Guidelines for Digital Dissertations in History

On September 25, 2015, the History and Art History Department at George Mason University voted unanimously to endorse a set of guidelines for our graduate students that set out baseline expectations for digital dissertation projects.

This endorsement marked the culmination of a year of drafting and consultation between the Graduate Studies Committee, the faculty in the department who teach digital history courses and advise digital projects, and the graduate students who are in the midst of doing digital history work.

Under the auspices of the Graduate Studies Committee, I began drafting a set of guidelines in Fall 2014. I knew from working with my own doctoral advisees through the dissertation prospectus process that there was a good deal of confusion about what the department as a whole would require of a dissertation project with a non-traditional format. Doctoral candidates need a concrete sense of the expectations they need to meet to achieve success with their work.

Initially, I consulted the thin collection of existing work on digital dissertations. This included the outcomes of Kathie Gossett and Liza Potts’s NEH workshop on “Building an Open-Source Archive for Born-Digital Dissertations” and several other sources from the world of literary studies. The most promising active work here came from Amanda Visconti’s ongoing discussion on her blog of her process in creating “‘How Can You Love a Work if You Don’t Know It?’: Critical Code and Design Toward Participatory Digital Editions” at the University of Maryland.

Next, I turned to statements on evaluating digital scholarship. The Modern Language Association has been the leader here, approving guidelines first in 2000. The most recent statement was updated and approved in 2012. Also in 2012, the Journal of Digital Humanities produced an issue that focused on the subject of evaluation. Finally, at the point that I began drafting, none of the professional organizations for historians had developed guidelines, but the American Historical Association was in the process of developing a set. They have since approved and disseminated guidelines for evaluation. Most of this discussion has been targeted at the needs of junior scholars who are facing possibly hostile promotion and tenure committees, not at doctoral candidates working to complete their degrees.

Over the past year, the guidelines that resulted from this research underwent several rounds of review, commentary, and revision. And, I think that the final product marks a significant step toward loosening the grip of the proto-monograph format for dissertation work, while continuing to emphasize the need for rigorous scholarship in whatever format is most appropriate.

While this is a positive move, we still have serious issues to address in the realm of official deposit and preservation of digital dissertation work. This is usually the responsibility of the university library, but very few institutions are equipped to ingest and provide access to web archives, or to provide emulators for other kinds of digital work. Digital humanities scholars are going to need to enter into a serious conversations with our university librarians and institutional repository administrators to develop a official submission process that preserves digital dissertation work.

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Sharing Lessons Learned in Digital Public History Work

If you are a member of the National Council on Public History, you might have noticed that RRCHNM’s project Histories of the National Mall has been named the 2015 Outstanding Public History Project (pdf).

As co-directors of the project, Sheila Brennan and I are really very honored by the award. The folks at NCPH are our people and understand the importance of our project goals and objectives in a way that non-public historians often do not.

As a result of the award, we’ve had the opportunity to write up the project:

Both of these posts make clear the degree to which the project’s design and implementation were shaped by the content and the needs of our users.

We’re also committed to helping other public historians embark upon similar kinds of projects. Sheila wrote a very helpful “How did they do that?” post when the site launched last year.

The next step in our work on the project is to publish a more formal guide to doing similar kinds of sites. Writing these kinds of guides has been standard practice with RRCHNM’s public history work for a long time now. For instance in 2008 when we finished the live events that accompanied the Object of History project, we produced a document for public history organizations who might want to create similar object-centric learning experiences (pdf). Next, we moved on to the Bracero History Archive, which won the NCPH Outstanding Public History Project award in 2010. That site also includes a guide to doing collaborative documentation (pdf).

All of these materials make clear that the planning and execution of successful digital public history work is equal parts technical and social. The nuts and bolts of how to set-up and shape a site are one thing–a thing that lots of people need help with. But, it seems to me that the more important thing is always the social–the testing, the collaboration, the outreach, the evaluation, and the sharing of the lessons learned.

As more public historians do this work, I’d love to see a growing library of guides and reflections. Perhaps something for History@Work to aggregate in the library?

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Users, Visitors, Community Members?

I’ve been steadily making progress on my current project for about 8 weeks now, and I find myself writing a lot about the people who use digital public history websites and applications. The problem is, I can’t figure out what to call those people.

The traditional options include user, visitor, and audience. To me, user and visitor seem unnecessarily vague, but audience is even worse because it bakes in a sense of passive reception that just doesn’t reflect reality when so much of the web is interactive and participatory.

Given this dissatisfaction, I turned to the OED thesaurus for a little inspiration. Sadly, I found none.

  • user: handler; utilizer
  • visitor: comer; repairer; resorter; visitant; guest; caller
  • audience: spectators; listeners; viewers; onlookers

There are several other options that arise when we consider the idea that we might want to create dialogic experiences with our digital public history work:

  • partner
  • participant
  • contributor
  • volunteer
  • community member

Of these, I like community member best, but that doesn’t leave much room for the notion of reaching new people who might not already be invested in the work.

In the course of a twitter conversation, Tom Scheinfeldt suggested that he is trying to use “people-first” constructions: people who engage with the site; people who contribute content; etc. That definitely has some appeal — to talk about what people do, rather than who they are — but I worry that it’s too easy to lose the essential role that social context plays in shaping the ways that those people interact with work.

So, I offer this question to the wisdom of the crowd (another term I don’t like).

How should we refer to the people who engage with our digital public history work?

Posted in Scholarship, Technology, Public History | 12 Comments