Publication Date

April 23, 2019

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Research & Publications


Digital Methods

While digital dissertations have surfaced in many disciplines and fields over the last 20 years, they’re still new for history. Increasingly, history doctoral students are engaging with digital methods and employing digital tools in classes, workshops, and side projects, but the dissertation has been slower to change. Incorporating digital methods, presentation, and tools in an individual sustained research project is still largely uncharted territory, and both students and their advisers are interested in examples and knowledge about how to proceed productively.

Chart published by the Seventh-Day Adventist publishing association.

Jeri Wieringa’s digital dissertation focuses on Seventh-Day Adventism. Wikimedia Commons

The 2019 AHA annual meeting featured a roundtable discussion on an emerging aspect of doctoral education in history: the digital dissertation. Jeri Wieringa (George Mason Univ.) and I co-organized this panel, which sought to bring together recent graduates and current doctoral students and their advisers for a candid discussion on digital dissertations. The panel consisted of the following participants, student and adviser, grouped by dissertation project: me and Suzanne E. Smith (George Mason Univ.); Wieringa and Sharon M. Leon (Michigan State Univ.); and Zoe LeBlanc (Vanderbilt Univ.) and Madeleine Casad (Vanderbilt Univ.). Thanks to the overlap of the AHA and MLA annual meetings in Chicago this year, we were able to ask Lisa Rhody (Graduate Center, CUNY) to be chair and moderator. The conversation was wide-ranging and highlighted the many complexities of creating and advising digital dissertations. We also discussed larger questions about what these new forms of doctoral work mean for the discipline. Three main themes emerged, all of which started from the particulars of the three projects presented and expanded outward to consider doctoral education and training in history as a whole.

Examples Matter

Whether the emphasis is on the digital presentation, computational methods, or both, digital dissertations can take a wide range of forms. The roundtable provided a rare opportunity for Wieringa, LeBlanc, and me to present our projects together, highlighting how different digital dissertations in history can be. Wieringa’s dissertation, A Gospel of Health and Salvation, examines the unique religious culture of Seventh-day Adventism and uses topic models of the denomination’s periodical literature to examine methods for constructing and presenting historical narratives based upon computational analysis. LeBlanc’s dissertation, Cairo Calling, examines the emergence of Egypt, later a part of the United Arab Republic, as an international hub for anti-colonial media and revolutionary politics. LeBlanc leverages a combination of text and image sources with computational methods, and explores ways to bridge numbers and narratives at various scales of historical analysis. My dissertation project, They Need You!, examines the visual rhetoric of poster-child campaigns in 20th-century America. Through the digital publishing platform Scalar, the project re-presents all of the elements required of a historical dissertation in a way that foregrounds visual materials. In each case, our content areas, sources, and lines of inquiry shaped our projects in distinct interdisciplinary ways. The dissertations demonstrate how historical argument can be presented in linear and non-linear narratives, as well as in multiple non-narrative formats such as code, data visualization, and image annotation.

The roundtable made our work visible as examples and models for other doctoral students and advisers to consult. Throughout the rest of the annual meeting, we were approached by people interested in learning more about our projects and experiences. Most of them hoped to use the roundtable discussion and our dissertation projects as evidence when making the case for digital work, including dissertations, at their local institutions. In many ways, digital dissertations come up against otherwise “invisible” institutional structural barriers around access to technical resources and information, preservation, and support for such work. Speaking more openly about our experiences with these institutional and programmatic barriers helped draw attention to the issues facing digital dissertation work in the larger academic ecosystem.

The Adviser/Advisee Relationship

The process of doctoral students and advisers building advising relationships is complex from the beginning. Students can find it challenging to navigate personal idiosyncrasies and structural hierarchies in the best of circumstances, but digital history dissertations add another magnitude of complexity because the gap between what advisers know and what doctoral students are trying to do is often wider. Simply put, more of the student’s work is unfamiliar to the advisers, who are also learning much more than usual.

All the advisers in the roundtable had some kind of methodological training and/or content knowledge that anchored their advising, but each noted that the distance between the students’ work and their own knowledge was greater than when advising traditional projects. My dissertation’s digital design and presentation, for example, lay outside Smith’s experience with digital publishing. Additionally, the particular ways that advisees apply digital methods to their particular research projects can be outside the practice of even experienced digital historians. Wieringa’s dissertation, for example, moved beyond Leon’s knowledge of topic modelling into underlying algorithmic and theoretical frameworks.

Critically, all panelists agreed that filling the gap requires extra work from both advisers and advisees. Finding common language and communicating expectations is a vital give-and-take for digital dissertations, which critically layer engagement with and use of digital methods and tools with the standard historical research process. Panelists outlined two approaches for advisers and advisees to take when scoping a digital dissertation: sketching parameters and a plan and using that as the reference for the direction of work, or starting with more open experimentation and using lessons learned to define scope of the project. There are merits to both approaches, and all agreed that talking explicitly about advisees’ plans to go forward and working together to keep projects bounded and reasonable was imperative.

Digital dissertations also ask advisers to think more about what is in their own skillset—formal or informal training, skills, experiences, networks—and how best to advise the development of the dissertation. Students working on digital dissertations often face numerous obstacles including learning the requisite technical skills, securing copyright clearance, finding publishers for digital projects, and positioning digital work in a shifting and shrinking academic job market. The latter is a key factor for the continued viability of digital dissertations as useful experiences that set doctoral students up for career success.

Who’s Doing the Work

Just as our dissertations presented examples of what could be done, the roundtable presented an opportunity to reflect on who was doing this groundbreaking work. The makeup of the panel showed a range of methodological trainings, areas of expertise, and career roles. All of the advisers earned their PhDs outside of history (American studies and comparative literature), pursued deeply interdisciplinary work themselves, and occupied different career stages and institutional roles. All of the advisees worked with different content areas and methodologies, while also drawing on area studies, computer science, and statistics. Additionally, all of the advisees are currently working (or have previously worked) in non-faculty digital humanities/scholarship positions. Advisers and advisees all agreed that openness to interdisciplinarity was necessary for successfully folding together digital methods and tools (often borrowed from other disciplines) with historical scholarship.

Follow-up conversations after the roundtable formally ended noted the gender makeup of the panel. While we didn’t have time to directly address this during the session, it does raise questions about the gendered dimensions of digital history practice. These are complex issues, particularly given who is recognized and what work is cited in narratives of digital history. Women’s contributions to digital history, as Leon recently wrote, have often been overlooked or erased. Given this past, I see this roundtable on an early stage of history digital dissertations as a moment to attend to who is doing the work of creating and advising these projects. It is too early to make any conclusions about digital dissertations, but it is not too early to look at who are making these choices, how digital dissertations affect career trajectories, and what are the ramifications of digital work at the graduate student level going forward.

What digital dissertations do best is push historians to make explicit and discuss the assumptions and norms surrounding doctoral training and historical scholarship. I hope this roundtable opens the door for more like it: more opportunities to demonstrate doctoral work, to raise challenging questions about the scholarly ecosystem in which we operate, and to share experiences and knowledge. Moreover, I hope this conversation continues to grow and that institutional and programmatic change normalizes this work for current and future doctoral scholars to be able to pursue digital projects with greater support and recognition.

Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe is an academic technologist at Carleton College, where she works on projects that integrate technology into the curriculum. In 2016, she received her PhD in history from George Mason University for her digital dissertation project “They Need You! Disability, Visual Culture, and the Poster Child, 1945–1980.”

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