U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Utopianism of the Digital Humanities

Alongside my blogmates, I attended my first THATCamp at last week’s AHA meeting in Chicago. I learned a lot and enjoyed myself. I think we especially gained valuable feedback during the session that Ben proposed on E-publishing. That said, I came away somewhat skeptical of what I sensed was a utopianism among many of the digital humanists and historians at THATCamp. In one session that I attended–on the question, “What Are the Digital Humanities?” (still debated, not surprisingly, since the much older question, “What Are the Humanities?” has yet to be resolved either)–some of the participants made claims that digitalization has created a fundamental, even epistemological shift in how we think about history. I am underwhelmed.

I’m no Luddite or technophobe. I see the merits of the digital world for historians. Research can be made easier, or at least, more efficient. How historians deliver content is changing, obviously, evident in this blog post. But these are examples of how digitalization serves as an important new tool. It does not change the way we conceptualize the past. Or does it? I am genuinely curious about this question, so if you, dear reader, have answers, I would like you to share them.

There’s another element of digitalization that worries me, beyond misconceptions of utopia. Some of the THATCamp participants have changed the types of work they have their students do. One professor told of having his students produce collaborative, digital media projects, like short digital films, in place of traditional essays. When it comes to teaching history and the humanities, the level of my distrust for technophiles rises. Call me crazy, but I think reading and writing remain essential, and I don’t think digital filmmaking is a replacement in a humanities course, even though it is a valuable skill in and of itself. But what think you?

37 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. You might call this utopian affliction the “Steve Jobs Syndrome.” You can diagnose it when you see wildly optimistic assertions about how _fill-in-the-blank__ technology will change EVERYTHING. I’ve noticed among Jobs’ successors in the tech/digital fields that Google is now the most prominent company with this disease.

    Saying this, I do _believe_ in a form of McLuhan’s dictum that the medium forms the message. In that way, there are aspects of the digital humanities that do indeed transform the way we look at history. History as traditionally been taught in two dimensions—i.e. the text has been the focus. Over the years historians have realized the importance of material culture, oral histories, photographs, and the virtues of moving pictures. In other words, the two-dimensional text is only _one_ way to communicate a narrative involving change over time.

    The fact that some software platforms for the digital humanities—or digital history—allow us to incorporate aural and moving picture sources changes the way we absorb the narrative. Indeed, these platforms privilege extra-textual ways of telling our stories. If the way in which we deliver and perceive history is transformed, then our depth of understanding is changed.

    But how so? This change can surely be both positive and negative. This goes to the problem, Andrew, you cited above. While digital humanities have the power to be transformative, believers in the digital faith seems to de-emphasize or ignore the potential for problems, or at least the trade-offs. The true believers do not seem to account for the risks involved in changed perceptions. The focus right now is exclusively on rewards, which smacks of sales, which annoys you and me.

    It is the issue of risk that, like you, causes me to avoid the overuse, or full application, of digital learning scenarios in the classroom like the one you outline above. Then again, the professor above may not be engaging in as radical of behavior as you assert. It sounds like a traditional project (since the 1960s, that is) of using primary resources to build a narrative (albeit a narrative in film form).

    Still, I’m not too much of a risk-taker in the classroom. Students are paying boatloads of money for their education these days. I’m not inclined to conduct large-scale experiments that hazard that the label “trendy”—in other words, memorable but ultimately useless.

    …I could say more, but this comment is getting overly long. Time for others to chime in. – TL

  2. I’m not sure “utopian” is the best description of this. It strikes me more as simply the most recent manifestation of the humanities’ perennial science envy. That leads to all kinds of “me-tooism” by historians and the lot to prove that “we can be just as cutting edge as you science types.” I’m skeptical of the concept of digital humanities, but mostly because it seems hopelessly confused. I mean, what’s a digital humanity, humans evolved into cyborgs? I agree with Tim that this is an example of the belief that “technology will change EVERYTHING.” Sometimes it does, sometimes not.

    Now, there are undeniably tremendous benefits to digitization. JSTOR and its cohorts are awesome. There’s no gainsaying them. But that merely facilitates traditional methods of doing history; I don’t think you can consider it really a new method.

