History’s Changing Place in Academia

If history is, as Burton chides, a series of names and places at its worst, then historiography is a series of dated concepts and theories. Such is the conundrum I find myself in after this week’s series of articles. It is difficult, as a twenty-something who still remembers what the save icon in Microsoft Office is supposed to represent, to take Orville Burton seriously when they discuss how CD-ROM is the hardware of the future, or that schools and libraries would suffer from a lack of access to new historical data. Thankfully for the profession, this has proven to be false.

There are points in his article, however, that do still hold true. The accuracy of history in a digital world is constantly a concern. We live in a realm of fake news, and there is little to stop fake history from proliferating across the internet. However, I would argue that the open forum of the internet allows for faster opportunities for peer review and commentary. If the internet is the wild west, then we are entering the period where Wyatt Earp comes to Tombstone to clean it up. For it is the crowd of armchair historians- those who claim to be Civil War buffs in order to display the Stars and Bars over their mantle- that make the practice of digital history seem less than those in the ivory tower.

As for narrative, I feel the question of whether it is relevant in our field is unnecessary. Then again, I am at heart an artist, where narrative has never been considered an issue. I have never questioned the place of history in the humanities. After all, is history not the true Neverending Story, constantly being rewritten with a new protagonist?

I think White’s questioning of narrative speaks to a bigger Postmodernist concern; where does history belong? Is it a social science, which would put us in the realm of data gathering and statistical analysis? Or are we in the humanities, with a focus on the self, the internal? No longer do we live in a world where sources are not readily available. That is the most important facet of digital history, and one that White could not foresee: there are so many stories out there to use in our research, it would be unfair not to use them.

Some questions to consider:

In a post-Trump world, Nate Silver and his emphasis on analytical research was called into question, including myself. Is a Five Thirty-Eight trustworthy? What are the differences between ranking burritos and predicting a presidential candidate?
While a narrative might be acceptable in history, how far can one take the idea? Is it acceptable to impart your spin on a narrative, as opposed to simply letting the historical figures speak for themselves?

Can a documentary, therefore, be history? Ken Burns lets the characters speak for themselves, but “Night and Fog” is more compelling to an audience. Is one style better than the other?

Is there anything lost with digital history (blogs, podcasts, etc.) that you still keep with traditional studies?

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