research AND writing | method AND narrative

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It’s no particular anniversary; I just got curious to look back at the HCE posts since we launched the blog last November. No great surprise: elements of “digital humanities” feature prominently. But “digital humanities” is a pretty big umbrella and in this case it occludes more than it describes. Experiments with technology permeate everything we do as readers, writers, teachers, scholars.

The technology changes rapidly, so we’re all figuring this out together, finding new tools, working out how to use them, and when. For a historian, these changes might mean access to archival sources without traveling, as the result of many digitization projects; or access to information that is searchable and sortable as data; or new ways of collaborating; or new ways of disseminating our finished work. (These changes also mean alternative ways to inform, provoke and assess our students, an arena that is certainly being explored widely in the academy, but hasn’t yet received attention from the HCE collective.)

As dramatic as these changes in research process and communication/distribution are, I wonder about how fundamentally technology is changing the discipline of history, and whether or not we want it to.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more specifically about what it is that historians do. As the Director of Graduate Studies at UCI, I get to plan professional development events. That’s a pretty broad mandate. The opportunity has gotten me thinking about what, specifically, grad students should learn, and where should they learn it. What knowledge comes from classes? What additional information should they get from their committee members, from blogs and advice books, in conversation with peers, or in targeted workshops?

All of this was rattling around in the back of my mind as I read an exchange in the comments section at the Making History Podcast blog  (full disclosure, I also blog there occasionally).

In response to a call to write just for writing’s sake, Adam Arenson made a cogent claim to a professional identity as a historian. This claim doesn’t in any way obviate a commitment to writerly sensibilities, but it does add other obligations: identifying sources, a structured and rigorous interrogation of those sources; attention to periodization, chronology, and geographic specificity; a clear argument; and engagement with the interpretations of other scholars.

A digitizing world has changed access to sources. Available technology poses challenges to previously presumed constraints on the anecdotal discovery, collection, and evaluation of sources. Blogs, websites, open-access, print-on-demand, and new journals have all contributed to new ways to disseminate information, whether “raw data” or sophisticated conclusions. It’s all changing so fast.

Yet we still have fundamental concerns about method, process, and prose. Historians have set for themselves a complicated set of difficult tasks. It is not enough to write well, fluidly and persuasively. Nor is it sufficient simply to have cool data and a convincing argument. While there is still plenty of dry historical scholarship characterized by convoluted sentences or excessive jargon, there’s also a tremendous amount of work in circulation that’s really good in terms of both content and form.

I recently spoke to an experienced editor who works across social science disciplines. He had nothing but praise for the collective writing of historians, comparing them favorably to academic writers in other disciplines. Given how many historians I hear exhorting each other to be better writers, a positive and disinterested assessment of the discipline’s writing was welcome.

To then read a writer encouraging historians to let go of some disciplinary talismans in favor of “just writing” brought me back around to my current job: making sure our PhD program provides the necessary preparation for students to get jobs themselves. As I know from my friends currently trying to make it as freelancers, writing alone is a tough way to make a living in this economy. The academic job market is far from rosy, but is unlikely to collapse completely. For people passionate about writing about the past, the academy can provide a decent home, but that means attention to both scholarship and communication. Professional historians neglect either side of this equation at their peril. No technology is likely to change that.

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2 Responses to “research AND writing | method AND narrative”

  1. Angela Sutton Says:

    Great post!

    I think it is inevitable that the discipline of history will change (and already is changing) to accommodate the digital age.

    People think that we will have to be, as a Radiohead song puts it, “harder, better, faster, stronger” historians: We have more information available to us than ever before, and exponentially quicker ways to sift and sort this information. Online academic networks and directories like H-Net mean that we have access to colleagues in our fields at the click of a button or dial of the phone. We can construct histories and panels and conferences in the blink of an eye, and share this information with the world just as quickly. Those that do not adapt to new technologies may find their research redundant before it ever makes it to the presses.

    This of course is unsustainable across the board, and a worst-case scenario. I think if we as historians welcome and adapt to the best aspects of technology– the efficiency, the enhanced collegiality and spread of information– the rest will work itself out. Technology may change the options available to us, but we are still in the collective decision-making seat.

    We all know that despite the new advantages available to us more so than ever before, great scholarship cannot be rushed.

  2. Justin Bengry Says:

    I really enjoy all the discussion of digital humanities and new technology. Like Angela I’m optimistic in the long term that we will accommodate these new opportunities and the challenges they bring.

    In my own work, the greatest effect (and challenge) has been the sheer volume of information that I now have access to. On one hand this means that a project like mine, which would have been nearly impossible to complete a decade ago, can now be undertaken. With full-text searches and digitized archives, needle-in-haystack research isn’t so daunting anymore. At the same time, however, I feel the burden that these opportunities present. Where does one stop their research? When have we found enough? Especially when the volume of accessible material is now virtually limitless, defining parameters becomes increasingly challenging.

    Ultimately, however, this can only create better, fuller projects.

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