Reviewing Digital History

7233983424_15a27435b8_qToday, The Junto interviews Dr. Jeffrey W. McClurken, Professor of History and American Studies & Special Assistant to the Provost for Teaching, Technology, and Innovation at University of Mary Washington. McClurken (Ph.D., John Hopkins University, 2003) is Contributing Editor for Digital History Reviews, Journal of American History.

JUNTO: How did you get started in digital history?

MCCLURKEN: I was always messing around with computers, even in the 4th grade. I was interested in going to graduate school but I had no offers with funding initially, so I moved back home. Then I started doing part-time work for Ed Ayers on the Valley of the Shadow Project, maybe 15 hours a week. After a couple months, I went full-time as a Research Specialist. I spent a lot of time on data entry. And I liked the structure of it: Ayers’ inspirational weekly meetings, his sense of project and vision.

JUNTO: On a collaborative digital project, that kind of leadership makes a real difference, and it’s a skill—project management—that doesn’t always develop within traditional graduate training programs. What did you find so inspirational?

MCCLURKEN: This was in the pre-Google era, and Ed said just take a half-hour every day to take a look around. Go online, figure out what’s out there, and bring it back. This was pre-search engine. We also looked at the multimedia Myst video game for inspiration. At first, I spent most of my time hand-coding Augusta County, Va., census records, all of this 1860’s and 1870’s big data that had to be tagged, coded, and transcribed.

JUNTO: So you were up close with big data, right away. How did that change your scholarship?

MCCLURKEN: Yes, from the beginning. Ed was a visionary. That census data was critical to my understanding, and the experience went straight into the book I ended up writing on the social history of veterans (Take Care of the Living: Reconstructing Confederate Veteran Families in Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 2009).

JUNTO: How did that experience shape you for your current role at the JAH?

MCCLURKEN: Professionally, when we think about digital projects, there’s a bit of a false dichotomy of makers and users. And [in reviewing projects] we’re also very interested in pedagogy. Now I’m helping the JAH think about where digital humanities fits into the future of American history-writing.

Digital history is a new scholarly paradigm. In the traditional realm, the publication period is finite—you have a book and it doesn’t change. But with digital projects, it’s often ongoing. So, at first glance, the process that works for a manuscript review needs some tweaks because, six months later, the website changes. We are also dealing with more than just websites now too. At the JAH, we had to change the name from “Website Reviews” to “Digital History Reviews” because that was more appropriate.

On the other end of the project life-cycle is the question of preserving the site. What are you stabilizing? The final version? That may not be the most influential; the site may have changed and evolved. Digital projects are complex, and because of versioning, and because projects may take directions that the software creators never intended, it raises all kinds of questions.

Another question for digital history peer reviewers is gaining an understanding of the context of creation. On a digital history project, there’s no one creator. It is a collaborative work, and that affects hiring and tenure. It’s good to see groups like the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association addressing the issue through their journals and through their professional organizations.

To me, it’s important to treat a digital project as one big piece, identifying everyone’s role in a project and what they contributed. Take, for example, the Valley of the Shadow Project. It was a collaborative effort. And it’s not always clear who did what. How do you cite that kind of contribution? You’ve got to include that information, on your C.V. and in a review. Identifying the people who contributed to the project is critical going forward, especially in the JAH: who did this, and who is involved long-term.

JUNTO: What advice do you have for digital history beginners? Any frequent missteps to avoid?

MCCLURKEN: The best projects do an environmental scan to figure out what’s out there. You don’t need to redefine the wheel. But you should identify gaps in [topical] coverage, and you should know what’s been done. The flip side of that is, sometime you find out that your idea already has been done.

One of the mistakes is not starting at all, because you think it’s going to be too complicated. Some of the technical pieces may be too complicated—at first. But it’s important to dive in, pilot projects, and do digital work in small batches. The field of digital humanities is, at heart, about experimentation and iteration. It’s okay to start small and make mistakes. You’re not expected to have it mastered when you start; there is a learning curve. The most common mistake is not to start—or, not thinking as boldly as you can.

