The Humanities Effect, Social Science, Hard Science, and the Future of Academic History

3 01 2012

Perspectives on History, the magazine of the American Historical Association, recently published a very detailed piece on the state of the job market for history doctorates.  The author, Robert B. Townsend, presents some interesting data about what happens to people who get PhDs in history. The “bad news” is that only about 30% of the people who started PhDs in 1997 had landed tenure-track jobs by 2007. This is bad news, because most people who start PhDs in history are aiming to become professors.

The good news is that most of the PhD graduates go on to have fulfilling careers in which they make good use the credential they have earned. There are, of course, cases of history PhDs who end up working as real estate agents or in other occupations utterly unconnected to their field. Sometimes this is by choice or because of family reasons. In other cases, they simply can’t find an academic job. For the most part, however, the people who don’t get tenure-track academic jobs ultimately get positions in government and other organisations that allow them to use the skills they acquired in graduate school.  Consider this chart


Even though I’m a Canadian who did his PhD at a Canadian university (Western), I think that the pattern identified by Townsend’s data corresponds with what I observed about my colleagues from my PhD programme at Western. Most of the people who were in the programme with me have landed tenure-track jobs. In some cases, they got their jobs after several years on the post-doc/sessional lecturer circuit. Some of the others who didn’t get academic positions have found very comfortable niches for themselves working in government. Western began granting history PhDs in the late 1960s. The department has listed the current occupations of all of the PhD recipients since 1990 on its website.  The data here is incomplete, particularly for students who finished their PhDs in the last couple of years, but it gives a rough sense of where people have gone.

I was particularly interested in the part of Townsend’s article that deals with the so-called humanities effect.

One other change in the ecology of the academic job market is worth noting, as history salaries are now suffering from the “humanities effect.” As history has become more closely identified with the humanities over the past 25 to 30 years, history salaries have fallen below the average for all disciplines.

Back in the mid-1980s—when history was more closely aligned with the social sciences—history was above the average in academia. Since then, the discipline has fallen decisively below the average and now stands close to the other humanities fields such as English and Foreign Languages.6

The disciplinary shift from affiliation with social sciences—often made tangible through administrative shifts of history departments from their universities’ School of Social Science—had a direct effect on the resources available to departments. When combined with the large number of PhDs competing for a smaller number of jobs, wages in the discipline have been depressed for members of our discipline.

Townsend is making a very important point here.  The discipline of history is torn between the humanities and the social sciences. On the one hand, there are historians who approach history in a way that would not seem unfamiliar to a scholar of English literature or an art historian. On the other hand, there are the historians who incline more towards the social sciences, particularly political science and economics. Most political, diplomatic, and business historians fall into this category. Some history departments are more cultural, others are more social-scientific. Western, my PhD program, is one of the few history departments in Canada that is located in a Faculty of Social Science rather than in faculty of Arts or Humanities and that is reflected in the nature of the history taught and produced there. Some of the most stimulating parts of my graduate education were the joint seminars in which political scientists and economists. When I arrived at Western as a graduate student, I experienced a bit a culture shock, as my undergraduate eduction was at a university where the historians lean strongly in the opposite direction. At the time I completed my BA,  my main interests were in the history of political thought.  When I arrived at Western, I was thrust into a world in which historians spoke about regression analysis and IR theory.

As a business historian, I now count myself in the category of the social-scientific historians. However, I certainly see value in the humanities and feel it is sad that they are underfunded. I didn’t choose to specialize in the more social-scientific branches of history because I thought that there might be a bit more money in that field. I selected my research approach because that’s what interested me. However, now that I have ended up where I have, I recognise that there are some financial benefits in avoiding the so-called humanities effect.

Townsend’s comments about the humanities effect got me thinking about the future direction of the historical profession. The two fastest growing fields of history right now are digital history and environmental history.

Some of the people who work in the field of digital history are based in history departments. Others are computer scientists. At places like the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, you have people from various disciplinary backgrounds working alongside each other.  Environmental historians work with and draw on the knowledge created by biologists, geologists, environmental scientists, and other hard scientists. Moreover, physical scientists sometimes make use of the research findings of environmental historians. For instance, archival research by environmental historians has allowed us to reconstruct climate data for the past few centuries, which is immensely important for the debate about anthropogenic climate change.

Now, the humanities effect stems from the fact that society values some disciplines that study society (e.g., economics and political science) a bit more highly than others (e.g. literary studies). Economists and political scientists have somewhat more prestige than literary scholars. However, it is safe to say that  all of the disciplines that study society rank very low in the view of the general public and policy makers than people in the hard sciences, particularly the STEM subjects. The average taxpayer or legislator might display a slight preference for funding political science over poetry, but the funding allocated to the study of society is minuscule to that governments lavish on Big Science.   Since the Second World War and, more particularly, the launch of Sputnik in 1957, governments in Western countries have been very generous in their funding of scientists. Sputnik convinced many in the West that the Soviets had a dangerous lead in science and technology and they responded by shovelling money at the problem with the apparent support of the vast majority of citizens.

