Hashtags, the 3 Me’s, and the Digital Environmental Dissertation

During the last few decades, new ways to find, share, and tell stories have emerged using digital technologies—I use “technologies” here to reference tools (software), methods (programming), and formats (publishing). I have, over this past decade, used a number of these digital technologies from Zotero and Web Development to Markdown and Twitter to aid me in my graduate studies. This past spring at the ASEH, I participated in a panel, Digital Environmental History: Tools and Projects, which sought to engage the wider EH community about the digital tools and projects being used and developed, and to encourage the community to think about how digital technologies are and could change our scholarship. My participation in the Digital Environmental History: Tools and Projects panel was not related to any significant scholarship, digital or otherwise, on my part. Rather, I used to Twitter to engage with a community of environmental historians and other scholars using the EnvHist hashtag. As I have used these digital technologies and with sometimes gentle and not so gentle prodding from my advisor, I have come to recognize that I use this myriad morass of digital technologies along three lines, and define them as the “Digital 3 Me’s”: the Public Me, the Teaching Me, and the Scholarship Me. Specifically, the Public Me and Teaching Me have led me to wonder: “What could, what should, a dissertation—the 19th century gift to the historian—be in the context of these 21st century digital technologies?”

The Public Me

The Public Me is that aspect of my digital technologies engagement centered on finding, sharing, and connecting with other ideas, tools, and people using social media formats, specifically blogs and Twitter. For over a decade, I have used a number of web-based digital technologies, primarily RSS, to lurk and learn about standards based web development—HTML, CSS, and Javascript—introducing me to a vast array of web-based digital projects. More recently, I have switched to using primarily Twitter to accomplish this task.

Twitter has not only helped me connect to digital technologies, but it also has helped link me with a greater community of standards-evangelists as well as environmental scholars. Indeed, I have found Social Media to be an invaluable tool for finding and sharing information not only related to digital technologies but also to digital projects, environmental and otherwise, being developed using these tools—DHNow, NiCHE, and Ant, Spider, Bee. But how can “digital technologies and projects strengthen collaborative networks among environmental historians while involving the public and private institutions such as libraries, broadcasters, publishers, and the media?” An answer lies in what I have learned as the Teaching Me; in that guise I learned and taught others how to use digital technologies and to explore their considerable potential in research and teaching.

The Teaching Me

The Teaching Me is that aspect of my digital technologies engagement centered on learning and teaching digital technologies to find, manage, do, and “publish” research. Recently, this Teaching Me has come to wonder “How can digital projects represent environmental histories and engage broader publics in their interpretation?” How can learning about as well as teaching digital technologies help us create projects that engage the public and scholarly community in representing and interpreting environmental histories? How can these technologies help us tell a story?

This past spring, a cultural studies student in my digital humanities research tool course developed a Pinterest clone. The student’s original intent was to provide an online space for cultural studies students and faculty to share their interests. However, as the student worked on the project and through some prompting on my part, she realized that the site could serve beyond a mere scholarly sharing service. The student realized it could become a site to collect evidence, share that evidence, and help users engage in collectively interpreting the collected evidence. This led me to wonder if digital projects had the potential to change how we share information and how we interpret it, but also to change how we tell the stories that emerge from the evidence and interpretation in new ways. Such a teaching dynamic has helped me become a better instructor and made me more knowledgeable about the nuts-and-bolts of using these digital tools; it has also made me more aware of the opportunities and challenges digital technologies present and represent for the Scholarship Me.

The Scholarship Me

The Scholarship Me is that aspect of my digital technologies engagement centered on using digital technologies to tell a good, well-documented, conscientious story. This Scholarship Me is a recently developed persona that arose out of the questions the Public and Teaching Me’s have uncovered. All three “Me’s” along with my participation in the Tools panel at this year’s ASEH meeting—about the challenges and opportunities digital technologies present Environmental History—have combined to make me more aware of doing research and writing a dissertation in the context of digital technologies. In general, the Scholarship Me is considering “What structural, methodological, and representational challenges and opportunities do digital tools and projects present?” If digital tools and methods do not and should not supplant but enhance and transform our ability to tell stories about the human interaction with the environment—i.e., to produce knowledge or rather contribute knowledge to our understanding of EH—then the Scholarship Me wonders:

How do we/I write the good analytical narrative that is legitimate within the 19th century’s legacy of scholarship and the 21st century’s possibilities for “new” visions of scholarship available via digital technologies. What would this “good” scholarship look like; what could it be; what should it be?

For example, in researching and writing my dissertation, I will explore and use a number of digital technologies in conjunction with traditional, analog tools and methods:

  • finding evidence/data—the “story”—using advanced search methods;
  • collecting and managing that evidence in Zotero;
  • managing and displaying the evidence using Omeka to build a “mini-archive,” open or closed;
  • doing or analyzing the evidence using visualizations tools, like GIS and Gephi;
  • sharing the evidence and analysis through social media formats, like Twitter and a blog;
  • using digital tools and languages, like Multi-Markdown, to manage and format the project for dissemination in traditional formats like .pdf and across digital networks using .html and .epub.

Indeed, I can imagine building what I call a digital documentary layer, the “raw” material—the maps, the graphs, the sounds, the photos, the videos, and all the rest of the evidence that can be collected and efficiently managed using digital tools—that contextualizes and presents and represents the narrative, the story. This process is something that the Public and Teaching Me have spent time connecting, learning, and sharing, something I have become quite adept at doing. Yet, I believe that there are other potentialities for transformation of the traditional, text-driven dissertation into something deeper, far more interactive, and, most importantly, accessible and engaging with a broader set of communities, particularly the communities that lay outside the traditional academy.

Conclusion

The emergence and adoption of digital technologies and formats as a component of historical methodologies to tell these stories is more than a means to an end; digital tools have had and will have a significant and vital role in shaping historical scholarship, including environmental history, from connecting and sharing to building and publishing. There are a number of fine projects like the crowd-sourced book Hacking the Academy, the collaborative, interdisciplinary, and international visualization project about the world of early modern scholars, “Mapping the Republic of Letters,” and Jessica van Horssen’s Asbestos, PQ: Graphic Novel. These digital humanities projects point to the potential that the digital has in shaping scholarship.

The questions the Scholarship Me is asking, predicated upon what I have come to understand about digital technologies from the Public and Teaching Me, may be, at some level, obvious if not prosaic. I am not suggesting either that the dissertation or any other traditional storytelling format historians use need be transformed. Rather, I would like to suggest that in questioning what the traditional dissertation could be using digital technologies, I hope to further our thinking, in general, about how digital projects can represent environmental histories and engage broader publics in their interpretations; about how digital technologies can strengthen and broaden networks among environmental historians while involving public and private institutions such as libraries, broadcasters, publishers, and the media in general; and about what structural, methodological, and representational challenges and opportunities digital technologies present to us. Ultimately, how may digital technologies enhance the environmental historians’ research, teaching, and outreach while maintaining (or transforming) academic standards and expectations? I believe that digital technologies have helped us do some of this, but I think its potential is even greater to help us as members of a society and as environmental historians tell good, conscientious stories—stories that help us make sense of the past, the present, and those future opportunities and challenges that our collective histories embody and represent.


Originally posted on the Ant, Spider, Bee blog, this post is based, loosely, on a 5-minute lightning talk I delivered as a member of the “Digital Projects and Tools” panel at the 2012 ASEH annual meeting.