Looking Forward in the Rearview

When I applied to the PhD program in history at George Mason University, I did not know about the Digital History Fellowship. I had researched PhD programs that might offer a chance to work in digital history, and identified GMU and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as the best option for reaching my goals. When I received notification about my acceptance via a phone call from the program director, the fellowship was a pleasant surprise and exciting opportunity within an excellent program. Two years later, I can say with assurance that the Digital History Fellowship has altered the course of my career and created opportunities I could never have imagined.

To provide some context, here is a little background on the Digital History Fellowship, as I understand it:

The DH Fellowship was designed to support a PhD student in history at the beginning of her or his time at GMU. Students spend time in a practicum at the RRCHNM, receiving funds to support the full-time course load. The first cohort, 2012-13, was given two years of unattached funding, meaning that our time in the RRCHNM could be spent on a variety of projects. The second cohort also received two years of funding. The third cohort, who have just arrived at GMU, received only one year of funding. All of the PhD students in history receive funding from the history department, so the fellowship provides extra funding through GMU’s Office of the Provost. In total, the DH Fellows are offered 4-5 years of funding through the combined funds of the department and provost.

The students accepted into the fellowship are expected to be interested in the field of digital history. Most of the DH Fellows have some digital skills and knowledge before they apply for the program, but few have had extensive experience with digital tools and methodologies. The purpose of the fellowship is to help students gain knowledge, skills, and experience within digital history. Through a practicum at the RRCHNM, the fellows are able to learn at a rapid pace while also contributing to existing projects.

The title of this essay represents my view of the DH Fellowship: by examining our experiences over the past two years, we can identify trends and trajectories that help us understand the impact of the fellowship on our futures.

The students who receive the DH Fellowship gain experience in the following areas, which are in no particular order, and certainly not exhaustive:

If I took some time to consult with my colleagues, I’m sure the list would grow. More importantly, many of those experiences are well outside the realm of usual graduate studies, especially in history.

Understanding the value of a new fellowship in a new field can sometimes be difficult because of the lack of precedents. Amongst the participants at conferences, however, some comparisons might be made. I’ve attended multiple conferences in digital humanities, as well as the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on two occasions. At those events, I have noted a distinct lack of graduate student presence, even from universities with stronger digital programs. Conversations with other graduate students have made it apparent that the DH Fellowship is an exception in graduate training, even at universities with digital humanities scholars or centers. For many graduate students, those conferences and institutes offer the only way to access digital training, experience, or even exposure. The cost of access, however, remains sufficiently high in price and time that many graduate students cannot attend.

The numbers of educational programs, such as digital humanities courses and certificates, are growing, but remain limited in scope. Few departments or centers can provide a wide range of experiences in the short time that graduate students can afford. Many conventional masters and PhD programs provide little or no time for students to experiment with digital projects or methods. Even those programs with more flexibility must balance between disciplinary requirements and new digital components.

The DH Fellowship is one approach to the difficult task of educating PhD students in a discipline and valuable set of skills simultaneously. It allows history students to learn digital skills while working on history-based digital projects. Our abilities increase along two axes, as historians and as digital humanists. As a result, we start to become digital historians early in our careers, from the first days of our doctoral study. Our generation will be the first who can claim that depth of training.

We’d be mistaken, however, to describe the fellowship as the perfect solution. The first cohort arrived at the RRCHNM during a time of significant transition, as long-time director Dan Cohen took a new position at the Digital Public Library of America. The order and length of assignments within different divisions was altered for the second cohort, and again for the third. The types of assignments changed, new tasks were assigned, and have now been removed. The fellowship was intended to bring in three cohorts, and it will remain under construction from beginning to end.

The fellowship exists in a marginal space between three very different offices: the Office of the Provost, the Department of History and Art History, and the RRCHNM. Navigating the overlapping requirements and privileges of those three pivot points can be challenging. The DH Fellows receive slightly more funding than Graduate Research Assistants, but initially lacked desks and workspace in the center. After two years of intense training in digital history, there are no guarantees that we can continue in the center. That depends on the availability of grant money, rather than the provost’s funding. Two students from the first cohort remained in the center, but one moved into a teaching assistant position (by his own choice). An arrangement was found, but was negotiated on the ground when the problem arose.