Many taxpayers begrudge spending relatively small amounts of money on the humanities and the social sciences, but there is pretty much a consensus in favour of generous support for the hard sciences. The hard sciences enjoy massive prestige in our society. Almost nobody critiques government funding of medical research, particularly on common diseases like cancer and heart disease. Computer science is also generously funded, again because it has massive prestige.

As I said, the two fastest growing sub-disciplines of history are digital history, which marries computer science and historical research, and environmental history. It just so happens that these sub-disciplines of history are closely connected with disciplines that enjoy considerable prestige and financial support in our society (the West) and in all of the other societies that give substantial funding for academic research (e.g., Japan, Korea, Singapore and, increasingly China and some of the Gulf States).

If historians were to adopt a completely mercenary approach towards securing the future of their profession, they would do well to encourage the growth of environmental history and digital public history. This is true for individual academic departments as well. Don’t get me wrong. There are perfectly valid non-financial reasons to foster these important fields. In a world with unlimited academic resources, it would still be the right thing to nurture these two branches of historical enquiry. However, in a world of constrained resources, there are additional reasons for wanting to promote them.

IHR Live Stream: Text Mining the Old Bailey Proceedings

9 06 2011
London’s Institute of Historical Research has long been famous for its seminars. It is now starting to podcast and live-stream these presentations.  On 14 June 2011 Professor Tim Hitchcock (Hertfordshire) will be giving a presentation to the Digital History Seminar on text mining the Old Bailey Proceedings project.9 June, 2011 by Dr Matt Phillpott

Please join us next Tuesday for our third Digital History seminar live stream.  In this session Professor Tim Hitchcock will talk about the Old Bailey Proceedings as a digital project.  This project, developed by the University of Sheffield has reached National headlines and has proven itself a valuable and popular resource. 
This will be the last of the Digital History series this semester which is proving both popular and interesting.
To join us please check out our live stream page on Tuesday 14th, around 5.15pm British Summer Time.

For more info, click here.

Universities that are Centres of Excellence in Digital History

20 05 2010

I am currently involved in planning a digitization project that will see primary sources placed online. As part of my preparatory research, I have been looking at some of the leading institutions in the field of digital history in various countries. I wanted to find out which universities were leaders in this new approach to history and what they were doing. I’ve taken the liberty of posting some of my research notes online.

Keep in mind that my focus is what university departments have been doing in the field of digital history, so this blog post doesn’t really deal with the good work being done in the field by national archives, etc.

United States

In the US, the epicentre of digital history is the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University. George Washington is located in a suburb of Washington DC and is thus conveniently located near the Library of Congress.  was established by the late Prof. Roy Rosenzweig in 1994 to research and use digital media and information technology in historical  research, education, digital tools and resources, digital preservation, and outreach. Rosensweig, who was born in 1950, was a social historian who went to graduate school during the heyday of quantitative history in the 1970s. At that time, the use of computers in history was pretty much limited to big mainframes used for crunching numbers such as the census of 1860. Rosensweig, who lived to 2007, played a major role in the transformation of historical computing into a mechanism for disseminating data.

Rosensweig based his early research on the labour movement and the history of Central Park on newspapers and other 19th century primary sources. He quickly grasped that the advent of the internet had created a new set of primary sources that ought to be preserved for future historians. The CHMN rose to prominence after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which took digital snapshots of the internet during the catastrophe.

Today, the CHNM provides important resources to different groups of users: elementary secondary school teachers; professors; public historians and museum people; and general history buffs. The resources is has created include online galleries of images, how-to-guides for ditigal humanities, and software useful for people who want to make historical websites.

CHNM is responsible for the development of two impressive open source software projects: Zotero and Omeka. Zotero is a Firefox extension that operates as reference management software. Omeka is a web publishing system that uses the Dublin Core metadata standard to build digital archives, and publish digital exhibits. Both projects are free, and reflect CHNM’s dedication to democratizing the practice of history.

Imaging the French Revolution is another experiment in digital scholarship. In a series of essays, seven scholars analyze forty-two images of crowds and crowd violence in the French Revolution. Offering the most relevant examples and comments from an on-line forum, those same scholars consider issues of interpretation, methodology, and the impact of digital media on scholarship.

CHNM has also developed some projects with an explicit focus on broad, public audiences. Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, a web-based exhibit funded developed in collaboration with the Gulag Museum in Perm, Russia, looks at the Soviet system of concentration camps.

CHMN is funded by a variety of government organizations and charities. It has roughly 30 staff members listed on its website, some of whom are academics.

The director of the CHMN is Dan Cohen, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at George Mason University. Click here to see him speak.

His research is on European and American intellectual history, the history of science (particularly mathematics), and the intersection of history and computing. He was the co-author of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) and the author of Equations from God: Pure Mathematics and Victorian Faith (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

United Kingdom

The Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) is an academic department in the School of Arts and Humanities at King’s College, University of London. It appears to be the leading UK academic department in this field. King’s has been a pioneer in humanities computing since the 1970s.

