Audiences and Arguments for Digital History

April 19th, 2010 |

Below is what I proposed for this year’s THATCamp.  (I hope I’m not misremembering or misrepresenting Tom–or more likely making too much of an offhanded comment.  If I’m doing any of those things, my apologies, Tom.)  Rereading what I wrote a few months ago, the questions I pose at the end strike me as perhaps too abstract for a session.  And perhaps I’m wrong and there are exemplary digital scholarship projects that use the medium to make arguments–arguments that have had an impact among humanists, digital and non-digital alike.  Maybe if anyone else is interested in these kinds of questions about digital humanities, new media, and argumentation and has examples of the best and most exciting digital scholarship being developed those projects could be listed in comments on this post.  A session might be organized around discussing the most promising directions and techniques for presenting arguments and engaging humanities questions using new media.

During the session at last year’s THATCamp on whether all history before too long would be digital history, Tom Scheinfeldt said something to the effect that digital history was more often than not synonymous with public history.  I disagreed with him then, but I can’t dispute that he’s right that most of the notable digital history projects that have been developed to date have tended to have a public history orientation.  While there have been some projects that have been developed to present arguments, they are few, and for the most part I sense that they haven’t had a substantial impact among academics, at least in the field of history.

At this year’s THATCamp I’d like to ask why that is.  While of course still a small minority, more humanists are now employing computational techniques in their research–whether that be using GIS or text mining or social network analysis or a number of other techniques and tools.  But with a few exceptions these techniques are used to produce conventional scholarship, to inform and shape linear, textual essays and monographs.  There isn’t much digital scholarship that uses new media.  (There are a few exceptions–Vectors comes to mind.)  Why is that?  Is new media ill suited for presenting arguments, markedly inferior to linear prose?  Does the relative absence of argumentative digital scholarship just reflect the newness of new media?  Have we just not figured out how to use the medium to make arguments yet, or maybe time is needed for the larger scholarly community to be both willing and able to read and thoughtfully engage with digital scholarship?  While digital history and new media has enriched the field of public history, as a medium of expression (as opposed to a set of methodological tools) can and will it have a similarly significant impact upon more narrowly academic scholarship?

I do have an unrelated idea for another session.  I know a number of THATCampers have offered undergraduate digital humanities or digital history courses.  I’d really welcome the opportunity to have a discussion about how to organize and teach such a course.  I’ve long thought about developing such a course, but I’ve struggled the logistics of asking students to “do” digital humanities without devoting too much class time to teaching them some modest technical skills.

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18 Responses to “Audiences and Arguments for Digital History”

  1. foundhistory Says:

    Hi Rob — Thanks for the shout out. I don’t think you’re misrepresenting me, but let me just add a quick word of explanation.

    As you say, probably the majority of existing digital history projects have a public historical bent and public history in their organizational and authorial DNA. That’s one reason I say digital history equals public history. In fact, it’s my feeling that if digital history and digital lit have diverged in their interests and methods, it’s mainly a result of different disciplinary origins: digital history (not all, but a lot of it) in public history and digital lit in computational linguistics, textual analysis, etc.

    But the second reason I think digital history equals public history is that even where “argumentative digital scholarship” in history has been done (and hopefully will continue to be done), to the extent that it is done online, it is public in a way that traditional books and journals on library stacks were not. As soon as it’s indexed by Google, digital historical scholarship is public history, and digital scholars, like it or not, become public historians with all the responsibility and opportunity that entails. I guess what I’m saying is that even those digital historians who want only to do “scholarship” inevitably end up doing public history and should be thinking about what that means. Maybe that’s something people didn’t sign up for, but to me this is a very exciting opportunity for both sides of the profession to collaborate, to learn from one another, to take our work in new and unanticipated directions, and to make both public and scholarly history better.

  2. Rob Nelson Says:

    Thanks, Tom, that’s very helpful. I hadn’t really thought about digital history being decidedly more publicly oriented than digital lit crit.

