The M.Phil in History and Computing at the University of Glasgow

  1. 1. Donald Spaeth

    School of History and Archaeology - University of Glasgow

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The M.Phil in History and Computing, offered by the University of
Glasgow, is now in its twelfth year. It is a one-year taught postgraduate
course providing specialised training in the application of computer-
based methods to substantive problems in history. It aims to give
students a sound methodological grounding in the use of computers in
history. Emphasis is placed on the application of software to historical
problems rather than on programming or quantitative methods. The
M.Phil is designed for students with a background in history or a related
subject who wish training in the application of computers to history, and
who hope to go on to pursue a research degree or another career (e.g. in
archives, teaching or humanities computing) in which knowledge of
computers may be of assistance. No prior computing experience is

The M.Phil grew out of the DISH Project, a project funded by a UK
agency (the Computer Board) in 1985 to promote the use of computers in
history teaching. In the late 1980s DISH set up a laboratory of computers
and launched an undergraduate course called 'Computing for Historians',
to which many history academics contributed. (Morgan and Trainor
1990; Spaeth and Cameron 2000). The infrastructure was therefore in
place for a postgraduate programme. The greatest obstacle in the early
years of the course was the reluctance of one of the University's four
history departments to co-operate with the course. Ultimately, however,
DISH provided the seeds for the coalescence of these and other
departments in a School of History and Archaeology. Since its
beginnings the programme has been well-supported by the University,
both in the continued updating of the computing facilities and in the
provision of staff resources. Staff include a Lecturer in Historical
Computing (the author) and a Resource Development Officer for History,
Archaeology, Art History and Classics (Ann Gow); the latter is part of the
infrastructure provided by the Humanities Advanced Technology
Information Institute.

The M.Phil computing presents as a means to an end, rather than as an
end in itself. The course is intended to be relevant to all varieties of
history, and not just to quantitative methods. This approach differs from
those of some other programmes, which see historical computing as a
subset of either humanities computing or quantitative social science.
(Spaeth et al. 1992; Davis et al. 1993). Students take three courses,
including two compulsory core courses, and write a substantial
dissertation: Core Course A: Methods and Techniques of Historical
Computing; Core Course B: Issues and Debates in Historical Computing;
and Select Course. The structure of the programme is designed so that
students either learn techniques in the context of an historical problem
(Core Course A) or are provided with the interpretative context into
which they can fit computer-based techniques (Core B and Select). The
intention is that the dissertation will then integrate history and

Core Course A is a lab-based course introducing key techniques and
advanced methods in historical computing. Instruction, which includes
examples drawn from real case studies, emphasises historical
interpretation as much as methods and techniques. Term 1 focuses upon
established methods for analysing historical source material, such as the
census. Students use database and spreadsheet software to query existing
databases and apply their findings to substantive historical problems (e.g.
the experience of the Irish in Britain); they also learn to model and design
databases. Term 2 investigates innovative approaches to historical
computing, including digitisation, text mark-up and presentation,
including delivering materials on the Internet. Students also do a pilot
study which helps them to begin work on their dissertations.

Core Course B is a seminar course introducing theoretical issues and key
historiographical debates. Each seminar is led by a different member of
academic staff with expertise in the topic under review, such as Electoral
politics in eighteenth-Century England; Slavery in the American South;
Consumer behaviour; or Wealth-holding in nineteenth-century Britain.
The Select Course enables students to develop a deeper understanding of
an historical period so that they can place new methodologies in their
broader historiographical context, often leading to the dissertation topic.
Students choose from options taught by different staff within the School
of History and Archaeology. Instruction is either by one-to-one tutorial
or taught course, such as the course in the history of medicine taught by
staff from Glasgow's Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine.

Assessment is most often by essay, since the purpose of the programme
as a whole is to teach students to use the computer as an historical
research tool. For this reasons, must students choose to submit a 15,000
word dissertation based upon computer-based research. However, in
recent years Core Course A has begun to enlarge its focus to encompass
computer-based presentation of resources and results, as well as merely
computer-based analysis, and the new modules may be assessed by
practical work. In October 2000, two students submitted multimedia
dissertations on CD-ROM, in which they presented the results of their
research, but also used the medium to provide the reader with primary
sources (selected and highlighted in a manner akin to quotation in a
conventional bound dissertation). These multimedia dissertations were
primarily assessed on their content; computing techniques were assessed
insofar as they were used effectively to communicate and present
historical results.

The M.Phil in History and Computing has never had a large intake of
students. Cohorts have ranged in size from three to seven students.
These numbers reflect both the specialist nature of the course and the
difficulties which some applicants have in funding their studies. The
course is able to nominate to two ESRC Quota Studentships each year
and nominates one to three students a year to studentships funded by the
Wellcome Trust, for study of the history of medicine. It is rare for more
than one or two students a year to pay their own fees. Unless more
funding is made available, the course is unlikely to attract more students.
This may raise questions about the course's viability (although Core
Course A is also taken by other history postgraduates), since it limits the
number of options that can be offered. These numbers might be thought
to reflect potential students' appraisal of the job market. In fact, the
course has had good success in placing graduates either in research
studentships (enabling them to proceed to a Ph.D) or in jobs, most often
supporting historical or humanities computing.

The M.Phil in History and Computing is currently being reviewed, as part
of a wider review of postgraduate programmes in the School of History
and Archaeology. One stimulus for this reform is to strengthen the
research training element of the M.Phil, so that it continues to be eligible
for studentships in the next few years. Another is to bring these Master's
programmes more in line with one another, increasing the number of
students sharing options and reducing disparities in workloads which that
students taking the M.Phil are required to submit more work (as they tell
us!) than those doing other programmes. The School of History and
Archaeology continues support the M.Phil in History and Computing
strongly, and wishes to maintain its distinctiveness in the future.


V. Davis, et al., eds., The Teaching of Historical Computing: An
International Framework (St Katharinen, 1993).

N. J. Morgan and R. H. Trainor. 'Liberator or Libertine? The Computer
in the History Classroom', in Humanities and the Computer, ed. D. S.
Miall (Oxford, 1990), 61-70.

D. Spaeth, et al., eds., Towards an International Curriculum for History
and Computing (St Katherinen, 1992).

D. Spaeth and S. Cameron, 'Computers and Resource-Based History
Teaching: A UK Perspective', Computers and the Humanities 34 (2000):

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at New York University

New York, NY, United States

July 13, 2001 - July 16, 2001

94 works by 167 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (21), ALLC/EADH (28), ACH/ALLC (13)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC