Writing History in the Digital Age

Last week I discovered a resource so fascinating and germane to my research on digital writing in history classrooms that I emailed Professor Miller at three in the morning. Writing History in the Digital Age is an edited volume published online in 2012 and now available in print as part of the University of Michigan Press’ Digital Humanities Series. This collection raises poignant questions about the effects of digital technologies on a central component of the historical disciple. In the introduction, editors Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty ask, “Has the digital revolution transformed how we write about the past–or not?” Have new technologies changed our essential work-craft as scholars, and the way in which we think, teach, author, and publish? Does the digital age have broader implications for individual writing processes, or for the historical profession at large?” The twenty essays presented in this work offer personal reflections and arguments that ask historians to rethinking the way they create and disseminate knowledge.

An entire section, “Practice What you Teach (and Teach What You Practice),” is devoted to exposing students to the the production of historical scholarship and the culture of academic writing. Thomas Harbison and Luke Walzer, both at the Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College, argue that courses need to introduce students to the practices of the trade: historical thinking and writing. In line with Calder’s “Uncoverage,” their essay highlights the balancing act professors have to perform between covering ample amounts of material and cultivating those core skills. Unfortunately, in most scenarios, writing and thinking fall by the way side. Blogging, however, provides a platform that allows for the kind of “writing-intensive, project-based learning” that instills the “unnatural act” of producing historical knowledge.

The writers rationalize blogging in history courses a lot differently than Andrea Lunsford, who argues that blogposts force students to craft convincing arguments and enhance their writing style. They argue that sharing work online makes students experience peer-review firsthand. Having others critique their work shows history and non-history majors alike that “doing history is a collaborative and dialogic process.” It also makes “knowledge” visible as students see their peers grapple with their research and distill it into historical knowledge. Moreover, it makes the same knowledge visible to professors, who can then better aid “student learning processes and produce data… to redirect their teaching.” While Blackboard might do the same for professors, its design makes it difficult for students to respond to one another and reference their previous writings as they continue working on their individual projects. Furthermore, blogging has six characteristics that make it effective and, coincidentally, follow James Gee’s principles of learning. They are active, social, open, media rich, metacognitive, and immersive. Blackboard doesn’t even come close.

Amanda Seligman, from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, discusses how she teaches “Wikipedia without Apologies” to contextualize the resource for students. She maintains that students are going to visit the site whether or not she addresses it, so there is no use pretending it doesn’t exist. Instead, she uses it to make students think about “authority, authorship, and argument” in encyclopedias. One of her assignments asks students to find three articles on Wikipedia-a bad one, a good one, and an excellent one–and locate the corresponding topic in a specialized academic encyclopedia. Students are then expected to write a short paper that explains “the qualities that make a tertiary source good and useful for historical research.” The paper also asks students to do something that makes their heads spin: to detail the way each article conveys its argument. Students normally take the writings of encyclopedia articles at face value, much like they do with history textbooks. With encyclopedias, they learn that “choosing which details to include and exclude is implicitly an act of argument.” Working with Wikipedia is a stepping stone to teaching students about the importance of incorporating arguments in historical writing.

Writing in the Digital Age presents many things we have to contend with as we embark on our own e-book writing venture. For example, this volume was “born-digital.” Contributors uploaded their drafts on the web, invited others to comment, and revised their essays accordingly. They received 945 comments. Should we plan to have an open peer-reviewed collection as well? If so, how would we do it? Would we start a Google Doc or publish it on HASTAC like Cathy Davidson’s Duke21 class? Or should we investigate open-source publishing tools like PressBooks, which allows others to edit chapters? Finally, should we consider finding a press that is willing to publish our book in print after we’ve published it online?

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One Response to Writing History in the Digital Age

  1. This book looks fantastic! The concept of “born-digital” books is pretty fascinating, too. Some of the reading I was doing this week talked about the difference between traditional scholarship about digital technology/pedagogy, and scholarship that tries to utilize or engage with digital technology/pedagogy in its very creation and dissemination. Sounds like this is a creative solution to the problem of writing a book about a digital world.

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