Looking Forward in the Rearview 2

When I applied to the PhD program in history at George Mason University, I did not know about the Digital History Fellowship. I had researched PhD programs that might offer a chance to work in digital history, and identified GMU and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media as the best option for reaching my goals. When I received notification about my acceptance via a phone call from the program director, the fellowship was a pleasant surprise and exciting opportunity within an excellent program. Two years later, I can say with assurance that the Digital History Fellowship has altered the course of my career and created opportunities I could never have imagined.

To provide some context, here is a little background on the Digital History Fellowship, as I understand it:

The DH Fellowship was designed to support a PhD student in history at the beginning of her or his time at GMU. Students spend time in a practicum at the RRCHNM, receiving funds to support the full-time course load. The first cohort, 2012-13, was given two years of unattached funding, meaning that our time in the RRCHNM could be spent on a variety of projects. The second cohort also received two years of funding. The third cohort, who have just arrived at GMU, received only one year of funding. All of the PhD students in history receive funding from the history department, so the fellowship provides extra funding through GMU’s Office of the Provost. In total, the DH Fellows are offered 4-5 years of funding through the combined funds of the department and provost.

The students accepted into the fellowship are expected to be interested in the field of digital history. Most of the DH Fellows have some digital skills and knowledge before they apply for the program, but few have had extensive experience with digital tools and methodologies. The purpose of the fellowship is to help students gain knowledge, skills, and experience within digital history. Through a practicum at the RRCHNM, the fellows are able to learn at a rapid pace while also contributing to existing projects.

The title of this essay represents my view of the DH Fellowship: by examining our experiences over the past two years, we can identify trends and trajectories that help us understand the impact of the fellowship on our futures.

The students who receive the DH Fellowship gain experience in the following areas, which are in no particular order, and certainly not exhaustive:

If I took some time to consult with my colleagues, I’m sure the list would grow. More importantly, many of those experiences are well outside the realm of usual graduate studies, especially in history.

Understanding the value of a new fellowship in a new field can sometimes be difficult because of the lack of precedents. Amongst the participants at conferences, however, some comparisons might be made. I’ve attended multiple conferences in digital humanities, as well as the Digital Humanities Summer Institute on two occasions. At those events, I have noted a distinct lack of graduate student presence, even from universities with stronger digital programs. Conversations with other graduate students have made it apparent that the DH Fellowship is an exception in graduate training, even at universities with digital humanities scholars or centers. For many graduate students, those conferences and institutes offer the only way to access digital training, experience, or even exposure. The cost of access, however, remains sufficiently high in price and time that many graduate students cannot attend.

The numbers of educational programs, such as digital humanities courses and certificates, are growing, but remain limited in scope. Few departments or centers can provide a wide range of experiences in the short time that graduate students can afford. Many conventional masters and PhD programs provide little or no time for students to experiment with digital projects or methods. Even those programs with more flexibility must balance between disciplinary requirements and new digital components.

The DH Fellowship is one approach to the difficult task of educating PhD students in a discipline and valuable set of skills simultaneously. It allows history students to learn digital skills while working on history-based digital projects. Our abilities increase along two axes, as historians and as digital humanists. As a result, we start to become digital historians early in our careers, from the first days of our doctoral study. Our generation will be the first who can claim that depth of training.

We’d be mistaken, however, to describe the fellowship as the perfect solution. The first cohort arrived at the RRCHNM during a time of significant transition, as long-time director Dan Cohen took a new position at the Digital Public Library of America. The order and length of assignments within different divisions was altered for the second cohort, and again for the third. The types of assignments changed, new tasks were assigned, and have now been removed. The fellowship was intended to bring in three cohorts, and it will remain under construction from beginning to end.

The fellowship exists in a marginal space between three very different offices: the Office of the Provost, the Department of History and Art History, and the RRCHNM. Navigating the overlapping requirements and privileges of those three pivot points can be challenging. The DH Fellows receive slightly more funding than Graduate Research Assistants, but initially lacked desks and workspace in the center. After two years of intense training in digital history, there are no guarantees that we can continue in the center. That depends on the availability of grant money, rather than the provost’s funding. Two students from the first cohort remained in the center, but one moved into a teaching assistant position (by his own choice). An arrangement was found, but was negotiated on the ground when the problem arose.