    On that score I’d have to agree with Andrew, who seems to see digitization as supplemental to traditional methods, not as something that has transformed how we “do” history. “Epistemological shift”? Changing how we “conceptualize the past”? I don’t think so. Or as Andrew said, “I am underwhelmed.”

  3. “Call me crazy, but I think reading and writing remain essential, and I don’t think digital filmmaking is a replacement in a humanities course, even though it is a valuable skill in and of itself. But what think you?”

    Agree 100%. History, at least, without reading and writing is not history at all.

  4. the question of what sort of work you should have students do begs the question of why the dissertation, the article and the monograph (whether digital or printed) are the dominant forms of historical transmission. My sense is that these gained sway due to the structure of printing–i.e. the shape of technology–not because they are in and of themselves superior vessels of historical analysis. Having students figure out how to create and transmit knowledge in different media is a critical skill. If history is to continue to produce people with generally applicable skills (futures as non-historians) its teachers must include these skills in their courses. You just aren’t going to write extended essays in your job life outside of academia, and the “skill” of doing so is not particularly valuable.

  5. Publius: You are probably right to historically contextualize forms of transmission like the dissertation. But when I think about how I learn history, it is by reading and writing. These forms of communications technology don’t get in the way of historical thinking–they are part and parcel of historical thinking. But the latest in digital communications seem to get in the way, at least for me. It becomes more about the medium than the message. The medium obliterates the substance of the message.

  6. This might be another post unto itself, but it’s worthwhile to consider the digital humanities movement in relation to the rise of online teaching: over sales, plusses and minuses, changed perceptions, positive and negative epistemological shifts (if any), etc.

    Also, how does all of this affect the practice of U.S. intellectual history, and intellectual history in general? – TL

  7. “[T]he dissertation, the article and the monograph (whether digital or printed) are the dominant forms of historical transmission” not because of printing, but because there’s never been a time when history hasn’t been structured around written narratives. That’s like saying cars are due solely to the internal combusion engine, while ignoring the fact that the wheel was around for several millennia before that. The printing press perhaps changed how history was disseminated, and the particular forms it came in, but it did not change what history was.

    “But when I think about how I learn history, it is by reading and writing. These forms of communications technology don’t get in the way of historical thinking–they are part and parcel of historical thinking.”

    And they have been ever since Herodotus decided it would be a good idea to try to explain why the Greeks and Persians were fighting each other. Writing is in the genetic code of history. Whether that is because it’s in the genetic code of human life is a different question that may or may not be relevant to this one.

  8. Excellent comments all. In its simplest form, education is simply three skills, reading, writing, and thinking. This had been the dominant educational paradigm since the invention of the printing press. Another way to look at the process is inputs, outputs, and manipulation of data. Without a discussion of how the brain is wired and how it learns most efficiently, this discussion is over the efficacy of the traditional paradigm.

    I would be less skeptical of what Professor Hartman terms “utopianism” if students had already mastered the skills of researching critically, and being able to communicate their finding with a clear thesis, topic sentences, and basic organization.

    One of my daughters is a digital filmmaker majoring in 3 D animation at DePaul University, and she will tell you than all the bells and whistles and flawless execution of technology won’t compensate for a flawed story.

    It comes down to an instructors strengths, weaknesses and preferences. One could assign readings of David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital or one could assign the RSAnimate’s Crises of Capitalism. As much as I love books, I learned as much content in the 11 min clip versus how long it took to read the book, but I also had a critical dialogue with the text.

    Regardless of the tools used, the teacher will still be the most important person for a student.

    I wonder how Corey Robin’s thesis about the connection between loss of control and reactionary thought applies to this subject. 😉

  9. Andrew–you’re defining things for how “you” gain information. I’m a reader/text person myself. But for many people, words literally get in the way and are barriers, not aides, to learning. I really think it is a major issue of self-selection in the professoriat, whereby people who are naturally text-based are attracted to fields that were text based. You were always the best one around you at reading comprehension and remembering things. You always wrote better than your peers. So of course you ended up doing something that reflected those skills. But that’s not “history”–that’s just one way of doing history. Writing is just a form of communication, it is not communucation itself. Pretending otherwise is the height of hubris.

