From History Student to Webmaster?

Here’s my original proposal (or part of it at least):

“I would like to discuss the jarring, often difficult and certainly rewarding experiences of those, like myself, who have somehow managed to make the leap from humanities student to digital historian/webmaster/default IT guy without any formal training in computer skills.  While I am hoping that such a discussion will be helpful in generating solutions to various technical and institutional barriers that those in this situation face, I am also confident that meeting together will allow us to better explain the benefits that our unique combination of training and experience bring to our places of employment.  I would also be very interested to see if we could produce some ideas about how this group could be better supported in our duties both by our own institutions and through outside workshops or seminars.”

I’m not sure if this is the right place for this discussion, as I’m guessing that many campers may not share these difficulties.  However, if enough people are interested, I think I’ll go with it.  Related to this discussion, I would also like to talk about people’s experiences or recommendations for resources that could be useful to digital historians in training, as well as better ways to get our message about web 2.0, open source technologies, freedom of information, etc. to our colleagues.

Anyways, let me know what you all think.

17 Responses to “From History Student to Webmaster?”

  1. Jeffrey McClurken Says:

    I certainly fit in this category as well. Some of this conversation may/should take place as part of the discussion Amanda French started about the teaching core of digital humanities (, but I suspect there’s room on one of the days for a convo among those of us (who might be seen as a transitional group of) “half-trained” digital humanists.

  2. Patrick Murray-John Says:

    Ditto what Jeff said. I think it’d be especially interesting to get a group of us in the same room to compare where different are in that transition (transformation?), and what experiences people have had at the different places.

  3. jamesdcalder Says:

    Excellent, I’m glad this has sparked some interest. I will also reread Amanda French’s post and try to think up some concrete ideas about how these discussions connect. If either of you, or anyone else, have any thoughts or brainstorms on this topic, please let me know.

  4. Tim Brixius Says:

    I was a history major at Franklin & Marshall College. Two months after graduation, I began my first full-time job as the College’s assistant web manager. That’s no longer my title, but I still in the same position. My formal training at the time of my hiring was zilch, so I’d love to join this conversation.

  5. Erin Bell Says:

    Hey Jim, this is a great idea.

    Sounds like there are a lot of us out there who have become de facto “tech gurus” at our places of employment, despite a lack of any formal training. I had some minimal training in web publishing during grad school (really just basic HTML/CSS), but 90+% of what Ive done has been accomplished through trial and error, web searches, forums, copy-pasting, tweaking, and most importantly, brainstorming and troubleshooting sessions with other “amateurs” (such as yourself). This seems to have worked well for both of us, and is probably a pretty common approach for others getting started in the field.

    It might be interesting to try to construct an information seeking/needs profile for those individuals and see if that leads anywhere.

    (for non-librarians, a lazy and insufficient intro: and

  6. Arden Kirkland Says:

    This all definitely applies to me too. As is true of most education, I think there’s something to be said for learning how to learn – then being able to go off on your own and teach yourself whatever you need at that moment. When we’re inspired by the content we work with, and we’re open to new technology, we can go with the flow of what best serves a particular project. I suspect that’s better than being an expert at one particular technology, and then being tied to it. I do have a feeling very often that I’m trying to catch up (especially as I follow all these camp posts) but I like the challenge.

  7. awatson Says:

    This transformation also happens a lot among librarians — there are plenty of people working with IT in libraryland who weren’t formally trained in it but picked up the experience here, there, and yon. One of the debates in library education is about whether to teach specific IT skills, or assume that the technology will change constantly over a person’s career and teach “how to learn” skills instead.

    I’d be interested in this session both as the default Web 2.0 person in my current job and as a former humanities grad student who often acted as an informal tech support hotline for my friends.

  8. lisagrimm Says:

    I’ve been on every side of this; I fell into a webmaster job while finishing my MA in archaeology and stayed in the field for over 10 years. Even in the corporate/dot-com world, most of my colleagues were people with humanities degrees who happened to have self-taught IT skills. I went back to library school to get back to working with ‘old things’ – as an archivist, I certainly still use my IT skills, but I get to apply them to something I actually find interesting now (and at a greatly reduced salary!).

    Another point that I would bring up is how digital humanities positions often have lower salaries than their equivalent ‘straight’ IT jobs, even when they have very similar duties and backgrounds required. I’d love to see more parity with IT salary bands.

  9. THATCamp » Blog Archive Says:

    […] think this fits in to some degree with Jim Calder’s post and Amanda French’s post, among others (sadly, I have yet to read all the posts here, but I […]

  10. Sterling Fluharty Says:

    Here is a link from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that will give you information on training, qualifications, and earnings, among other things, for various kinds of computer jobs:

    This kind of information could be useful as a reference point against which a list of skills for a digital history or history webmaster could be compared.

