Historians and Digital History: Why Do Academics Shy Away from Digital History?

The Historian imageBy  Paul W. Bennett

The Internet is finally beginning to penetrate historical practice.  At the recent North American Society for Sports History (NASSH) Conference, held May 24-26, 2013 at Saint Mary’s University, Douglas Booth and Gary Osmond provided a fascinating primer on the impact digital history is starting to exert on a field like the study of international sports history.  The Internet itself, Booth pointed out, is — in fact– “an infinitely expanding, partially mediated archive.” Exploring the World Wide Web, however, can be frightening, especially for recognized experts, because it “disturbs previous certainties.”

History in the Digital AgeDigital history, according to Toni Weller, author of History in the Digital Age (2013), is the use of digital media and tools for historical practice, presentation, analysis, and research. Early work in digital history focused on creating digital archives, CD-ROMs, online presentations, time-lines, audio files, and virtual worlds. More recent digital history projects demonstrate the potential of creativity, collaboration, mapping data, and technical innovation, all of which are aspects of Web 2.0 

Current and future initiatives seek to fully utilize the Internet to create dynamic sites of history-making, inquiry and discussion. History blogs like www.activehistory.ca are essentially first generation initiatives in that direction.

Digital history experts Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University have identified the initial sources of the skepticism. The inaugural issue of Wired magazine from the spring of 1993, for example, predicted  an overly optimistic digital future.  Management consultant Lewis J. Perleman foresaw an “inevitable” “hyperlearning revolution” that would displace the thousand-year-old “technology” of the classroom, which has “as much utility in today’s modern economy of advanced information technology as the Conestoga wagon or the blacksmith shop.”

Historians and history teachers had reason to feel threatened. John Browning, future Executive Editor of Wired UK, explained how “books once hoarded in subterranean stacks will be scanned into computers and made available to anyone, anywhere, almost instantly, over high-speed networks.” Wired publisher Louis Rossetto went even further, linking the digital revolution to “social changes so profound that their only parallel is probably the discovery of fire.

Techno-skeptics saw a very different future. Debating Wired Executive Editor Kevin Kelly in the May 1994 issue of Harper’s, literary critic Sven Birkerts implored readers to “refuse” the lure of “the electronic hive.” The new media, he warned, pose a dire threat to the search for “wisdom” and “depth”—”the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture.”

Today’s students are digital natives and generally far more savvy than their professors. No longer does it suffice for a history teacher to present an overhead and have students take notes. Museums cannot count on traditional “static” exhibits to attract visitors. Digital history applications, whether they are virtual exhibits or online learning programs, transcend the traditional textbook and provide users with dynamic animations and authentic sources and experiences.

Most teaching websites offer resources (especially primary sources) and advice on how to do digital history. Yet creating interactive learning exercises remains a significant challenge. One approach is to provide exercises—in the form of  mysteries—that have no right answer and where the learning comes through the exploration.

Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice and Settling the Land, developed in 1996,  presented students with the problem of solving the murder of William Robinson, an African American who was killed on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia in 1868. It has morphed into the Great Unsolved Mysteries Series, consisting of 12 “cold cases” designed to turn students into real-life historians. While challenging, they now appear dated because they tend to be static and traditional in their use of virtual archives.

University professors, at the undergraduate level,  are gradually coming to accept digital history. But this begs the question: what evidence do we have that students learn better from digital history?

Few studies have scientifically documented computer-user behaviours, particularly in history education. Much of what is available comes from international/US studies which present descriptive results of small-scale investigations with online applications and webquests. Building on pioneering research in virtual history, Stéphane Lévesque of the University of Ottawa spent a decade researching how Canadian students learn from and can improve their learning experience with digital history environments.

In a funded study by the Canadian Council on Learning (2007-2008), Lévesque investigated the role and impact of a digital history program, The Virtual Historian, on students’ historical learning and literacy. What this study suggested was that digital history – with all its animated objects and dynamic scaffolds – is not a substitute for classroom teaching. Many students continue to crave and need student-teacher interaction and instruction – and for sound reasons. Learning is, according to Levesque,  far too complex and multifaceted to be reduced to gaming and web animations.

