Yesterday in the late afternoon I found myself finished up with fieldwork in Grand Forks, so I thought I’d drop in and catch the digital Ed Ayers being beamed in from the University of Richmond to the University of North Dakota. To history nerds, Ayers is a big deal. Bill Caraher mostly if not entirely lined up the talk. Bill received his undergraduate training in Latin and Classics at the University of Richmond, and today Ayers is the president of said U of Richmond. They met on that common ground.
It was great to hear Ayers chat about his foundational website in digital history. At some point in 1993, The Valley of the Shadow went on-line. You can link to it here. And there is even a Wikipedia page to it here. Ayers noted that with digital projects, it is not only important that they be started, but also that they come to completion. So this, as he pointed out, is why we see 1993 and 2007 at the bottom of the web site. Ayers also noted that in the 1980s, historians thought they could revolutionize the discipline through qualitative analysis. Ayers said that qualitative idea “lasted three weeks.” History certainly requires data. But it is in large part about stories and narratives, and about figuring out ways to make the raw data accessible.
Through this, says Ayers, we are now witnessing what he calls generative scholarship. By this, it is meant that scholarship does not come to some sort of final conclusion. Instead, generative scholarship encourages anyone and everyone to engage with the historical data, or texts, and speak up and out about what they see. This, in turn, adds to the dialog, thus keeping it alive.
Life is a series of short and long term stories. This is how we make sense of it all, and also how we make sense of lives lived. This is what I thought about on my drive back from Grand Forks to Fargo.