Digital History, Too: Public Health History

More from my Paul R. MacPherson Teaching Fellowship application:

“C’est la peur de la grande histoire qui a tué la grande histoire.”

Drosophila became the ubiquitous lab subject because of the confines of the academic semester. Its capacity to reproduce so prodigiously meant that Biology students could study multiple generations of their test subject over the course of a single, three-month term. Similarly, the digital humanities allow historians to capture greater data sets in shorter amounts of time. Whereas my own undergraduate research experiences were limited by the amount of microfiche I could stand to read within the time constraints of a semester’s term paper, data mining and mapping make it possible for today’s students to take on ever more ambitious projects if only we could bring the requisite technical skills to them. Moreover, it is now possible to shift the emphasis from data collection to data analysis—having them think about what their data is trying to tell them.

The vehicle for my project’s endeavour is an expansive history of public health, though the training guides for subsequent use may be applied more generally. My teaching and research interests live at the interstices of the histories of science and the environment, and themes in the history of public health are consistent with the curriculum I already have listed in the university’s Undergraduate Calendar. Writ large, questions of occupational health, hygiene, and environmental well-being offer an inexhaustible series of directions for student inquiry and on a scale previously unwieldy to scholars. As a topic, it lends itself to historical GIS mapping of various industrial diseases and cancer clusters, as well as textual analyses dating back to the 17th century. Students producing maps and timelines on the origins of specific environmental pollutants or the discoveries of health hazards stand to contribute not just to their education but to a scholarly reimagining of the field. Further, given McMaster University’s reputation for the health sciences, the history of public health points to History’s contemporary relevance, and might create opportunities for cross-campus collaboration.

During the tenure of the fellowship, I will identify discrete research projects on the history of public health, designed to introduce and develop digital humanities skills from Levels I to IV. The plan involves not just listing a series of disparate skills, but in establishing the most efficient build from one skill set to the next over a series of different courses. The instructional videos will be designed to aid students with little or no training in digital humanities to participate at each level so that they are not disadvantaged if they did not take the introductory course.

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