On the New Dawn of methodology, and other digital-booster claims

31 Mar

‘Sometimes friends in other disciplines ask me the question, “So, what are the big ideas in history these days?”’. So says Tom Scheinfeldt, Managing Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. ‘I then proceed to fumble around for a few minutes trying to put my finger on some new “-ism” or competing “-isms” to describe and define today’s historical discourse’, Scheinfeldt adds. ‘Invariably, I come up short’.

In a blog-post provocatively called Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology, Scheinfeldt argues that global scholarship is currently witnessing a shift away from ideologically-driven theoretical frameworks towards a preoccupation with method and technique. We are on the brink of a ‘new phase of scholarship’, he claims, dominated not by ideas but by ‘new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes of work’.

Now I certainly agree that there is a new interest in internet-related research tools and management systems in scholarship today (including the tool Scheinfeldt promotes in his post, developed by his center at George Mason – nothing like a bit of product placement in the course of one’s critical commentary). I also agree that a disenchantment with High Theory has been growing within the humanities. But what I see as misleading about Scheinfeldt’s argument is its assumption that if scholarship isn’t about Big Ideas, then it isn’t about ideology.

The fact that there isn’t an -ism to define and describe today’s historical discourse does not mean that historiography is witnessing a shift away from matters ideological. Indeed, it seems to me that what we are seeing in place of High Theory is more of an interest in everyday life and affect among humanities scholars.  In some cases this interest is explicitly theorised by reference to such figures as Michel de Certeau or Eve Sedgwick. In others, it is more generally associated with a desire to make scholarship responsive to the immediacy and diversity of human experience. The whole point of that desire is to attend to the nuances of history and cultural life rather than to make Big Claims about History and Culture at large. Obviously, then, this move towards more specificity, towards more modestly-framed scholarly enterprise, can’t be described as the triumph of methods over ideas.

Scheinfeldt’s argument has been taken up by a number of other scholarly bloggers, predictably from the field of digital history and new media. It is time, these enthuasiasts say, for traditional academia to start responding to the shift in scholarly orientation taking place around it. Mills Kelly, another blogger from Scheinfeldt’s Center at George Mason, makes a similar claim about the inevitability of change within tertiary education. Universities need to catch up with the twenty-first century, he says. They need to replace creaky old Western Civilisation survey courses for first-years with ‘free, online content delivery systems’. Such systems would place a new emphasis on learning rather than content – on making sure that students acquire skills rather than simply amass facts of one kind or another.

Now, I have zero desire to defend Western Civ. survey courses. As an Australian historian, I have never had to teach one nor had experience of one as a student myself. I also have zero desire to defend an approach to education which values content in place of learning, just as you can’t have good ideas without attention to one’s methods or modes of research. I agreed with much of what Kelly says in his series of posts on first-year education. But given that the Center for History and New Media is quite possibly interested in developing such a ‘free online content delivery system’, I am cautious about his claim that it represents a shiny new era in learning for undergraduate students. And once again, I am suspicious of claims that learning in the humanities can somehow be divorced from content, pared back to a set of methods or structures capable of replication on an economically-efficient basis by web-based developers. I am also wary of the idea that seems implicit in these booster-arguments – that is, that scholarhsip might at last become depoliticised by technological means.

Am I overstating the case made by these bloggers here? What do other people think about this?

5 Responses to “On the New Dawn of methodology, and other digital-booster claims”

  1. Mills 31 March 2008 at 1:21 pm #


    Thanks for the well considered comments on my series on the free economy and its implications for higher education. I think that the key issue in all of this is the focus on learning outcomes. I didn’t want to suggest that learning outcomes could be divorced from content–far from it. My hope was to suggest quite the opposite–that the way first year education courses are being taught at American universities assumes that the efficient delivery of content equals learning. And so, what is really needed is a focus on learning outcomes that emphasizes the content itself, not its efficient delivery.

    And I’d like to add one other point here–CHNM is not, nor are we interested in developing a free online content delivery system. That would take us well beyond our mission (and funding base). Instead, we hope we are helping to create lots of online learning materials–content as well as what we call variously “teaching modules”, “classroom case studies”, etc.–that teachers at the secondary and post-secondary levels can use in their own courses.

  2. Melissa Bellanta 31 March 2008 at 9:27 pm #

    Thanks for this response, Mills – it is particularly gracious since it turns out that I suggested that your centre was involved in developing a product discussed in your post when that is not in fact the case!

    It’s good to be clear about the different issues involved in discussions of e-learning, I think: firstly, the need to attend to learning outcomes in tertiary education; secondly, the need to think about the educational potentialities of new technologies; and thirdly, the need for tertiary institutions to respond to economic imperatives. When these things become conflated it is difficult to have a reasoned discussion about them – that is, when the claim is made that the only way to ensure outcome-based teaching is through online education delivery systems which cut costs (or make money) for tertiary institutions. Thanks for clarifying your own position on these various issues here.