That situation raised an interesting question: after investing two years in training graduate students, should they remain in the digital projects? For the students, our two year investment had no structured conclusion, leaving us precariously positioned going into third year. Was our time in the center meaningful enough that we’d be offered a position? We’d been told that the fellowship was important; but the importance of digital training seems to hinge on whether we (and the center) could sustain our training (and contributions to projects) when the fellowship ended.

The importance of digital history training is unquestionable. In a post that is optimistic for students and troubling for hiring committees, Sean Takats has highlighted the disparity between the number of jobs in digital history and the pool of candidates for such positions. According to Takats, “there simply aren’t enough candidates to fill the positions we already have, let alone the ones that may or may not be created in the future.

Within the center, graduate students watch job postings for digital history or digital humanities positions. Recently, a job search at the University of Alberta for a Digital Humanities Specialist included a long list of qualifications. Upon review, a group of current digital history researchers (graduate students) concluded that U of A would never find someone who could meet all of those requirements. If that person exists, she or he is probably still in grad school at a short list of universities. Maybe even at GMU. Maybe even a DH Fellow. There simply aren’t many places to look for someone with basic digital skills let alone a digital humanities specialist.

The benefits of the DH Fellowship might not be immediately apparent from its description alone. In part, it allows PhD students in history to learn new digital skills. It also allows those students to contribute to projects at one of the world’s foremost digital history centers. The interaction between the center, department, and students is a two-way street that benefits all of the participants.

When we leave the fellowship and eventually the university, we will take with us the lessons we’ve learned, the skills we’ve acquired, and the knowledge to shape the future of digital history and digital humanities throughout the world. We will find jobs in that field, whether in scholarly positions or alternative-academic roles. We will continue to build on our experiences, add new tools to our set, and enrich our practice of history with technologies that open new doors. We will trace our successes to our days at Mason, sitting in the RRCHNM, debating which programming languages best suit the needs of historians.

Planning the Wrap-Up

It’s been a long while since one of the DH Fellows wrote a post here, but I assure our readers that we’re not being lazy. Rather, we are busy with the daily goings-on of the center. Unfortunately, some of those activities are just not as blog-worthy as some of our previous activities. But as the term winds to an end, we’ll have some reflections on our winter term (or is it spring?).

Additionally, Cohort 1 (Amanda M., Ben, and Spencer) will be preparing a final report for their time in the fellowship. All of us will continue at the university and probably in the center, but our classification as DH Fellows officially ends at the close of this term. Our final reflections on the fellowship will help to identify its actual value from the perspective of its participants. Our views are important because the fellowship was proposed and implemented with certain values in mind, but those almost always change when the rubber hits the road. And who better to identify the worth of a training program than those who have been trained?

There is some difficulty, however, in our immediate future. The fellowship was proposed and implemented for three cohorts. In the fall, three new students will take the three final positions. The last cohort of the fellowship is also limited to one year of funding, after which they will depend on the department rather than the provost. It’s an awkward situation because those of us who were here at the beginning won’t officially be present at the end, and those at the end receive only a half portion of the fellowship’s peak output. (See note below)

The difficulty, then, is writing up a report from the perspective of guinea pigs that captures the success of the fellowship before it’s officially over. We all believe it was extremely valuable to the university, to the center, and to us. But how do we make that apparent to others? And how do we convince the new provost that another series of cohorts is a valuable investment? We’ll be tackling those questions in the next few weeks, and posting some of our conclusions here.

Note: I’m not suggesting that the third cohort is being short-changed. One year of funding under this program is better than no years of funding, and that’s just how it was designed. Furthermore, all PhD students in History at Mason receive at least three years of funding from the department. The fellowship is added to those years, so even one year extra is great.

