Pragmatic as Well as Prescient: Digital History Education at George Mason University

Daniel J. Cohen, May 2009

In 2001, George Mason University’s Department of History and Art History enrolled ten graduate students in its nascent doctoral program, listed in the original brochure as “A PhD with a Difference.” The difference? An emphasis on digital history.

The expansion of graduate education and the rise of digital history are intertwined stories at Mason. Graduate education in our Department of History and Art History has benefited greatly from a focus on digital media and methods, and the pursuit of digital history by our faculty and the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) has drawn tremendous strength from the graduate program. At Mason, we have assumed that the digital realm is something that every graduate student in history needs to know about, and to which graduate students and other younger members of the profession are uniquely able to contribute.

In an age where archives and historical collections are increasingly available online, and in which scholarly communication has become almost purely electronic, this focus on digital skills is perhaps an obvious step to take. But adding that “difference” to graduate education a decade ago took significant foresight by CHNM’s founding director and social historian Roy Rosenzweig (who tragically passed away in 2007); former chair of the department and now dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Jack Censer; the director of the graduate program, Rosemarie Zagarri; and many other department faculty and administrators. Mason was also fortunate to have department members with both technical skills and the willingness to innovate, including professor and associate director of CHNM Michael O’Malley, and assistant professor John Cheng. Our current chair, Brian Platt, was also on board from the start and has continued to support the digital curriculum and the center.

Yet the origins of Mason’s digital history education were pragmatic as well as prescient. In the late 1990s, Mason had few doctoral programs (but many, often large, master’s degree programs). The university felt unable to add traditional programs, believing that kind of doctoral education was taken care of by the University of Virginia (UVA), the College of William & Mary, and other more established institutions. However, when the then governor of Virginia, Jim Gilmore, injected a $25 million earmark for high tech education into Mason’s budget, Rosenzweig, Censer, and ultimately the entire department became convinced that a PhD program that focused on digital history might fill a useful need—while tapping into these new funds. Rosenzweig worked with Zagarri to develop the guidelines for the degree.

The idea of a PhD with a strong new media component appealed to then-Dean Daniele Struppa, and it received much-needed support from Edward Ayers (then at UVA, now president of the University of Richmond) and Philip Morgan (then at William & Mary, now at Johns Hopkins University). Informed by colleagues at UVA and William & Mary that the new doctoral program would not encroach on existing, traditional programs in history, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia approved the addition with little debate in 2000. The department received a very high-quality first round of applications the following year, and the “PhD with a Difference” was born.

Clio Wired

Rosenzweig immediately began to shape the new media component of graduate history education by initiating a series of “Clio Wired” courses. (The name has stuck despite the rise of wireless computing). Rosenzweig had already taught a graduate course on digital history in the fall of 1998; this course was updated and then taught yearly as a requirement starting with the first class of doctoral students in the fall of 2001.

“Clio Wired I” was, and is, a theoretical and practical introduction to new media and its impact on the discipline of history. The earliest syllabus still available (archived at contained a few topics that now seem slightly dated. For instance, it has been some time since scholars (or anyone else) have created web sites using Netscape, much less used it as their web browser. But beyond these minor details, Rosenzweig’s rich conceptualization of what graduate students in history should learn in a digital age holds up remarkably well. Included in the syllabus were weeks on the history of new media and how it has shaped the methods and technologies we find ourselves with today; the advantages and disadvantages of digital tools; the nature of hypertext, cyberspace, and e-publication, and how they might affect writing, reading, and research; thinking of historical web sites in terms of genres; how to construct, and deconstruct, a web site; and the unexpected importance of design to digital work. The main assignment of Clio Wired was a “Digital History Project Prototype and Proposal” for a topical web site, digital essay, or online archive.

From the start, perhaps to the surprise of students and outside observers alike, “Clio Wired I” was a rigorous evaluation of the web and related technology. The course, like all graduate courses in history at Mason, was meant to be a critical exploration, and it encouraged careful consideration of new media rather than merely passing along digital skills and an appreciation for computers. Roy and I would later summarize this attitude in our book Digital History by noting that it was important for historians to be neither “cyber-enthusiasts” nor “techno-skeptics,” but to find a middle ground where we could make optimal use of new technology to further our own scholarly ends.1

With inevitable technological changes and a rotation of instructors, Clio Wired has changed over the years. The syllabus slowly picked up elements of “Web 2.0,” such as the implications of more social aspects of the Web (which perhaps threaten the privileged status of the professional academic historian)—including blogging, messaging, tagging, and crowdsourcing—as well as the possibility of combining historical materials and analytical tools from multiple sites (what programmers call “mashups”). The course has also begun to deemphasize the web site as the universal product of digital history. I’ve taught Clio Wired for the past two years and encourage students to envision and plan for a “digital historical resource” rather than a “web site”—that is, any use of new media to enhance historical scholarship or understanding. Last semester many students focused on the web but among other projects were a sophisticated application for examining Civil War battlefields with a cell phone; a method for extracting and visualizing events from a digital archive; and a way to mix faded historical maps with the modern-day detail of Google Earth. With each passing year, students in Clio Wired explore more broadly the way in which digital media and technology might aid or change the discipline of history—as it will surely do in the coming years.

