Digital History

Yesterday I learned that I was named the Paul R. MacPherson Teaching Fellow for 2014-2015. This is nice news and very flattering; I’m honoured by the vote of confidence in my teaching, and especially pleased at the prospect of having time to devote to merging my teaching and research interests more fully. My application proposed integrating digital humanities techniques throughout my undergraduate curriculum (with a focus on the history of public health), while also preparing guides and directions for colleagues who might want to explore similar avenues.

Over the next few days, I will post bits and pieces from my application as a means of sharing my plans for the coming year. Digital Humanities (or DH) has become the buzzword du jour in scholarly circles, and it has become a funding priority, too. I remain a bit agnostic to much of the rhetoric surrounding its great promise, but I do see valuable applications in the classroom (as outlined below and in subsequent posts). I’ll return to this point, but I think much of the current literature and debate over DH—that it’s either the salvation of the struggling Humanities disciplines or the final nail in their coffin—is woefully misguided. I’m not sure DH needs to be quite so oppositional; rather, I see it as being complementary to traditional research inquiry rather than a singularly incompatible new direction.

But more on that in due course. In my proposal, I outlined a plan for DH development as well as exploring novel approaches to knowledge communication. I maintain a commitment to the traditional essay form and the importance of effective writing skills, but I think they can be supplemented by asking students to engage with design, aesthetics, and visual communication. I will expand on this in the blog over the course of the coming year.

But here’s the background and rationale from my proposal:

Big data is more than just an established trend in knowledge acquisition; it marks a seismic shift in the academy, in economics, and in culture. From social networks to demographic analysis to online media, complex methods of digital data collection dominate contemporary modes of knowledge production and consumption. No body of evidence is considered more compelling or persuasive than massive quantities of data. And more data: according to Wired magazine, we have entered the “petabyte age,” the consequences of which “force us to view data mathematically first and establish a context for it later.” This brave new world poses distinct challenges and opportunities for the future of Humanities teaching and learning.

The sheer weight of current data demands more than ever a humanist interpretation, but traditional academic disciplines have not adapted their methodologies rapidly in acknowledgment of these paradigm shifts. As a result, the Humanities appear out of touch with present methods of acquiring, analyzing, communicating, and disseminating information. This may be playing a role in a growing disenchantment among students about the value of a Humanities education. While I resist the notion that the foundational value of our disciplines has become less relevant, I appreciate the rationale behind the popular sentiment and recognize that we could be more proactive in blending the lifeblood of a Humanities education—critical thought, analysis, communication—with the technological possibilities inherent in the 21st-century knowledge economy.

Indeed, I read this tension as a golden opportunity to reinvestigate and reinvigorate our approaches to pedagogy and classroom instruction. It behooves us to think critically about how this new era of big data has transformed not just the world around us, but also how we study it. One option to deflect these criticisms of archaic programs is to develop a stronger profile in the digital humanities in our research and especially in our undergraduate teaching. The array of digital humanities practices can provide our students with new approaches to our traditional skill set and better prepare them for the emerging job market, which values independence, creativity, and intellectual versatility.

A rash of popular and scholarly literature highlights the digital revolution we are currently witnessing, and how it stands to transform education and the job market. While trends in this literature range from wildly enthusiastic to downright apocalyptic, the consensus would indicate that we have crossed the Rubicon. As the authors of Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture assert, “We have gotten used to a world in which we generate or obtain data and then analyze it however we want.” Similarly, books and articles on the digital humanities and its capacity to harness the new wave of infinite data is growing exponentially. In History circles, specifically, a renewed interest in “big” history—across time and space—is suggestive of the potential these methods offer.

My project involves re-visioning the manner in which knowledge acquisition and communication take place in the undergraduate History classroom. I propose integrating a suite of digital humanities practices across my undergraduate curriculum in order to provide a model for colleagues in my department and throughout the Humanities. Further, I mean to develop novel approaches to visualizing data in historical analysis—infographics, posters, and 3D media—working with students to articulate how design, aesthetics, and non-textual communication might open avenues to different forms of analysis and storytelling while reaching new audiences and fresh understandings. Whereas students are adept at consuming intelligent content through digital media, I propose to train them to create intelligent content in this new environment, drawing on the traditional research and analytical skills merged with newer computing techniques.

McMaster University is exceptionally well-positioned to become a leader in digital scholarship. The Lewis & Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship constitutes an incredible resource for teaching and research using these new tools and for pushing the boundaries of how we might be communicate these findings. Similarly, MIIETL is at the forefront of these new approaches. While the resources exist, we could stand to see greater uptake within the more traditional Humanities disciplines. Through practicing digital humanities in the undergraduate classroom, I also propose to develop a series of tools and guides to support independent learning for both instructors and students.


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