    All that being said, technology is no cure, and just having people make videos isn’t any better than anything else. But a video project can be just as intellectually exacting as writing a paper. Effective visual communucation has “thesis statements,” “evidence” “arugment” and “structure” in exactly the same way that a 5 paragraph essay does. Effective visual communication requires the same attention to detail (proofreading) that effective writing does. But the video project doesn’t have these requirements innately any more than a “writing” assignment does. What matters is the design, the expectations, and the standards of the professor assigning and assessing the project. Thus sayeth the instructional designer. 😉

  10. I do see real challenges to traditional conceptions of the humanities brought on by digital technology. For me, these center around what it is to “know” something in general about a vast quantity of source material. Of course historians in particular have always had this problem of how to select the elements of a past that go into a history, but the explosion of both accessible information and information production has made it much harder to claim that this sort of hand-crafted narrative is anything like “truth.” There’s simply far too much information to read/consume.

    There’s a nice little paper which touches on some of these issues well: The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books.

    Corresponding problems affect conceptions of science too, e.g. the rise of network techniques in physics as a response to data overload.

    The upshot is we need new tools and techniques to grapple with these quantities of information, and that implies new ways of knowing. Whatever else may be said, business as usual is not an available choice.

  11. Vared:

    “”[T]he dissertation, the article and the monograph (whether digital or printed) are the dominant forms of historical transmission” not because of printing, but because there’s never been a time when history hasn’t been structured around written narratives”

    thousands of years of pre-written history would disagree with you. There’s plenty of oral history traditions. In fact, I’d guess that the amount of history where history was structured around oral or visual narratives is longer than the period structured around written.

  12. Publius: You do realize that an “oral history” tradition couldn’t be defined until the written version came along to make the contrast possible, and to point out that there was this other form from which the written version emerged? So there couldn’t have been an “oral history” before there was a written one, because until then the qualification would have been nonsensical.

    “pre-written history”

    I think you mean history before writing, but again, there’s no such thing.

  13. History (n.)

    1. All the crap that happened in the past
    2. The narratives historians write in order to explain all the crap that happened in the past
    3. The academic discipline in which historians write the narratives to explain all the crap that happened in the past.

    So, yes, lots of interesting things were happening before people started writing. But that’s not “history” in the sense of #2, the thing that historians produce.

    Publius writes: “Having students figure out how to create and transmit knowledge in different media is a critical skill. If history is to continue to produce people with generally applicable skills (futures as non-historians) its teachers must include these skills in their courses. You just aren’t going to write extended essays in your job life outside of academia, and the ‘skill’ of doing so is not particularly valuable.”

    The skill of interpreting evidence and constructing a coherent, sustained and persuasive argument to explain that evidence is enormously valuable outside of academia. And that skill lies at the very heart of what historians do.

  14. I was in that session, and based on this post I’m guessing I was the guy sitting to your left during that session. If so, thank you again for asking the questions that I was only thinking.

    In the end though, my reaction is more mixed than yours. At the end of THATCamp day, I was thinking “There’s some pretty cool stuff going on. I don’t want to do it myself, but I think it would be great if my students could do or use some of this stuff.” So I’m working on an experiment for this semester, while I plan my antiquated sabbatical in a library at the same time.

  15. Hi Andrew,

    I think that what you interpreted as “utopianism” may actually have been an attempt on others’ parts to make newcomers feel welcome. The ad-hoc, rapid-fire, collaborative nature of THATCamp often means that, speaking for myself, I’m trying much harder to reach out to people than I am to convince anyone of my scholarly credentials.

    However, it often strikes me as odd that newcomers to DH assume that these questions — about texts, narratives, attention, etc. — just haven’t occurred to practitioners. In fact, there’s a literature out there that deals with these questions pretty substantively. You might start with the new volume Debates in Digital Humanities, edited by Matt Gold. I’ve also compiled a bibliography of links on technological utopianism. So you see, these are actually familiar and good questions, on issues that DH practitioners have been quite active in considering.

    And in the meantime, Jonathan, no one would call your library sabbatical antiquated. Lots of us work in libraries. Lots of us are lovers of books; in fact many DH scholars come from the field of the history of the book. It’s a caricature, and a disservice, to imply that we don’t understand the value of books and archives.

