Digital History Across the Curriculum

  1. 1. Amanda L. French

    New York University

  2. 2. Peter J. Wosh

    New York University

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If digital humanities is an isolated ‘enclave’ that remains
largely isolated from humanities disciplines, as
Martha Nell Smith averred at the 2008 Digital Humanities
and the Disciplines conference, perhaps one reason
is that the residents of that enclave have not often tried
to initiate broad curricular reform. Certainly, researchers
who are part of the digital humanities community teach
courses that use the writings of digital humanists, courses
that use the texts and images and audio and video digitized
with funds granted to digital humanists, courses
that use the web sites and databases and software developed
by digital humanists, courses that use the theories
and methods and language of the digital humanities, but
such courses seem to remain the specialized offerings of
specialists. Unlike women’s studies, for instance, which
at the very least increased the number of objects for humanities
inquiry by an order of magnitude, the researchoriented
field of digital humanities has not changed most
humanities syllabi.
This paper will tell the tale of one graduate program’s
programmatic attempt to incorporate the intellectual and
practical insights of the digital humanities throughout its
curriculum. In 2008, the National Historical Publications
and Records Commission awarded a grant to the Archives
and Public History graduate program in the History
department at New York University for the purpose of
creating ‘a model curriculum that fully engages new media’
with ‘a completely integrated and coherent approach
to digital and electronic records issues.’ (Wosh, 2007) To
create this model curriculum, the program hired a Digital
Curriculum Specialist to take on four well-defined tasks:
first, to revise the syllabi for three key courses and to
work closely with faculty and graduate students in those
courses; second, to review the eight other syllabi for
courses in the Archives and Public History program and
suggest changes where needed; third, to arrange at least
four digital history internships at cultural heritage institutions
in the New York area to enable graduate students
to gain significant experience working on digital history
projects; and fourth, to create an entirely new Advanced
New Media course.
The very existence of the Digital History Across the Curriculum
project at NYU might be considered evidence in
support of the claim that the field of digital humanities
has ignored curricular reform, perhaps at its peril, perhaps
thus enclaving itself. As the grant proposal points
out, the NYU Archives and Public History program is
one of only a few archival studies programs based in a
history department rather than in a library and/or information
science department, and this location in the humanities
seems to have hampered the program’s ability
to adapt organically:
Joseph M. Turrini, an archival educator at Auburn University,
correctly observed in a May 2007 AHA Perspectives
article that most history-based archival education programs
have failed to adjust to changing professional expectations,
especially ‘the expansion of specialized archival
courses and the increased technological expectations
of archivists.’ In truth, public historians, history departments,
and humanities-based archival training programs
have largely lagged behind their information science colleagues.
George Mason University offers an M.A. in Applied
History with a new media and technology emphasis
and has emerged as a leader in the field, but few other
institutions have followed along. Most programs offer
isolated ‘new media’ courses at best. Indeed, recent curricular
surveys of the public history field contain virtually
no discussion of technology or digital issues. This appears
particularly puzzling since these studies also document
the fact that employers expect program graduates to possess
precisely the blend of technological, collaborative,
and administrative skills that immersion in digital history
might provide. (Wosh, 2007)
For ‘applied’ humanities fields such as archival studies,
documentary editing, and public history, the need for
digital curricular reform or reinvention is obvious, if not
always easy, placed as they are within humanities departments
that rightly value critical inquiry for its own
sake. It may be the case that digital humanities can only
be transformative in humanities fields with just such an
applied emphasis; even our project confines itself to revising
the curriculum of a single track within a large history
department, rather than the broader curriculum of
the history department itself.
Yet one of the most promising and invigorating characteristics
of digital humanities as a field is that it combines
an emphasis on applied professional skills with the same
deep respect for intellect, ethics, and emotion that animates
the traditional humanities. Will there ever be an
initiative to revise the entire curriculum of a History department,
an English department, a French department,
a Philosophy department to incorporate the issues and insights of the digital humanities? Does such an initiative
seem unlikely, unnecessary, unimaginable? If so,
then perhaps the digital humanities is quite properly segregated
from humanities disciplines, and perhaps we can
continue talking among ourselves.
Smith, M. N. (2008). Enclaves: Perils and Possibilities.
Unpublished conference paper. Digital Humanities and
the Disciplines. Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
NJ, October 2008.
Turrini, J. M. (2007). The Historical Profession and Archival
Education. AHA Perspectives, 45(5). http://www.
cfm (accessed 14 November 2008).
Wosh, P. J. (2007). Digital History across the Curriculum.
Unpublished grant proposal. New York University:
National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None