Still, digital history provides students with important learning tools, resources and thought processes that 21st century teachers can no longer ignore. Working with Adam Friedman of Wake Forest University in North Carolina, Levesque has embarked upon in a comparative Canada-US study of high school student learning with technology aiming to uncover the particular ways in which Canadian and American teachers and students can learn in technology- connected settings.

Historians and teachers are starting to cast a wider net.  Instead of limiting their research to written sources including newspapers, sporting records and official documents, they are tackling history as represented in digital forms, material culture, and museums. The growing relationship between  Wikipedia and history demonstrates the expansion of the field  beyond its traditional parameters.

The study of history is now becoming  far more integrated with digital history, cultural history and public history through connections unlocked by the digital revolution.  All of this is making possible more dynamic, topical, interactive engagement in studying not only contemporary society but the past.

Academics remain remarkably reticent to engage in digital history, just as many are openly disdainful of the social media. A close observer of Digital History, Richard Rinehart, expressed the principal reservation of academics in this priceless line: “Digital sources last five years or forever, whatever comes first.” That speaks to the need for new professional standards to ensure the proper preservation of electronic historical intelligence. Fears of academic history being bastardized in the form of a “mash-up,” however, are really just an extension of the ongoing and ever-present struggle against the popularizers.

Professional historians need to get involved as arbiters of what distinguishes good digital history from the bad variety. It’s high time academics broke out of their comfort zones and moved beyond using the Internet as a tool to actually embracing digital history. Rich research opportunities are being missed and an expanding archive of digital history remains to be discovered.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Paul W. Bennett’s Educatter’s Blog.

Dr. Paul W. Bennett (@Educhatter) is Founding Director, Schoolhouse Institute, and Adjunct Professor of Education, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax. NS.

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6 thoughts on “Historians and Digital History: Why Do Academics Shy Away from Digital History?

  1. Alexander Freund

    This post is problematic in many ways and it is infuriating for several reasons.

    Two notes as a preface: This post is a nearly identical copy of a blog posted on Dr. Bennett’s private blog on May 29, 2013 — without any reference that this is a cross-post (http://educhatter.wordpress.com/).

    Further, Dr. Bennett runs a private for-profit company that sells consulting services (http://www.schoolhouseconsulting.ca/our-services). This post is nothing but a spiced-up advertisement for his services.

    What are the problems with this post?

    This blog post makes sweeping generalizations that are based on not one shred of evidence. Dr. Bennett’s comments are the same techno-hype babble that IT people have been feeding university administrators for the past two decades, with the result that administrators buy expensive computer equipment instead of hiring more tenure-track professors in order to improve teaching and learning conditions.

    Moreover, Dr. Bennett hurls several accusations at historians that are insulting.

    Let us look at Dr. Bennett`s claims in detail:

    Dr. Bennett claims that academics “shy away from digital history.” What is his evidence? Nothing. Indeed, he has the audacity to claim that “The Internet is finally beginning to penetrate historical practice.” He ignores that for the past three decades historians have been using digital media and platforms for international and interdisciplinary communication (e.g. H-Net), for conducting research (statistical analysis going back to the 1960s, digital imaging, digital audio and video recording, geo-mapping, etc.), for creating massive digital archives (including large digital oral history collections), for disseminating research findings (e.g. digital journal databases and countless project websites), for creating innovative forms of teaching (e.g. the Great Unsolved Mysteries that Dr. Bennett brushes off as “dated” (huh??) and “static”), for teaching in the classroom (where historians are not threatened by powerpoint but severely restricted by a technology created for inane business meetings rather than pedagogy), etc. Dr. Bennett also ignores the evidence he himself cites (paragraph 2) and which contradicts his statements.

