Debate over Digital Scholarship

Ben Brands and I led the class discussion about digital scholarship. We aimed to provoke sharp discussion early in the class with our most controversial question: 1. What does Tim Hitchcock mean when he says “the book is dead?” Is he right or overstating the case?

While we did provoke discussion, the class did not divide into the pro-book and anti-book factions that I expected. The discussion was measured in tone and concerned Hitchcock’s themes about authoritarian structures inherent in the book’s form. While I had hoped the first question would inspire some fireworks to get discussion going, we did effectively address some of the structures of authority that Hitchcock described. Our discussion also ranged to the physical constraints of books and how that might be overcome by digital scholarship.

Though the first question did not engage the class in the way I expected, it was still an effective question. One of my questions which fell flat was: 5. William Thomas discusses the “fundamental components of scholarship” as evidence, engagement with prior scholarship, and a scholarly argument while his collaborator Edward Ayers identifies a broader concept of scholarship as that which “contributes, in a meaningful and enduring way, to an identifiable collective and cumulative enterprise.” How are these two views of scholarship related, and which is more valid and applicable to digital scholarship? What issues do each raise for digital scholarship?

I asked what I thought was an interesting question, and indeed a question that is fundamental to our discipline- what counts as history? The classes response: *crickets*. I think the question failed to elicit much discussion because it was too long and probably too amorphous and wordy. When discussing the much more concrete criteria for an AHR Digital Article Award, the class engaged in how argument and evidence interacted in traditional vs digital scholarship. They needed a little more structure in which to discuss the meanings of evidence and scholarship. I’m not sure that everyone in the class was convinced that non-linear arguments could exist let alone be effective. I similarly echo that skepticism until there’s more and more convincing examples of non-linear digital arguments.

I think this class is at a useful place in the syllabus because we’ve had a chance to explore all the tools that make up digital scholarship. The weeks’ articles can provide context for where all of these tools might fit into the historical discipline. One counterargument is that  by learning more about digital scholarship earlier in the semester, we’ll write for our blogs in a more effective manner by harnessing the hypertextuality of the web. Ultimately, the placement is useful because it links many of the themes of the surrounding weeks- particularly the traditional disciplinary forces pushing against digital history.

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