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.