    Dr. Bennett claims: “Exploring the World Wide Web, however, can be frightening, especially for recognized experts, because it ‘disturbs previous certainties.’” This is apparently a self-evident claim, since Dr. Bennett does not bother to provide any evidence — there is no example given; no “recognized experts” or “previous certainties” are named.

    (What is actually frightening, I would claim, is academics’ failure to forcefully fight against the onslaught of computer companies, IT firms, and private education companies; as a result, our teaching and research conditions have become increasingly circumscribed by digital technologies that were not developed with teachers and students in mind.)

    Dr. Bennett states: “Today’s students are digital natives and generally far more savvy than their professors.” Evidence? None. Most professors nowadays grew up with digital technologies. They have ten, twenty, thirty years more experience than their students in the use of digital technologies. They have a much more skeptical understanding of digital technologies. Yes, they’re not as fast when it comes to texting, but that does not make students savvy. In fact, the way in which many students use social media (self-exposure, bullying, etc.) is evidence that they are far from savvy and have only a superficial understanding of how the digital world works.

    Dr. Bennett states: “No longer does it suffice for a history teacher to present an overhead and have students take notes.” Seriously, when was the last time that anyone has seen a teacher use an overhead? And even if, so what? The step to a powerpoint is hardly revolutionary (and prezi does not help you learn or teach better, it just makes you dizzy). And what is the research that demonstrates that having students take notes is useless? I wonder where Dr. Bennett gets his image of today’s university professors (and students). He provides no evidence from his own classroom experiences.

    Dr. Bennett states: “University professors, at the undergraduate level, are gradually coming to accept digital history.” That, Dr. Bennett, is not just plain wrong; it is an insult. As demonstrated above, professors have been using digital media for decades. Further, it is not their task to “accept” digital history, but to critically engage with it. (In that, we, as a profession, have unfortunately failed.)

    Even though Dr. Bennett provides clear evidence that using digital tools in the classroom does little to improve the teaching and learning experiences of professors and students (Lévesque study), he goes on to boldly claim that “digital history provides students with important learning tools, resources and thought processes that 21st century teachers can no longer ignore.” What are these “important learning tools” and, more importantly, what are “thought processes” that are provided by digital history and that “21st century teachers can no longer ignore”? Again, examples and evidence are missing. (Notably, among the most innovative research on historical thinking are studies by Weinberg, Seixas, and others who don`t rely on digital tools but on thoughtful explorations of what happens when students and teachers confront historical problems and sources.)

    Dr. Bennett then states: “Historians and teachers are starting to cast a wider net” because of digital history. No, Dr. Bennett, that is not how historians work. Historians don’t cast their net wider because of technology or the new availability of sources. They ask new questions because of newly emerging social, ethical and political pressures. If we can use digital resources to answer our questions, great. I don`t study the history of refugees in 20th century Canada because digital audio recorders allow me to record interviews with them. I study this history because even though the 20th century was the “Century of Refugees” their history has been largely ignored. Casting a wider net, furthermore, is not a new phenomenon unleashed by the digital revolution and supported by Wikipedia. The social historians of the 1960s were not the first generation to ask new questions and use new sources, nor were the French, German, or British historians of the early 20th century the first to revise history. “Digital historians'” claims to revolutionize history are misguided and misleading.

    Dr. Bennett claims that digital history makes “possible more dynamic, topical, interactive engagement in studying not only contemporary society but the past.” No, digital history does not do that. Asking new, intelligent questions of the past does this. Perhaps some of this new `digital history` is unappealing because it is based on the excitement about digital tools rather than on significant questions.

    The last two paragraphs of this post are the most insulting to historians. Admittedly, there is nothing new here, just the same old tired cliches we have been hearing from those trying to sell edu-technology for the last two decades. But still, it requires a response.

    Dr. Bennett claims: “Academics remain remarkably reticent to engage in digital history, just as many are openly disdainful of the social media.” That, Dr. Bennett, is simply not true. It is a misleading statement, and you have not provided a shred of evidence to back up this claim.