    Your point about digital history being public history because of its accessibility is a good one. Though I titled the post “audiences and arguments for digital history,” I guess I’m thinking more about arguments than about audiences. Your responds makes me realize that framing this in terms of a contrast between public history and more narrowly “academic” history wasn’t very well thought out on my part–obviously both can and do present interpretations and arguments. The question I’m thinking about is why are there comparatively few arguments made through digital history when that’s obviously the norm of print scholarship. Why haven’t, for the most part, digital history projects engaged and intervened in historiographic debates? Michael Frisch raised this issue in the JAH exchange on digital history a couple of years back:

    “Sooner or later, doing history involves telling a story, making an argument, identifying a theme or concern, coming to a conclusion. It’s not enough to endlessly celebrate the open-endedness of process, the multiplicity of sources, and the unlimited questions and answers these can support …. The goal is not to displace argument, synthesis, interpretation, and understanding in favor of a celebration of infinite possibility, but to broaden the participation in a dialogic process of engagement, questioning, and reflection on answers.” (, 207 and 209)

    Lots of great digital history projects allow users to explore texts or digital maps or digital surrogates of physical objects but far, far fewer are organized around conveying conclusions and articulating arguments and offering interpretations. Why is that?

    And even those that do don’t get read and cited very often. Take Will Thomas’s and Ed Ayers’s digital article on “The Difference Slavery Made” in the AHR. That definitely presented a nuanced argument about slavery and the coming of the Civil War. Given that this was in the AHR, you’d expect that it would be widely cited by Civil War historians. A quick search in Google Scholar ( and Google Books ( make it clear that it isn’t–it’s cited almost exclusively in books and articles specifically about digital history. Why is that? Is it that the form of that digital essay made the argument challenging to fully grasp? If so, is that intrinsic to the medium (“new media”) of digital scholarship more generally? Or is it due to a lack of familiarity with digital scholarship, something like a language barrier where most historians can’t readily engage digital scholarship any more than they can read scholarship written in a foreign language they haven’t studied?

  3. foundhistory Says:

    Thanks, Rob. Can’t wait for the session. I’ll just leave it until then with one quick point. I completely agree with Frisch’s assertion that “sooner or later, doing history involves telling a story, making an argument, [etc.]” But does it have to be “sooner” or can it be “later”? From what I’ve said in the past, I’m sure you can anticipate my answer to that question: IMHO I think the multiplicity and complexity of new technologies and the work of developing new tools and methods for them can, for now, be considered an end in itself.

  4. jmcclurken Says:

    Rob, as you can imagine, I’d be interested in being part of a session on “how to organize and teach…undergraduate digital humanities or digital history courses.” The issue of “the logistics of asking students to “do” digital humanities without devoting too much class time to teaching them some modest technical skills” is a key struggle each time I teach the class.

  5. Christina Jenkins Says:

    Deeply interested in this: “Have we just not figured out how to use the medium to make arguments yet, or maybe time is needed for the larger scholarly community to be both willing and able to read and thoughtfully engage with digital scholarship?”

    I teach middle school teachers how and why to use digital (and non-digital) media in their classrooms. I also study design at Parsons. My work examines what it means for the medium to be the message when we’re looking at technology in classrooms, and I actually went the other way in trying to make an argument through the medium itself – I made a handmade book, among other things. I’d love to join you in this conversation.

  6. Bill Ferster Says:

    Rob, The organization and teaching of DH is just what I want to talk about at this year’s camp. I’m flying in Sat 7am from Boston, so I may miss the sign-up if the airline planets misalign, but please sign me up to whatever untopic is selected.

  7. Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions? : Found History Says:

    […] Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, an accomplished digital humanist, recently ruminated in his THATCamp session proposal, “While there have been some projects that have been developed to present arguments, they are […]

  8. cjceglio Says:

    Since we have two interesting topic here, I’ll divide my comments accordingly.

    Undergraduate Digital Humanities/Digital History Courses:
    Having just concluded an undergraduate seminar (From P.T. Barnum to Second Life: American Identities in the Museum) that incorporated digital humanities and technologies in modest ways, I definitely have ideas about what I’ll do differently next time and would love to discuss ideas with others on the challenges as well as the possibilities.