    Miriam Posner

  16. Re: utopianism. Yes, there is some. You’ll occasionally hear ecstatic rhetoric.

    But I’ve observed that often when people take aim at “utopianism,” they’re really responding to the logic of humanistic anxiety about technology.

    Humanists tend to fear that digital approaches imply a vast epistemological break — because this approach is “quantitative” rather than “qualitative,” or because machine is replacing mind, or something.

    Then when digital humanists say “no, look, this is just a method that gives us some new heuristics and new perspectives” there’s a vast deflation. A deflation that — imho — is produced less by our utopian rhetoric than by the experience of relieved anxiety. “Oh, is *that* all it is?”

    Yes, that’s all it is. Not a “fundamental epistemological shift.” Just new methods and heuristics that have the potential to open up some new perspectives on specific aspects of history.

  17. Andrew, until there’s general agreement on the nature of the substantive, why quibble over the modifier? If “digital history” were substantially different from “history,” perhaps it ought to be called something else.

    As far as I can tell, “digital history” seems to refer to the use of a set of technologies in order to aid in the gathering and presentation of historical evidence.

    What such evidence means will never be made manifest by any technology except that of a historian sitting down and making a coherent argument based on a critical assessment of available sources. Whether the historian writes with a quill, a fountain pen, a typewriter, or a computer, the task is the same.

    For “digital history” to be history, it needs to present a coherent argument based on evidence. There may be wonderful ways to do this that are visually interesting, but a presentation of mere evidence without an argument, however visually dazzling, is not history.

    I am not suggesting that digital historians are advocating for the presentation of evidence without argument. But if they are, then I am suggesting they are not, in fact, advocating for the practice of history.

  18. LD–I would suggest that practitioners of digital humanities recognize that there is a vast space for collaboration on the road to an argument. For example, in one of the sessions I was in, someone suggested making a collaborative database of all the freedmen and women in the antebellum era, including all of their aliases. This would prevent duplication of effort and might lead to a greater understanding of different free communities. The database itself wouldn’t have an argument, but many people could use the database to make arguments. I think it is imperative that historians be more like other social scientists in sharing data rather than fearing the “scoop.” (I say this as someone who has faced several books that are similar to what I am doing and who has yet to get a publisher for my own book. It’s scary to think about not being published, but at the same time we need to face the fear if we are going to legitimately share materials online).

    Is the new digitization of W.E.B. Du Bois’s letters going to scoop some of my finds that I made on the microfilm? Yes, but it is also going to lead to greater finds. Is it history? Do we expect archivists and librarians to do all the work of compiling data?

    If we do start collaboration, can we as a profession give prestige to those who share their data? For instance, one of the graduate students in the visualizing networks session is working with a statistician to digitize a vast source of New Deal photographs. She will probably make an argument based on this digitization, but her contribution to the field may well be the database, which will be accessible to researchers, more than her argument. Because it can lead to future historians making further arguments.

  19. Lauren, this makes perfect sense. This is digital history as a set of tools used to make accessible/available/visible the evidence with which historians can construct arguments. So the tools might broaden or deepen the available evidence from which historians can draw, but it is still up to us to do the work of interpreting that evidence. And of course we always do that in conversation with/relationship to the work of other scholars, whether they did that work a hundred years ago or the day before yesterday.

  20. Andrew,

    A typically sharp, Laschian post. Since I’ve been working at the interstice of modern US cultural/intellectual history and digital history here are a few observations on the ways in which people are talking about the field, followed by my own sense of things.

    (1) First, one issue here is that digital humanities means many things to many people right now. Its meaning and future are contested. There is, however, a developing critical, methodological literature of DH that is not all utopian. I think THATCamp is meant to be utopian in a way that the larger field is not necessarily. (The whole THATCamp “unconference” move is intriguing in its own right, and worthy of inquiry methinks.) But from what I read, DH is deeply engaged with the very questions you raise. Is it new? Is it good? What is it, anyway? And so on.

