Interview with Dr. Shawn Graham

Looking into the field of digital humanities can be a daunting task for a young historian who is just beginning her career. Everything that I have learned related to doing history has involved going to the library and checking out books and printing academic articles. The concepts explored within the field of digital humanities, however, offer young scholars the opportunity to look at sources, evidence, and other academic scholarship in an entirely new and innovative way. As a means of peering into the new and emerging field of digital humanities I had the honor to interview one of Canada’s most knowledgeable digital humanists, Shawn Graham. The information he provided through this interview gave insight into his experiences in the field of digital humanities as well as advice and guidance for scholars who are just beginning to learn about using digital tools as part of their academic career.

As a young child, Shawn always enjoyed tinkering with things and learning how they worked. He gained this valuable knowledge by breaking things and taking them apart, always trying to understand how their mechanisms worked. At age ten, Shawn had an incident with a grand piano which rendered the instrument useless. This experiment, however, turned into a memory that Shawn attributes to his desire to work with technology. Although Shawn had an initial interest in how technology worked it was not until he was in college that he was asked to confront the uses of technology in an academic setting. Only after being presented with an assignment to create a “webography of sites,” did Shawn form an idea of how technology would play into the future of academia. At first, the relationship between technology and academia did not look promising to Shawn. Based on an article he wrote titled “Why the World Wide Web Will Never Be Useful for Academics,” it was clear that Shawn’s initial reaction to technology in the classroom was very pessimistic. On this note, however, he did provide a bit of advice to young people beginning their careers in this field. He believes in “failing gloriously and failing often.” He said that “it’s only through that cycle – and being willing to share what happened – that we move forward.” I find solace in these words, especially considering the fact that the technology used within the realm of digital humanities is new and quickly changing. I know that I will take Shawn’s advice to heart as I continue to explore the opportunities and possibilities that digital history provides.

Although Shawn has a solid footing in the digital world, his real passion lies in the content that he can present through digital means. Shawn is from a family of history buffs and teachers. His sibling, aunts and uncles all work in the realm of teaching in some capacity or another. His particular field of study, albeit related to history, is not history, but rather archeology. Shawn has a true interest in the idea of historical landscapes and the materialism associated with archeology. Being able to touch and see ancient artifacts and work at archeological digs spurred Shawn’s passion to share this content with others in the digital world through interactive and exciting means. An example of such a digital component is presented as a concept of augmented reality. Easily accessible through his blog, electricarcheology, Shawn depicts and then describes how to recreate a “visual 3D pop-up book.” I believe that this concept is incredibly innovative and can be used to draw the public, and especially children, into the wonders of archeology and history.

Being one of the only academics in Canada to have “digital humanist” as part of his job title is encouraging for young scholars. While I find the idea of being one of the first academics to conquer this new field as daunting, Shawn takes a difference approach. He sees this situation as one of freedom. He really does have the ability to shape the field of digital humanities and encourage the academic world to engage in this new technology, or as Shawn put it, “He is making it up as he goes.”

As the world of digital humanities and digital history more specifically continues to grow, I find myself more and more intrigued with the possibilities that these new technologies can offer. And while I consider myself a historian by trade as opposed to a digital humanist, I am not going to limit myself or the projects I want to work on to the traditional methods of academia. I look forward to using multidisciplinary tactics and techniques to further my own education and to share my research. In the 21st century there is no denying that the digital world will offer a new venue and means of connecting with other scholars and providing a new and exciting outlet to share our passions with a public audience.

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  1. [...] graduate seminar in digital history, HannaLore Hein. She posts her impression of the interview on the course website here. It’s always interesting to see what you wrote come through someone else’s filters. [...]

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