The Digital Past (History 390) at George Mason University is an undergraduate course exploring conceptual and applied approaches to digital history–that is, how to go about historical research and scholarship using a range of digital tools and resources. The class bridges an often-perceived duality between humanities and technology. Not only does it introduce undergraduates to digital history; it also fulfills George Mason University’s general education requirements in information technology.
Digital Dissertation is a tricky phrase. Google-search it and you’ll note that the first quadrillion responses refer to the ProQuest Digital Dissertation Database or to standards for formatting and submitting the dissertation electronically to university depositories and archives.
But look further: search for born digital examples of dissertations in the humanities, dissertations in which digital technologies are core elements of analysis, intrinsic to the thesis. You’ll eventually stumble across the pioneering dissertations of Chris Boese, Chaining Rhetorical Visions from the Margins of the Margins to the Mainstream in the Zenaverse (Department of Rhetoric and Communications, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1998).
Or that of Virginia Kuhn, Ways of Composing: Visual Literacy in the Digital Age (Department of English, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, 2005).
Seek prototypes in history scholarship and you’re likely to enter a black hole.
Digital technologies, we are told again and again, are redefining the practice of history in academia and in public history, “yielding transformations so profound that their nearest parallel is to Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type more than half a millennium ago.”
The dissertation is an ignored product in this redefinition. Not even a proverbial elephant in the room, the dissertation is an unacknowledged step in scaffolded progression of …
[Recap, part one]The results of a survey of students in the doctoral program in history at George Mason University demonstrated that two-thirds of respondents were either fully committed to or seriously considering including a digital component in their dissertations.
Looking at hard questions
Before we can create it, evaluate it, defend it, and submit it, we need to know just what IT is. The seminal logical inquiry becomes Just what is a digital dissertation? The digital dissertation may fall in a vast middle ground between the totally text-based traditional dissertation and the funded digital project realized over numbers of years by large staffs and collaborative teamwork. It is also differentiated from the work published digitally in open-source scholarly journals such as the Journal of Digital Humanities.
Certain qualities seem integral to any proposed definition, however. The dissertation is likely to remain an individual work, the exemplification of one person’s creative intellectual processes. The dissertation is terminal; that is, unlike many digital projects where sustainability is a consideration, the dissertation has an end point, a situational determination that the work is done. As a result, the technology(ies) upon which a digital dissertation is built is/are part of that dissertation and …
The syllabus for Fred Gibbs’s graduate course, Programming for Historians, is ambitious.
Even for this class lurker, shadow-in-the-corner, and tech-stalker, the thought of working through the modules and the extensive list of the skills to explore (with practicum)–HTML5, CSS3, databases in theory and practice, mySQL, PHP, mark-up languages and more–is grist for intimidation or perhaps evocative of a giant time suck.
But the syllabus is at least as compelling as it is daunting. Why? Partly because requirements include “Must be able to have fun and learn while accomplishing nothing.”
It’s also the emphasis on digital tools to refocus the way we look at historical resources and how we think about them and use them. As analytical tools, these technologies promote creative thinking, but they’re also eminently practical for organizing research and resources en route to the dissertation and building foundations for complex projects.
The extensive records of the Tredegar Corporation in the nineteenth century comprise a core resource for my dissertation. They are not atypical of a mid-sized, family-owned corporation whose external accountability was limited in contrast to today’s regulatory standards and for whom the rational factory was a futuristic system. They wouldn’t pass muster today, and in fact, didn’t in 1913 …
Forget the Year of the Dragon. It’s the Year of The Code.
The phrase Dublin Core might well conjure a folksonomy of James Joyce, Sweet Molly Malone, The Pogues (okay, not strictly Dubliners), the Chester Beatty, Jameson and Guinness.
And if it does, this one’s for you.
Actually, the referenced Dublin is Dublin, Ohio, site of the first exploratory Core workshop; the Core itself, 15 basic descriptors to classify, identify, and categorize just about any digital resource on the web. Officially known as the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI), the idea for Dublin Core originated in 1995 when self-described “freaks…geeks, and the people with sensible shoes,” admitted frustration in those pre-search-engine days over challenges of finding materials online. They looked for a solution appropriate to ordering and locating digital resources just as library classification systems (think Dewey Decimal) sort and relate multivariate materials.
The answer was Dublin Core, a metadata schematic with standardized categories to structure descriptions of digital resources across disciplines and among diverse kinds of materials and projects. These standards are developed, defined, and continuously refined via DCMI’s international, cross-disciplinary community.
Dublin Core is extensively documented. Even the most digitally inclined, however, have been known (anecdotally) to mutter some iteration of “What the…?” on first look at the definitions …