    For instance, (these are just a few among dozens) there were these intriguing articles about a “big tent” approach to DH (coming out of a DH conference in 2011)…its possibilities and problems:

    Douglas Knox, Digital Humanities 2011 and the elephant in the tent, http://beingnumero.us/blog/2011/07/digital-humanities-2011-and-the-elephant-in-the-tent/

    And William Pannapacker’s overviews:



    And Fred Gibbs has been thinking about these issues, see http://historyproef.org/blog/digital-humanities/critical-discourse-in-the-digital-humanities/.

    On to part 2…

  21. …part 2

    (2) Digital history is indeed the latest “trendy” subfield in history. After all, this is how the discipline works, for better or worse. Social history in the 70s, cultural history in the 80s, the transnational more recently. One of the great things about intellectual history, in my opinion, is that it is always there in all of these fields, which is what causes handwringing about intellectual history as an autonomous subfield, but also what makes IH such a worthy, important kind of work.

    For a number of DHers, digital humanities is a kind of return and extension of cliometrics and the Braudelian French Annales School approach. These are the “big data” people who are thinking about how we can use computational power to discern patterns that are not visible using smaller sets of empirical evidence. What happens when you look at 20,000 19th century newspapers? What can you see using algorithmic searches that can then work as a heuristic for further inquiry (here I’m drawing on Ted Underwood’s work, http://www.english.illinois.edu/people/tunder; or see Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs project about Victorian literature, and other projects, http://historyproef.org/projects/). Another project that uses digital tools to “mine” new information from sources is Kate Bagnall and Tim Sherratt’s work on Invisible Australians: Living Under the White Australia Policy, which used facial recognition software to extract the visages of non-Europeans from government documents and place them front and center, pulled out of archives that categorized them as less than full citizens and humans (http://invisibleaustralians.org/faces/).

    The Invisible Australians project points to another dimension of DH. It’s not just about applying digital tools to evidence to see new things, but also about communication: how can we express historical interpretation in new ways, mediums, modes, narrative forms?

    For still others, its about the education end of things, how do we train students (and retrain ourselves) for the digital, information age (and do we want to? do we have to?)?

    (3) Digital history/humanities are possibly responses to tectonic shifts in our world. Picking up on Tim’s comments above, the position here would be that DH is the equivalent of the shift from scrolls (and the professional scribes who made them; and the people who read them) to the Gutenberg press. DH is a scholarly response to these large-scale transformations. Easy to take down this idea, easy to inflate it, but the truth is we just do not know yet.

    I think the most intriguiing writer on this (from the “the world is changing” side of the equation) is Cathy Davidson, especially this essay:


    (4) My take: zooming back in on scholarly concerns, I think digital history has the potential to reinvigorate core historical questions, most especially the way we investigate and communicate the relationship of evidence to argument. In this sense digital history is no utopian revolution, but rather an elaboration and continuation of what’s best about historical method. New tools for the toolbox of seeing patterns and talking, writing, sharing, and debating them. When the hype settles down about DH, this may well be the main contribution.

    So, last thought: if you want to get students to write and read more deeply and critically, one non-utopian question is whether the digital might enable that in new ways. Not as a replacement of what intellectual history is about, but rather as an elaboration and enrichment of it. The answer may be no, but the question is worth pondering.


  22. LD–but I think the primary question is–could a historical database take the place of a dissertation? Or could a dissertation look more like a lab report, where the data is the primary offering? I think that’s a question the graduate student and her advisor will have to face. In some ways, she will be a hot commodity on the job market because of her experience in interdisciplinarity, and yet she’s already worried that she will not be viewed as a legitimate historian.

  23. With regards to your question about filmmaking, I would say that writing is one form of composing our thoughts about the world we are living in and studying. Filmmaking is really just another composition format that allows us to express ideas through not only text but also with integrated images and audio in a time based format. It is not better or worse, just another medium for expression. In a multimedia age it becomes just as important to be literate in the variety of new media through which so much of our information is conveyed. Teaching how to express onesself through those media is therefore an important literacy skill, just as is web design. We have just done a couple of projects here at the BGC and the results have often been quite extraordinary, so much so that we are going to invest in more tech for the students and encourage more projects such as this. The challenge is how do you teach both writing and filmmaking in a short time, but that is a challenge I feel should be embraced and is not to be feared.