Reflections: Year Two, Semester One

As the first term of 2013-14 closes, it seems appropriate to reflect on the experiences of the Digital History Fellows. Last year, our first cohort of DH Fellows spent the first semester meeting with Dan Cohen, learning the history of the center, discussing current projects, and thinking about how digital history is practiced. We spent our second semester working in each of the divisions for five weeks, and then decided in which division we would like to work in the second year. Although there was no specific requirement that we take positions spread across the three divisions, we were drawn in different directions. From the first days of the fellowship, Ben Hurwitz was most comfortable in Education and quickly entrenched himself at their community table. He now works on various educational projects, including the Popular Romance Project. Amanda Morton worked closely with Fred Gibbs before he relocated to New Mexico, which helped her transition into Research, where she works on Digital Humanities Now and related PressForward projects. Spencer Roberts was drifting toward Public Projects before the summer started, and settled in once the center received a grant to work with the National Park Service to revamp their War of 1812 site.

This year we welcomed three new members into the fellowship, bringing our total number to six. The second cohort follows a different schedule in their first year, so Amanda Regan, Anne Ladyem McDivitt, and Jannelle Legg stepped directly into the mix at RRCHNM, splitting their semester into seven-week blocks in Education and Public Projects. During those weeks, they have written reflective posts about the projects to which they’ve contributed, all of which can be found here. Next term, they will spend a block in Research before moving into a final seminar with Stephen Robertson.

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Public Projects: Reflection

The past seven weeks have moved really quickly but I have benefitted a great deal from the time we spent in the Public Projects section of CHNM.

Due to my relatively limited technical skills, this section has proven to be the most challenging thus far. However, with some help, and some pretty detailed instructions, I have been expanding my skill set and feel a lot less intimidated by the tools we work with. There are three main projects on which we focused: testing updates in Omeka, transcribing and revisiting documents at the Papers of the War Department and contributing to and testing the National Mall site.

I have deeply enjoyed them all, especially the sunny morning we spent at the National Mall. Additionally, a great deal of our work overlapped with the theoretical reading and discussions of our coursework as digital history scholars. It is rare for theory and application to be balanced, but that was definitely my experience this semester. I was frequently surprised to find applications of class reading at work and often referred to the work done at CHNM during course discussions.

Public Projects was deeply inclusive for us as fellows. I got a real sense of each of the ongoing projects and I learned a great deal about the collaborative work required to produce the resources described above.

Overall, this semester the fellowship has given me a structured place to develop my knowledge and expertise with digital tools, like Omeka and Scripto, and given me a sandbox to play with Git Hub and the command-line (if you know what those things are, you are in a much better place than I was three months ago!)

I’m looking forward to learning more in the semester to come!

A Bit of Reflection on Pressforward Projects

It’s interesting to be on the other side of the production of something like DHNow/JDH. Not only does sorting through material for each offer a unique opportunity to explore current events and conversations in the digital humanities, but this process also encourages deeper examination of blog posts and white papers to pull out threads of argument and evidence that can be used to connect disparate conversations across fields. Archaeologists and manuscript historians share common interests with those working in hard sciences and linguistics, although their work is rarely presented in the same forum. Part of what JDH adds to the DH community is this willingness to collect and edit work from across several disciplines and present them as part of a united DH culture.

I’ve learned, as a graduate student working on these projects, that being a part of this collecting and collating work requires a willingness to explore a wide-range of interests, and to read blog posts, white papers, and poster projects that have little to do with my own projects or areas of expertise. For example, most of the content for JDH comes from the pool of content chosen for Editors’ Choice features on DHNow, a selection process that requires Editors-in-Chief for a chosen week to read through content nominated by a group of editors-at-large whose experience in the DH community is variable. The job of the EC is to sort through these nominations, pulling out relevant job postings, conference and event announcements, calls for participation, and useful resources, then picking one or two items to feature as the Editors’ Choice for the Tuesday and Thursday of that week.

The selection of these Editors’ Choice items is left largely up to the EC for the week. There are guidelines, of course. These featured items need to be of substantial length, usually more than 500 words or 20 min. in video/presentation playback, and should make a relevant, substantive, and perhaps even provocative argument that adds to or initiates a conversation in the field. Since DHNow only links to these posts — there’s no editing involved — they should also be well-written and, if necessary, thoroughly cited. White papers and articles are generally only posted if they haven’t been published in other journals or periodicals.

