April 09, 2012
By Allen Mikaelian
Job seekers: If you are thinking about careers outside academia, here is something for your cover letters. From a panel at this year’s SXSW, “Maps of Time: Data as Narrative” (audio of the panel is available through that link and worth listening to), comes one of the clearest invitations to history majors thinking broadly about their career paths:
Living in the eternal now, surrounded by our tweets, facebook posts and other copious amounts of social and highly personalized information, we forget the importance of history and historical reasoning and influence in our work.
AHA Past President Anthony Grafton expressed similar thoughts in his recent comments to the New York Times on programs that help sift through massive text archives, as did AHA Executive Director James Grossman in his recent column on “big data.” As we develop more ways to generate data, and as we get better at programming machines to sift through this data, human analysis becomes more important, not less. And, taking the quote above as an example, it sounds like the analysis needed is that of the historian.
So how can a history class help prepare students for this world? How can teachers and students more explicitly tie “thinking historically” to these emerging fields? The history class need not teach programming languages or data systems, but it can align with the trend toward “maps” and mapping data.
History teachers have long used timelines to great effect. Being able to construct a timeline appears in several K–12 social studies curriculum standards. Data wranglers are similarly using time maps, timelines, and other visualizations to allow the human analyst to see data in new ways. However, the history teacher and student, dealing as they are with a data set even bigger than that of today’s social media content, also know something about periodization, the big vistas of continuity and change, and how narratives are socially constructed over the long term (not just in the daily back-and-forth of social media). (See the AHA website for lesson plans, discussion, and statements on historical thinking.)
Visualizations need to become much more complex to capture disciplined historical thinking. Luckily, the technology is there. For example, ChronoZoom lets a user zoom down through all of time, from the whole of the cosmos to the tiny corner of human history. This project makes for some thrilling visuals, but it could also potentially allow for representations of many overlapping or competing narratives and periodizations (more on the project here). Too many digital timeline tools emphasize singular events, and de-emphasize groups of events, periods, events without fixed start and end dates, and changing views of events. They present a chronology, but are often dangerously close to taking the nuance out of history.
A visually oriented historian, trained in thinking critically about periodization, could greatly expand the palette of the data scraper, fulfilling the promise of presenting information in a way that leads to new conclusions, allowing data to be reduced to understandable narratives, but without becoming oversimplified or exclusionary.