Kristen Nawrotzki, “Reflections on ‘Writing History'”

Like others around the world, I have read the essays and comments on the Writing History site with great interest.  They have inspired me to reconsider my beliefs and practices relating to the writing history on both global and personal levels.

I am a historian who came of age, intellectually speaking, at the cusp of the digital revolution.  I started off researching-thinking-writing (the three are, for me, a single, inextricable phenomenon) on lined notecards, using a favorite number two pencil while turning page after page of yellowed and quickly disintegrating school records in an archives reading room.  Somewhere in the middle of my doctoral studies I started to use a laptop, eventually delighting in the convenience of JStor and of Endnote.  Soon I became accustomed to reading full-text articles, books, and other digitized materials online, feeling not a little put out by occasionally having to go to the library to find something not (yet) digitized.  Nowadays, although I continue to write and publish new archives-based research, I can remember only hazily the last time that I personally, literally set foot in an archives building – or any kind of library building, for that matter — and turned a page with my own hand.

To be sure, being able to review and analyze materials from digitized archival collections from the comfort of my own office has had its benefits, including making my research less expensive and reducing the size of its carbon footprint.  And to be fair, there are also disadvantages to the availability and accessibility of digital resources.  Regardless of how readily available and accessible information is, and regardless of how easy it is – with the right software — to catalogue, keyword, and cross-reference it; to read it, lose it, and find it again — the sheer volume of information we are confronted with is overwhelming.  And that may be true of software and other tools as much as it is of the primary and secondary source materials to which we increasingly have access, day and night, worldwide.

The essays and comments comprising the Writing History discussion confirm my own experience of the ways in which the tools of researching-thinking-writing have been revolutionized by digital technology.  What I’m not as certain about is the extent to which historical thinking (as opposed to just data-organizing, or data hoarding) has changed.  Has yours?  Or, in terms of the habits and skills of mind, of research and of writing, is it thus far a case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same”?   Do we assume this to be true in the training we are giving to our students?

As a historian of education with more than a passing interest in intellectual history, I can’t help but wonder about resistance to these changes within the discipline.  How many of us who entered the historical discipline before the digital revolution have yet to really embrace it in our teaching, research, or writing?  Is their (your, our) work any better for this resistance?  Or is all twenty-first-century historiography necessarily “digital history”?

This experiment in online scholarly discussion purposefully blurs distinctions between what is public and what is private, between what has been authored by one person and what has been collaboratively developed in ongoing asynchronous conversation.  Does it work?  To whom does it (not) appeal?  Is it important that it is situated outside the traditional scholarly spaces of peer-reviewed journals and conference programs?

I ask all these questions not only as a way to draw together some of the threads of discussion currently on the Writing History site, but also with a view to what lies ahead for this initiative.  We hope that the online forum and the panel at the History of Education Society Annual Meeting in Cambridge will serve as a joint first installment of a longer-lived multifaceted project on the topic of Writing History in the Digital Age.  With this in mind, we invite you to contribute your reflections now on the wider theme as well as on the Writing History site itself, and to contact us with suggestions for future installments of the project, in whatever form.

Please share your own reflections by submitting a comment.

How to cite this page:
Kristen Nawrotzki, “Reflections on ‘Writing History’,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 28, 2010,

Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.

5 Replies to “Kristen Nawrotzki, “Reflections on ‘Writing History'””

  1. This final question is very interesting. I wonder to what extent this experiment takes place outside ‘traditional scholarly spaces’ and to what extent it recreates such a space in a virtual environment.

    Although the experiment is situated outside the traditional scholarly spaces in a (virtual) physical sense, does it not remain within them in (virtual) social sense? How have most of the participants come to know of it? What proportion of us are affiliated with a scholarly institution or society? What proportion have come to this site through such an organisation? The location and form of our discussion has changed, but has its nature?

    Personally, I feel there are some differences. As a young researcher, I have found it less intimidating to contribute online. I am contributing from Cambridge (UK) and could not justify the financial or environmental costs in coming in person to a conference in Cambridge (USA) at this stage.

    It is exciting to explore the potential of commenting on another’s work in this way. The experiment creates a virtual space where peer-reviewing occurs as an open discussion and the content of informal comments and discussions typically heard during or after a conference paper are recorded rather than being lost.

    This is an enjoyable and exciting experiment which not only invites reflection but, more importantly, affords participants time and space for reflection before they share their insights with others.