    Digital Humanities and Argumentation:
    I really like the idea of a session in which we discuss ideas, techniques, etc., for presenting arguments and engaging humanities questions using new media. One aspect of my THATCamp proposal dealt with development of pedagogical tools but the other and more immediately important to my work as a grad student is that I’m in the early stages of developing my dissertation proposal and am trying to envision how to make this a work of digital scholarship either in part or in whole. The hybrid option is more likely to work so far as approval, etc. (An abstract of my current but still very much in-process vision of the project—but not yet its digital aspect—is here: Having gained an appreciation for the new dimensions that digital tools can bring to the conceptualization and execution of scholarly work in the humanities, it is my hope that integrating digital humanities into this project will not only augment the types of analysis that can be pursued—and the audiences that can be engaged— but will also expand the ways in which the research problems themselves are formulated—and the arguments made. That said, I’m having difficulty conceiving of what this might be in part because I’m new to this enterprise of digital humanities. So would love to talk about the larger issues and brainstorm ideas.

  9. cjceglio Says:

    Bum link; the parentheses crept into the address. Since I can’t edit the last post, here is the link to the abstract again:

  10. Re: Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions? « archivalsoup Says:

    […] (DH). In his blog post, Where’s the Beef? Scheinfeldt responds to Rob Nelson’s THATCamp proposal and asks two fundamental questions for digital humanists: (1) “What questions does digital […]

  11. THATCamp 2010 » Blog Archive Says:

    […] I’m also really looking forward to discussing teaching digital history as mentioned by Rob Nelson and Jeff […]

  12. Zach Whalen Says:

    I’d like to think more about the question of involving new media in the production of argumentation. The way Rob raises the question is similar to how I attempted to respond to a similar, broader question, raised in a session at Faculty Academy with Jeff McClurken, Steve Greenlaw, and myself. What I tried to get across (and I don’t think I did it very well) is that I tell my students all the time that digital texts (videogames, for example) make arguments that avail themselves of the unique affordances of their medium. If scholarship is about making arguments in specific, scholarly contexts, then we should definitely be making use of medially situated argumentation.

    (I guess the even broader question would be whether scholarship must be a discourse, and if so, whether the institutions that support that discourse depend on the generic affordances of expressive forms like the essay or the book.)

    Anyway, I’m not a historian (I teach New Media in an English Department), so if this session takes a more discipline-specific turn (as the comments seem to), then I may have less to contribute. Either way, I’ll probably try and attend. 🙂

  13. THATCamp 2010 » Blog Archive Says:

    […] think, for many of the threads already emerging in session proposals. When Rob Nelson writes about arguing digitally, when Alex Jarvis looks to whatever comes after paper as a design problem, and when Dave Parry […]

  14. THATCamp 2010 » Blog Archive Says:

    […] humanities aspects as well. Since I already described my proposals for that camp in my comments on Rob Nelson and Dave Parry’s  entries, I will, with apologies, re-offer those summaries in slightly altered […]

  15. Sharon M. Leon Says:

    Rob, I think that perhaps this is a question that we have to vigorously raise with public historians as well as traditional academic historians. Why aren’t the public historians explicitly making arguments with their digital work? I’ve recently written a set of blog posts that begin to speculated on how to push on some of these questions, and I’d very much like to participate in this conversation.

  16. rbthisted Says:

    This sounds like a terrific idea for a session. My experience with projects at the AHR and Gutenberg-e is that the problem lies with the lack of rich and standardized tools to create born-digital arguments. This significantly limits the number of historians who can develop an argument that makes both a rich use of the media and novel contribution to the historiography. I’ve seen a number of projects wither and die because the authors had to fit their vision for the article to the available software, or got lost trying to develop (and get funding for) custom software to fit their vision.

  17. THATCamp 2010 » Blog Archive Says:

    […] collaborative learning, and the extra question Rob Nelson asks at the end of his post about what we should be teaching students in undergraduate DH classes).  I want to talk more broadly about what are the (digital) skills that we think people need to […]

  18. The “digital humanities” term and the clowns who usurpated it. | Jean-François Gariépy's blog Says:

    […] history”, it’s basically traditional historical artifacts that are digitized. Take Rob Nelson’s talk for example. Now that is not a problem; it’s a fact: there’s not much digital […]


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