A Certificate in Digital History?

If you were to construct from scratch a certificate program in digital history, what would you insist should be included? Of late, I’ve been putting in some time proselytizing my departmental colleagues on the desirability of developing some sort of program for our graduate students that will give them skills to practice history in the digital world. In part, I’ve been doing this because of the my own tentative steps towards becoming a “digital historian.” But, it’s also in response to the current crisis in the humanities job market (not to be confused with the perpetual crisis in the humanities job market over the past 30 years), and its implications for our grad students. From a pragmatic perspective, it seems to me that digital history skills could open up a broader array of non-traditional “academic” employment. I’ve had encouraging replies from my colleagues, so now it’s time to really flesh this thing out.

Over the past few years my department has been reconsidering the policies and practices of our graduate program in History. For the most part, the guiding principles of this discussion have centered on recommendations from the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate. Originally, I was very enthusiastic about using the Initiative and the findings, experiences, and reforms of the History programs that were published on the web by the CID. As a newly minted PhD who had secured a good job from a non-elite program in Latin American History (a program that was a participating department in the Carnegie Initiative), I, admittedly naively, believed my experience was reproducible by our own students. What was my own experience? We were taught both explicitly and implicitly that any student who excelled at research and writing, who secured nationally-competitive dissertation research funding (for Latin Americanists, this meant a Fulbright or a Fulbright-Hays), who had some kind of demonstrable intent to publication, who presented their work at national conferences, and who had a little teaching experience, that these students would get tenure-track jobs. It was the meritocratic belief of the achieving middle class that they could exceed the standard of living of their parents, so to speak. That formula puts 100 percent emphasis on preparing the research and publication skills of the R1 institution, and of the traditional path to academic success. It’s also a mythology. My PhD program has had very good statistics historically in placing Latin Americanists in tenure-track jobs, if not in dream jobs, but I think in part that has to do with the specifics of the Latin America job market, circumstances that don’t hold for Medieval, Modern German, and 19th-Century US history jobs (the three areas UTK specializes in). Additionally, the structural changes in academic employment that Marc Bosquet has so scathingly documented in his book and on his blog, reveal the meritocratic wizard behind the curtain of Academic Oz to be totally frontin’.

Which brings me back to my nascent proposal for developing a digital history certificate program for our grad students. I’d posit that we have a complicated set of ethical obligations to students entering the disciplinary apprenticeship — to excellent training in the traditional areas of teaching, research and writing; to forthright honesty on the realities of the academic job market; and to offering skills that connect with the trends of knowledge production and creativity both within and outside of the Academy.

Of course, with the current budgetary situation at the University, we’re not going to be able to go out and hire experienced digital historians, or fund extensive investment in a new program. This is going to be an ad hoc affair. That said, there are resources in campus silos (programs in information sciences, instructional and learning technologies, etc.) that we can draw upon. The question remains, though, as to what would be the skills a digital historian should master for at least a minimal level of competency? I’ve always considered digital history to be a disparate set of practices with specific implications for research, teaching, and curation/publication. I’d be interested in readers’ opinions on the practical implications of this disparate nature on a certificate program (institutionally, it’s not realistic to construct a degree program at this point). What competencies does one really need– knowledge of XHTML, CSS, XML, database design, text mining, online teaching and pedagogy, issues of public history, best practices in open access publication and review, PHP, MySQL, the ability to code in python, java, or some other language, use of digital tools for archival research and analysis, new media and crowdsourcing, mapping, etc? Courses on the history of broader-defined digital humanities practices, and electronic text manipulation going back thirty years or more? Knowledge of textual coding/tagging for analysis? Capacity with web applications, local open source installations an CMSs such as Drupal, Joomla, Omeka, WordPress, etc.?

If you have an opinion, please leave a comment below.


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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5 comments on “A Certificate in Digital History?
  1. There’s a lot of different paths to take here. Being a first-year PhD student I’m not sure I’m in the best position to talk about which skills are most marketable, but I’d always advocate for a combination of “soft” and “hard” skills. Because “soft” skills (new media, social networks, collaborative partnerships, etc.) are in some ways easier (or at least less time intensive) to pick up, it would make sense to expect DH’ers to have competency and familiarity with a broader range of them. But I think it’s important to have at least one “hard” skill (a programming language, text markup/analysis, database construction, GIS) that you can specialize in and really have the confidence and ability to use on a sophisticated level.

    The fall 2008 roundtable on The Promise of Digital History in the JAH offers up some different perspectives on this as well.


  2. One principle I stick by in teaching digital humanities is that we are not teaching our students to program – I do teach them text markup using TEI, and I do teach them database design but without going deeply into normalisation or db theory. I aim at teaching them how to be powerful end-users, with good analysis skills and the abilty to speak enough geek to talk to a programmer, but I would never try to teach programming to compete with people who spend 4 years doing a CS degree.

    Partly this is because Digital Humanities students are often not good at learning to code java or C# or whatever, and I don’t have time to spend forcing square pegs into round holes. It also because there are plenty of people out there who can hack good code, but not enough with the soft skills to analyse a messy real world research problem and make programmers code up a solution which represents it as it really is, rather than in a way which is convenient to program.

  3. ctb says:

    Thanks, Mike. And, I think you hit on what has been my own experience. I want to be and want my students to be, as you say, powerful end-users who can articulate real programming needs to real coders. As I said in the post, there are really these three areas of digital practice that historians increasingly should learn to contend with– instructional, research, and publication/curation. Each of these have at least some relation to markup (be it tei/xml, xhtml, or even the markup that QDA software uses for qualitative research).

  4. ctb says:

    Thanks for the comment, Cameron. One of the reasons I posed the question is that I know what my skill deficiencies/desires are, but I don’t want them to totally drive the conversation. I’ll check out the JAH roundtable too.

  5. BQ says:

    Being a literature, culture, and language prof, data base, programing languages, and other similar tools, don’t seem immediately needed for me. And even though most of our students end up as language teachers, there is a general lack of technology knowledge–and its proper usage (no, dear student, a fancy PowerPoint won’t cover up your lack of research or language skills, it actually only accentuates them)–as they come in (and sadly when they leave too) that certainly needs to be addressed.

    In my experience, most of my students (undergrad and grad) have very poor computer and technology skills. Yes, they text and e-mail each other all the time, but have no clue on how to use their word processor to their advantage (like formatting a paper properly), don’t know that there are tools at their disposal to handle their bibliography (like Zotero, EndNote, etc.), and, even more scary at the grad level, think that they can conduct research using google rather than WorldCat, MLA, HAPI, and all the other dedicated scholarly databases at their disposal.

    I now make it a point in all my grad courses to take them to the library early in the semester (each semester, even if they have taken a class from me in the past) to have a quick workshop on the tools available for their research papers. But ideally, they should have a full semester-long seminar on technology aimed at their future careers that includes, not only research tools, but also publishing tools whether it is Word (yikes! Which is like using a bulldozer to plant daises. I’m a Scrivener person now, but this a discussion topic for another time), blogging, Laulima (our open source webspace for teaching and collaboration), etc.

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