[This is a guest post by Jeff Rogers, an Editor & Content Coordinator for the Townsend Humanities Lab at UC Berkeley. He is pursuing a PhD at Berkeley in American history and blogs regularly for the Townsend Lab on issues relating to technology, the humanities, and education].
Last year, I was one of several graduate student instructors at Berkeley tasked with teaching John Kenneth Galbraith’s, The Great Crash, to sections of a freshman-level US history survey course. It was the right book at the right time: the recent housing bubble had burst spectacularly; the economy was sputtering; and the media was full of public figures pointing fingers. Some of my fellow student instructors were excited about the teaching opportunity. Others weren’t.
The dividing line ran between a small group of humanities graduate students who felt comfortable with a basic level of economic literacy and another group of grad students who didn’t. Sitting in our teaching meeting that week, I remembered that one of my colleagues had had an excellent idea in our first year in the graduate program: an “economics for historians” course that would both ensure a certain level of economic literacy within the department and give new graduate students a degree of exposure to economic history case studies (which constitute a large methodological branch) that few were likely to have had as undergraduates. Like many great ideas, that one didn’t take root, but what I take to be the lesson of that story—i.e., that our work as academics, teachers, and humanists sometimes necessitates a basic fluency outside of traditional disciplinary boundaries—has stayed with me.
So what does this have to do with the digital humanities? Everything. We’re at a point in this still young field where many of the most exciting and spirited conversations turn on questions of what’s next, who’s in, where are we going, and how can we build the vehicles we need to get there. These are all great questions, but they’re by no means the only questions. I’d also venture to say that they’re not even the most important questions to most humanists.
Where are we going? That’s the question of the vanguard (the early adopters and key innovators in the field) —setting the agenda, the course for future research. If the digital humanities were a ship, setting the course would be a concern of the captain and crew. But before that ship sails, it’s also important to have everyone else on board.
For the work of this vanguard to be interpreted and, arguably, even appreciated by a wider following, it will be necessary for a wider group to have at least a basic understanding of that vanguard’s methodologies and assumptions. This brings us back to my initial example. Just as not every historian needs to be an economic historian, not every humanist needs to be a full-on “digital humanist,” but it’s important to realize that in the course of one’s research and teaching career, a fluency in the basic concepts and tools of related methodologies can be tremendously useful. And if this has been true of historians with regard to economics, it will be much, much more so of humanists with regard to digital technology.
I can make that assertion with complete confidence because while economics may only occasionally fall within the purview of the cultural historian in her research or teaching, the growing spectrum of digital tools already represent something more totalizing than a methodological branch. They are increasingly constitutive of all of our work processes. You may never use GIS mapping to make your argument about urban political history or employ large-scale data mining text searches to prove a point about the influence of an idea, but you will be involved in electronic publishing. You will read and write blog posts. You will make use of virtual maps and collaborative authoring and editing. Just as you’ve come to accept the necessity and utter normalcy of responding to email, these newer digital tools will become essential and natural to doing the business of academic work.
At UC Berkeley’s Townsend Humanities Lab, we see access to and a basic familiarity with these tools as the greatest need of the greatest number, and we want to be sure that the need of this group is met and supported. In addition to providing web services (project space, a suite of web 2.0 resources, and live support) to the Berkeley humanities community, this means that we’re pushing ourselves in a sustained outreach effort aimed at bringing traditional humanists into the fold and forging ties with other DH initiatives to promote collaboration and to ensure that all constituencies are having their needs met.
As exciting as it is to see the trailblazers forging ahead, it is also crucial to realize opportunities throughout the broader community as web-based technologies are remaking every essential process of academic work. In a very real sense, we’re all digital humanists now.