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Digital History and the Digital Humanities: The Current Debate

A succinct description of Digital History is “an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet network, and software systems.”[1]  This comprehensive explanation contextually orients the reader, but what are the practical implications of such pithy observations?  In other words, what does it realistically mean to practice and create digital history rather than, say, performing traditional academic research?

I extracted the above-excerpt from a 2009 American Historical Association article penned by Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas, two scholars synonymous with Digital History and its parent discipline, the Digital Humanities.  Both began practicing their respective crafts before the birth of the World Wide Web, eventually experimenting with digital history techniques and methods in the early 1990s.  This proved an incredibly transitive era, which thrust academia headlong into the Information Age by the turn of the 21st century.  Seefeldt and Thomas agree that there are two specific components to Digital History.  In one sense, it’s a venue that encourages and facilitates the robust exchange of scholarly ideas on an unprecedented level.[2]  On the other hand, it’s also an entirely new methodological approach to studying the past.[3]  These two attributes led historians to experiment with previously unfamiliar techniques, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping, spatial analysis, digitization, and a variety of other cutting-edge methods.

In 2012, five MIT scholars collaborated to produce an original work aimed at explaining the inception, evolution, and practical application of their nascent and arguably abstract academic discipline.  Their book, Digital_humanities, addresses pressing concerns about the academic and professional standards of a field wholly accessible to the general public.  They argue that enthusiastic non-specialists, unfamiliar with the rigors of achieving and maintaining objective academic accuracy, could potentially and unwittingly dilute the credibility of humanistic studies.[4]  Anne Burdick et al. stress that the Digital Humanities is/are predicated upon “a concern with textual analysis and cataloging, the study of linguistic features, an emphasis on pedagogical supports and learning environments, and research questions driven by analyzing structured data.”[5]  The overall implication is that there exists a critical distinction between traditional humanism, born out of the ancient western philosophy, and today’s digital studies—entirely new branches of the liberal scholarship with their own unique orthodoxies and methodologies.

The unique relationship between the Digital Humanities and the public prompted the implementation and development of a whole new field of digital pedagogy, which PC Magazine contributor William Fenton discussed earlier this year in his article, “Digital Humanities: The Most Exciting Field You’ve Never Heard Of.”[6]  Similar to the preceding works, Fenton’s contribution focuses upon the nascent characteristics of digital scholarship and the persistent issues that trouble today’s digital humanists.  “[D]igital humanities,” according to Fenton, “is an interdisciplinary field in which scholars and educators bring computational tools and methods to humanistic inquiry.”[7]  Concerns over media literacy stand at the forefront of many interdisciplinary debates, with an emphasis placed on identifying the critical distinctions between genuine academic research and more teleological studies, crafted with specific ideologies in mind.

So where does this leave digital humanists and historians?  Is Digital History just another avenue from which to approach the past, or is it instead a new type of distinctly independent historiographic scholarship?  Should the digital humanities be subject to public conveyances at the risk of academic integrity?  These questions lack definitive answers, but one thing is certain: Society has entered a new realm of liberal awareness—one not confined to classrooms or archives—accessible to an unprecedented number of enthusiasts, ideologues, and non-specialists.  Only time will reveal the consequences of this paradigm shift within liberal scholarship and humanistic studies.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions by commenting on this post or via a tweet @Digitorian.  Alternatively, contact me on LinkedIn at: www.linkedin.com/in/rranstadler or email me at: robert.ranstadler@salve.edu.

 

Want to Know More?

The Digital History Project: http://digitalhistory.unl.edu/

GIS (Geographic Information System): https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/geographic-information-system-gis/

HyperStudio: Digital Humanities at MIT: http://hyperstudio.mit.edu/

PC Magazine and Education: http://www.pcmag.com/education

 

Notes:

[1] Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas, “What Is Digital History?” Perspectives on History, accessed June 10, 2017, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2009/intersections-history-and-new-media/what-is-digital-history#.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Anne Burdick et al., Digital_humanities (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012), vii, PDF e-book, accessed June 10, 2017, https://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262018470_Open_Access_Edition.pdf.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] William Fenton, “Digital Humanities: The Most Exciting Field You’ve Never Heard Of,” PC Magazine, accessed June 10, 2017, http://www.pcmag.com/commentary/350984/digital-humanities-the-most-exciting-field-youve-never-hea.

[7] Ibid.


2 Comments

  1. Eli Vega says:

    The whole debate, if there is a debate, starts off weak, starting with the definition of “digital history.” The words “….works with” needs a more clear explanation, I think. Not being clear on how the past “works with” today’s digital world diminishes an attempt at discourse. Eli Vega, Photo Artist www elivega net

    Like

    • Eli,

      Thank you for visiting The Digitorian and I appreciate your constructive feedback. I’ll work on trying to strengthen the quality and continuity of future posts. The single point I disagree with you on, however, is the claim that no one is presently debating the public and academic applications and implications of digital history. I’m obviously not a subject matter expert, but even the most cursory review of the applicable literature indicates otherwise. Again, thank you for your comments and please feel free to visit in the future.

      Like

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