Separating from the Pack

Almost two years ago, I made the decision to go to graduate school. At the time I was basking in what could only be called a history nerd’s dream summer break, spending my workdays as an intern at the New-York Historical Society’s public programs department doing background research on professors and authors we could invite to give talks. While learning about traditional history occupied my days, learning about digital history began to occupy my evenings (at least when I wasn’t occupied with being a 21 year-old enjoying NYC). I had used GIS extensively the previous summer through a research project and had caught passing glimpses of the broader digital history universe, but I hadn’t fully explored it as a possibility for future study or (gasp) a future career. By the end of the summer, I had realized with a crystal-eyed clarity that digital history is what I wanted to “do” - in the airplane conversation sense of, “So, what do you do?”

By the time I began the actual application process, things had become even clearer, but certainly not easier. I loved history - I loved reading it, researching it, writing it, speaking it, teaching it. The idea that I could potentially spend my life doing these things made me embarrassingly giddy. At the same time, I was endlessly fascinated by the potential that lay in digital scholarship as an exciting frontier with seemingly limitless possibilities. When I sat down to my computer to start looking at schools, I began to feel the intense tug-of-war between these two impulses that would become a constant throughout the next nine months.

On the one side of the spectrum lay the traditional academic program, ivy-wrapped in prestige and brimming with names that fly off the jackets of some of my favorite books. On the other side lay the digital history program, sleekly packaged in technology and humming with voices that build the blogs and websites I trawl. On the one side, my college professors and the academic job market counseling me to apply to the very best schools I could. On the other side, my own geeky impulses were urging me to take a chance and apply somewhere new and different and exciting. I did my best to split the difference, and in the end, I was lucky enough to be accepted to a school with a fantastic combination of these two sides.

My experience led me to the conclusion that just as digital methodology is shifting the scholarly landscape of historical study, it is also altering the competitive landscape of the field. Schools are rapidly carving out digital niches for themselves, and this will prove increasingly attractive to successive waves of graduate applicants and job candidates. Most of these individuals will be reliant on accessing databases and articles online, many will be familiar with new forms of media and technology, and some will be interested in areas of visual design, data mining, or spatial analysis. However, if any of them were to ask their advisor or mentor for suggestions on programs that are strong in digital history, they’d likely hear a one-name (if any) reply: George Mason. Most advisors wouldn’t be able to point towards Nebraska-Lincoln or University of Virginia as digital history strongholds, the same way they would be able to point towards Duke and North Carolina for their strength in African-American history.

This will change. At first glance, the general structure will remain the same. “Top-tier” schools aren’t likely to start hemorrhaging applicants to less-established programs immediately. Innovative schools like UNL will continue to fight the persistent prestige-and-name-recognition battle. Nonetheless, subtler transformations will occur. Even five years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a school like George Mason (whose doctoral program has only been in existence for eight years) would be able to compete on an even footing for history applicants with a school like Stanford. Now, their success in establishing themselves as the dominant industry leader gives them an unparalleled advantage for anyone interested in digital history.

Even for schools on traditionally similar footing, an established track record of integrating new media can easily tip the scales in their favor. Much like special collections and on-campus archives, showing off a sparkling digital infrastructure will emerge as a “sexy” way to pull in both applicants and candidates. Wealthier schools may begin to invest in humanities computing centers and new kinds of software, even if for the simple goal of keeping pace with their competitors. The day is not far off when the mainstream academic history-verse buzzes with the news that an ivy-league school has “poached” a leading history professor in media and technology. Grant proposals for more applicable digital initiatives will cut out bigger slices from an expanding NEH pie.

The schools that will truly separate themselves from the pack, however, will be the ones that demonstrate their support for digital scholarship on an ideological level.  Those programs that establish a sustained committment to encourage, guide, and reward the members of their department (both faculty and students) for digital methodological inquiry will be the ones that will emerge in the best position to attract and train historians eager to tackle the technological opportunities inherent in today’s world.