What is Digital History? The Future of the Past.

23 Jan

map snipIn order to get at what I think Digital History is, I find myself framing the Digital Humanities as a sort of meta-disciplinary methodological turn whose adherents selectively embrace components of each of the disciplines we have traditionally walled off into the Liberal/Fine/Visual/Performing Arts and the Computer/Information/Social/Natural Sciences and, yes, even Mathematics. The humanities offer endless possibilities for exploration, but the Digital Humanities expand the parameters of that exploration exponentially by incorporating additional sensory input (and output), by amplifying the power of our analytical tools, and by enabling the establishment of collaborative human networks in local communities and across the globe.

Digital History, in this context, can be considered a sub-discipline of the Digital Humanities, incorporating the methodological approach of digital humanists in attempting to address historical problems. The fundamentally collaborative nature of the Digital Humanities approach is shaping the future of history as a discipline in two key ways: First, by challenging the model of the historical profession as a solitary pursuit, and second, through the incorporation of methodological, theoretical and analytical frameworks from other scholarly fields into nominally historical projects.

In his essay on the cultural turn in history “The Kids Are All Right,” James Cook describes the:

“multidirectional process by which cultural history itself—in the very act of turning—became more pluralistic in its methods; more omnivorous in its sources; more precise about causality; more attentive to competing theories of power; more open to numbers and networks; more sensitive to limits on agency, resistance, and self-fashioning; more focused on the interplay between meanings and markets, representational practices and policymaking; more ambitious in tracking global systems of capital. (AHR Forum, June 2012, p. 770)

History has always borrowed from, and contributed to other fields of inquiry, but what Cook describes is more a revolution than a simple turn. His description of the “multidirectional process” of turning might also be usefully applied to the impact of the Digital Humanities on what I am calling the sub-discipline of Digital History.

Digital History, however, is more than an academic turn, or turning: Digital History is an embrace of methodologies, tools and networks that are made possible by the infrastructure of the Web. This infrastructure also has the potential to become a democratizing force, creating opportunities for citizen-scholars to collaborate with professionals in academia and other institutional settings.

Digital History represents an opportunity to re-envision the superstructure of scholarly authority in the academy and establish a new organizational model for the production, distribution and consumption of knowledge about the past.

Digital History is an approach that recognizes the value of that community of practitioners who will shape and transform the landscape of historical inquiry in the near and distant future. Tomorrow’s digital practitioners will use the tools differently than today’s digital evangelists.

Digital History is also a commitment to the communities – virtual and physical – that have been instrumental in establishing the digital humanities as a field. At the same time, public and academic historians who adopt a digital approach continue to be responsible to their traditional constituencies; as we re-define our professional training programs, and re-evaluate the role of digital work in decisions about academic tenure, it is worth thinking about the risk that digital public historians may inadvertently retreat behind digital walls, or that digital academic historians may allow digital projects, along with publishing demands and institutional service requirements, to crowd out even further the traditional teaching role. Digital History should push us further out into the public, and challenge us to become more creative in our classrooms, virtual or otherwise.

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3 Responses to “What is Digital History? The Future of the Past.”

  1. jkalvait January 24, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    The approach you take in this blog with providing multiple definitions is intriguing and certainly fitting to the reality of the field.

    I appreciate your thoughts on what digital history may do to the quality of teaching. It is something I had not spent much time thinking about before. I just nodded thinking that digital history provides tools for the classroom. You are right that blogs, comments, and a virtual presence demand time from a set of people who are already buried in work. College students’ debts are growing while the academy, seemingly, spends less and less time thinking about the art of teaching and how students learn best. Online classes are interesting beasts that I think benefit only very few people. I certainly learned far less from the online classes I took, and I read all the readings and watched all the lectures.

    Moreover, keep your math away from my history. Kidding!

    • MDKenny January 24, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

      The reason I included the issue of teaching is that we need to try to carry over the positive practices that work with or without hi-tech tools, and then consider how we can enhance our teaching with the tools at our disposal. I think you’re right that there is a tendency to think about technological tools as automatic or inevitable improvements to the classroom environment. But it takes work to make the tools work for us (as teachers and students).

      As far as online learning goes, we can’t afford to simply reproduce analog problems in a digital environment. These are the same basic concerns we as public historians have about reproducing the dynamics around authority and engagement that exist in the current academic environment as we figure out how we can occupy the digital space. I think Noah Goodling points to these concerns in his post and in his exchange with Angela Potter: https://digitalpublichistory.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/335/

  2. Nick Sacco January 25, 2013 at 3:56 am #

    Thank you for sharing your insights and the interesting articles you linked. I’m also glad you kept the importance of utilizing digital technology in the classroom front and center. Just because students can use Twitter, download a song, or find a youtube video doesn’t mean they know how to use digital technology, and all teachers, regardless of subject, need to be aware of this. I also get the impression that you’re very cognizant of the need for historians to be more responsible with their craft. We need to continue looking outward, finding (and embracing) effective ways to share our information and stories with our students in the classroom and with the broader public.

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