The History Major in a Digital Age

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on January 4, 2015

I delivered a version of these comments as part of a roundtable at the AHA 2015 meeting in New York City, which posed the question, “Whither the History Major?” My comments focused on what the history major looks like in a “digital age.” In the delivered talk, I focus more on how “capstone” projects might change to reflect digital changes in the landscape of history.

In a recent essay in The American Scholar, Anthony Grafton and James Grossman gave a ringing defense of the value of history in the undergraduate curriculum, reserving special praise for what they described as the “quaint” but essential practice of engaging students in the art of archival research. As they noted, in many universities, something like a “term paper” or original thesis remains the primary capstone experience for a history major, and with good reason.

I was reminded of the good reasons over the last two days while following AHA panels on Twitter from Houston, using the conference hashtag #aha2015. Several panels here have provided preliminary reports on the AHA’s Tuning project, which seeks to identify the key skills and concepts that we, as historians, hope our history majors will learn by the time they graduate. Many of these learning objectives—finding sources, weighing evidence, constructing argument-driven narratives—are skills that traditional “term papers” and theses are still good at teaching and assessing.

Yet in between tweets about teaching and Tuning panels, my timeline also teemed with creative examples of digital history that vastly expand traditional notions of what archives, evidence, and scholarship can be. These panels, not to mention the fact that I was following them on a social media platform, bore witness (as if more were needed) to our “digital age,” an age in which both the process of historical research and the communication of its results increasingly occurs online or in some other digital form.

Set aside for a moment whether this “digital age” is a blessing or a curse, and consider only the evidence that it is upon us. A Pew survey of middle-school and high-school teachers from 2012 found that just 12 percent said their students were “very likely” to consult printed books for a typical research assignment, while 94 percent said students were “very likely” to turn to Google. I see little reason to think those percentages have reversed in three years, especially since other evidence suggests professional historians are also increasingly prone to begin their research online or in digital databases. Indeed, in their defense of the continued relevance of requiring “term papers in our courses, and … independent work and BA theses of our majors,” Grafton and Grossman themselves turn for evidence to a series of departmental webpages and digital archives that showcase student work.1

Those same webpages, and many others, suggest to me that the history major will not wither in a digital age. But whither will it tend? The ubiquity of digital tools and media in our and our students’ lives do raise the question of whether, as we and our majors increasingly use digital forms of history, we will in equal measure increase our attention to teaching them how to make digital historical narratives and archives.

Let me be clear at this point about what I do not want to say. I do not want to set up a false either/or choice, as though the history major must either continue to focus on mastering traditional tasks such as research papers or become more adept at navigating and using digital tools. Grossman and Grafton explained much better than I could why traditional archival research and research papers still matter and probably will long after we’re gone.

But I do think that accounting for the “digital age” in our design of history major goals and assessments will require more than training students in something like “how to evaluate webpages” when doing research for a paper, which I think is still too often where it is easiest to stop. That’s a valuable thing to teach majors—don’t get me wrong—and we could probably always do more of it. But it’s a framing based on an abstraction—“webpages”—that may not actually exist in the wild. (Is Twitter a “webpage”? Is the Digital Public Library of America? Is The New York Times?)

Focusing on teaching students how to use information from the Web also considers the Web narrowly as a place where evidence for a research paper might be found, instead of all of the other things it is: a place where people watch “Drunk History” episodes, annotate historical photographs, follow history Twitter feeds, conduct genealogical research, organize protests informed by historical analogies and precedents, argue about historical claims with friends and relatives on Facebook, discuss historical documentaries or books as they watch or read them in real time, encounter historical artifacts and exhibits curated by museums, and increasingly interact directly with historians in blogs, comment sections, Reddit threads, social media, and more. An increasing amount and variety of history happens on the Web; what possibilities does that open up for our thinking about a “major” in this field?

Before turning it over to you, I’ll offer a few quick answers, none of which are revolutionary or original to me, but all of which I often ponder. The first is that if we are not in some way teaching history majors how to make digital stuff as well as to use it, we are leaving them ill-equipped to share their hard-won historical skills and knowledge in the arena where many of them are most likely to encounter claims and conversations about history.2

It’s clear to me, moreover, that making digital history requires knowledge of more than the technical know-how to upload traditional forms of history like a term paper or thesis to the Internet. A linear narrative in a double-spaced, ten-page, one-inch margins research is not the same as a layered narrative of the sort that I encountered following the #aha2015 hashtag the last two days. Knowing how to craft the one (however valuable that continues to be) is not the same as knowing how to craft the other. A hyperlink is not just a footnote by another name, and knowing how to format the latter does not mean knowing how to format and effectively deploy the former. Mounting a persuasive historical argument aimed at scholars is not the same as winning an argument about history on Facebook. All of which is to say that even if the ability to “craft historical narrative” is one of the goals of a history major, as the AHA History Tuning Project suggests, we need to recognize that crafting digital narratives often requires a different set of competencies than those required by a “written or oral presentation.”

That’s not to say, however, that there is no overlap between the competencies students attain by writing a term paper and by crafting a digital narrative in some form. On the contrary. As the historian Eric Rauchway recently observed, the recently concluded, wildly popular podcast Serial, in which a radio journalist reported week by week on her investigation of a murder case, actually offered “a pretty good dramatization of the historical process,” and with “a compelling narrative” besides. And Benjamin G. Wright has had success teaching students the basic concept of historiography by having them examine the “history” tab of a Wikipedia page. Such examples, and I could cite many others, raise the question of whether the capstone project of a history major or independent study could be something like a podcast or a Wikipedia page, instead of only something like a paper. To cite a final example out of many possible ones, Michelle Moravec uses Pinterest and an assignment in which students live-tweet as a historical figure.3

If such digital work can help instructors assess learning outcomes while simultaneously preparing history majors to “do history” in the same arena where they probably do most of their writing already, why not? And to conclude with a more affirmative reason why so, I believe such capstone projects could have the added benefit of helping students to understand the historical situatedness of digital tools themselves. One reason we have relied on term papers, as Grafton and Grossman note, is that “it’s the only way for a student to get past being a passive consumer and critic [of historical narratives] and to become a creator, someone who reads other historians in the light of having tried to do what they do.”

I’d like to stress that last phrase, because I think it could stand as a good ideal definition of a graduate with a history major, too: someone who reads other historians in the light of having tried to do what they do. By the same logic, if we want our students to be more than passive consumers of Wikipedia or Twitter or podcasts or “Drunk History” videos, we’ll do more than teach them how to evaluate a website’s reliability and format a citation to it in a footnote. We’ll encourage them to become a digital creator, someone who consumes digital resources in the light of having tried to do what their makers do—and tried is key here, lest we fail to start teaching digital history out of a false belief that we have to show a student how to do all of it in order to do any of it.

Through the process of writing a Wikipedia page, or engaging in a Twitter debate, far more than by reading about these media, considering warnings about Google, or simply incorporating websites into a paper, students will come to appreciate that these media are themselves in the stream of time and have their own specific and sometimes sordid histories. And in so doing, history majors in the digital age may more fully achieve another of the learning outcomes identified by the AHA History Tuning Project, which is for students to “recognize where they are in history.”

  1. Though I’m using Grafton and Grossman as a reference point here, it’s worth noting that both authors have been staunch allies and advocates of creative digital history scholarship. In what follows, I’m not going to pick a bone with them here so much as extend their points in this particular essay farther than they do in this particular essay.

  2. Mills Kelly is one of the most eloquent recent defenders of making as an essential part of history curricula.

  3. See more digitally inflected assignments on Moravec’s Pinterest board on digital assignments.