    Academics are skeptical of any grand claims and new social phenomena. And they are skeptical because that is their job. They would fail as professional academics if they naively accepted every new method or tool without considering its political, social, cultural, and economic implications. They would fail as teachers if they did not help their students develop the same healthy skepticism.

    Dr. Bennett concludes: “It’s high time academics broke out of their comfort zones and moved beyond using the Internet as a tool to actually embracing digital history. Rich research opportunities are being missed and an expanding archive of digital history remains to be discovered.” What comfort zones does Dr. Bennett speak of? The comfort zones of the historians who pioneered, against all political and personal opposition, working-class history, women’s history, indigenous history, LGBT history, etc? The comfort zones of historians conducting interviews with victims and perpetrators of domestic and state violence? The comfort zones of many of our colleagues around the world who have to fear state persecution if they ask the “wrong” questions or establish the “wrong” archives? The comfort zone of deeply engaging with students and colleagues about intellectually and ethically challenging research problems? The comfort zone of teaching too often under conditions of overcrowded classrooms, underfunded schools and colleges, underpaid teachers, and students plagued by poverty?

    To claim that “embracing digital history” moves one out of a comfort zone is not just silly — it is dangerous. “Embracing digital history” — which implies no skepticism — depoliticizes history. To do digital history cannot mean to simply use digital tools for research and teaching. To do digital history must mean to ask hard questions about the political, cultural, economic, social, and intellectual implications of the digital revolution — for history, for education, for society.

  2. Paul W. Bennett

    My post seems to have had the desired effect, sparking at least one spirited reaction. That is what commentaries are designed to achieve.

    You will note that the commentary springs from a NASSH 2013 Workshop where Douglas Booth and Gary Osmond made similar claims. Indeed, Toni Weller’s 2013 book is full of evidence that academics could take far more advantage of the expanding digital archive. The core argument is this: Virtually everyone today uses digital tools, but relatively few are actually doing digital history, including data mining, truly interactive blogs, or extensive internet sourcing.

    Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m neither a “futurist” nor a modern-day Luddite, but a fiercely independent historian and policy analyst who sees real potential in embracing digital history in all its forms. Blind faith in “21st century learning” driven by technology is also a major concern of mine. Having said that, scholars need to “test the waters” and branch out further into digital history. A visit to http://www.academia.edu will show just how few historians are actually participating in historical knowledge sharing. It would also be nice to see hundreds of responses to a post like mine. It might, I suspect, in Australia, Britain, or the United States.

    You will note that I chose to ignore the ad hominem attack on me for daring to express an informed opinion. It’s all too common in the profession. Personal websites are very common these days, especially for published authors. No one need apologize for maintaining a lively, engaging online presence. In a sense, that’s what this debate is really all about.

  3. Jay Young

    Thank you Alexander for your comment and Paul for your response.

    I must note that when Paul sent us this post he noted it was a slightly revised version of an earlier post featured on his personal website. It was an oversight on my part to not mention this in the repost here and I have made this correction.

    I very much agree with Alexander’s comment that historians “ask new questions because of newly emerging social, ethical and political pressures.” But I also believe that new technologies and new sources can prompt new research questions and new ways of exploring historical questions. Think of the social historians of the 1970s, as noted by Alexander, who used computers to crunch massive amounts of quantitative data (most often from censes) in order to explore the everyday experiences of people of the past whose voices were less prominent than elites. And as numerous posts have show on this website (most prominently, posts on digital history by Ian Milligan such as “Was the Past a Happy Place?”: http://activehistory.ca/2012/07/was-the-past-a-happy-place/) the expanded capabilities of computer technology today (especially text analysis programs and GIS) allows historians to explore new research questions and see the past from a new vantage point. Of course Alexander is quite right to underline that we must be critical of the use of technology in the classroom and as historians, just as the job of any good historian is to be critical of all sources and tools that we use.