    As for the utopianism, there is a fair share of that, but that is because dig hum for most people is polemical, hopeful, and idealistic. It requires a certain amount of faith in a cause (see Stanley Fish’s article in the NY Times), but that is true of any call for change. Sometimes that faith turns into off-putting fervor, and even those of us who are the most supportive of the ideas behind dig hum respond negatively to that kind of overexuberance. I would heed what Miriam says that there is a thoughtful core to digital humanities and that the utopia is based on careful thought and not just blind futurism. The biggest problem is perhaps that the term digital seems to overdetermines technology in a movement that is really about reshaping the value hierarchies, social connectors, and methods of pedagogy and practice in the academy. That overdeterminism of tech can quickly alienate the skeptical, a problem that I think the movement is often loathe to acknowledge.

    But, to answer your “It does not change the way we conceptualize the past. Or does it?” The technology doesn’t necessarily change the questions we ask of the past or of ourselves, but it does have the potential to allow us to ask new questions and maybe even come up with new answers. In that way the humanistic approach remains at the center, but technology does (as it always has) allow us to reconceptualize our world, our past, and in the case of dig hum the shape of academic practice.

  24. Wow, big debate. As soon as the AHA 2012 schedule was announced, there was already a big response, if not skepticism or backlash against, the prominence of DH.

    As a graduate of the George Mason program (home to CHNM, Fred Gibbs, Dan Cohen, et. al.), I know how to respond to this skepticism.

    One big example of digital history thus far has been the massive textual analysis in projects like Gibbs’ and Cohen’s “Reframing the Victorians,” which NYT covered last December. Technology allows you to measure repetition of words. Even in Matthew Kirchenbaum’s recent lecture, “Stephen King’s Wang” (NYT covered this, too), he advocated the same type of analysis to find out how word processing affected the literary style in the 1980s.

    This is just one example of the things that DH can do. Maybe it’s not terribly impressive to everyone, but it yields things that you can’t do without a computer.

    I think LKA is on the right path here with her comments, but I would distinguish between digitization and digital history. Yes, Lauren, these new DH methods will resemble the social science methods that were once more popular among some historians. But that is totally different than scanning millions of images and looking at them one by one (i.e. the DuBois Papers).

    As far as Andrew Hartman’s use of the term “utopianism,” let me just say that I have used the word “futurism” used by at least one prominent digital historian, without irony, to describe his attitude toward the field.

  25. If I might extract a kernel of Michael Kramer’s extremely helpful overview, DH breaks along two lines for me: researching and teaching. Researching, as Michael suggests, has already made interesting strides because of digital possibilities. But it is teaching and the epistemological dimension of DH that seems to be Andrew’s concern. Are we too fascinated by digitized trees and end up missing the very real forest.

    For me, so much of teaching the methods of history comes down to demonstration. I can’t rely on students to read and absorb “great” ideas in “great” books, even if I try to walk them through the stuff. I do use everything from movies to powerpoint to websites to demonstrate the process that underlies the books I find important for them to read.

    To this end, my colleague Mary Ellen Lennon and I are working with our IT people to look into digitized texts that demonstrate the streams of thought that flow into and out of sources–how those streams interact in passages in a source and how perspective influenced tone and tenor of texts. There is no way for most books to illustrate (in some physical way) that process and there is even less of a chance that my students will understand it unless I use non-linear ways to demonstrate the creation, context, and consequences of ideas.

    DH won’t alter historical thought, but it almost must change the way we demonstrate it and that has profound implications for how history will be used. For so long the way we view the past has been relegated to how much we can convey its likeness in a monograph. Now we convey its likeness through website.

  26. I am genuine in my curiosity about digital history. So though I am underwhelmed by the notion that digital history effects epistemological shifts in how we think about the past, I am literally overwhelmed by the response here. Thank you all.

    One small note: my use of the term “utopian” is not meant as a pejorative. I’m hopelessly utopian when I think of the possibilities of political revolution. But I guess my Laschian inclinations (aptly pointed to by Michael) point me towards thinking about technology in more dystopian fashion. Of course, my Marxist inclinations reject all technological determinism, utopian or dystopian.

