Digital Humanist Interview

I was interviewed recently by a student in Leslie Madsen-Brooks 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. Given a recent conversation on twitter, where Mike Widner and others have been discussing the results of text analysis/topic modeling on all of the posted interviews, I thought I’d post here the ur-text from our interview.

1. Did you begin your academic career wanting to be an archeologist? How did your studies as and undergraduate and graduate student lead you to your current career?

I grew up in a family with a very strong interest in history. My brothers and I all teach at various levels in the system, and various aunts & other family members all taught too. It was rather a given… as for archaeology, I was attracted by the materiality of it. I love historical landscapes. Archaeology forces you to confront that history happens in space and place, with and through objects. I like stuff. It was a good fit!

But it all comes down to an opportunity I had a at junior college in Quebec (a CEGEP, as they’re called). I had the opportunity to go to Greece on a study tour, and then to return the following year on an excavation. We worked on a medieval Cistercian abbey, in which was buried a mutilated skeleton. Its treatment was consistent with traditions surrounding vampires, so… it rather hooks you in, an experience like that!

I studied classical archaeology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario. I wasn’t very tech minded in those days, though I had had a C-64 growing up, and had programmed my own games in BASIC. I had an exercise in one class in 1995 where we were asked to go onto this “World Wide Web” and create an annotated webography of sites related to the Etruscans. Less than impressed with what I found, I wrote an essay entitled, ‘Why the World Wide Web Will Never Be Useful For Academics’.

My ability to predict the future is thus suspect.

2. Did you always have a knack for technology? Was it something that came easily to you, or something you really had to work at to understand?

I’ve been breaking things since I was 3. I took our family piano apart when I was ten, dropping all of the hammers and rendering a B-Flat completely useless ever since. In the sense that I’ve never been afraid to tinker, to try to understand how things work, then yes, you could say I have a knack for technology. With our C-64, I use to buy magazines that printed out all of the code for games, utilities, and so on. I did a lot of that sort of thing, down in the basement… but I’m always working hard to figure out how things work, and what I might use them for. I get a kick out of helping other people too. I believe in failing gloriously and failing often. It’s only through that cycle – and being willing to share what happened – that we move forward. Recently a project website of mine was hacked. I was gutted – I lost a summer’s worth of work. But on the flip side, it was a great moment to share with the wider community so that it wouldn’t happen to them. I posted about it here: and was really heartened to see the comments of support (and tweets) about what went on.

Too often we only talk about things that worked just like we thought they would. We need to have a discourse about things we try that didn’t – and why.

3. What jobs have you held previously? Were there any skills that you acquired at those positions that you still use today?

My very first job was as a janitor, responsible for the washrooms at a summer resort. Being a janitor taught patience and fortitude in the face of really annoying ….stuff….. More to your question though, I’ve taught at all levels from High School through to Continuing Ed. Until I joined the faculty at Carleton, I worked in the world of for-profit online education. I learned a lot about teaching and tech in those positions. I was a free lance heritage consultant at one point, with a couple of government contracts, where mission creep is a very real issue. Learn to say no, learn to draw the line. I also have a business with my family in what could be considered the heritage agritourism field.  Again though I consider that a form of teaching – understanding customers, understanding students, can be very similar. That’s not to say that students are customers, mind you. Paying for tuition is like paying for ice time- it gets you on the ice, I’ll coach you, but you don’t necessarily get to hoist the Stanley Cup.

4. How advanced is your knowledge of computer science and programing? Is that a major component of your job?

I’m always reading, always learning. Talk to the comp.sci folks. Keeping up with what’s going on, and trying to identify which skills are the ones I need. There’s a lot to recommend just playing and tinkering though, in terms of teaching. When you are formally taught something, you tend to internalize that particular mode of doing whatever it is. I’m sure there are probably more effective ways of learning the skills I need, but this is what seems to work for me. I’ve heard of people getting credit towards tenure for ‘learning python’ or what have you, so that’s encouraging. Works like The Programming Historian are a fantastic resource, and I’m continually astounded by what other folks can do. I’m really a bit of a fraud. First day in the department, I couldn’t find the on switch for the Macs…. (I’m a pc guy).

5. What is your favorite form of digital communication? (Blogs, Twitter, etc.) What form do you think is most respected in the field? What form is the most “academically accepted?”

I have worked hard on my blog, from 2006 onwards, to make it a useful form of academic output for me. I thank Alan Liu and other participants at the 1st Nebraska Digital Humanities Workshop (were I’d been invited to present) for pushing me to blog. Once I started giving it away on my blog, I started getting traction in academia (that I wasn’t getting as a Romanist). A careful, thoughtful blog is a sinequanon for the digital humanist, as is a twitter account. I don’t care much for Facebook or Google +. In terms of ‘academically accepted’, I can show you structural reasons why blogs matter in terms of speaking beyond and to the academy. Someone has to generate the content on the internet, right? Experiments like the Journal of Digital Humanities and things like the LSE Impact Blog are slowly securing the short-form quick-publish genre as an accepted format of scholarly output. Blogging is platform, not genre. We shouldn’t confuse the two. In some senses, the journal article or monography is the last stage of the process, an archive rather than a picture of developing scholarly output. That’s going to be the biggest change.

6. How do you balance your career/projects between the digital and traditional academic worlds?

Happily, I’m one of the first people in Canada to have ‘Digital Humanities’ as my job title, so I’m making it up as I go along.

7. I noticed on your blog that you cite extensively. Is that common practice among digital humanists?

Blogging as a platform has nothing to say about citations. I cite, because I want to give credit and to show where my original thought begins. It’s pretty common on academic blogs. Linking is a form of citation too.

If there is any other information that you think is pertinent to the field of digital humanities, especially in relation to public history, that I did not touch upon in my questions, I would love to hear your thoughts.

All digital history is public history, far as I’m concerned. Working online allows an interested public to become part of the project. Precious few have read my book; about a hundred people a day take a look at my blog.



  1. Reblogged this on humanitiesglasgow and commented:
    Here is an interview from Leslie Madsen-Brooks graduate seminar in digital history with Shawn Graham, who gives some interesting insights on being a “digital humanist”.
    Shawn is a Registered Professional Archaeologist in North America, and he was a Member of the Institute for Archaeologists (formerly, Institute of Field Archaeologists) in the UK from 2004-2009. I is now Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of History at Carleton University.

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