This year, the American Historical Association’s annual meeting included a THATCamp, which I was happy to attend. Andrew Hartman, a professor at Illinois State University, published an interesting response, which I wanted to take a moment to address.
Hartman enjoyed himself but wondered if the scholars attending THATCamp evinced an unwarranted utopianism about the prospects of technology to transform the practice of history. It’s a good question, and an understandable reaction, but I don’t think it’s altogether accurate. First, I think that what Hartman understood as utopianism may in fact have been an attempt by the participants to make newcomers like Hartman feel welcome. If there’s a utopianism present at THATCamp, I think it’s more about the possibilities of new forms of interacting with each other, not the technology itself.
(As an aside, I think that for women this may hit a particular nerve. Digital humanities’ vaunted niceness is an aspect of the field I love, but for women in particular being “nice” is often read as an admission of intellectual inferiority. Some people can easily afford to be nice; for others, the cost is higher.)
In fact, as I’ve written before, technological utopianism bothers me a great deal for very personal reasons, and it’s a stance digital humanists have been quite active in countering.
More substantively, I’d like to respond to another of Hartman’s points: that while digital history is “an important new tool … it does not change the way we conceptualize the past.” I’d like to argue that it does, and in ways that directly counter the characterization of digital history as utopian. In fact, much of it has an activist project that, like Hartman, draws on Marxist theory.
Last week I attended the American Historical Association’s annual meeting in Chicago. Although I’ve always thought of myself as a historian, I hadn’t been to an AHA meeting since my first year of grad school in 2004. In part, I hadn’t been going because I’m affiliated with so many disciplines that it’s difficult to keep up with all the meetings. But I also hadn’t been going because I wasn’t sure what the AHA would do for me. I won’t be interviewing there, since I’m not applying for teaching jobs, and playing the big-conference game (pretending not to notice the thousands of ways people behave disrespectfully to each other) has started to seem unnecessary to me.
I did go back, though, for a few reasons. First, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve only recently come to understand how scholarly societies might be important sites of change within the academy. In my mind, AHA, MLA, SCMS, and their ilk were bureaucratic prestige-machines, awarding prizes and manning the gates for the old guard.
Recently, a much-loved friend asked me for advice on dissertation-writing, not because I’m any paragon of efficiency, but because she knew I’d struggled myself. She wanted to know if I had any words of wisdom about getting through the process with a minimum of pain.
This is a truth that’s only become fully apparent to me in my post-grad school life, and I thought that this might be something useful I could offer to my friend. While of course I knew in a theoretical way that what I was writing was an exercise rather than a finished product, this knowledge meant little to me in the hothouse of grad school. Now, a couple years after leaving Yale, I see that what I was doing was learning how to write scholarship. My dissertation is no great work of genius, I know that, but I feel no need to apologize. The world didn’t need another dissertation, but I needed the opportunity to learn to write one.
So here’s what I told my friend, and what I would tell myself if I could: You are more important than any damn dissertation.