Reading Responses 9/13

This week’s readings covered two broad topics concerning digital history, and so I will respond to each in turn.

First and most interesting was the piece in the Journal of American History (link), wherein various scholars who work on and with digital history discussed the field. There was considerable confusion surrounding what exactly constitutes “digital history.” On the one hand, digital history can be framed as the history of the digital: a history of technology. There is also digital History, the idea of “doing History on or with the digital,” whatever that might mean. Kirsten Sword summed up this dichotomy nicely:

“Under what circumstances do you find yourselves thinking of digital history as a field and when is it a method accessible to all interested historians? … How do we negotiate the line between digital history as a field requiring specific, advanced technical expertise, and a method about which all historians need some knowledge?”

Certainly “doing history digitally” and “doing the history of the digital” can be very different things: an oral history of Apple computer sounds like something that somebody somewhere has attempted, for example. But I would like to argue that “digital history” as discussed in the article is neither a field nor a method, but a moment at which historians (and humanists generally) have been forced to confront the ubiquity of computing and consider its potential. In reading the piece I found myself anticipating Frisch’s comment:

“I’m skeptical of the lasting value of ‘digital history’ as a term—it either will end up meaning too much or too little and pretty soon will be so inescapable (in twenty years, will anyone do professional work in history without involving what we’re talking about?) as to provide little purchase on anything specific enough for a course, workshop, or blog.”

In the near future history will simply be done about, within and around digital technology, and the idea of “digital history” will seem anachronistic. One can easily imagine similar debates to those presented happening at the time of printing press’ invention: what did it mean for History that books could be printed and distributed on a massive scale? Just as today “print history” sounds strange, I believe “digital history” inevitably will as well.

I think that Kirschenbaum’s piece on the Digital Humanities was somewhat bland in that it was mostly an overview, hence far less provocative than the JAH article. I did enjoy the fact that the author ended on a question—a common blog tactic to encourage comments.

Moving on, the rest of the readings clustered around the uses, strengths and weaknesses of services falling broadly into the “Web 2.0” category (blogs, RSS, social media and the like). Both Kaufman and Cohen presented a somewhat utopian view of academic blogging, trotting-out old arguments about accessibility, audience, and conversation. Having participated in lab blogs, and run a few of my own, I wanted to add my perspective. In my experience the Web encourages fast skim reading, which is at odds with the academic need for clarity and rigor. In order to be successful, academic blog posts have to be like miniature articles, complete with citations and the like. Simply rattling off thoughts does not work, as your readers (more than likely colleagues) expect more. I have never found the effort of writing a good blog post to be worth it, as that effort is better spent on actual articles.

Twitter has proven to be far more useful for networking and conversation than blogs. Having used it regularly for upwards of four years I have met many interesting people through Twitter and have had some very productive debates. The short form forces you to be clear, but also lowers expectations of rigor. Of course different people have different habits, and more than once I have found an interesting scholar or game designer on Twitter who never posts anything useful or interesting at all. I would always recommend using Twitter over blogging, as the work-reward ration is far better on the former.

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4 Responses to Reading Responses 9/13

  1. Hi Jason,

    Great post! I completely agree that we are likely moving quickly towards a time when the qualifier of “digital” will seem outdated or strange. With these types of advances, things that are shiny and new today will quickly become status-quo tomorrow. I particularly enjoyed your analogy to “print-history.”

    While you seem skeptical towards the value of academic blogs, how do you feel more generally about the role of historians in the digital world? Turkel seems very intent on creating a generation of “programming historians,” who can push the envelope with discipline-specific software and the like. As a historian who is relatively new to “digital history,” I don’t know if I’m ready to jump into coding just yet – but Turkel would say that I’m behind the times. How extensive do you think digital training should be for grad students in the humanities? How would this compare with the amount that is currently available?

    Cheers,

    Lachlan

  2. jasonhistory says:

    Lachlan,

    Well, my background is in media studies and literature, so I don’t know how much I can say about historians specifically 🙂 I do think it’s valuable for humanists generally to have some basic technical knowledge. Even just using an introductory programming language like Scratch can greatly deepen your understanding of how computers function and why certain things are or are not possible. I think being able to communicate with a programmer is more important than being a programmer, because the latter requires a lot of special training that humanities grad students just don’t have the time for. Being a “programming historian” certainly sounds valuable, but one has to be realistic about the amount of time and energy it will take to reach that point. The people I know who successfully blend technical and humanistic knowledge tend to have done one in school and learned the other as a hobby.

    Jason

  3. Mary says:

    Hi Jason,

    I get a feeling you might find quite a few responses to this as it seems like you were the first to post. In any case, here goes:

    In the case of the Kotsko/Kaufman/Cohen pieces on blogging… While it\’s apparent the debate around the merits of academic blogging is still relevant – is it best situated as an extension of or complement to academic writing? Somewhere in between? as we have begun to discuss in class – I would be curious to see if they would fall in line with your preference for Twitter if they had been writing a few years later.

    All three pieces were written in 2006/2007, when Twitter was still getting off the ground outside tech-savvy circles. I think the reason why the platform is so conspicuously absent in their discussions of intellectual debate on the web, and why they seem so passionate (for or against) blogging in the first place is somewhat related to Frisch\’s comment as well. I see Capital-H digital History singled out as a sub-field because, for now at least, it is a new(ish) exciting frontier that opens up new possibilities in terms of how we talk about history in a larger sense. Blogging, so contentious for Kotsko, Kaufman, and Cohen, seems less so to us because time has passed. We have more options, tailored options, with which to spark academic debate and discussion online and blogging has been subsumed into a toolbox of multiple ways to frame it.

    Kaufman and Cohen are making old arguments because their pieces are old. Which is why I’ll see you, Dan Cohen (@dancohen), Adam Kotsko (@adamkotsko) and Scott Kaufman (@scottekaufman) on Twitter.

  4. digitalhist says:

    Hi Jason,

    I agree with your position concerning the term “digital history” and the somewhat naval gazing hyperbole about its meaning. Computers, code, and displays are tools. Researchers can use them to find information, sift through material, create history projects, and present those projects, and users can use them to consume those projects. Those new tools allow one to find, express, and consume historical information in ways which you might not have been able to to a few decades ago, but that’s it. The nature of history (things happen in time and space) hasn’t changed with computers.

    I made another comment about this, but, in the case of blogs, do you agree with Cohen’s assurance that it is perfectly safe to blog about all of your research? How do you know that another grad student somewhere with more time and more funding (so he/she doesn’t have to spend his/her time working), or who is closer to completion, might not swipe your research. While you might argue “but I time stamped it. That’s not fair!” it would be pretty hard to prove that the person stole it. And what would one who was robbed academically do? Take the culprit to grand school court where justice always triumphs? (There is no such place.)

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