Mentoring Session: Research Strategies for Historians in the Digital Age

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prepared for American Educational Research Association Division F (History)
by Jack Dougherty, Trinity College, Hartford CT, follow @DoughertyJack, and share comments & links below

WHDA2013coverCarter Savage asked me to lead a mentoring session on digital research strategies for graduate students and new faculty members in the field of educational history. Most of what I’ve learned came from reading posts by contributors to ProfHacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education, attending THATCamp unconferences, and working with wonderful colleagues on two freely-accessible edited volumes: Writing History in the Digital Age (with Kristen Nawrotzki, University of Michigan Press, 2013) and Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning (in-progress).

Before digging into specific tools, consider some guiding principles:
1) Figure out what works for you. My own digital strategies have been shaped by my specialization in 20th-century metropolitan history (with an overabundance of sources) and my need to publish visual evidence (such as interactive maps) to accompany my interpretative text.
2) Consider adopting a new tool or strategy if it adds significant value to your scholarship and/or teaching, or else they may distract you from your goal.
3) Favor tools that allow you to shift from doing research in isolation to collaboration, to help “bust the myth of the lone historian,” the subtitle of the division’s fireside chat this year.
4) Never put your data into a tool unless you can easily get it back out and migrate to another platform.
5) Capture your ideas, whether on paper, keyboard, or voice recorder, to sort out which ones are worth expanding and revising.
6) The Internet is your best friend and your worst enemy. Learn to disconnect from the net (e.g. turn off wifi) in order to focus your scarce time and energy. Reward yourself after you’ve completed your writing.

Tools for Searching, Scanning, Organizing, and Analyzing Sources
Start with the growing array of scholarly database search tools – see link to list of recommended search tools for students in my Education Reform: Past & Present course
Plus three search tools that may lead you to think differently about sources:
Google NGram – for my student who researched the question: when did people start talking about “teach to the test”?
– Internet Archive, WayBackMachine – for my student who researched the question: how did Teach for America portray itself over time?
Serendip-o-matic — insert your writing or biblio and it draws sources from major archival collections – learn how we built it
Consider the pros/cons of digitally capturing archival sources with a scanner or camera
– Example: the National Archives allows cameras/scanners in their reading room
– See Shane Landrum’s post on digital cameras and archives, and Dan Royles’ post in ProfHacker on his TurboScan workflow
Consider a reference management tool that organizes your biblio/notes, can read PDFs, and create citations
– my preference is Zotero, which links with my word processor, syncs online, and is FREE. See my basic tutorial and screencast
– bonus point: Zotero allows me to publicly share my citations online, or privately share citations and PDFs with selected collaborators, to avoid doing history solo
Read essay by Ansley Erickson, “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Notecards,” in Writing History in the Digital Age, 2013.

Tools for Writing and Editing
Consider the strengths and weaknesses of different word processors, and do not automatically choose Microsoft Word, which many of us do simply out of habit, without evaluating its pros and cons.
– Libre Office – free alternative, does better job of exporting live links in PDFs — see LifeHacker review
– Scrivener – some writers prefer its “zoom out” feature to view & reorganize structure – see 9to5 review
– Google Documents – best feature is collaborative writing and live commenting — read draft book chapter in Web Writing
– Evernote – free tool that I use for sketching outlines, scribbling pieces of drafts, and “talking out” ideas on my phone to capture text for later — see Evernote tutorials
– Consider investing in a second monitor for $150 to work with your word processor and biblio/data tools side-by-side
– Automatically backup your work to an off-site location (my preference is

Questions about Publishing, Ownership, and Access
As Kristen and I wrote in our introduction to Writing History in the Digital Age, the ability for anyone to write history and share it instantly online has raised new questions:

1) How can you publish your work in ways that will be recognized by scholarly communities, and also more widely and quickly available to the public?
– my experience with traditional journal submission to publication has been 1-2 years, and behind paywalls
– consider open-access journals (see directory), or with contracts that permit you to share final draft online or repository; see Sarah Werner’s scholarly contract repository (beta)

2) Should you embargo your dissertation until you have completed the entire book — or connect with communities of readers and begin to build an audience online?
– see debate on recent AHA policy and its critics in Inside Higher Ed

3) If you are sharing your work-in-progress in a public conference, why not share it on the web and invite comments from readers who share interests but could not attend in person?
– consider the pros/cons of sharing your scholarly process and/or content on a personal website (see, or an institutional site (ask if your college/university supports, or an institutional repository
– consider the open-access and open peer review model, where authors post works online for non-blind commentary by designated experts and general readers; there are risks, but also rewards to formative feedback and wider communities of readers. Writing History in the Digital Age began as a conference panel of three essays that we posted online for comments, a month before the History of Education Society meeting. The result was an open-access, peer-reviewed book with an academic publisher: the best of both worlds.

