The Future Is Now: Lessons Learned from Three Digital Dissertations in History

AHA Session 40
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Salon 10 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Lisa Rhody, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe, Carleton College
Madeleine Casad, Vanderbilt University
Zoe LeBlanc, Vanderbilt University
Sharon M. Leon, Michigan State University
Suzanne E. Smith, George Mason University
Jeri Wieringa, George Mason University

Session Abstract

We propose a roundtable discussion that brings together three scholars creating digital dissertations and their faculty advisors. While the “Guidelines for Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians” provide a useful framework for articulating the value and place of digital scholarship within the discipline of history, these conversations have largely taken place within the context of “Tenure and Promotion.” This panel is part of a growing conversation about the contributions of “digital history” to the practice of history, focused on the particular challenges of undertaking this sort of work in the dissertation.

These dissertations provide three examples of argument-driven digital scholarship, where critical engagement with medium and methods is central. The dissertation as a point of recognition and credentialing in the discipline raises vital questions about what it means to do digital work at this level. The conditions under which digital work is created at the doctoral level do not align with conditions in the larger field of digital history: doctoral students generally have fewer available resources and funding opportunities, the collaborative nature of much digital history work is at odds with the sole-authored dissertation, and paths to publication are nascent.

This session will include short presentations of the digital dissertations followed by robust discussion about the process, evaluation, and implication of digital dissertations for the discipline. The panel will feature three early career scholars and their advisors: Dr. Celeste Tường Vy Sharpe and Dr. Suzanne Smith, Jeri E. Wieringa and Dr. Sharon Leon, and Zoe LeBlanc and Dr. Madeleine Casad. These three projects highlight the range of digital work being done in history and offer a particular emphasis on the contributions of women to this subfield.

Sharpe’s dissertation project, They Need You! Disability, Visual Culture, and the Poster Child, 1945-1980, argues that poster child imagery is vital for understanding the cultural pervasiveness of the idea of disability-as-diagnosis and how that understanding underpinned political avenues and policies of disease eradication in twentieth century America. This project is presented through the digital publishing platform Scalar in a re-presentation of the elements required of a historical dissertation that foregrounds the visual materials.

Wieringa’s dissertation project, A Gospel of Health and Salvation: Modeling the Religious Culture of Seventh-day Adventism, 1843-1920, examines the unique religious culture of Seventh-day Adventism as a product of cycles of end-times expectation and the particular leadership of Ellen White. Using topic models of the denomination’s periodical literature, the project examines methods for constructing and presenting historical narratives based upon computational analysis.

LeBlanc’s dissertation project, Cairo Calling: The United Arab Republic, Revolutionary Media, and Global Anti-Colonialism in the 1950s and 60s, examines the emergence of Egypt, later known as the United Arab Republic, as an international hub for anti-colonial media and revolutionary politics. This project leverages a combination of text and image sources with computational methods to trace the shifting discourses and symbolism of anti-colonialism in Cairo, and explores ways to bridge numbers and narratives at various scales of historical analysis.

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