Tag Archives: History of Digital Media

Remembering Roy

Today the Center for History and New Media became the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Roy would have been so embarrassed by this name change, because one of his goals in life was to make sure everyone else got credit for the work they were doing with him. Taking credit was just not his style. But today, $1,020,000 later, we’ve given credit where credit is due.

It’s almost impossible for me to believe that Roy has been gone almost four years. I think about him almost every day and on a regular basis I still expect to see him slouching through the door in his bomber jacket, his messenger bag over one shoulder, and a large cup of coffee clutched in his hand. Like all of the several dozen people at today’s dedication of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, I owe him more than I can possibly put into words.

We miss you Roy.

Stan Katz Knows

In the most recent episode of Digital Campus, Dan and I interviewed Stan Katz (Princeton) about his role in promoting digital history over the past 20 (yes, 20) years. Tom couldn’t join us for the episode because he was at home with the Scheinfeldt family’s new baby. I suppose that qualifies as an excuse. If it seems to you that digital history is too new to have a history, then you need to listen to this episode of Digital Campus. Stan will disabuse you of the notion that what we’re up to is a very recent thing…he was pushing historians to realize that a computer is not a typewriter more than a decade ago and, as that paper reveals, his efforts on behalf of digital history go back even further. For instance, if you like accessing the American Historical Review online, thank Stan. He was the AHA vice president for research who pushed the AHR to move to a digital format. So give the podcast a listen and you’ll even learn how accessing Facebook can lower your GPA.

Should Grants Count?

Not long ago I wrote a series of posts about digital scholarship and whether or not digital work should “count” in the classic sense of counting on American college campuses, i.e., for promotion and tenure. Because digital scholarship is very difficult to pull off without external funding, it’s a reasonable question whether or not writing grants and getting grants should count as well? After all, you can’t do one (digital scholarship) without the other (funding).

For an answer to this question, don’t ask the AHA’s Professional Division.

As Rob Townsend reported on the AHA’s website, the Professional Division recently responded to a query from a department chair who was being pressured by his administration to count grant funding the same as an article in a peer reviewed journal. The response of David Weber, the vice president leading the Professional Division, was (to my mind anyway) very unhelpful.

In the first paragraph Weber argues that the receipt of a grant is an honor and recognition of past achievement, not the same thing as the “completion of a project,” which Weber defines unequivocally in only two ways–a book or a peer reviewed article. As he writes, “past achievement is past and scholarly promise is not scholarship.” But, of course, one could just as easily argue that a book or an article was also a “past achievement” and no indication of “future promise” (for Weber an important part of scholarship).

He adds, “I think we all know senior scholars who have received fellowships for specific projects but who failed to complete them. I once had a colleague who received a coveted Guggenheim to finish a book. He never did.” But, of course, one could just as easily say, “I think we all know scholars who published a book, got tenure, and never did another lick of scholarly work.”

I guess it’s not clear to me how winning a highly competitive grant is somehow less of an indication of future promise than an article or a book.

Weber goes on to say, “Grant monies in the humanities are notoriously tight, and the major competitions receive many hundreds, or even thousands, of applications every year. This means that in a given year, large numbers of high-quality, deserving applications are rejected. Should a scholar who tries for a prestigious grant and narrowly misses out, or is named an alternate, be penalized in the same way as his/her colleagues who never even bother with grant applications?”

But don’t we penalize those scholars who write “high-quality, deserving” books or articles who fail to find venues for publication of their work? Speaking as an East Europeanist, I can testify to the fact that publishing opportunities in my field are likewise “notoriously tight” and that in any given year many high-quality and deserving books fail to find a publisher, much to the consternation of colleagues who have read the work and know how good it is. Somehow I doubt the Professional Division would advocate rewarding these scholars for doing such good work, but not getting it published, despite the fact that the decline of academic publishing has made it so difficult to get published in what are known in publishing circles these days as “marginal fields.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Weber that institutions of higher education should resist the trend toward metrics for evaluation of scholarly merit. Like Weber, I think it’s the quality of the dossier that matters, not the quantity of what’s in it according to some defined counting scheme.