Historians as professionals are not trained to play well together. We go alone into archives, commune with the dead, and come back. But most digital history projects are collaborations. Within the discipline, there are resources for collaboration: for example, librarians and archivists. In terms of digital humanities training, the library field is so far ahead of us. Now, I think, history graduate students are getting better at engaging with digital tools in their teaching.

JUNTO: How has the emergence of a “digital public” influenced the creation and peer review of historical work?

MCCLURKEN: For digital projects, there is no one audience. But there may be a different set of expectations, depending on who the project is aimed at. If a website’s goal is reaching K-12 teachers, for example, there may be different expectations—not dumbed-down material, just a different set of goals to meet. Sometimes a reviewer will say to me, “We can’t tell who this is aimed at.” Whoever the public is, there’s a need for outreach, and proof that the site meets its mission while staying relevant.

My goal with the reviews is to cover a wide range of projects with different methodologies and subjects. But it’s gotten fuzzier. Now we have boundary-pushing projects, where it’s a book with a companion website. That means we talk to the book reviews editor and the staff to see if they should be reviewed together.

JUNTO: How does that work in the traditional review process at the JAH?

MCCLURKEN: It varies. If the website is just an add-on for footnotes, then it’s not really a digital project. If it’s an e-book, then maybe it’s a digital project, maybe not. But if digital content is critical to someone accessing that work of scholarship, then, yes, it’s a digital project. And, like a book review, a digital project peer review is a fundamental experience for scholars to have, since it shows that we are increasingly transparent about our work.

Take, for example, Ed Ayers’ and Will Thomas’ model article (“An Overview: The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities,” American Historical Review, 2003). We thought there would be a flurry of articles like it, but no. Why not? Their argument did not drive like a traditional monograph. It was harder to process; it took more work for readers to absorb. And it was a ton of work for them to do. There’s transcription, digitization, and fascinating online sources there.

Another thing to remember is that digital history projects are typically public-facing. We’ve left the conversation, too often, about what history is to people who aren’t historians. Digital history gives us the ability to reach out to other historians and to the public simultaneously. It’s a chance for us to think about how we create primary sources access for undergraduate students. Digital history projects can offer a full set of sources, without an exclusive focus on historiography. The projects with the widest impact and most rigorous standards also manage to contribute to the greater sum of human knowledge.

JUNTO: How can historians cope with two related challenges: the rise of comment culture and the need to cultivate a professional digital identity?

MCCLURKEN: Regarding comment culture, it’s important to provide forums at certain stages of the project and to have open peer review. Think about how you’re going to frame conversations with the public on your website—will it be anonymous? Will you have a comment policy? By definition, most historians hope for feedback on their work. What’s different now is how many people can see it, without you sending out a manuscript.

As for cultivating a digital identity, figure out your digital voice—and realize that it may not be the same one used everywhere else. Expect that a search committee will Google you. Feature your digital skill set. Take advantage of workshops. Change happens in generational ways. There’s plenty of options now to develop training—and it’s not like you’ll be hand-coding census data on your first day. There’s a generosity to the DH community; it’s very collaborative. Finding that external support is critical.

JUNTO: Finally, can you assess digital trends in early American history over the past decade, and offer any grant-writing advice?

MCCLURKEN: We’ve seen a lot of source-based, print-related projects. The sweeping stuff hits the sweet spot of literary and publishing history. Regarding early American history, we’ve seen more paywalls go up for primary sources, as well as professional concern that there’s useful material hiding behind them.

As for digital history funding, know that you’re proposing a sustainable project. Identify potential partners and hosting institutions. It’s a different pitch, and one that is not taught. It’s a different grant-writing experience. Make it clear what you’re contributing to the field, whether you’re developing a new set of digital tools and/or historical resources. Talk about the historiographical side, the sustainability of your project, and the partnerships that you’re planning in order to get work done.

5 responses

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