Is History Doomed to the “Arts & Humanities?”

Posted on September 27, 2008 by

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I’ve been thinking, and… considering recent practice in Digital History and the study of “Historical Memory,” maybe History doesn’t need to be limited to B.A. and M.A. tracks. First, with the expansion of Digital History, perhaps, if the instruction in Digital History practice goes beyond how to use HTML, XHTML, XML, Dreamweaver, blogs as a data-dump, etc., etc. (and does little more than show the way to deliver the same “print on paper type-content” on the Web), maybe there can be opportunities for some great B.S. and M.S. academic tracks.

What I’m thinking here is that, in the case of Digital History, more focus needs to be placed, first on the use of typography and color (e.g., using the advantages of using certain background colors to enhance the learning experience; I’m thinking beyond simple design, but rather how it is tied to cognitive psychology); and second, there should be an emphasis on taking a cognate in a science that can be applied to the learning experience. Cognitive psychology comes to mind, but even that, by itself, isn’t strong enough. Instead, perhaps a cognate in HCI or Human Factors; the point would be for the Digital Historian to understand 1) interaction design and 2) usability standards. Coupling this with skills in Web design, a historian would have some incredibly powerful tools for content delivery, beyond just putting down findings on paper.

I also see an incredible tool available to teachers. Some might see the Web as replacing the teacher (and there are, in fact, articles on this issue), but that’s not my thought here. Instead, I see the potential of the Web in supplenting classroom instruction. Taking a little from UPS (“What can Brown do for you?”), I ask, “what can the Web do for you?” How can typography, color and imagery increase a student’s retention of content; retention that might not otherwise occur through classroom instruction or reading a book?

As far as “Historical Memory” goes, I think I need to clarify. I’m not thinking in terms of “experiential” historical memory (e.g., a person who was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 has memory of his/her experience at that historic event), but I’m thinking in terms of “imagined” and/or “ancestor-based” memory (which some might not even consider real “memory” at all). This type of memory might even be called “assumed memory based on limited knowledge of one’s ancestor,” but naming it is the least of my concerns right now. The idea in this is that there is a scientific understanding that needs to be incorporated into, for example, the study of “Civil War Memory.” We’re writing about “memory,” but do we have all of the tools necessary to make a complete assessment? Reading a book on cognitive psychology might be a start, but, as historians, we need to have a better understanding of memory as a term from the practice of cognitive psychology. Thus, an M.S. in History, with a science cognate in cognitive psychology would make for an incredibly “well-armed” “Civil War Memory” Historian.

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