  2. At the History of Education Society in Cambridge MA this weekend, over forty conference participants attended our session and shared their enthusiasm (and anxiety) about writing history in the digital age. Many took advantage of this opportunity to dialogue with others about their personal writing processes, and to compare strategies for compiling research notes in word processors, database programs, and bibliographic management tools. Several also spoke with me about the broader implications of publishing openly on the web, particularly on the history of marginalized peoples’ struggles. Some even framed it in the liberatory education language of Paulo Freire. And as our conversations continued out into the hallway and over the next day, I heard several new ideas, such as one innovative historian who has incorporated digital writing assignments into her class, which she argues has made her students more attentive to historical evidence and public audiences. Will we hear more about these ideas in a second installment of Writing History? I certainly hope so.

  3. Through discussion on this site and at our panel at the History of Education society meeting, I learned that a range of colleagues from graduate students to senior colleagues very much wanted to discuss the matters of how you do the nuts and bolts of our historical work and our work as writers. Many questions surfaced: when do you start to write, how do you know when you have enough research, how do you think about audience in crafting a historical piece? If you’re using X or Y database software, how do you know what to write down? How do you evaluate which tool is best for you? We had a rich discussion about these questions, but surely weren’t able to come to any tidy resolution. Instead, what was clear was that our professional networks – from the local ones, at our own institutions, to the national ones like the History of Education Society (HES), don’t do enough to help us answer these questions. This may be because of our need to perform as competent professionals in each of these realms, to emphasize what we have figured out rather than the real struggles we’re engaged in to make sense of research and writing. We may need intermediary structures that bring people together outside of those venues – like this site, or a virtual one-day conference a colleague suggested – to get at these issues.

    Additionally, I take from Jack Dougherty’s essay on digital publishing, and the many comments that that essay provoked at our HES discussion, a sense of how important it is at this juncture to consciously position your scholarship in a changing landscape of academic publishing. Maybe even more than previously, academic scholarship is increasingly locked up behind (often high) fee walls while the tools to make distribution much lower-cost are readily available. I haven’t figured out how I will negotiate these matters in my own work, but I am very appreciative of the prompt Jack and others in the discussion offered to think about this.

    Finally, I will note that as we planned “Writing History,” we asked ourselves – are we talking about “history of education,” or history in general. Based on the nature of the discussion at HES, but even more so from the diverse fields of those who commented online and the generalizability of the issues discussed, it is clearly the latter.

  4. I participated in Writing History because I care about finding better ways for scholarly authors and audiences to interact with one another about ideas that matter, particularly longer-form texts, not one-hundred character tweets.
    How much interaction — and does a quantitative measure really matter? I care most that we generate high-quality writing about history, but for this experiment in scholarly communication to succeed, we do need to look at what our web statistics do (and do not) tell us. During our one-month Oct-Nov 2010 experiment, over 1,000 unique visitors came to our website (about what I expected), and that the average visitor stayed on the site about 3 minutes (but much longer if you subtract the people who “bounce” off within the first 30 seconds). I was pleasantly surprised by the geographical diversity of visitors: counting repeat visits, Canada (314), Germany (247), UK (95), Italy (53), and Australia (43), plus others. But I was equally surprised that we received less than 50 comments, from only 20 individuals. Furthermore, while our month-long experiment attracted one new essay (from John McClymer, a scholar from outside of the education history subfield where this project originated), and emails from 3-4 others who wish to contribute an essay at a more convenient time in the future, I was surprised that more prospective authors did not take advantage of this opportunity to share their thoughts in writing. Like Natalia, I heard comments from people who saw value in our site (and also received many private emails), but most of these individuals did not post their words on the site. As we consider a second phase of this project, perhaps we need to listen to more scholars who visited the site but did not press the submit button.

  5. As moderator for the session, I left thinking about these three points (in brief):

    1) Graduate students want to know various strategies for organizing research materials; conversation around this topic continued at the GSC session on Saturday and in discussions I had with graduate students individually. I am considering writing an essay about my own reflections on my organizational methods; I primarily use WORD but see the benefits especially for long-term projects in adopting a system like FileMakerPro (Ansley’s model) or Zotero.
    2) Graduate students appreciated hearing about the accountability partnership; it sparked conversation in the small group about other models and ways to connect with other grad students both at individuals’ home institutions and across institutions.
    3) Clearly we need to continue the conversation around publishing in the digital age. If we publish our work on line, how will that affect tenure track requirements, etc?

    Thank you again for asking me to be a part of this exciting and necessary conversation/venture; I agree with Ansley that the implications of this project are much broader than writing and researching educational history.

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