Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review Issues

I have never quite finished reading any e-books before, but the most recent issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities captured my attention all the way to the end. The topic of this 4th issue of the journal is “What is Needed to Ensure the Development of Digital Humanities Scholarship?” I started reading it in order to sort out some of my thinking about a piece I am writing for The Public Historian about my digital project, The Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. By the time I got to the end, it had also stimulated my thinking about my aspiration for my department to hire a full-fledged digital historian, my own eventual promotion case, and the perpetual question of what my students need to know about digital history. 

The editors have arranged the issue around three topics: the “Problem,” “Approaches,” and “Professional Statements.” For the purposes of introducing graduate students to digital history issues, I think that I will probably use some but not all of the content. My natural inclination is always to assign students everything, but in practice I try to be selective in what I assign to students, so that everything I assign has a specific pedagogical purpose, is well written, and represents a manageable amount of reading (though I realize that for some faculty, part of the modus operandi of graduate school is to teach students that they can cope with an unmanageable amount of work). At this moment, I would arrange the contents into the following clusters:

1.       Substantive issues relating to peer review: Sheila Cavanagh’s and Bethany Nowviskie’s articles, in order to help students understand the transformative moment we are living through and the ways in which digital humanists are thinking it reshapes questions about how collaborative, technical projects count as scholarship.

2.       For practical commentary on evaluating digital humanities projects: the short essays by Todd Presner, Geoffrey Rockwell, and James Smithies and the professional statement by the Modern Language Association and the AHA, NCPH, and OAH Working Group report on “Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian,” which is not actually reproduced in the Journal’s issue.

3.       Late in the course, in order to discuss my own dilemma as an instructor in figuring out how to evaluate the work I will have assigned to students, I would assign Shannon Christine Mattern’s essay.

4.       Finally, to help students who are hoping for careers where they might go up for tenure based in part on digital history work, I would assign the argument offered in Laura Mandell’s open letter and the practical models offered by Katherine D. Harris and the wiki group on “Documenting a New Media Case.” My inclination here is not to assign this to the whole group, but to one or two students to report on, since most of them will not be seeking faculty positions in the long run (though I expect a few will need to understand tenure and promotion issues).

Other things that this issue made me think about:

1.       I should assign students to explore and discuss the Hypercities (definitely) and Voyant (probably) projects that Mandell discusses.

2.       Finally, I am reminded by the ease with which actual digital humanists toss around terms like “text encoding initiative” and XML how much I don’t know—and how much my students and I both need to know. I need to find a way to incorporate little “tech timeouts” into the discussion to define terms and show examples without derailing the overall conversation. What I need is a way for us all to hyperlink to another little discussion room to get on the same page and then link back to our main thread.

  I see these essays as opportunities for helping my students think about how to explain to other people that digital history work integrates the skills of argument that historians already hold dear with the organizational, technical, and human skills relating to project management that are crucial for digital projects.