  27. Raymond,

    I love the sound of your project…”streams of thought” as networks of intellectual ideas flowing into and out of sources. In one sense, to borrow from our literary scholar friends, you’re exploring intertextuality. And the digital may be able to help analyze this and visualize it in useful ways.

    I was just reading Stanley Fish’s new column–I mean blog post (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/09/the-digital-humanities-and-the-transcending-of-mortality/)–and it’s making me think about the way DHers are using terms such as “text” and “network” (network as a kind of text?). To me this question fits right in with intellectual history concerns.


  28. Michael:

    Yes, it is intertexuality that we hope to demonstrate and through it get students and their teachers (!) to imagine history in different ways. It is not that we are unimaginative because we use texts, and clearly a unified platform for our imagination will not emerge (at least, I hope not), and it also not to do what Fish discusses in a good portion of his post–to eliminate the author, the book, and the critic. Of course, we could grow lazy and not concern ourselves with work that needs to more than a week to produce, but even in on a blog such as this, the most long-lasting posts have often been the product of a manuscript in process.

  29. What a fascinating post and comment thread! Thanks to Andrew and all who’ve contributed!

    I do think that there’s a tension–in this comment thread and other discussions of digital history / digital humanities that I’ve experienced–between a view that sees new possibilities for scholarship, teaching, and the exchange and analysis of information in these new technologies and a view that sees the new technologies (or the social and epistemological conditions out of which they arise) as demanding a change in praxis (this latter view is captured in Jonathan Stray’s conclusion that “Whatever else may be said, business as usual is not an available choice.”)

    At least from the perspective of the field of history, it’s not clear to me that everyone’s praxis must change in truly fundamental ways (though in more mechanical ways, it probably has and will: when I entered grad school in the late 1980s, there were still faculty who wrote their books on IBM Selectric typewriters).

    As Michael Kramer notes upthread, history (and afaik other fields too) often spawn hot subfields that have as part of their agenda the supercession of some or all of the older subfields. Those of us who consider ourselves intellectual historians were among those marked for supercession by social and cultural history in the ’70s and ’80s. The more successsful of these subfields (including both social and cultural history) certainly alter and improve historical practice, but the older subfields rarely disappear. Eventually they often reemerge strengthened by their encounters with their would-be vanquishers. Though the field of history has its share of Keith Windschuttles who see such changes as the sky falling on the discipline, most of us welcome these changes.

    I’m not sure if I’ll ever consider myself a digital historian (or if others will so consider me), but I do find many of the things that get called digital history fascinating. But I don’t feel any desire or need for historians to completely abandon business as usual.

  30. Very interesting conversation. Yesterday I was talking to an archivist about DH and he pointed out number of human and technological limitations and his cautious optimism. Andrew, I like Fish’s take also. While technology is giving us more information and more ways to manipulate and communicate it, the historian still has the role of producing meaning. That requires long and often painfully slow reflection on the past. That does imply human limits. On the other hand, there are now more ways to communicate that our students. So it may affect teaching and the classroom more than the production of history as we understand it.

  31. It’s also worth noting that while digitization is at the center of a lot of hubub the record of human activity is rapidly shifting to a born digital record. This is already having a transformation effect on archives, which are increasingly needing to figure out how to bring in born digital content, and as historians start digging into that born digital material they are going to be using digital techniques to make sense of it. for anyone interested, I would suggest Roy’s fantastic 2003 article http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=6

    On the particular issue of utopianism, sure there are techno-utopians in the mix, but digital is a really big tent. I think Ted’s points on why digital humanities is not the next big movement in Literary studies are equally relevant here. http://tedunderwood.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/why-we-dont-actually-want-to-be-the-next-thing-in-literary-studies/

  32. Digital technologies not only serve to make historical investigations more effective, but it opens up for fields and topics of research not previously available, e.g. via the processing power of databases. The participation metaphor of knowledge has gained ground, while the acquisition metaphor is in decline partly because of digitalization. Proponents of participation metaphors of knowledge might argue in favour of an episemological shift, while others remain unconvinced. Sfard’s analysis of the need for both might be the most teneble option.

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