That situation raised an interesting question: after investing two years in training graduate students, should they remain in the digital projects? For the students, our two year investment had no structured conclusion, leaving us precariously positioned going into third year. Was our time in the center meaningful enough that we’d be offered a position? We’d been told that the fellowship was important; but the importance of digital training seems to hinge on whether we (and the center) could sustain our training (and contributions to projects) when the fellowship ended.

The importance of digital history training is unquestionable. In a post that is optimistic for students and troubling for hiring committees, Sean Takats has highlighted the disparity between the number of jobs in digital history and the pool of candidates for such positions. According to Takats, “there simply aren’t enough candidates to fill the positions we already have, let alone the ones that may or may not be created in the future.

Within the center, graduate students watch job postings for digital history or digital humanities positions. Recently, a job search at the University of Alberta for a Digital Humanities Specialist included a long list of qualifications. Upon review, a group of current digital history researchers (graduate students) concluded that U of A would never find someone who could meet all of those requirements. If that person exists, she or he is probably still in grad school at a short list of universities. Maybe even at GMU. Maybe even a DH Fellow. There simply aren’t many places to look for someone with basic digital skills let alone a digital humanities specialist.

The benefits of the DH Fellowship might not be immediately apparent from its description alone. In part, it allows PhD students in history to learn new digital skills. It also allows those students to contribute to projects at one of the world’s foremost digital history centers. The interaction between the center, department, and students is a two-way street that benefits all of the participants.

When we leave the fellowship and eventually the university, we will take with us the lessons we’ve learned, the skills we’ve acquired, and the knowledge to shape the future of digital history and digital humanities throughout the world. We will find jobs in that field, whether in scholarly positions or alternative-academic roles. We will continue to build on our experiences, add new tools to our set, and enrich our practice of history with technologies that open new doors. We will trace our successes to our days at Mason, sitting in the RRCHNM, debating which programming languages best suit the needs of historians.

2 thoughts on “Looking Forward in the Rearview

  • Matthew Lincoln

    I’m really glad to see a post reflecting on graduate training in digital approaches to the humanities.
    Here at UMD we’re quite proud of our Collaboratory for Visual Culture, through which a lot of our art history Ph.D students work for a semester or two to develop skills in (and perspective on) many of these digital methods. That said, we haven’t yet figured out what a longer-term trajectory for graduate training in digital methods for art history might look like (not that anyone really has). But I’m glad to say that it’s part of an evolving and substantive conversation now amongst not only the students but also the faculty here. While I think that assistantships within digital centers and extended fellowships like the one you describe here are all worthy approaches for the moment, I also agree that they don’t fit smoothly into the longer Ph.D trajectory.
    Could it be that what we are looking for is, well, the traditional graduate structure? A graduate advisor who (ideally) ensures that their students have sustained guidance in their digital explorations, that these students get experience working on preexisting projects, and, most importantly, that these students deploy these methods effectively as part of the student’s own research agenda?
    That’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, I know! And you run into the problem of specialty-vs-method. Would I (in my fantasy world) be a professor of 17th Century Dutch Art AND Digital Art History? Would my students have to specialize in my period of art historical study if they wanted to write a dissertation built around digital approaches? Then again, we already have structures for navigating this kind of work. As professors have certain period specialties, we know that they also have (either tacitly or less so) methodological predilections that transcend periodization: e.g. this prof is great for thinking about gender and art, this one for art in the built environment, this one for curatorial questions. You may be writing on Dutch art, but it may also make sense to have, say, the professor of ancient Japanese art sit on your dissertation committee because they can advise you on method and theory. So as much as I dislike the idea of colleges creating department-agnostic positions in the "digital humanities" (see SUNY Stony Brook), I do wonder if it makes sense to create discipline-specific positions: professor of digital literary studies, digital history, digital art history, etc.
    (As an aside about the Alberta posting: it would help if they were more realistic about the fact that their list of "qualifications" is really a dreamy wish-list of potential talents; I suspect that ad may inadvertently drive away the pool of people they really need.)

  • Dad

    The path of life is directly proportional to the direction our feet are pointed, whether clad in work boots or Prada our steps remain in our control to change. We have watched as your life has followed a path of hidden gems waiting to be discovered.. Unearthing the experience of life will always be mysterious when the path is untrodden by others. Congratulations Spencer for pushing the frontier of education forward.

Comments are closed.