Annual Meeting

All Things Digital at the Annual Meeting and Beyond

Seth Denbo, February 2014

Photo by Marc MonaghanI have very recently taken up a new role (for both the AHA and myself), with the responsibility of directing how the AHA both engages in and fosters digital scholarly communication, and the annual meeting felt a little like being thrown in at the proverbial deep end. Thanks to a lot of help from some amazingly committed AHA staff, digital historians, and members of the Association, I managed to keep my head above water and even swim a few lengths (still proverbially, of course—the cold and the outdoor pools made any real swimming impossible).

What follows is impressionistic and will be only a partial picture of digital engagement at the annual meeting, but this article has the somewhat ambitious aims of covering what were for me the most exciting aspects of this year’s conference, and of looking to the future of digital scholarship in history and to what the AHA has planned for the coming year.

The digital offerings at the AHA meeting continue to grow; more than a dozen panels over the course of the conference covered a full range of issues, from MOOCs to text mining. There were panels on the impact of digital engagement, and on the use of digital tools and methods on teaching, research, and communication. Every session on topics in digital history I visited was well attended. I was also part of a number of informal conversations at the AHA booth in the exhibition hall, at receptions, at meals, and anywhere digital historians gathered. The annual meeting was a venue for people who are already doing digital history to meet and exchange ideas, as well as a place where historians new to these methodologies and practices could learn and make contacts.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was the opportunity to engage with digital history being done by graduate students and early career scholars. The round table on the digitally informed dissertation featured four young scholars engaged in innovative and exciting work. All spoke cogently on the need for creative thinking about formats for the dissertation, while retaining a respect for disciplinary imperatives. One of the refrains that I heard (and even voiced in the “Getting Started in Digital History” workshop) is the need to ensure that digital methods are suited to the particular question the historian is asking, and that those methods are combined with more traditional means of analyzing sources.

In addition to presenting on and discussing computational research methods and using digital tools in the classroom, attendees used digital means for communicating about their experience at the conference. Wi-Fi in all meeting rooms enabled a lively discussion on Twitter that included almost one thousand original tweets posted by more than 400 conference participants, and throughout the conference a number of useful and interesting blogs were published on topics related to the scholarship on display at the conference.

Photo by Marc MonaghanIn future years we will build on the digital history offerings of this year’s meeting, with an even greater range of panels and activities. I’ve had a preview of some of the digital history panels being put together by the Program Committee, and the offerings are of excellent range and quality. One notable session will be the first-­ever lightning round at an AHA annual meeting, which will present developments in digital pedagogy. Some of the slots in the lightning round will be open to participants who sign up in person at the meeting. We are also already working on plans to reprise the highly successful preconference workshop to introduce scholars to digital history, and the first­ever reception for history bloggers and tweeters will be repeated again next year.

Another important development at the annual meeting was the AHA Council’s approval of the charge to the committee on professional evaluation of digital scholarship by historians. See the executive director’s column in this issue for more on this important committee. This is an important early step toward the larger role the AHA intends to play in advocating for digital scholarship in history, and it leads me to a discussion of our wider strategy for digital engagement, as well as the beneficial role that the AHA will play in the changing landscape of scholarly communication.

In my introduction to digital history at the workshop, I asked for a show of hands as to how many of the attendees used citatio-­management software, and a majority of hands went up. The workshop was aimed at historians who had little or no experience with digital tools and methods. Nonetheless, many of them utilized what is actually a fundamental building block for many digital history projects.

This brought home the complexity of the landscape in which we work; so much of what we do everyday involves computers that we don’t even think about the ways in which it affects our work. It also makes me think that the day when we no longer distinguish between digital methods of interrogating our sources and those that we currently see as “traditional” may be upon us sooner than we anticipate. Helping to build an understanding of the impact of computers on our work is crucial, and the AHA can help through education, outreach, and advocacy.

This engagement takes two main directions. The first is about use of digital tools within the AHA. We are looking at the best ways to develop our organizational resources to better serve the community. These approaches will include continually improving our already much-­praised new website, directing our use of social media in productive ways, and exploring the building of further services that will provide our members and the discipline with yea-­round digitally enhanced means for communicating, collaborating, and developing their careers.

Looking more outwardly, we are exploring ways to encourage and support the use of the digital environment in scholarship. Using digital tools for teaching, research, and communication needs to be done with the quality and persistence of the scholarship in mind. While research methods have always been very individual and based upon the needs and working practices of the individual scholar, there have also been accepted best practices. When we organize our research, take notes, and in some cases analyze our sources using computers, it is necessary to do so in ways that will survive the vagaries of technological change. The AHA can provide an invaluable service for the discipline by helping to promote and teach correct practices. This education and outreach facet of our plans could be done through face­to­face methods, such as seminars and workshops, and by providing online resources for our members. Building capacity for digital scholarship means not only education and training, but also ensuring that the work is not done in vain, and that proper evaluation makes doing work of this kind a viable career decision, and a valuable contribution to the discipline of history.

Historians are still scholars and teachers, but the means by which we perform those roles are changing. As we at the AHA swim toward providing members of the community with the guidance and support they need in navigating the turbulent waters of 21st­century scholarly communication, we will want your help to know what the discipline needs, what historians want, and what the AHA can do to help.

—Seth Denbo is the AHA’s director of scholarly communications and digital initiatives.