At Vanderbilt, our main departmental gathering is the Vanderbilt History Seminar (aka VHS). In recent years, VHS has started funding small mini workshops on a variety of topics. Last year, I presented at one on the concept of rituals of belonging in our research. This fall I proposed and had accepted a set of two workshops on digital history. You can read my proposal [here], but essentially my desire was to start a conversation in the department about how to meaningfully produce and evaluate digital history scholarship. In many ways, the impetus was the AHA’s recent Guidelines for Evaluating Digital History, but the proposal was also self-interested.
Since last May, I’ve been engaging more deeply with the literature on digital history/humanities, after a great Skype call with Micki Kaufman, who encouraged me to make the leap. So far I’ve presented some preliminary research at SHAFR in June, and eventually designed and developed this website in September. But I’ve been a bit hesitant on how to move forward more meaningfully with digital history in my scholarship.
In part, I’ve been busy with archival work and dissertation writing. However, as I’ve become more conversant and interested in digital history, I’ve also become increasingly conflicted, and even at times skeptical, over the term/field. I don’t want to rehash any of the debates over nomenclature here, but at least personally, I’m still unsure if I see digital history as something similar to oral history (as a new methodology) or something more akin to cultural or social history (as in a new analytic for asking historical questions). I know it doesn’t have to be one or the other, but the question boils down to whether one is a digital historian or whether every historian should be using some form of digital [insert tool/method]. While I realize we won’t solve this dilemma in the workshop, I’m hoping that the workshop produces some new understandings about what constitutes digital history.
This week I’ve been going back over blog posts, articles, and digital projects to create a list of materials for the workshop. Somehow I missed it when he initially posted it, but I found Cameron Blevins’ blog post “The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology”. and wow he really hits the nail on the head. I encourage everyone to read it, but I also wanted to post this particular section that really resonated with me.
“But there is one area in which digital history has lagged behind: academic scholarship. To be clear: I’m intentionally using “academic scholarship” in its traditional, hidebound sense of marshaling evidence to make original, explicit arguments. This is an artificial distinction in obvious ways. One of digital history’s major contributions has, in fact, been to expand the disciplinary definition of scholarship to include things like databases, tools, and archival projects. The scholarship tent has gotten bigger, and that’s a good thing. Nevertheless there is still an important place inside that tent for using digital methods specifically to advance scholarly claims and arguments about the past.
In terms of argument-driven scholarship, digital history has over-promised and under-delivered. It’s not that historians aren’t using digital tools to make new arguments about the past. It’s that there is a fundamental imbalance between the proliferation of digital history workshops, courses, grants, institutes, centers, and labs over the past decade, and the impact this has had in terms of generating scholarly claims and interpretations. The digital wave has crashed headlong into many corners of the discipline. Argument-driven scholarship has largely not been one of them.”
The rest of the post is great too, but when this passage really made me want to high five my screen and shout YES! All my protean frustrations I realize that digital history doesn’t just have to be about scholarship, but I’m excited to see that others are both identifying this gap, and producing examples of great digital historical scholarship.
Our first workshop is this morning, and beneath the excitement and nerves, I’m hoping our workshop can start a discussion of how historians can engage more directly with digital history projects. I hope we also help people start thinking about how their research questions might develop through a digital history lens. These goals are a tall order for a workshop, but already I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of interest. If you’re at Vandy and interested in attending, feel free to stop by (we still have a few more seats) and you can check out details on our website vhsdist.wordpress.com. I’ll try and write about the experience of the first workshop over the weekend.
Also this morning, just found that the latest American Historical Review has a whole roundtable about Digital History. Talk about timing!