But to disqualify the effort of those who write significant grants as somehow nothing more than a “past accomplishment” is to reject the very logic of his own argument. To provide some perspective on what I’m talking about, let’s examine a case I know very well–the writing of a major NEH grant for a digital project.

Three years ago, two colleagues and I wrote the grant that funded our project Making the History of 1989. This grant was funded by the NEH with an initial grant of $180,000 plus a $10,000 matching requirement for a total of $200,000 once we raised the matching funds. The narrative for the grant runs 20 pages and when the entire document with all of its associated appendices, budgets, and workplans comes in at around 150 pages. When I came up for tenure two years ago, part of my dossier was evidence that, with my to colleagues, I had written successful grants (I left out the ones written but unfunded) totaling $730,000.

But this, apparently, is not an essential activity of a scholar–at least not in history. In biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, psychology, and plenty of other fields–just not history. Or at least, so says the AHA’s Professional Division.

Clearly, those of us in digital humanities have more work to do when it comes to convincing the AHA that digital scholarship is something completely different and needs to be examined on its own terms, not on the basis of how it is or is not like a book or an article.

The New Media Conventions

More than any other national political convention before it (and presumably the upcoming Republican National Convention won’t be much different), the just completed Democratic National Convention was the first full on new media convention.

The speeches from the podium were broadcast live online with what seemed like some very powerful bandwidth, bloggers were everywhere, clips rained down on YouTube and other video sites, and no sooner had someone finished speaking than the news cycle kicked into gear on whatever it was they said. I had to laugh when, after watching former President Clinton speak via the webcast, I clicked over to Yahoo! and there was already a reaction story posted on their news site. The writer was clearly writing as Clinton was speaking and the site’s producers must have had their fingers poised over the “send” key, just waiting for him to say “Thank you” at the end.

I’m sure my colleagues in political science can tell you a lot about how all of this intermediation of politics is changing the political landscape. To be perfectly honest, I’m much more interested in the changes all of this media innovation is having on the collecting and dissemination of information about the process, largely for personal reasons.

Many, many years ago, my original career plan was to be a political journalist. During the summer between my junior and senior years in college, I was fortunate enough to be accepted to a summer program on political reporting at the Journalism School at Columbia University. The culminating event of that four week program was working as a reporter at the Democratic National Convention in New York.

I was assigned to be the convention correspondent for the LaCrosse Tribune, for which I wrote half a dozen or so front page stories on the convention and on the Wisconsin delegation.

Of course, since 1960 at least, American political conventions had been first and foremost television events, with the two national committees planning each day of the convention to coincide with prime time and making as sure as they could that what the viewers saw on the nightly network news was carefully scripted.

But the conventional newspaper still had a lot to do with shaping the stories coming out of the conventions. Those of us wearing out our shoes in and around Madison Square Garden that summer worked on deadlines that were a bit more forgiving than those faced by the tele-journalists. We could wait until 11:00 pm (in my case anyway) to file our stories, so we had a chance to really get it right. Even if we didn’t manage to, we had a better chance than they did. And we all knew that those working for the networks were all voracious newspaper readers and so the odds were good that something we wrote overnight would reappear as a question in tomorrow’s on-camera interview.

These days, the pressure to be able to hit “send” first is so great that the new deadline is five seconds ago, not before the press has to start running or before the 11:00 newscast. What does this immediacy do to the quality of reporting? What does it mean for the way the public interacts with that information? Does the first take become the take? These are all questions historians of politics will be asking themselves in the coming decades.

Ironically, it was my experiences in this summer program that convinced me that I didn’t want to become a serious political reporter. Why? I’ll admit that I loved everything about the reporting and the writing. Chasing the story and then writing it up was exciting and fulfilling. So why did I turn away from it all? My answer speaks volumes about why students should have internship opportunities regardless of major.

I met many of the most prominent and successful political journalists in the United States during my four weeks at Columbia and at the convention. When it was all over and I had a chance to reflect on my experiences I realized that almost to a man (and they were all men in 1980), they were overweight, unhealthy, divorced (some several times) and/or hardly knew their children. In what was, for me, an unusually mature moment at that age, I realized that I loved the work they did, but didn’t want the life they had. And so I did something else and now here I am.