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Heating Up History at the AHA

[This is a guest post by Jennifer Guiliano, Assistant Director for the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities and Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, where she teaches digital history. You can find her online at jguiliano.com, or follow her on twitter at @jenguiliano.]

With much of the US under a deep freeze, those following the hashtag #AHA2014 this past weekend might have noted things getting a bit heated. The American Historical Association hosted its annual meeting in Washington D.C. and the theme of “disagreement, debate, and discussion” couldn’t have been more accurate.

For those paying attention, there were the usual academic conference-going complaints: confusing signage, the lack of Twitter handles on badges, what got scheduled when, temperatures of rooms, and how hard it was to move between panels due to the three meeting locations.

There was also the universal “how did that get on the program?”

For those who’ve sat on these types of organizing committees, you know you can’t win for trying. No matter how much I love or hate a conference I try to keep in mind how hard it is to put one on and how much work people—particularly volunteers—often put into them. Everyone involved with AHA2013 should take a bow—organizers, attendees, hotel staff, and the DC region who didn’t mind the 4,200 historian-strong swarm.

And now that you’ve gotten your kudos, let’s focus on just those parts of the official “Digital History” program:

Trends from previous years continued: the effect of digital technologies on the dissertation process, how to incorporate digital technologies into both undergraduate and graduate classrooms, the future of digital history, digital archiving, digital methods and techniques, and “big” data.

Some of my favorite things that made this year’s program: History Engine, which enables students to experience doing the work of history in digital form; Mapping the Republic of Letters, which is exploring the use of linked open data with social network analysis; and Chronicling America, the Library of Congress’ historic newspaper collection that has transformed historian’s access to US newspapers.

Improvements were made structurally that enabled richer digital history panel offerings: free conference wifi enabled a more robust backchannel to share links, and the addition of programming addressed specifically towards those looking to grow their digital history knowledge in pre and post-conference forms primed interest in the digital history panels. Hat-tip AHA for taking these steps—ones sorely needed.

But, I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t raise a couple of concerns about how digital history is being positioned within the discipline of history and the academy more broadly. My concerns aren’t, by the way, about the presentations and panels themselves, but about the conversations taking place around them and what they say about digital history.

Digital History as Interchangeable with Public History

Not all digital history is public history nor is all public history digital.

Public history, while it can be written for specialized audiences, is intended to be utilized outside of the traditional classroom and by the general public. (See the National Council on Public History for their take.) Digital History can be both history published in digital form and/or history created through digital analysis. The audience for and products of public history and digital history can overlap. But they can also be widely divergent.

I’d like to see more clarity when we talk about projects how we are conceptualizing our audiences and the useability of our products. Maybe a fine edge here, but a project on the Civil War and Slavery that I’m building for my 8 year old nephew to explore is likely very different than the project I’m building for use by colleagues. Let’s stop pretending we are serving everyone and start getting real that the “general public” isn’t those with a Ph.D. in history working in a subject speciality. And also that different types of audiences have differing needs both in terms of content and delivery.

Digital History as the Holy Grail of the Job Market

I’m wading in messy, complex waters here—please be gentle. I love the rise in digital history emphasis at the conference, whether in the form of exposing the work going into dissertations or in how we are training history majors to explore digital technologies and doing the work of historianship. And it was a true delight to wander the halls hearing people randomly talking about digital history. But I’m leery of the rhetoric that digital history is a magic bullet that can cure the ills of the academic and alt-ac job market for those looking to move on in the profession.

Does it potentially broaden your opportunities by potentially making your work innovative or different from others? Yes. Does it teach you things that can be useful in alt-ac positions? Yes. Does it allow you access to knowledge about technologies and approaches not normally covered in humanities degrees? You betcha. But can digital history transcend the systemic problems in either the academy or the underfunded markets of galleries, libraries, archives, and museums where many alt-ac positions are? That, ProfHackers, is still to be determined.

Getting a job can be hard, keeping a job harder, and feeling fulfilled in a job even more difficult. Can we do a bit of expectation managing moving forward? Even if it is in the form of more comprehensive studies of employment for undergraduates and graduates with history degrees who have been exposed to digital history and digital technologies. I’d love to see some longitudinal studies tracking career paths three, five, seven, and even ten years out.

I think digital history can be transformative in the same vein that, for instance, the cultural history turn was. It offers so many opportunities and lots of space to explore. But it isn’t a cure-all for every ill—it won’t solve shoddy scholarship, create a windfall of free money, or suddenly whip up thousands of jobs. It just won’t and it shouldn’t be talked of that way.

So, now that I’ve offered my concerns, what did you find most interesting about the 2014 meeting of the AHA? What have I missed? If you attended the meeting, followed the #AHA2014 social media stream, or have spent time with the conference program, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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