  3. Tom Scheinfeldt 1 April 2008 at 6:44 pm #

    Melissa —

    Thank you very much for your very thoughtful review of my (and Mills’) recent posts. In fact, I take issue with very little of what you write here. I certainly would never assert that humanities can or should be divorced from content. Digital technologies are and always will be tools to engage—teach, learn, write, read—historical content, rather than ends in themselves. Indeed, even the balance of work at CHNM, where we are obviously very interested in tool building and experimenting with new methods, still favors the production of high quality educational and scholarly content through projects like our forthcoming National HIstory Education Clearinghouse, Making the History of 1989, Gulag Many Days, Many Lives, and the History Archive.

    What I am trying to suggest is that there are moments in the history of any discipline when new tools engage the imaginations of its practitioners, take their attentions away from old (perhaps tired) questions and theoretical debates, and help them define new questions and access new content. We see this process of ebb and flow throughout the history of the sciences, where new scientific instruments, research practices, and organizational arrangements inform new research questions, which in turn inform new instruments and practices, and so on, and so on. But for some reason historians are loth to admit that a similar process of ebb and flow exists in their own discipline. Maybe the problem is that we like to think of ourselves purely as big thinkers rather than practitioners or technicians. Maybe the problem is that we’re just better analysts of others than we are of ourselves. I’m not sure. Whatever the reason, there are times when new methods drive new thinking and times when new thinking drives new methods, even in history.

    That doesn’t seem terribly controversial to me, so perhaps my title “Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology,” was too provocative or incorrectly suggested that I think ideas are done for. Perhaps my use of the word “ideology” to signal “high theory” and “big ideas” (your terms) was ill considered. Perhaps it appears that I am setting up too strict a binary between ideology and method. (I have heard all of these—very worthy—criticisms over the past couple weeks.)

    To clarify, I definitely am NOT trying to redefine history to exclude deep thinking. I’m simply observing that the balance of interest in ideas vs. tools among today’s historians has shifted somewhat in favor of the latter. There’s no doubt that the Internet and other digital technologies have caused historians to be more interested in their methods and tools than they were, say, fifteen or twenty years ago. That new focus has necessarily shifted some focus away from the big ideas. It is that obvious point about contemporary interests, rather than some larger epistemic claim, that I’m making.

    Moreover, this balance of interest in ideas vs. tools is always just that, a balance, and a productive one at that. To belabor my metaphor, just as the moon sometimes appears at midday, and just as reflected sunlight brightens the moon, thinking about methods and ideas always happens concurrently. Moreover, these waxings and wanings are always temporary. Interest in digital methodology will have its sunset too.

    For this very reason, I make no apologies for being a booster for digital history. This does not stem from some blind faith in technology or any delusions that it will answer all our questions. Quite the contrary. My interest in digital tools is not in their ability to answer questions, but rather in their ability to help us ask new ones, engage in their discussion more fully and more democratically, and ultimately lead us right back to that inevitable new sunrise of ideology.

  4. Melissa Bellanta 2 April 2008 at 4:26 am #

    Tom. Thanks for this.

    The idea that research tools and methodologies might frame new questions and content in history is definitely one that I agree with, and will be glad to take away with me from this exchange. (We recently had Robert Allen from the University of Nth Carolina here at UQ, for example, talking about his work with geo-spatial technologies and the possibilities it holds for his social history of American cinema. Fascinating).

    I also agree with you that many historians are loath to think through the implications of digital technologies for their practice. One of the reasons for this, however, is because of a reaction against the boosterism of ‘digital historians’. Many historians (including myself, as you have already seen) feel a wariness about the inflated claims often made about new technologies, or else a sense of intimidation stemming from a lack of technological sophistication. Because of this, it seems to me that it’s imperative that discussion takes place across the discipline – not just among those already keen to boost the status of ‘digital history’, nor just among those of Luddite proclivities, framed in a way that makes exchanges such as the one we have just had possible.

  5. Mills 3 April 2008 at 6:48 pm #

    Hi again:

    I completely agree with your final paragraph in the response to Tom’s comment. I give presentations around the country about history, technology, and pedagogy and one of the points I like to make at the very outset of my talks is that as far as I can tell, technology is never the answer to any learning problem in the history classroom. Like any other resource available to us, technology can, possibly, help, but may also really get in the way.

    My favorite target in this discussion is slideware, whether PowerPoint or something else. Too often I’ve seen historians throwing up slide after slide with that wonderful bulleted text, while the students stare blankly at the screen as though doing so will somehow help them absorb what they are supposed to know. Do I ever use slideware? Yes. But I use it the same way I used to use a slide projector. When I want to show a picture of Prague, or of the war in Bosnia, I use slideware to show those images. But I never use the text features other than to add a source line under the image. Students sometimes ask for “my PowerPoint slides” and I refuse.

    I also want to emphasize how important I think it is that, as you say, the discussion take place across the discipline. It is very hard to frame these conversations–at conferences, in articles–in ways that are accessible and inviting to all, not just the tech crowd. This conversation is really a model, but it too is taking place in a forum that many of my colleagues won’t access–not because they are Luddites, but just because they don’t read blogs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: