Digital History and the Senior Scholars


We’re done with two days of this digital humanities institute and it feels a lot like grad school: long days of classwork, discussion and thinking, followed by a short break to decompress around dinner time, then a few more hours of reading to prep for the next day.  Surrounded by interesting and friendly people who I don’t have enough time to socialize with because we are too busy with our work.  Yes, a lot like grad school!

One significant difference, however, is the age spread of this group–something I wondered about before I got here.  I think I am solidly in the middle, with a few more mature scholars ahead of me, but a larger number of early-career folks in the room.  I suppose it is to be expected that a greater number of people who used computers and the interwebz through more of their educations would cotton to a digital endeavor.  Again, I suppose I am sort of in the middle as someone who started college with a typewriter and left with a desktop.

But one of the themes that has come up time and again about digital humanities does depend, to some extent, on age–at least figurative, if not literal–especially seen in the divergence between scholars willing to accept digital projects as a new kind of academic work (either facilitating “traditional” humanities research, offering new opportunities and avenues to answer standard kinds of questions, or really branching off into a new kind of thing, including collaborative work and projects open to academics and the public alike) and their home institutions.  General questions of legitimacy as well as specific, practical (and very real) concerns about tenure decisions, are at stake.  While I, deemed by some a “senior scholar” (measured by holding my Ph.D. for almost 15 years), lean in a conservative way to protect some grand traditions of The Academy, I also understand that digital humanities is only a phase in that it’s only a matter of time until we do away with the “digital” modifier* and just accept this new kind of work as, you know, humanities (but perhaps more often than is the case now, humanities directed at a broader audience, ideally reminding the world at large that humanities matter to, you know, humans).  The idea of the historian as a kind of curator or host of information and insight–and one in the world, not in a tower–is not a bad one.  Problem is, it will be a long time before tenure is granted on the basis of participation in multi-author internet projects–unless, that is, senior old tenured ladies of the academy, like me, help to shovel the path for our colleagues.

*Then again, I have thought the same thing about the phrase “women architects” for decades and we’re not free of that nonsense either.

Image: the incomparable Prof. McGonagall.  Not that she has any such need for Muggle technology, but you know she’d be an awesome colleague.  (source: this site)



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