What’s Special About Digital History?

by Andrea Odiorne
One of the things that is special about digital media and technology is that it challenges the divide between teaching and scholarship. In a way research is always related to teaching. Research and analysis lead to a publication. The publication is designed to inform the reader, to teach them about a subject. Academics toil in the archives and write alone, but they also spend a good deal of time in a collaborative working environment, the classroom. (Mills Kelly does a very good job of explaining how the traditional scholarship, service, teaching model is not quite working for digital historians in Making Digital Scholarship Count. )
Some history professors seem to be receptive to fully utilizing digital technology for teaching, but not for their research. Historians might find it easier to think of themselves as “designers of experiences and interactions” (Turkel) if they realize that they already are, in the classroom. Perhaps thinking of the monograph as a teaching tool could help researchers envision new forms of presenting original research in the digital domain.
“Photography as a Weapon” provides an example of how this can be done with a blog. It asks viewers to closely examine primary source evidence (the two photographs) and introduces secondary sources (publications and interviews) related to the debate. The blog format also demonstrates the usefulness of collaborative work. The 1000 comments on the research formulate new ways of looking at the pictures and provide insights for further inspection.
Advances in digital technology make primary sources more accessible, open up new ways of analyzing those sources, increase collaboration, and offer new ways of presenting material. In effect, they blur the lines between teaching, scholarship and service, change the face of the academic “community” and might offer a challenge to what it means to be a historian.


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