While these guidelines are helpful, on good weeks Editors-at-Large nominate several pieces that meet the requirements, leaving final selection up to the EC for the week. Each of us have our own idiosyncrasies, of course, and our own areas of interest can influence our choices. We do also take into account how many times our options have been nominated, and we pay attention to that additional level of interest as well as checking for comments (in the PressForward plugin) that explain why our guest editors nominated individual items. What results is a crowd-sourced, yet still curated, publication that feeds into JDH.

Recent changes to the DHNow site — in both the sections dedicated to the Editors-at-Large and the main content pages — will hopefully encourage our guest editors to engage more in the content selection process. It will be interesting to see if new editors (and returning participants) start to leave more comments or more feedback to provide us with a better understanding of how they are selecting content to nominate. The other reason behind the redesign, beyond helping out current editors, was to pull in more outside editors. The more participants we have, the more feeds are nominated to be added to the plugin, and the more exposure both we and our editors have to the ongoing conversations and arguments circulating within the DH community. By encouraging the creation of a more engaged community, we are also pushing for more interdisciplinary participation in the field, bringing scientists, librarians, archaeologists, archivists, historians, and others into a community whose make-up should result in bigger and better projects and perhaps, a more solid sense of a DH identity.

Wanted Now: Training for our Future

The Digital History Fellowship is situated at the convergence of three separate goals for graduate students at George Mason University. First, all graduate students in the Department of History and Art History are required to take courses in digital history, usually consisting of one class in theory or study and another in practice (collectively referred to as Clio I and II). These classes are designed to give graduate students an introduction to the concepts and practices of digital history and new media that are increasingly important for scholars in all disciplines. Although experiences in the classes are widely varied, the skills introduced in the courses are common throughout digital humanities and form the backbone of the work done here at the RRCHNM. Because DH Fellows work in the center while learning new skills, they benefit ongoing research and grow their own capabilities.

Second, each DH Fellow is pursuing a minor field in digital history, which can take the form of study for teaching, application, or research. Some of us have studied how to use digital tools and media in the classroom, while others have examined the methods used in digital public history. Because the fellowship is technically a practicum course, it qualifies as a component of our minor fields, which removes some of the difficulty in assembling the required classes. Some of our colleagues in the program who are also completing digital history minor fields often struggle to scrape together a handful of classes that are offered infrequently (due to scarcity of instructors). Although the program and the center are working to resolve the problem, the fellowship sidesteps the issue by allowing us to work as DH researchers in return for class credit.

Finally, the fellowship fulfills a new goal for the history program: to train graduate students in digital history methods and skills through practical training alongside senior researchers, and to engage those students in the production of new digital history projects. Generally, our experiences are directed toward increasing our abilities while also contributing to the field. Though other graduate students have worked as research assistants in the center, acquiring valuable skills and experience as they work on projects, the fellowship is somewhat unique in its clear, mutually beneficial goals. And that’s exactly the problem.

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Collaboration: Breaking Down Center Walls

We all know that graduate students working in Digital Humanities Centers have the unique experience to work on a variety of projects and enhance technical and development skills. We have the chance to add lines to our CVs that can improve our chances of getting both academic and non-academic jobs, and get to see our names on the about pages of apps and websites. What I haven’t really seen in discussions about grad students in Centers is a conversation regarding the more immediate academic and social benefits–and challenges–that go along with participating in and working on-site at these Centers. We should also consider talking about how we can connect and collaborate with other grad students in similar situations.

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Looking back at the first year, and forward into the next.

Receiving a fellowship in the first year of its inception comes with a few advantages. When we entered the program last year, discussions about the structure and purpose of the fellowship were ongoing and the syllabus was somewhat fluid. This allowed us to express our own desires for the fellowship course, while also being privy to conversations about what the fellowship should aspire to. Meeting with senior staff and project leaders, we were able to quickly survey the types of work being done at the center and the resulting possibilities for DH fellows. Many of the staff were as curious as we were about the fellowship and this led to meaningful conversations about the Center as a whole.

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When Graduate Work Comes Together

The Digital History Fellows occupy a fairly unique role amongst the many graduate students currently studying in the humanities. We have been given research stipends to support the growth of our research capabilities, with particular emphasis on digital research methods. Because we are attached to the RRCHNM, our concentrated efforts are focused on specific projects, to which we contribute time and energy while developing digital methods and skills. We and the center benefit from the symbiotic relationship.

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