Digital methods, history dissertations, and scholarly careers

2010 June 2

Good morning, readers. It’s been a while since I wrote here, for one reason and another; those of you who’ve written dissertations may understand. This piece, inspired by some of the essays published in Hacking the Academy, tackles several different threads I see emerging out of early-career scholars’ work in and around “digital humanities,” particularly in history.

In the humanities at least, the dissertation is a process of learning what a fully-formed, well-supported, authoritative book-length work looks and feels like. Before you start it, you should have already practiced your scholarly skills (research methods, analysis, writing, revision), usually with the close advising of a faculty member. By the end of writing the dissertation, you’ve presumably demonstrated that you’ve mastered the set of scholarly skills necessary for your discipline— or at least for the topic you’ve chosen.

I see something different happening among my peers: early-career historians, those of us who finished dissertations in the last year or 2 or who will finish in the next year or two. We did our coursework and methods training, as Tanya Roth points out, with scholars who relied primarily on “scrawled ideas, transcriptions, and neatly-ordered index cards about sources.” (They also produced amazing work that way, or we wouldn’t have wanted to study with them!) And then we went to archives with laptops and digital cameras to shoot our archives— a relatively uncommon practice even a few years ago, but which promised to stretch our meager travel budgets— and we came back with laptops full of photos that we had to invent organizational systems for.

We had this great new tool (affordable digital cameras), immensely exciting possibilities for what we could accomplish, and very few mentors who could coach us on how to use it best.

I distinctly remember approaching an academic librarian sometime in 2007-8 asking about tools for organizing gigabytes of images. I’d just returned from the first research trip I’d done with my camera. I wasn’t asking for OCR or crowdsourcing; I just wanted to know if there was a more sophisticated, flexible option than expensive commercial software, possibly one that would help me with subject categories and citations for a large number of documents. 15-20 minutes of conversation boiled down to “You know more about this problem than we do; let us know what you figure out.”

Well, that was almost like help… but totally not.

If you’d asked me what I do (as a scholar) the day I had that frustrating conversation, I’d have told you something like this:

I study the history of women, gender, sexuality, law, and government in the United States, mostly since the mid-19th century. I also have a magpie-like fascination with histories of science, medicine, and technology. My dissertation’s about how Americans developed birth certificate systems for demographic and identification purposes, how ordinary people learned to use birth certificates, how these documents categorized American identities, and how American law changed once people started to assume that anyone born here can prove it with a birth certificate.

2-3 years later, my sense of what I do as a historian is pretty much the same. But as I’ve gotten deeper into the writing process, I’ve discovered that the analytical tools I want are fundamentally digitally-enabled, and that I have to return to my computer-nerd roots to get what I want as a humanities scholar. This means that my methods are looking, in some ways, less and less like those I was trained with (although in other ways, they’re remarkably similar.) And so I’d have to add a follow-up paragraph to that statement:

As part of my dissertation research, I’ve been designing and building digital tools for mapping and analyzing correspondence between ordinary Americans and government agencies during the early 20th century. I’ve spent more time writing code than most historians, and more time thinking about the politics of race, gender, and categorization than most computer nerds. I’m increasingly interested in research tools that help humanities scholars visualize uncertainty and gaps in knowledge while retaining the citational rigor of their disciplines.

That’s not the traditional intellectual profile of a historian, but it’s a lot of fun. It gives me a sense that I’m working on one of the biggest problems in my field, methodologically, as well as the big problem of my topic: how to write a social history of documents (birth certificates) that I can’t, in most cases, actually get access to because of confidentiality laws passed in the 1940s? (The answer to that second question is, in short, digital archival methods.)

And so when I read Josh Greenberg’s essay on neglecting his academic blog because he’s been busy writing code, I understand all too well, and worry a little about how to make sure that I keep engaged both with my historian colleagues and with my tech-focused communities. When I read Lee Ann Ghajar’s essay on starting her dissertation research with digital methods, I feel a glimmer of recognition. I’ve sat in that same research room at the Library of Virginia with my camera setup, answering the same kinds of curiosity-seeker questions, and I hope that her dissertation process results in new answers to the kinds of methods questions I’ve been asking since that day several years ago.

These days, when I’m not trying to get that next chapter written, I spend time thinking about whether the traditional tenure-track faculty path in history makes sense for me; experimental software-hacking isn’t something most history departments know how to recognize as scholarly work. I tell potential employers that I’m looking for postdoctoral opportunities that “leave my options open” as to whether I’ll head for the tenure track later on. (Bethany Nowviskie’s persistent advocacy for #alt-ac careers has shaped how I think about this, as did a long-ago conversation with some feminist adjunct professors about the too-often-intellectually-conservative effects of the tenure process.)

And when I tell my department’s cohort of new ABDs what I’m working on as I push my dissertation towards completion— about the fact that this correspondence-mapping-and-analysis tool I’m working on has been cutting into my prose-writing time— some of them say, jokingly, “Hey, wanna work on my research?”