Am I even qualified?: Writing about Digital History

About two weeks ago, my article “Fielding History: Relational Databases and Prose” went online for open peer review and possible inclusion in the open access essay collection Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Jack A. Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki. If you haven’t heard about Writing History in the Digital Age, you owe it to yourself to head over to the website and learn more. It is a fabulous project and experiment in open peer review and open access publishing. I am honored that my essay has made it this far.

As part of the experiment, the editors have asked their prospective contributors to publicly reflect on their writing process. That’s something I have neglected to do until now, for a variety of reasons . . . the main reason being that this may be the most difficult essay I have ever written.

OK, my master’s thesis was probably harder, but that was five times as long, and I worked on it (on and off) for 4 years before sending it out to be traditionally peer-reviewed. “Fielding History” clocks in at 3,077 words and I only had six weeks to write it. Six weeks in which I nearly gave up on the project approximately four times. One of these times (but not the last), my husband asked why I was quitting. Before I could think, I responded:

“Because I am only qualified to write about 18th Century Diplomats!”

He just stared at me. I stared back. Until the absurdity hit me. I’m an open source developer, a database architect, and a historian. I’ve developed and built databases for three distinct historical projects (including my own dissertation). If I can’t write an article on relational databases and historical writing, then who can?

But that is the trick with an emerging field. It’s hard to know when you are ready to write about it. I know how to become credentialed to write about my 18th Century diplomats. I’m getting a PhD. Most of the time I’m very happy with the boot-strapping culture that imbues Digital Humanities with so much of its energy and allows someone like me to have a great job and contribute to the field without having to wait for tenure or even my dissertation committee to declare me “fit.”

But then I have to write about what I’m doing, and all the doubts pile in. I always wanted to write about the theory of history, even before I entered a PhD program, but I thought I would do it after I retired — an emerita’s retrospective on a life of study. What right do I have to do this when I’m only 29?

What finally got me writing was the realization (voiced by my husband) that this was not about having the final word or all the answers. But I could put in an early word for something I care about and maybe start a conversation. I wrote the piece in first person (a big no-no for academic prose) to emphasize that point. I don’t have the theoretical chops to write in the third person about databases and history. What I have is a case study, a story, that may help others think more reflectively about what we digital historians do every day.

I hope you will head over to Writing History in a Digital Age and look at the really amazing essays my fellow historians have written. Open peer review continues through November 14, 2011. Please comment if you have something it say: having an essay up for open peer review is orders of magnitude more nerve-wracking than wondering if anyone reads your blog.

Maybe stop by and read my piece as well, if the topic interests you. Let’s get this conversation started.

5 thoughts on “Am I even qualified?: Writing about Digital History

  1. Jean, thanks for sharing more of the backstory about the writing process, and anxieties that all authors experience, and the way that these shaped the conceptualization and crafting of your essay. I’m curious about how much contact you may have had with another contributor, Ansley Erickson, who also wrote about databases and mentioned your work in her essay. Did this connection influence what you wrote — or not?

    If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to post a brief description about this page and link to it in a comment on your “Fielding History” essay, as it provides a more complete picture of your personal journey into this experiment in open peer review.

  2. Jack: Many thanks for the suggestion. I will link the essay back here.

    Ansley and I had an email exchange and a great phone conversation over the summer before our final drafts went in. I read her paper from the earlier volume and told her a little about what I was planning on writing about (although at the time I didn’t really have a set structure or even a defined set of topics — as a I recall my one paragraph abstract was pretty vague). I planned to send her my draft before it went in, but there just wasn’t time. I was moving to a new city (I think she was moving as well) and starting a new job in the middle of all this, so we didn’t have a chance to connect as much as I would have liked.

  3. Ansley and I had an email exchange and a great phone conversation over the summer before our final drafts went in. I read her paper from the earlier volume and told her a little about what I was planning on writing about (although at the time I didn’t really have a set structure or even a defined set of topics — as a I recall my one paragraph abstract was pretty vague). I planned to send her my draft before it went in, but there just wasn’t time. I was moving to a new city (I think she was moving as well) and starting a new job in the middle of all this, so we didn’t have a chance to connect as much as I would have liked.
    +1

  4. I feel exactly the same way as you do. I’m also a PhD student, and I had an article accepted that theorizes a new model for creating digital critical editions of literary works and then networking them into larger digital collections. It was terrifying to insert myself into a debate that has been going on among the absolute TOP people in my field (and I criticized their work quite a lot). I still feel nervous and strange about it. But I did it, and I’m learning that I need to keep forcing myself to do it so that I can keep chipping away at the impostor syndrome and think of myself as a legitimate academic.

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