Can history and geography survive the digital age?

University of Wisconsin-Madison academic says disciplines, despite initial stumbles, might be better suited than some think

July 10, 2015
MONKEY BUSINESS, Chico Marx, Groucho Marx, 1931
Source: Rex
Global reach: scholars should ‘navigate online world’ and broaden their appeal

A leading historical geographer has called on both his disciplines to find better ways of “navigating the digital world”.

William Cronon, who is Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas research professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was delivering the first in a new series of British Academy lectures in geography at London’s Royal Geographical Society on 7 July.

He was interested, he told the audience, in “the bridge between the academy and its many publics”. But although history and geography ranked “among the greatest synthesizing disciplines” and could help to “make the world more meaningful, more legible, for everyone”, academics had shown themselves to be far too “old media” and ran the risk of “isolating [them]selves in a pay-wall universe”.

“History has traditionally required long-form prose,” explained Professor Cronon, and it now counted as “the only academic discipline in the United States which still generally requires a monograph for tenure”. At the same time, most students no longer “read for pleasure” and “a growing number of academic administrators come from disciplines which no longer have a use for books”.

The increasing use of citation indices and impact factors, Professor Cronon went on, encouraged academics to write in the “smallest publishable units” to a specialised, elite readership. As journals have “preformed audiences”, books have essentially been left behind. And with “academics now often required to underwrite the costs of journal publication”, this put a particular burden on “underfunded disciplines”.

Technical problems only exacerbated these structural issues. “Computers are just not suitable for long-form reading,” suggested Professor Cronon. Although tablets and e-readers were more academic-friendly, the now-dominant smartphone “clearly favours content which is very brief – some students have even abandoned email”.

Furthermore, “no file format is less suitable to a smartphone than a PDF”, quite apart from the fact that PDFs often were hidden away behind paywalls, were difficult to access and were “invisible” to search engines. In the longer term, Professor Cronon reflected, academics might need to prepare for a world in which “our intellectual endeavours take place in app space”.

Despite these major challenges, however, he concluded his lecture – titled “Who reads geography or history anymore? The challenge of audience in a digital age” – on an optimistic note, suggesting that “the disciplines are better suited to the digital world than it might seem”.

He pointed, for example, to a project where he and his students had created a digital tool for interpreting a major cemetery to members of the public.

More generally, despite recurrent questions about whether they were analytical and scientific enough, historians and geographers have always relied on stories, maps and descriptions. Professor Cronon urged them to be “stalwart in refusing to let the word ‘mere’ appear in front of ‘stories’ or ‘maps’”, since “compelling stories and revelatory maps” can be deeply illuminating.

“We describe the world as richly and incisively as we can,” he added. “There’s no need to apologise. Leaning in to stories and maps is how we can navigate the digital world.”

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