Over the years, Clio Wired also expanded into a second and third graduate class. Clio Wired II, “Creating History in New Media,” which has been taught skillfully by Paula Petrik, focuses much more than Clio Wired I on the design and implementation of a digital history project. Clio II is in many ways the practicum to supplement Clio I’s introduction, and student creations in the class must display both digital know-how and historical insight. Petrik possesses both genuine design sense and the ability to make design teachable. More recently, Mills Kelly, an expert on pedagogy and technology in our department, has added a third Clio Wired graduate class, “Teaching and Learning History in the Digital Age.” Just as many historians have used Google Book Search without thinking of the mechanisms behind it or its implications for scholarship, many history teachers have introduced digital media in their courses because they feel it is necessary to use the latest technology. Kelly encourages his students to rigorously assess the nature and effectiveness of this technological invasion of the classroom. In the near future the department plans to add a fourth course on more advanced topics in digital history (such as programming-intensive methods of research), as well as our first undergraduate edition of Clio Wired I. Student demand for these courses seems insatiable.

Center for History and New Media

At the same time that the Clio Wired series and the history graduate program grew, the Center for History and New Media expanded. When I arrived on campus at the beginning of 2001, I was only the fourth CHNM staffer, huddled in an anteroom to Roy Rosenzweig’s office with the very talented trio of Kelly Schrum, CHNM’s director of educational projects, Elena Razlogova, the webmaster (and now professor at Concordia University in Montreal), and Jim Sparrow, who was leading a project on the history of science and technology (and who is now a professor at the University of Chicago). Today, the center consists of over 50 historians, researchers, programmers, designers, and educators, not including faculty from the department who rotate into the center for a semester to contribute to digital projects that relate to their research interests.

The center has provided a major outlet for digital historical work at Mason—providing, in effect, a history lab inside the university. Graduate research assistantships at CHNM are a major part of the digital history training the department provides. Many students from Clio Wired have moved seamlessly from their coursework to part-time or full-time work at the center, and from the center and graduate program to faculty positions at other universities, public history jobs at museums, libraries, and other cultural heritage institutions, and technology jobs inside and outside of academia. In addition to Sparrow at the University of Chicago and Razlogova at Concordia University, alumni include faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Hawaii, directors of digital scholarship at Emory University and the New York Public Library, and a fellow at the Papers of George Washington.

CHNM has become a wide-ranging enterprise, doing everything from educational web sites (where the center began its work in 1994), to web exhibits and digital archives, to software for scholars and students. Last year CHNM’s various project web sites received 16 million visitors, and its tools are now used by over a million people in 40 languages. Although I like to think this is solely due to the creativity and quality of our work, it is also undoubtedly a sign of the exponentially growing importance of new media for the academic landscape.

At a time in which Google, the Open Content Alliance, and other organizations have digitized millions of books, in an age in which a rapidly increasing proportion of the historical record is online (albeit in some cases just as digitized finding aids), and with the adoption of new software and digital services, especially among younger scholars, it seems uncontroversial to say that soon we will all be doing digital history in one form or another. Although a mix of idealism and pragmatism led to the founding of our doctoral program, it has become our department’s conviction that digital media and technology is of broad utility to history graduate students and that it cannot be experienced or understood at arm’s length.

Must graduate students who will focus on documentary evidence that is unlikely to be digitized learn these new techniques? Perhaps not. But Victorianists who now have at their fingertips over a million scanned books probably should know them, and political historians who face wading through the 40 million e-mail messages from the Clinton White House surely must know them. And as those scanners work day and night, more and more fields in history will find themselves with the problems of scale, digital manipulation, and the electronic communication of findings that those poor presidential historians now encounter. If we are to give our students the means to analyze and synthesize information from vast online archives, then they must understand the underlying technology and how best to approach it.

Moreover, regardless of one’s historical interest, scholarly communication is changing for all of us, from e-mail to online forums to web bookmarking services. Clio Wired courses mandate the use of blogs and other new forms to acclimate students to these modes of transmission. Electronic communication is not merely about the velocity of scholarship but ideally also about discovery—of new archives to visit and new scholars to pay attention to. For public historians—and increasingly on the Web we are all public historians—tomorrow’s history exhibits will be digital far more often than physical, so we will have to know how to build these exhibits so they convey our scholarship well in the medium. Overall, if we are to continue to innovate in our discipline, we must strive for the effective use of all tools at our disposal, even if they are daunting technologically.

As Tom Scheinfeldt, managing director of CHNM, blogged last year, digital history (and the digital humanities more broadly) requires more attention to methodology than theory. This might be an uncomfortable fact, since for most of the past 50 years our discipline has focused on—and rewarded—theoretical advancements rather than practical ones.2 But if the digital age has not changed everything, it has changed quite a lot. Dealing with this change requires more than just distanced consideration. Far more in 2009 than in 2001 it is clear that the fundamental activities of the historian—researching, publishing, teaching—have been forever altered by the transition to digital media and technology. Far from being radical, it seems rather commonsensical to alter graduate education in response to this change.

—Daniel J. Cohen is an associate professor of history and the director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.


1. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 3.

2. Tom Scheinfeldt, “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?” available at