“Making Digital Scholarship Count” – An Undergraduate Perspective

Mills Kelly recently wrapped up his three-part series on “Making Digital Scholarship Count”. I think it’s an insightful contribution for a variety of reasons. First, and most important, it addresses a growing problem in the academic world (especially in the field of history). Quite simply, the academy faces two problems: it does not know how to properly define digital scholarship, and it knows even less about how to value digital scholarship. Mills (and the commenters on his series) did a great job describing the situation for a faculty, or even graduate student, perspective. What I’d like to do is give my thoughts on the problem from an undergraduate perspective.

The first issue (defining digital scholarship), while challenging, is in some ways more straight-forward to address. Mills paints a vivid picture of historians as “a fussy and conservative tribe generally resistant to innovation.” From my limited experience of four years in college, I would tend to agree with this assessment. I would not envy the 19 year-old trying to explain to a 65 year-old professor why they completed an analytical paper assignment as a series of photo-blogs. There is a knee-jerk negative reaction to any kind of scholarship that someone doesn’t understand, especially from people who are accustomed to understanding everything. The first trick is to simply provide them with a basic familiarity of the technology involved. If you can clearly convey just what exactly text mining or map mash-ups are, then you can begin to explain how you’ve used it.

The second, more challenging, issue that Mills presents is the heart of the matter: how do you properly value digital scholarship? Mills does a good job of addressing the issue, but I’d like to focus on how an undergraduate student would go about confronting the same issue. There are some major differences from this perspective. Most undergrads are not publishing papers, so the problem of peer-review, journals, etc. is not usually an issue. However, unlike grad students or faculty members, undergrads have a lot less flexibility and independence in choosing how they go about their scholarship. If your U.S. survey professor doesn’t know what a blog is, chances are you won’t even have the opportunity to go down the path of digital history. It takes a phenomenal amount of self-initiative, creativity, and persistence to get the necessary approval from a professor to employ digital tools. Even if a student has built up a personal relationship with a professor, walking into their office and saying “I want to create a VR model of a slave ship instead of writing a term paper” is an intimidating, and for most, laughably implausible scenario.  This first hurdle is enough to discourage the vast majority of students. The remaining fractional few that actually get the approval to pursue a form of digital scholarship then face the same challenges that Mills outlines in making their work “count.”

The historical academy is continuing to train a generation of undergraduate scholars to employ 20th-century tools to wield in a 21st-century landscape. I believe this, more than anything, is the greatest tragedy of mis-valuing digital historical scholarship. At the risk of sounding alarmist, this has the potential for disaster. If teachers cannot connect the subject of history to their students in a relevant, accessible manner, then undecided college or even high-school students will decide to study a subject that does. Within a matter of years, the overwhelming majority of college freshmen will have grown up in front of a computer screen. This simple fact will determine how they learn, study, and solve problems - habits and approaches that will have developed long before they step inside a college classroom. The historical profession’s resistance to adequately understanding and valuing digital scholarship runs the real risk of making history irrelevant to a generation of future scholars.