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Graduate Education Gets a Digital Makeover in New York City

Digital tools can help historians and other humanities professions explore research questions in different ways.

Higher education leaders in New York City are figuring out how to prepare the next generation of doctoral students with the digital skills they need to explore and research questions in the humanities.

In this Digital Age, researchers have a lot more data to analyze than they ever have before, and that can be a daunting task, especially for historians who aren't familiar with data visualization or mining techniques.

"Compared to many professions in the humanities, historians tend to be backward looking by profession," said Micki Kaufman, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Department of History at City University of New York's Graduate Center. "That's not an insult, that's a definition of what we do. And so it can be difficult sometimes for historians to have the same sort of enthusiasm or the same sort of motivation to explore new methodologies, new approaches or technology." 

That's why The Graduate Center has spent the last five years rethinking how it prepares doctoral students and evaluating where technology can play a role in their education. From the moment students walk in the door, they take a two-semester class that lays a foundation for the work going on in digital humanities. Then throughout their doctoral education, they work with a supportive community of faculty members and education leaders who help them explore and research questions with the help of technology.

But students are also helping The Graduate Center figure out how to create a cultural change among its faculty, staff and students. A group of digital fellows who are also graduate students spend 15 hours a week working to tackle this problem with Matthew K. Gold, associate professor of English and digital humanities, and advisor to the provost for digital initiatives at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. They create workshops for their peers, work with departments and model this transition with technology. 

"People sometimes use digital tools because they're new and they're shiny and they can make pretty pictures, but we're really interested in helping students think about how technology can amplify their already existing research concerns and then how it can help lead to new and interesting questions," Gold said.

For example, former digital fellow Kaufman decided to use computational analysis techniques to analyze 18,000 phone call transcripts from Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state from 1973 to 1977 and one of the most heavily discussed historical figures in 20th century America. Even though he has been studied extensively, she wanted to contribute to existing conversations about him by sharing knowledge in an easy to understand way. And she won the Lisa Lena Opas-Hänninen Young Scholar Prize this month for her project "Everything on Paper Will be Used Against Me:" Quantifying Kissinger.

Instead of producing tables of data, Kaufman used data visualization to communicate without words, and that's a skill that historians will increasingly have to work with, whether they're analyzing digital or paper data.

"If historians don't begin to learn the skills and to develop our own disciplinary approaches to studying issues of large data sets or to study issues of information from the computer age, we may find ourselves unable to understand 21st century or late 20th century history," Kaufman said.
This next year, The Graduate Center will create new masters' programs in digital humanities and data science and visualization to help expand their education efforts in these areas, along with building a new center for digital scholarship and digital innovation.

Staff members and digital fellows will also be working one-on-one with individual programs to understand what research methods they use that are unique to their discipline and how digital tools could help them in those methods. For example, a linguistics professor who's interested in analyzing the language of YouTube comments could use the Python programming language or Web scraping to gather data. 

And that one-on-one attention extends to helping individual people make the transition to exploring research questions with digital tools. That's hard work and takes plenty of communication and support long-term.

"This is a major kind of cultural shift for the academy, and it just has to be handled so thoughtfully," Gold said.