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Digital Dreams: A Case For Producing More History Ph.D’s

July 18, 2011, 1:00 pm

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Among the books I brought with me on vacation is Roy Rosenzweig’s Clio Wired:  The Future of the Past in the Digital Age (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2011).  A radical historian who passed over far too young in 2007, Roy was a member of the first cohort of historians to explore and envision what the Internet could offer to scholars.  I had read some of the essays  and others are new to me, but I decided to read it cover to cover as a set of sustained thoughts.  Since I have it on a Kindle app for iPad, I am actually reading it from cover screen to index screen, which is how I think Roy would have wanted me to read it, even though when he began to plan the volume in 2005, the Kindle had not yet been invented and would not be available for another two years.  That’s how fast things are moving.

How fast some things are moving.  Because what hasn’t changed is how we might, rather than restricting the number of students we admit to Ph.D. programs, admit and train young scholars to become historians whose primary work will be on-line.

One theme that is explicit and implicit in each essay is the amount of labor that working in new media requires.  A large part of that labor, as Rosenzweig notes, is the work of imagination and decision making that collating, preserving and maintaining access to information requires.  So here’s my question:  acknowledging that the erosion of full-time teaching and tenure-track positions is not just a problem for scholar-workers and student-consumers, why do we not up the production of Ph.D.’s in history, and train them in the expertise this present and future world desperately requires?  Why are we not developing more joint degree programs in which young scholars take a Ph.D. in history and a masters in archives management, oral history, information management, and/or computer science?  Why can we not envision cohorts of historians who will be expected to publish, will teach only occasionally, and will have as a large part of their work the development of the history Internet?

But we haven’t; or rather, when we do, these scholars are sequestered in exciting and creative locations like the Center for History and New Media that Rosenzweig helped to found at George Mason University, or the American Social History Project/Center for New Media at CUNY (which some of his pals from the Radical History Review founded.) More ominously, there might be very few historians who also identify as archivists.  When Rosenzweig published the first article in the collection, “Scarcity or Abundance?  Preserving the Past” in 2003, there were fewer than 50 members of the American Historical Association who clicked the archivist box when asked for a specialty:  my guess is that there are not substantially more today, since in the search I did here there are only ten programs in North America that offer a degree in archives or records management as part of the Ph.D. in history.

Here is my proposal:  that we stop discouraging students from taking graduate degrees in history and start pushing them towards programs that will actually give them a career; and that, while we must keep the pressure on to create and preserve full-time, university-based positions in history, we begin to imagine that some of those positions will be aimed at teaching and practicing digital preservation.  This would involve the following:

Discouraging colleagues and students from elaborating further on the romance of classroom teaching. Spend a little time on one of academia’s nastiest (and now defunct) blogs, Rate Your Students, and see how that romance is playing out for a generation of history Ph.D.’s who have discovered that they don’t just love, love, love teaching — they just love it under certain conditions.  Look at the vast number of people who feel rightly oppressed by ill-paid, difficult work as adjuncts, but don’t feel like they have other options that would not involve admitting that seven to ten years of their lives have to be written off.  How many of these people might easily be retrained as specialists in digital preservation, digital teaching and archives management?

That we begin to incorporate these new cadres into history departments even in the absence of a center for new media. This might mean a joint appointment between history and the university library; history and computer science; or — for the really forward looking — a full line in history for someone whose “publications” would include the development of software, digital archives and other projects that incorporated undergraduates and graduate students in web-based research, learning and publication.  One advantage of this incorporation would be to educate students to a world where “doing history” doesn’t just mean classroom teaching and publishing monographs; another would be to break down the contempt that the preponderance of historians over the age of 40 have for the digital world; a third would be to expand conversations about the nature of history, and the new resources available to historical thinkers, across the faculty/staff dividing line.

Go public about the fact that many of the people who are graduate school stars, and get a tenure track job, find out to their dismay that they don’t really like what they are doing. Nobody talks about it, but writing a dissertation does not actually teach you what you need to know for a life of scholarship.  Graduate school also doesn’t necessarily teach you how to make decisions about your career, because almost all careers in history promoted by graduate programs are the same.  All of us are expected to be generalists (teaching, writing, institutional work), but in the first years of a new job we may find to our horror that the things we liked somewhat less in graduate school are things that we are now being judged on.  Seriously, did you find out that you don’t really like writing enough to kick out the first, or maybe the second, monograph? Tell someone:  tweet it, in fact. Did you discover that the pace of journal review and publishing makes you feel like you have become intellectually irrelevant? Did the real-time work of teaching 2-3,3-2, or 4-4 let you in on the hard fact that you don’t have enough patience, sense of humor, or generosity to really be a good teacher?

Stop talking about what “counts” for tenure and start talking about what counts. A way that our conversations about the digital world have been pushed forward in limited, but are also restrained, is our perpetual desire to link every new development in scholarship to the preservation and dictates of an antiquated tenure and promotion system.  Yes, tenure is important to intellectual freedom:  but if all conversations are aimed at why digital publication is the same, or as good as, analogue publication, then we are not pushing ourselves intellectually about the distinctiveness of the digital world, what its promises and limitations for a more democratic public sphere are, and how historians need to change their view of what scholarship is to meet the challenges that the Internet poses.

Finally, even a casual look at the people who are doing the most interesting new media work in history emphasizes the importance of collaboration.  Tenure processes in history need to promote and value collaboration; currently, a tenure case is a monument to individualism.  Collaboration is necessary to historical research practices that will increasingly require mastering exponentially more information and the invention of more creative and responsive research methods.  But working together is also something that historians have never valued sufficiently, and that makes many of us almost quaint in universities where scientists, social scientists and artists are setting the creative tone with collaborative, often interdisciplinary, work.

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