4) How can you share your work online while also maintaining ownership?
– see my essay, Who “Owns” Oral History? A Creative Commons Solution, 2012

My closing advice, according to @Berlisha, who kindly wrote this part down for me, and which I believe is a blend of ideas previously heard from Jason B. Jones (@jbj) and Timothy Burke (@SwarthmoreBurke):
Lean Open — Share Your Work — Build Reputation Capital

Related topics:
– Learn more about teaching education history with digital resources at HES 2013 session
– Learn more about interactive charts and maps in Data Visualization book-in-progress

Feeling overwhelmed? 
What should I do next?
– Make a to-do list — paper or digital — and pick ONE idea from above that is most likely to ADD VALUE to your work, and do an experiment during a relatively calm point in your work life.
When will I find time to do this — and keep up with writing?
– Use your calendar to create blocks of writing time — and consider tools for people to book appointments at other times
How do I make sure that I won’t lose my valuable sources and writing?
– Never put your work into a tool that you cannot easily export and migrate to another platform. And backup to off-site options (I prefer Dropbox).

Postscript: Several workshop participants told me that they found this session to be valuable, and some spread the word on Twitter. My favorite tweet:


5 thoughts on “Mentoring Session: Research Strategies for Historians in the Digital Age”

  1. What a great idea to have these all in one handy list!

    To file under the rubric “Tools for Searching, Scanning, Organizing, and Analyzing Sources“: Are you starting a major research project (or a small project that you might want to expand at some point). Are you going to be doing discourse analysis with a substantial amount of text and/or images? Consider using the proprietary qualitative data analysis software ATLAS.ti ( Downsides: It’s expensive (student licenses are substantially cheaper than full-price, though, and many institutions will have it already); like all powerful software, it takes some getting used to. You can learn a lot of it by trial-and-error but if you have access to in-person training (offered at many institutions) or online tutorials, you’ll get a lot more out of it than if you don’t. If you do get ATLAS.ti and get into it, it has the potential to open up totally new ways of (historical) thinking about the relationships between words and ideas, words and other words. It’s also helped me to lean more effectively on analytical strategies borrowed from social science and humanities colleagues in addition to those I was trained to use by mentors within the discipline of history. I’ve found it to be not just a convenient way to amass, parse, and analyze large collections of documents and images, but also an illuminating tool to aid and prompt my thinking (and rethinking, and rethinking) about the sources I’m using and all the relationships I see and don’t (or didn’t used to) see. (Note: I have no affiliation with ATLAS.ti aside from being an ordinary user of their product, though if they want to send me any cool ATLAS.ti swag, they should feel free to contact me for my shipping details.)

  2. Thanks so much for compiling this list, Jack!

    @Kristen – I’m a graduate student thinking of making the transition to ATLA.ti for my dissertation research. I’m unhappy with my initial work through NVivo. I’m looking for a way to analyze a large number of born-digital oral histories.

    To add to the discussion of digital publishing: I would also like to share a project that Adrea Lawrence (University of Montana) and I are developing –
    In brief: Education’s Histories is a website focused on histories of education. It considers not only digital and analog research on schooling but also such research on education outside the institution of school. Education’s Histories examines the content, form, and methods of research others have done and presents new research, too. Special attention, at least for now, is given to methodological problems, practices, and innovations in the history of education field, particularly those in the digital environment. In fact, we intend for it to provide methodological grist for the field. We are calling our narrative style “creative non-fiction” with scholarly proclivities.

    We will begin publishing in May 2014 and are looking for new collaborators now!

  3. This is a great resource. Thank you!

    Timely for me as well. I’ve just received a small amount of funding to embark on a research project that will use digital humanities techniques to compile life course and professional data on special education teachers who taught in two Canadian cities, Toronto and Vancouver, between 1910 and the end of World War II. I’ll be using Python to scrape the web for information. At least I hope so; I’m a complete neophyte in this methodology. I think however that there’s a lot of potential out there for historians of education, especially around the reams of educational data the administrative progressives amassed in the first part of the twentieth and that we now have the computing power and know-how to sift through a grander scale than before.

    In conceptualising my project, I drew a lot on the work of some of my Canadian colleagues who have compiled an excellent resource: the programming historian – a digital textbook and set of tutorials

    I look forward to reading more on this page.

    Jason Ellis, Asst. professor, History of Education, The University of British Columbia.

  4. Thank you Jack for your usual thoroughness in sharing resources [which I finally got to read today – taking a break between projects]. Your information, and that provided by our other colleagues who responded, will assist greatly in my current history of education projects.
    You and your readers may be interested in my most recent publication – in the May 2014 issue of _Young Children_ about the history of Head Start – which is approaching its 50th anniversary. It can be accessed at:

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