I was privileged to interview Michelle Moravec who is an associate professor and Women’s Studies director at Rosemont College in Pennsylvania and a subject area specialist for NITLE. Dr. Moravec is highly engaged with the digital humanities. She blogs at History in the City, converses with her colleagues and students via Twitter , is currently working on several digital projects, regularly presents at digital history conferences and uses class blogs and digital assignments with her students.
As the digital humanities are a relatively new field, I was first curious how Dr. Moravec found herself a part of it. While some digital humanists purposefully pursue the discipline at larger institutions, many have found themselves a part of the field by happenstance; they combined their traditional education with the technologies of the modern world. Dr. Moravec is a part of this later group. She called her participation in the digital humanities “accidental.” While out on sabbatical, she was looking for a way to keep in touch with her students so she kept a blog and communicated via Twitter. She enjoyed that and began to look at different ways to communicate with her colleagues. As an associate professor at a small, private university, she often felt isolated from her peers across the country. She began to explore digital methods of networking with them and quickly became enveloped in the digital world. Dr. Moravec did point out that she was tenured and mid-career and felt that she had a lot of freedom to play around with new ideas. Had she been at the beginning of her career, raising small children, and focused on publishing, she probably would not have pursued digital methods with such fervor.
Dr. Moravec has been blogging, tweeting and using digital research tools for over three years now. This past year has been the first time that she has started using digital methods in her classroom and publishing digitally and she is happy with the results from both. Her students use hands-on, real world digital skills to engage with history. They participate digitally by editing Wikepedia entries or browsing Pinterest to find historical images. Both of these methods not only prompt her students to think like 21st century historians, they also allow her to have a quick “check-in” with what they have digested in class. Her current book project is also going to be digitally peer-reviewed. She is excited about the amount of new readers that she is able to reach online and is looking forward to getting feedback as she is writing, rather than at the end. She values collaboration and transparency and seeks to “erode the division between private and public.”
There are still some tensions in academia about blogging. I am interested in the reception that blogging professors have received from their peers and if they have ever run into privacy or over-exposure issues. Dr. Moravec indicated that blogging has been an overall positive experience for her. It rebooted her career and gave her a much wider audience and peer group. The majority of her speaking engagements come from groups that found her blog or other digital platforms, rather than a journaled article or her older books. She did indicate that her credentials help. She has a PhD from a prestigious university and was already an established historian before she began employing digital methods. We discussed the difficulty of using digitally published work to apply for tenure and she was not able to say what that journey might look like for a new digital historian. But she did say that she felt the time that it took to create an online presence has been completely worth the effort and that she is now reaping more rewards as a digital historian than in her earlier career.
The last piece of advice that Dr. Moravec left me with was to first create a firm foundation in my discipline and then find digital methods to fill in gaps and expand my horizons. Regardless of the strides that technology makes, we will not stop using the tried and true historical analysis practices of the past. A digital historian must first be a good historian. Even if one is a genius coder or website designer, you will not go far in any form of academia without a strong historical background. Although a history student would be a fool to leave Graduate school without digital skills, she cautioned an over-emphasis in this area. We live in an over-saturated job market and students must be engaged and comfortable with the old and the new.
Interviewing Dr. Moravec was a rewarding experience not only for the encouragement I received about what I am interested in, but also for the cautionary warnings. She was upbeat and positive, while still honest about the pitfalls of the digital humanities. I also felt inspired to step up my game and work even harder to be an excellent historian with excellent digital skills.