unique id” not only for some of the privacy/big brother reasons brought up by some of those writing comments, but also because I think Kelly has a very Euro-Atlantic vision of the ubiquity of the web. The majority of humans still can’t get online. One might argue that changes in cell phone technology will facilitate their access, but, having spent some time in poorer regions of the world, it seems to me we are a long way away from having enough cell towers out there to drive access via handhelds, much less computers.

    I agree, though, that we are still in the infancy of digital history, and I don’t mean to suggest that digital history as a field has broken its promises. Instead, I am arguing that we need to recenter our thinking about what we’re about to bring our undergraduates back into the conversation.


  7. Sterling Fluharty

    I agree that undergraduate education should have been discussed more in the JAH interchange about digital history. But what should be the goal of these kinds of classes? Is it to give students skills that will be valued by private employers or to prepare them for work at digital history centers? Will students want to learn how to program with the languages and frameworks employed by the world of Microsoft users or will join the movement for open source and open access? How far we can take students with digital history classes? Do we expect our undergraduate students in digital history classes to reach the level of graphic designers, computer programmers, and database administrators? Or do we intend to help them acquire the skills of systems analysts, software engineers, and information scientists?

  8. Mills

    Hi Sterling:

    Thanks for the feedback on this. The goal of these kinds of classes at the undergraduate level would not be (at least in my view) to prepare our history students for careers in IT, nor to expect them to rise to the level of database administrators or web designers. Instead, the goals would be more obvious “history” goals. By that I mean, I would want them to be able to think critically about digital sources in the same ways that I want them to think critically about “analog” sources and I would want them to understand that the practice of history in the digital environment is qualitatively different than it is in the analog environment. I would want them to press hard on digital methodologies to see if those methodologies might yield new insights about the past. For instance, if students were to use GIS mapping with time sequenced data, how might their insights about the past be different from insights they could gain using a paper map and some colored pencils? I would want them to think about the form of historical representation in the digital realm and how that form governs our understanding of the past in ways that are different from representation in text or images or in a museum.

    Courses that accomplish such goals could take many forms, but none that I have in mind include teaching higher order technical skills.

  9. Sterling Fluharty

    Those are some laudable goals. And I can definitely see their place in undergraduate digital history courses. It sounds like you would teach applied digital history to undergraduates. The main focus in these kinds of courses, if I understand you correctly, would be how new technologies and tools enrich or transform conventional historical practice and narratives. But what is students are interested in the other side of the coin? What if they believe that history can enrich or transform technology? I mean, what if digital humanists have unique insights into language and meaning that would provide crucial breakthroughs in the fields of text mining and semantic web? Or what if it turns out that digital historians have more experience than anyone else at dealing with and solving the problem of information overload? Or what if computer scientists discover that digital historians can do the best job of infusing digital media with meaningful narratives and a sense of story? Will there be jobs for digital public humanists who can transform new technologies in these and other kinds of ways? Would these “higher order” realms of digital public history be something that undergraduates should be thinking about or preparing themselves for? Or should these and other forms of advanced work be saved mostly or exclusively for graduate students?

  10. Mills

    Hi again:

    I don’t think this sort of higher order work ought to be reserved for graduate students. In fact, I’m a believer that nothing we do as history educators ought to be reserved for graduate students! That’s part of the problem, it seems to me–the tendency to think that certain things are just too hard for undergrads. So yes, I think there is a place for digital history courses that explore these higher realms–likely at the junior or senior level (but not necessarily).

    As for your question about jobs, I think the market has already answered that question. As it is, we have a hard time keeping some of our better graduate students once they take our two semester sequence in digital history in the PhD program. Over the past seven years several of those students have then departed to work in various digital media jobs — some in history, some not — lured away by a job market with much more immediate prospects than the one you have chronicled in your blog.

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