    I think you will find that web design and graphic design, which might so far be the fields most closely associated with the digital humanities, are among the lowest paid positions in computer and Internet industries.

  11. Eric Johnson Says:

    This is a great topic–count me in as another member of this half-taught/amateur group. After graduating from college, I taught myself rudiments of HTML and CSS and then eventually did take a couple of classes in library school. I think a lot of people involved in digital humanities probably follow the same sort of primarily self-taught trajectory–but it seems like different folks end up in different orbits (to stretch an analogy), depending on both the level of their technical interests and the time their particular jobs allow for them to focus on these issues.

    For a long time I really felt left behind because I am never, ever able to stay on the bleeding edge of the digital humanities (and sometimes I still feel like that, which leads to what could be another interesting thing to discuss: how do we amateur practitioners keep up in the developments of the field?).

    But I think it’s really okay that not everybody can be in the same place: each of us has a unique combination of knowledge and day-to-day practice that gives us our own view on this “thing” that is/are digital humanities. THATCamp is one opportunity among many for us to share our views, which enriches the whole field.

  12. jamesdcalder Says:

    Excellent! I’m very pleased that this has struck a chord with some people. I’m thinking that we will have a very interesting and productive discussion.

    Some concrete ideas I’m having are:

    As Erin suggested, perhaps we could use this session to come up with some sort of “wish list” of skills/training that would be useful for people in our position.

    I’d also like it if we could all be thinking of some of the specific techniques/resources/hacks that have proved especially useful. In other words, I’d much rather have someone share a really useful hack than simply talk about how learning php is really quite helpful. Does that make sense?

    On top of that, general discussions on this new and exciting position, our relationships with our institutions, salaries, etc. should definitely take place.

    How does that sound? Any ideas are more than welcome.

  13. zachwhalen Says:

    I’m in this boat, too, and I’m interested in this topic of digital skills attained outside of the classroom and what that process of discovery can teach us about bringing those skills back into our classrooms.

    For example, as an undergrad English major, I had a vague idea of how the web worked, but when I made it to grad school, I found myself with an account on a web server and I played around enough that I gained enough skill to freelance web design for a bit. Now I’m in a tenure track position in an English department where my assigned area is “New Media.” My point is that all of the New Media-centered skill and knowledge I have now I gained through trial and error, cut-and-paste, and a few good O’Reilly books.

    Now, when I teach a new media focused class (say, on Electronic Literature), I offer instruction in programming, HTML, etc. as needed for the projects I want them to work on. This is an interesting process for me because I never had any formal training of my own. I don’t have a prior model to base my own pedagogy on.

    What I’m thinking is that my own learning process was definitely problem-based. That is, I learned what I needed to to solve problems I had — like how do you develop a uniform templating and publishing platform for an online journal on a server that doesn’t let you use PHP? (Answer: Use conditional statements in SSI to build a hierarchical nest of callbacks).

    So anyway, the question I’m interested in pursuing with regard to this broader, self-teaching topic is the what, why, and how of bringing that knowledge to my classes?

    The “what” of this question is part of what Amanda is getting at, and the “how” is addressed pretty neatly I think in this line from ewg118: “I think it’s best to stay away from actual technical training because then you are limiting your students to learning only what you are teaching.” Maybe this is an accepted truism for most of the folks here, but for me, this is a really nicely-stated teaching philosophy that resonates with what I’ve been learning as a new teacher.

    Anyway, sorry for the long rambling comment. I look forward to rambling in person this weekend!

  14. Boone Gorges Says:

    Count me in too! I’m trained as a philosopher but have fallen into the roles of web developer and instructional technologist. In a sense it’s not so surprising that someone with a background in formal logic would move into programming-type fields (if Patrick Murray-John is right, maybe trafficking in nearly-incomprehensible abstractions is what all academics do…). But it’s not as obvious to me how the loop feeds back on itself – as Zach asks in the previous comment, what does one’s experience in web development or technology mean when we get back in the classroom (or the armchair)?

    Very much looking forward to this discussion.

  15. Megan Brett Says:

    I’d like to be included in this discussion – my org has one IT guy, and I have become the IT person for the museums department. I’d really like to follow James’ suggestion to talk about hacks and tricks that have proved useful.

  16. | Center for Public History and Digital Humanities Says:

    […] think this fits in to some degree with Jim Calder’s post and Amanda French’s post, among others (sadly, I have yet to read all the posts here, but I will […]

  17. Teleogistic / On the communal v. the individual student voice Says:

    […] useful, the calculus of determining the ideal level of abstraction is constantly in flux. To echo a discussion from this year’s THATCamp: while it might be the case that most students would benefit from learning some HTML and some basic […]