DH and the (Social) Sciences

The topic of poster sessions came up a short time ago among some other history graduate students and I was surprised at the responses. While not outright hostile, I got the sense (perhaps incorrectly to be fair) that few were open to the idea of creating a poster themselves. This response was surprising to me because I had just come across the AHA’s poster session list for its 2011 conference (which was not its first venture into poster sessions) as well as the fact that in many other disciplines posters are a widely used medium for research. Perhaps it was my familiarity with the social sciences, in which poster sessions are nothing new, or digital history, which lends itself to visual mediums, like posters, that made this format seem like a logical medium for the presentation of scholarship. Regardless, I have been thinking that digital methods and tools bring history and the humanities towards social sciences (and sciences too, but I am more familiar with the operation of the social sciences). It certainly seems digital humanities scholarship more often takes advantage of statistical analysis, lab format researching and multi-author article publishing than non-digital scholarship. Whether this is good or bad, I feel this disciplinary turn is something worth examining.

The Lab

As an undergraduate I had to take a lab session with my chemistry course (and hated it). It was not until this year, when, in my digital history seminar, I once again came across a lab component. Admittedly, I like the DH lab much more, but I still find it interesting that in order to best instruct the technical tools in a seminar format, incorporating a “lab” in which the students use trial and error and other (perhaps?) “scientific” exercises to learn. As historians continue to use more digital or quantitative tools, graduate (and undergraduate) students will need to learn these skills and following the lead of other disciplines that have used quantitative tools for longer seems logical.

The other way in which the “lab” is coming into history and the humanities is the assembling of a hierarchical research model. While this model can be abused, when used properly, this model can support innovative investigation into questions that necessitate large scale projects. These projects also allow students to gain valuable experience in producing scholarship. In history, in which research can often mean monastic-style solitary confinement, this hands on experience can be vital for developing scholars, as well as produce publishing opportunities for young scholars who may have the potential to co-author a piece with other more established scholars.


In the field of history, the monograph has become the most important factor for judging the career of scholars, but other disciplines, like many of the (social) sciences, this emphasis on “the book” does not seem to exist. Instead, journal articles (some that only publish digitally) take the cake. By emphasizing shorter pieces that are more quickly produced (I’m guessing on average at least), the pace of scholarship can be quickened (if it takes ten years to write a book and another ten for a response, I do not think the pace qualifies as quick).

As the academic publishing industry (drastically) declines, the book as the end all be all of academic achievement is an unsustainable model for history. Tenure and promotion will have to be decided on other means as fewer and fewer monographs are published. If historians are wise, they will pay attention to the models of other disciplines while reshaping the field of history and its standards,.

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