On Sessions, Methods, and the Counting of Beans

Article by Patricia Cohen of the New York TimesWhile I hate to quibble with Patricia Cohen of the New York Times, her observation that “Just one of the nearly 300 main panels scheduled for next year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association covers digital matters” is not quite true. There are actually seven sessions at the meeting as a whole (including two numbered sessions) that are related to digital history. This includes the general discussion on the question: “What’s Next? Patterns and Practices in History in Print and Online.”

While the small number of digital history sessions at the annual meeting is disappointing to someone like me, who is really interested in these questions, simple bean-counting misses an essential point—the history profession has always tended to avoid or ignore process discussions, including professional problems and pedagogy, as well as digital issues. If you read through the past 125 years of annual meeting programs, you will find most of the big methodological changes in the discipline played out in very traditional papers laying out new research on (often narrow) historical subjects. Panels treating specific changes in method and practice are relatively rare.

That said, we can and should do more. I try to assemble as many panels on these sorts of topics as I can every year—so if you have suggestions, get in touch!

Update: For those interested in doing more than guessing at digital content by the name, take a look at the descriptions of the papers available for each session. For instance session 117 is about using digital materials, session 193 incorporates visual evidence,  session 198 references online photo archives, and session 271 notes digital oral history collections. More than half of the sessions (182 out of 296) will be using A/V, so you can’t just judge a session by its title.

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  1. Yvonne Perkins

    ‘More than half of the sessions (182 out of 296) will be using A/V’??? Is this comment given to make us reassured that historians are tech savvy and interested in exploring how technology can push history to new horizons? The fact that this statistic is even raised in such a discussion indicates the poor state of the profession’s engagement with technology.

    I am glad that you have raised the general lack of discussion of process in historical research. Process is given great attention by other professions. The lack of focus and discussion on the process of historical research has puzzled me.

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