Only a Historian

“The world needs ditch diggers too.” –Judge Smails, Caddyshack (1980)

At last week’s Digital Humanities Luxembourg (DHLU) symposium, a common refrain could be heard in nearly every presentation: “I’m only a historian.” Uttered apologetically at the beginning of a number of presentations, after two days it became the object of parody and ultimately comprised part of organizer Frédéric Clavert’s excellent concluding remarks. But despite the snickering each time it was heard, there was little investigation of what was behind this phrase. I think it actually reveals something important about the state of DH, perhaps especially in Europe but hardly exclusively so.1

A generous interpretation would be that stating one is “only a historian” apologizes for a deficit of technical content in one’s presentation or project. By disavowing any technical competence, the speaker insulates himself against any technical criticism. Of course, the implied modesty of being “only a historian” — it doesn’t matter whether it’s false or genuine — has powerful rhetorical implications in the world of academia, and specifically in the realm of DH. You see, “only historians” work with their minds, not with their hands. The “only a historian” can (and in fact must) conceive of a DH project and only then finds engineers to make it happen. The phrase “only a historian” precludes any possibility of characterizing the resulting work as truly “collaborative,” despite pro forma claims to the contrary.

Digital humanities in this form doesn’t have a very bright future. Strictly from the perspective of cost, it’s highly unlikely that outside a few large centers very many “only historians” are going to be able procure (and remunerate) the services of technical engineers. Pro-tip: developers cost a lot, and good ones are hard to find at any price!

Historians are perhaps understandably blinkered, since even as a historical question the nature of professions has gone largely unexplored. Although of perennial interest in sociology, the professions and professionalization receive scant attention from historians. One notable exception is medical history, and Tom Broman has neatly suggested that professions are merely occupations that claim to join theory and practice.2 This definition is of course uniquely relevant in the arena of DH, which grapples daily with the balance of thinking and doing. And behind all the recent fracas about the necessity of coding (and its gender implications) what do we find but a debate over the relationship between theory and practice?

So how important to DH are practices in the end? If we’re going to listen to sociologists, the answer is “quite a lot.” One analysis that has long struck me as particularly compelling (and which largely informs my work on French cooks and now colonial doctors) is Andrew Abbott’s account of how occupations come to exert control over their practices:

There are two rather different ways of accomplishing this control. One emphasizes technique per se, and occupations using it are commonly called crafts. To control such an occupation, a group directly controls its technique. The other form of control involves abstract knowledge. Here, practical skill grows out of an abstract system of knowledge, and control of the occupation lies in control of the abstractions that generate the practical techniques. The techniques themselves may in fact be delegated to other workers.3

Professions (like history) clearly fall into the latter group, but unless the practices of DH are embedded within history itself, historians will never really own them. While Abbott suggests that techniques can be delegated, they still need to originate within the original group. As “only historians,” it’s difficult to imagine how we are meant to acquire any sort of mastery or authoritative competence without a basic understanding of the practical possibilities and constraints of digital technology. By claiming to be only a historian, we’re delegating techniques we haven’t yet developed.

Improbably enough, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig are partially to blame: their oft-quoted admonition for “historians to think of themselves more like architects than plumbers” may be inadvertently encouraging a generation of historians to eschew technical skills in favor of skipping right to the high-level architecture.4 Hardly anyone ever cites Cohen’s followup commentary in the JAH, where he added, “But those who would like to do advanced work in digital history will ultimately have to acquire significant technical skills, not only to execute complex digital projects successfully (or to guide those doing the design and programming in a technically literate way), but also to have a more far-reaching vision of what is possible for historians in this new medium.“5

There’s no easy road here, and I think ultimately we need to rely on the ancient ethos of fabricando fit faber, or literally “making makes the maker.“6 Not every historian can or should become an expert programmer, but it’s time to put to rest the notion that being a historian categorically excludes these skills.

