Methodologies and the (Digital) History Major

Stanley N. Katz and James Grossman recently led a working group backed by the National History Center and the Teagle Foundation, and drafted a thought-provoking report titled, The History Major and Undergraduate Liberal Education. The paper got some decent play on the history and education blogosphere, and with good reason. It brought up a variety of interesting issues, but chief among, from my perspective, is one of methodology.

In the report, Katz and Grossman point out that the history academy tends to be moving away from traditional methodological categories – “political history, economic history, social history, intellectual history” – and towards categories of people and places. I would tend to agree, although the line between these two methodological approaches tends to be rather blurry and fluid (and I’m guessing the authors would not imply a distinctive break between them). It makes me wonder – are historians truly engaging in a large-scale shift in methodologies? Or is the academy coming up with new phrases to describe pre-existing approaches? A work such as Erskine Clark’s Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic, could be read as a traditional work of “social history,” or it could be read as (obviously) African-American history, family history, rural history, or some combination of all three. Do “traditional” methodologies simply imply broader, umbrella categories?

Instead, I would argue (with freely admitted bias) that an equally important shift will take, and is currently taking, place within the academy: the transformation of analog to digital scholarship on a methodological level. Tom Scheinfeldt wrote a particularly incisive blog post on this topic provocatively titled, “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?”: “I believe we are at a similar moment of change right now, that we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work.”

Unfortunately, many in the academic blogosphere took the post as an attack on the validity of cherished theoretical “-isms” in the field. Too much focus rested on this aspect of the post, which Tom admitted in its comments was not the aim or intention. Instead, what gets lost is the bold assertion that the next big change in historical scholarship will come from the nuts-and-bolts of how we “do” history.

Katz and Grossman touch upon this change: “Liberal learning in the twenty-first century must include an emphasis on information sifting, the ability to work through massive quantities of data and references to identify what is useful and reliable.” While they offer a few other references to this new paradigm, they don’t spell out exactly how the skills of a history major relate to a liberal education in a specifically digital context (this is not the point of their paper).

I’d like to look at Katz and Grossman’s conclusions through a digital lens, and spell out specifically how I believe some of their observations and suggestions can be specifically linked to Tom’s “sunrise of methodology”:

– “History is thus inherently (though not necessarily for any individual historian) a multidisciplinary field and one in which inquiry begins with the problem and the historical context, not the discipline or dominant theory.”

Digital historians are necessarily engaging in interdisciplinary (or multidisciplinary) studies, as they not only need to know technical skills (programming, statistics, GIS, etc.) but also the broader issues prevalent in these fields. When creating maps for my history thesis in GIS, I not only had to learn how to import shapefiles, but also the background of coordinate projections, issues with small-scale vs. large-scale mapping, and basic tenets of cartographic design and layout. When utilizing a wide range of tools and techniques, a digital humanist is forced to learn not only “hard” skills, but their accompanying “soft” skills as well.

– “History places a premium on the capacity of synthesis.”

I couldn’t agree more. I feel that this will truly be one of the distinct advantages a history major might have over other scholars: the ability to efficiently and effectively sift through mountains of source material in order to extract content, recognize broader patterns, and evaluate their metadata (both traditional and digital). These skills form the basis of historical inquiry, and as our collections of digitized sources grow ever larger the proper utilization of these skills will be placed at a higher and higher premium, especially when paired with new media tools and techniques.

– “The single most important contribution that training in history can make to the liberal learning of undergraduates is to help students to contextualize knowledge, offering an antidote to naive presentism.”

One hallmark of the digital age is the ephemeral nature of information. Lacking the inherent stability and traditional gatekeeping of the analog era, it becomes more and more difficult to “pin down” knowledge. Without assurance that a website will exist tomorrow or next week or next year, knowledge and authority become much more fluid, and users will be even more inclinated towards presentism (whether naive or not). Historians will need to offer their skills in contextualizing and framing a constantly shifting corpus of information, at the very least in order to provide a sense of temporal perspective.

-“We need to be more thoughtful in locating history in relation to other disciplines, and in relating to the ‘historical turn’ in other humanities and social science disciplines.”

History has a lot to learn from other disciplines, and vice-versa. Just as digital humanists use a multidisciplinary toolbox, their utilization of these tools also tends to blur the traditional lines between disciplines. When a historian engages in complex statistical analysis using computer software to examine tax records, where does the line fall between economics and history? There needs to be a dialogue about how to most effectively employ and engage history within these other disciplines. In industry terms, the academy needs to figure out a “value-add” system of mutual benefit. And one key to this process (which Katz and Grossman describe) is that of cross-departmental collaboration, both in research and in teaching.

All in all, this is an excellent report that brings into focus far more important issues than I touched upon here. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an active interest in the current state and possible future of the field.

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