SIF at the Crossroads


This March, historians from around the country will be gathering at Drew University to discuss the state of graduate education in the field. Like many disciplines, particularly (but by no means exclusively) in the humanities, history departments have been burdened for years by aging graduate curricula and cultural expectation that the American Historical Association called (10 years ago!) “striking for its narrowness,” still based on academic job market conditions from the middle of the twentieth century.

The conference, “Crossroads: The Future of Graduate History Education,” will bring together people interested in revamping the now very dated ways historians are trained. Many of the conference panels will likely focus on broadening training, so that historians will be better able to compete for jobs other than Assistant Professor, and on finding ways to shape the desires of graduate students, whose career aspirations have been found to narrow as they progress through graduate school as they absorb the values of an institutional culture that considers outcomes other than the professorate as failure.

As readers of my blog know, these are issues with which I have been concerned for some time, and I have been arguing on the SIF blog and to anyone who will listen at GSU that the work we are doing as SIF’s can serve as a model for the kinds of reforms that are needed in the discipline. In March, I’ll be taking these thoughts on the road, and presenting a paper on this topic at the Crossroads Conference. I’ll be exposing our work to a national audience, highlighting the value of collaborative project work as part of our graduate training. And, I’ll be talking about my ideas of how the SIF, working in concert with potential curriculum changes under the proposed Digital Humanities MIS/Certificate Program, a concerted push by various organs and offices of the university can encourage grad students to think about their career options in new ways. Most importantly, I’ll have the privilege of learning from dozens of other people from around the country who are thinking their way through problems in graduate education. I would like to thank GSU’s CII for helping to fund my trip.

On campus, Brennan and I (with significant help from Denise Davidson) have also been working on campus to push these dreams a little closer to reality, and have drafted an application for a new grant program being offered by the NEH to seek funding for to spend a year planning how to best tie the SIF into humanities departments at GSU. This is a project full of possibilities and of pitfalls. If we receive the grant, it will also raise fundamental questions about the nature of graduate education and the SIF program.

Allow me to cite just a couple of examples. Graduate training in history is built around the completion of a thesis or dissertation, both of which are defined as long pieces of writing demonstrating primary and secondary source research and competence with the basic writing and analytic skills of the field. The traditional dissertation provides an excellent format for demonstrating this skillset, but if the department becomes open to students whose work occurs in the context of collaborative digital humanities projects, the format of a dissertation will need to be changed. This is not about cheapening the degree and its requirements – the planning and execution of a full-scaled DH project is easily on a scale and degree of difficulty comparable to writing a few hundred pages. But, its product has, quite literally, no way to count within the host of boxes that we have to check off in order to receive our degree. So, one transformation that the SIF as a model might pose is “what is a dissertation?” And when you ask this question, you are treading into a highly charged area, likely to set off serious fireworks at a faculty meeting. But without this reform, you can’t meaningfully train digital humanists, and you will continue to poorly serve students who seek employment outside the academy by forcing them to produce, as the pinnacle of their portfolio and the culminating demonstration of their skills, a work whose form doesn’t match their aspirations.

A second issue has to do with the nature of the SIF. It has been my observation that the aims of the SIF project have become somewhat split: we function in an unstable space somewhere between a labor force that helps professors put technology in their classrooms, and thus as a kind of defacto edutech team who help others achieve pedagogical goals, and as the objects of a pedagogical intervention exploring what it means to be a student and what the experience of university training (whether as honors undergraduates or grad students) should be. As anyone who has ever taught knows, there is no necessary contradiction between these things: indeed, getting the student to be the teacher is an exemplary pedagogical trick that has clear parallels with understanding SIF’s as both subject and object of pedagogical innovation. I would say that on the whole, this split identity has served us well and continue to do so. But, when we start daydreaming (as I often do) about the SIF as a platform for graduate education, we pull it a little further from its initial orientation as a support for undergraduate education. I believe both ends of the SIF can co-exist and in fact can in many cases work together in concert. We already mix undergrad and grad students in our working teams, where they have chances to learn from each other, and we support projects – like the Hoccleve Archive, for example, with aspirations that are both rigorously scholarly and “academic” in the sense we might associate with graduate training, and directed back towards the undergraduate classroom. But, in a potential world where the SIF is tied directly and explicitly into the structure of graduate education, more of the SIF’s attention and resources would need to be focused on its graduate component. This seems likely to raise significant questions and tensions about its overall purpose that we will need to address.

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