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.

Too often, university programs in the humanities fall short of preparing graduate students for their intended careers. Although there has always been debate over whether the fundamental purpose of graduate school is to pursue knowledge or pursue a career, no one would argue that a program can ignore the training aspects of its mandate. The diversity of careers that students might pursue after graduation, among other reasons, compels programs to train in so-called “soft” or transferable skills, like comprehension or writing, rather than hard skills, like carpentry or stenography. In the digital age, however, the list of desirable, transferable skills is growing, the line between soft and hard skills is blurring, and graduate training is falling behind.

Admittedly, there are small pockets of effective graduate student training throughout the world, usually found at universities with research or innovation centers. But even within our small department, the difficulties of graduate training quickly become evident. The graduate program offers only two or three classes in digital history each year, leaving few options for students wanting to acquire new digital skills. Furthermore, two of those classes change only slightly from year to year, meaning that even a good year will only offer one new opportunity. This term, students can take a class in History and Cartography. Last year, some students undertook a topic in advanced digital history, Using Historical Data. Some years, there are no options at all.

Aside from the fellowship, there are only a handful of research assistant positions offered through the RRCHNM, which is limited by the funding received through grants for specific projects. Each year, the staff must evaluate their ability to employ students, and the numbers will almost always fluctuate. More importantly, research assistants devote their time first to the project, then to professional development (and usually only tangentially). Few students who enjoy and engage with digital topics in Clio I or II have opportunities to expand on those fundamental digital skills.

Yet the department and the center are both shining examples of how graduate students can be trained in digital skills, and even contribute to research. We have compulsory classes in digital history, offered by the department and taught by digital historians. The fellowship was a joint initiative between history administrators and center staff, and received funds from the GMU Office of the Provost to train and employ six graduate students over three years. These accomplishments are noteworthy, but are extraordinary because they are uncommon.

The most obvious limitation is financial. Without money to pay for assistantships, none can be offered. Without faculty members to teach digital skills, none are taught. And without training in the essential digital skills that now augment the traditional transferable humanities skill set, graduate students are left to their own devices.

There are, however, means by which students can pursue such skills outside of their home institution. THATcamps have sprouted throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Argentina, and many European countries. The Digital Humanities Summer Institute at University of Victoria has missed only one summer since 2001, offering 6-day courses in various technologies and methodologies for humanities research. Smaller training sessions, such as Rails Girls, are offered around the globe, bringing senior scholars and students together to learn new skills and methods. Scholarly associations such as the ACH and ADHO now offer bursaries and travel funds for students who seek further digital training. Opportunities have improved dramatically in the past few years, but the growth is found in external scholarly communities, rather than inside academic institutions.

To be fair, a skeptical reader might ask, “You have the opportunity to learn these skills. Why are you complaining?” My concern is two-fold. First, even the fellowship is a temporary measure with no promise of continued funding. It benefits six students now, but what about other students in the future? Second, the fellowship is a rarity. More of these opportunities exist now than ever before, yet the percentage of humanities graduate students with access to training in digital skills remains abysmally low. When the only success stories are temporary and rare, a larger problem looms.

If universities discovered a similar shortage of training opportunities for skills such as reading, comprehension, critical thinking, and writing, the response would be immediate. Unfortunately, we’re not likely to see posters like the one below in the near future. But how can we live in the digital age and think that digital skills are any less valuable than the skills that defined the humanities in the print age?

futureHow might we ensure training for our future?
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One thought on “Wanted Now: Training for our Future

  1. Well now I have a sheet to hand out to friends who ask us what you are studying. I can tell them ‘education’ and how it is a’changin.

    Cheers Spencer, well written.

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