Methods in U.S. Cultural History

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on January 13, 2012

This post was originally published on my old blog as Methods in U.S. Cultural History.

Today I started teaching my semester-long graduate seminar, HIST 587: Methods in U.S. Cultural History. The syllabus I will be using is very similar to the one I used in the Fall 2009 semester, in that the major objective will be to produce a draft of an article-length essay based on original research. But I am also going to be trying at least two new things this time around.

First, I am planning to share extensive early drafts and notes from my first graduate school research paper, which ultimately became (after much revision) my first published article. My plan is to let students in the course see the often messy and gradual process by which an article is made, a process that can unfortunately be obscured by the more finished products that graduate students are used to reading.

My reason for picking my own article to pick apart in class is not because I think the process that produced it was exemplary. On the contrary, while dusting off my old files for this article I’ve already found embarrassing mistakes, inefficiencies, and clunky methods that I would not use again. With the availability of digitized versions of many of the sources I used then, I’m not sure my research strategy would even be exactly the same today. And I’m also planning to share the readers’ reports I received recommending rejection of an earlier draft of this article, submitted to a different journal.

I have to say I’m making these decision with some hesitance; in an advice essay that I respect a lot, Phil Agre explicitly urges advisors to resist the temptation to talk about themselves. But my thinking is this: as even Agre acknowledges, when people offer advice about methods, how to do research, how to get something published, usually they are referring implicitly to their own experiences and particular choices, even when they don’t say so explicitly or realize it consciously. I’m hoping that sharing my own experience will make overt and transparent the particular stories and choices I would be drawing on anyway in teaching a methods class.

That transparency will hopefully communicate that my own decisions and methods are only some of the many possible ones; to reinforce that point, I’ve invited the authors of two other articles we will be reading to Skype into our seminar and talk about their methods and work. I’m also hoping by my own willingness to talk about my methods to encourage students in the course to share what they do.

The other new thing I’m going to try to do more consciously in this course is to introduce discussions of how digital tools for research and communication are (or are not) changing methods in U.S. cultural history and beyond. This is a subject that has been much debated of late: some believe that digital humanities is or should be changing everything about our methods; others are deeply skeptical. Most of what I read on the subject falls somewhere in between, as do I.

Still, as I’ve noted before on this blog, I do think it’s safe to say that there are many changes afoot in the way that new historians will do research, present their findings, and communicate with each other through conferences like SHEAR and the AHA. When I started the article that I’m planning to share in class in the fall of 2001, my research process consisted of sitting in front of a microfilm machine listening to music on a 15GB Archos Jukebox. Since then my research still involves microfilm, of course, but new methods have also become part of my daily workflow. In this course I’m hoping to stimulate some discussion about these changes, partly with one of the week’s readings but also throughout the course.

Perhaps it is misguided to introduce digital history in a methods course that is still fairly traditional (maybe even Jurassic, if you agree with Bethany Nowviskie). But I’m disinclined to see decisions about what goes in a methods course as a zero-sum game. The environment in which historians do their work is certainly changing, but I think this calls less for an asteroid-like obliteration of the old than for selective adaptation and openness to new methodological mutations. Even in the brave new world current graduate students are entering, I think it’s safe to say there will still be many scholars writing journal articles. At least, I hope there will be. It’s not the best or only form, but it has its virtues, and I think it’s worth preserving alongside whatever other new species of scholarship are currently being born.