  1. DH=digital history in this piece, though the concerns obviously have broader applicability in the digital humanities. []
  2. Thomas Broman, “Rethinking Professionalization: Theory, Practice, and Professional Ideology in Eighteenth-Century German Medicine,” The Journal of Modern History 67, no. 4 (1995), 836. []
  3. Andrew Delano Abbott, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 8. []
  4. Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), []
  5. “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” The Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008): 452–491. []
  6. Wikiquote offers “practice makes perfect” as an English equivalent, but this translation really misses the point. In French it’s “c’est en forgeant que l’on devient forgeron,” — “You become a blacksmith by forging” — which does capture the spirit of the original meaning. []

13 thoughts on “Only a Historian

  1. Pierre Mounier


    thank you for your post. I am a little bit disappointed however about the conclusion which is twice negative : an historian neither needs to be a programmer nor should he be completely candid about programming skills. Ok, I have heard or read that many times ; but now, I want to know more : what type of skills does he need, exactly ? where should he stop in programming its own tools in his research projects ? designing ? coding ? prototyping ? and after that, we have other questions : what is coding exactly ? If I create a macro in Word, or a pipe in Yahoo pipes, do I code ? I need more detailed answers about that.

    I guess, part of the problem in “I am just an historian” is not so much “just an historian” than “I am”. I guess it is very difficult to think about a standalone scholar in DH. We need to be a little bit more latourian in our understanding of this field and think about teams, networks, resource centers. May be we can discuss the idea that there is no so called “digital humanist” but rather digital humanities teams, projects, networks where people with different skills and backgrounds are engaged in a specific way of doing research, which imply, yes, coding. And that implies to think again about the way we present DH projects. Does it make sense to have only one person on stage, saying “I am just an historian” ? Personally, I like very much presentations from teams or more often “couples” (humanist+computer scientist) on projects. And I am particularly delighted when they begin to discuss and sometimes argue between them during their presentation, because, very often, it is the most interesting moment of it.

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  5. Trevor

    To respond to Pierre’s question. I think the answer for what one needs to know is that it depends but the first step is recognizing that there is no good cop out here. As far as what historians should learn the answer is whatever it is that they need to do to make what they want to make. I feel like a core issue here is that there is not going to be a cannon of technologies or competencies. This is primarily about accepting that doing digital work is accepting that digital technologies change and morph at a rapid clip and as a result we are going to need to pick up new tech chops and skills at every turn. Thankfully, as academics we are supposed to already embrace the idea of life long learning.

  6. Sean Post author

    Pierre, I tried to avoid discussing “programming” or “coding” because I agree with you that the level of needed skill isn’t clear. But when someone says he’s “only a historian,” it does seem to me that he’s saying he doesn’t have any such skills, and he’s also denigrating them, albeit perhaps unconsciously. The model that you describe of a tech person and a humanities person does appear to be more common in Europe, but it’s something that we most definitely do not do at RRCHNM. It’s impossible to imagine any of our projects being conceived and built that way. On the other hand, what you say about collaboration is I think exactly right. Zotero, Omeka, etc. aren’t the product of an individual academic’s genius but rather built by large teams across institutions.

    Trevor, this question of a “toolbox” is really important right now. There’s a growing population of academic supervisors who are now enthusiastic about DH but don’t know where to begin. We don’t want to make the mistake that elementary schools do by teaching Microsoft Office 2011 to seven-year-olds to make them “tech savvy,” but we need to do something. I think you’re absolutely right that the goal needs to be flexibility and adaptability, but that’s so much easier said than done. General advice like that is a little scary because also tends to reinforce existing hierarchies of competency. If you were on the outside now looking in, you’d want specific recommendations on how to get your foot in the door. Maybe the goal needs to be a little of both: here are the tools we are using right now in our work that you should try, but with the caveat that things change. I don’t think it’s a waste of time for anyone to learn Python, for example, using The Programming Historian because it opens up a whole world that you and I already take for granted. I’m a terrible programmer, but the work I did with HTML two decades ago gave me the confidence to muck around with Java, Visual Basic, PHP, Javascript, etc. later. That in turn gives me a much better idea of what a DH project can and should do.

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