The School of Humanities at King’s was rated in the top 3 UK institutions for research excellence in the last four Research Assessment Exercises, the UK government system for ranking research quality and output.
Digital Humanities has been a strategic priority for King’s for more than a decade, and CCH has received specific mention in the past three strategic plans of the College, identifying this activity as one of its distinctive strengths. In the current Plan, a core strategic commitment is made to ‘Creating Culture’, and the College’s strength in the digital humanities is seen as central to this commitment.

CCH initiated the world’s first PhD programme in Digital Humanities and is responsible for two Masters programmes in the subject: the MA in Digital Humanities and the MA in Digital Culture and Technology. The latter programme, which involves the Schools of Arts and Humanities, Social Science and Public Policy, Physical Sciences and Engineering, and Law, is the most inter-disciplinary programme in the College. From September 2009 CCH will be offering, jointly with the Centre for e-Research, a new MA in Digital Asset Management.

A list of CCH projects is available here. The projects include the Desmond Tutu Digital Archive . Most the CCH projects appear to be designed to appeal to academics rather than the general public, schoolteachers, etc. This makes the CCH very different than the CHNM in the United States, which funds many projects that are connected to the school curriculum.

Moreover, while the CHNM projects mostly deal with relatively recent periods of history (after the invention of photography), the CCH projects tend to be focused on the more distant past. A fairly representative CCH project is the Greek Bible in Byzantine Judaism project. “The aim of the Greek Bible in Byzantine Judaism project is to gather evidence for the use of Greek Bible translations by Jews in the Middle Ages, and to make these texts available to scholars as a corpus, together with the information necessary for an appreciation of their historical background, meaning and exegetical implications.”

I think that it is fair to say that the Byzantine Judaism website will generate fewer hits per week than the one about the Gulag. It is still a worthwhile scholarly resource, but the CCH clearly serves a different mandate than the CHNM.

The CCH has been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; The Arts and Humanities Research Council; The British Academy; The Heritage Lottery Fund; The Leverhulme Trust.

There are roughly 30 members of “core staff” listed on the website.


Canada has no single centre for excellence in this field. However, there are several universities worth mentioning.

Concordia University, Montreal

Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling serves as a point of convergence for collaborative digital historical research, teaching, and publishing among faculty and students at Concordia, as well as members of local, national and international communities. The Concordia Oral History Research Laboratory (COHRL), integrates digital media and oral history to open up new nonlinear ways to access, analyse and communicate life stories.You can listen to the podcasts created by the oral historians here.

The Concordia Digital History Lab uses new media to share the task of historical research and interpretation with online audiences worldwide— researchers, students, and the general public.  The Digital History Lab has so far out the following resources online: the S.A. Rochlin Collection of South African Political and Trade Union Organizations Database and the Guantanamobile Project, which tries to inform and collect public opinion about the U.S. detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  The Lab also got money from  the SSHRC Image, Text, Sound and Technology fund to create plugins to enhance Zotero, the new open source research tool produced at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in the United States that I mentioned above. Zotero helps historians to write their footnotes by automatically grabbing bibliographic information from online library catalogues. It’s a great technology. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work well with many Canadian websites because the current version can’t handle French that well. The SSHRC grant will pay computer programmers to tweak the software so that it works with   Quebec online databases and archival collections.

Brock University

Kevin Kee is the Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing. He is located in the history department at Brock University. He also runs that Centre for Digital Humanities there. His projects are listed here. Check out these YouTube clips. They are obviously designed for undergrad recruitment, but they give a sense of what Kee is doing.

University of Western Ontario

The history department at Western is home to a cluster of digital historians. Prof. Bill Turkel is  Project Director, Digital Infrastructure for the SSHRC Strategic Knowledge Cluster for NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment. He teaches course in Digital History, Interactive Exhibit Design, and Science, Technology, and Global History. UWO’s Alan MacEachern is the Director of NiCHE.

New Ways of Teaching Canadian History

12 03 2010 has published a piece by Steven Maynard of Queen’s University on how he uses the ideas of Michel Foucault in teaching his first-year students Canadian history. “What does a queer, sadomasochistic philosopher have to do with the study of Canada’s past?” To find out, read his post.  Maynard relates how he applied Foucault’s concepts to his lecture on Canada and the First World War. The thing that caught my eye in his piece was that his students organized a Facebook group. I use Facebook in my teaching to communicated information about upcoming lectures, etc, to my students. For instance, I notify my students whenever the PowerPoint Presentation for an upcoming lecture is ready for downloading on our intranet.

While I am on the subject of digital history, I should point out Krista McCracken‘s ActiveHistory piece on the pitfalls of digital memory.

Our Ontario

20 08 2009

I just thought I would let readers know about Our Ontario, which is a collaborative project delivering integrated access to digital collections of libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, galleries, and others. Basically, the website acts as a clearinghouse or portal for information that has already been put online by libraries and other cultural institutions in Ontario. The focus is on Ontario’s history and heritage.  These resources include government documents, such as the handwritten journal of Upper Canada’s first parliament to digitized newspapers.

The project is still in the early stages, but looks sounds very promising.