  4. Ian Milligan

    Interesting discussion, and I really appreciate the overview of your thoughts and experiences Paul, as well as your thoughts too Alexander and Jay. While I’m going to focus on some things that I perhaps disagree with, I don’t want you to think that I’m dismissing what either of you wrote in the entirety. This is important stuff! (I apologize in advance for any typos – I’m on the road)

    As a digital historian, who teaches and researches in the field, I thought I’d quickly weigh in. First, and quickly, the ‘digital native’ argument strikes me as wrong. Our students don’t intrinsically have any digital abilities, we have to work with them. That said, they’re certainly primed and in my experience generally willing to engage with new technologies so long as they’re patiently and methodically taught.

    Secondly, I don’t use Academia.Edu and many of my colleagues don’t, because we maintain a web presence elsewhere: Twitter accounts and a personal website, for example. But yes, we can do better – even if it’s just better departmental webpages. When I was a book review editor many moons ago, it could be occasionally hard to track down somebody’s web presence for example. And as an editor here, I do think we need to try to engage with the public via the web! 🙂

    The question of whether “[a]cademics remain remarkably reticent to engage in digital history, just as many are openly disdainful of the social media” is an interesting one. It’s come up before, and I’ve thought a lot about it. Certainly, there are some academics who dismiss the field. I haven’t heard it too much, but yes, I’ve had my work dismissed with little more than a wave of a hand (dismissively comparing it to the 1970s, for example, which actually manages to offend two significant bodies of researchers). _But_, and this is important, every field has their detractors: from military, to gender, to political, to global, there are going to be nay-sayers.

    So I don’t think that historians, in general, are reluctant to respectfully engage with this field (again, some are). Some positive examples:

    – Digital history has been relatively well represented at the CHA. There were two fairly dedicated panels this year, and more significantly, the keynote last year was on a digital topic.
    – For what it’s worth, digital history has been well represented in Canadian hiring decisions and shortlists made over the last year or so.
    – Dedicated digital history classes are beginning to appear, and digital methodologies are being incorporated: I’ve seen class activities involving Wikipedia, blogging, Twitter activity, website reviews, etc. – and this is moving into the mainstream. Not all classes do this, and not all classes should (I run some of my classes in a more traditional manner, for example).
    – Websites and digital activities are being considered essential part of a historian’s work, for performance review/tenure/etc. processes. There’s still work to be done, but there’s a willingness to figure out how to fairly incorporate these materials into evaluative processes.
    – And this isn’t to blow my own horn, but a recent article I wrote on data mining Internet resources just won a prize at the CHA. It included code, made some fairly provocative claims, and at least in that respect was well received.

    All of this doesn’t add up to a _general_ reluctance amongst the profession to engage with digital resources, I don’t think. Some academics aren’t going to adopt them, just as I’m not going to adopt some strategies. It’s okay if people are skeptical about digital history, as long as that forces us to ask better questions and engage with tools more fruitfully. I certainly don’t expect everybody to become a digital historian, just to respect what I do. And, as I note above, I think historians generally do.

    Of course, just as I don’t think we can lump all historians together, we can’t lump all digital historians either. I think Alexander raises some good points, but I think digital history is more than “tired cliches” and unthinking questions. It offers new opportunities, none of which are magic bullets, but that are generally being employed by well-meaning, engaged scholars.

  5. Val Jobson

    There is evidence that historians are blogging, tweeting, etc., if you look for it. The American History News Network http://hnn.us/ has been going for years, including various discussions and a long list of history blogs: http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/9665.html – the “Regional Histories” category lists a number of Canadian history blogs including this one. Then, often, a history blog will have its own blogroll. Also the HNN list has “Carnivals” with periodic roundups of interesting new blogposts in a broad area of interest.

    Spencer Weart’s website on the history of climate change science, based on his 2003 book The Discovery of Global Warming, is an example of how history can be done on the internet: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm#contents

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