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Regular version of the site

Interview on eSTARS: ‘Digital technologies make it possible to adjust the lens through which we view history, test hypotheses and draw conclusions from big data’

Digital Humanities specialist Dinara Gagarina on the digitalisation of history


Both the teaching and science of history are moving towards greater use of mathematical research models. Driving this process are developments in IT, the large-scale digitalisation of data and the understanding that new methods are needed for obtaining rapid results. However, the transition is not entirely smooth. This was the subject of the Digital Humanities session of the eSTARS conference held at HSE University in cooperation with the Coursera global platform. Dinara Gagarina, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at the HSE campus in Perm, told IQ about the issues involved in the digitalisation of the historical sciences in Russia.

Dinara Gagarina
Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at the HSE campus in Perm

Ms Gagarina, you started out with a math degree, but then switched your focus to history. How did you decide to combine two such disparate fields, and do you consider yourself more a mathematician or a historian?

I had planned since childhood to become a math teacher and so I studied mechanics and mathematics at university. I earned my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics and had no intention of working in the humanities. But after graduating, I began teaching IT, math and computer science to students pursuing degrees in other fields. Many of them were history majors. That’s how it all started. These history students piqued my interest — their openness, the gleam in their eyes and their interest in different fields of knowledge. Then I found myself in a lab for historical information science and participated in various research projects.

Although I studied mathematics for six years, I have been studying history and digital humanities for 16. My colleagues and I have completed a whole series of continuing education courses in both Russia and abroad, and so now it is difficult to say whether I am more a mathematician or a historian. I am probably a digital historian or a digital humanities teacher. My personal story of how I made that transition is not unique. People come to this field from both sides — more frequently from history and less often from math and IT.

You have studied abroad. How advanced is the digitalisation of historical science and education in Russia compared to Western countries?

We are not lagging behind in mathematising and digitalising history. This processes in the West and in the Soviet Union, and later Russia, have proceeded more or less synchronously since the 1960s. Overall, I tend to think of science as an international field, one that does not, or at least should not have political and geographic borders.

At the Digital Humanities session of the eSTARS conference, you said that some in the history field resist digitalisation for a variety of reasons, including issues specific to education. Can you paint a sort of typological portrait of the opposite type of historian, one who is intent on developing in the digital humanities?

That is a very good question. I have been thinking about this. I would like to answer using my favourite databases to make an aggregate portrait, a prosopographic study. Now, these are probably young people for the most part — though not exclusively. Many specialists who make the transition to digital humanities were already established researchers and teachers.

I often cite the example of summer university programmes in the digital humanities in Leipzig. These bring together 100 people at a time, people of all ages, from every field, and from a wide variety of organisations and universities — from centres devoted to the preservation of cultural heritage to the commercial sector. And this creates a huge synergistic effect. Together we strengthen each other.

Another example of this is our master’s programme in Digital Humanities. We have students who just yesterday earned their bachelor’s degrees and older individuals with PhDs who want a master’s in this field.

Can you tell us more about this master’s programme? Is it mainly for history majors?

No, people come to us with completely different educational and professional backgrounds. According to Russian education regulations, every programme must belong to a certain field. The Digital Humanities programme at the Perm campus is part of the School of History. However, it actually has a broad humanities scope that, in addition to history, includes linguistics, cultural studies and philology. Therefore, enrollment is open to people from different fields in the humanities, as well as other fields in general. Those with technical majors gain knowledge and skills in the humanities while those already in the humanities might switch their focus from, say, linguistics to history or vice versa.

Which branches of history currently have the greatest need for digital skills?

This includes a wide range of areas, everything from the academic track with its research and analytical activities and the quest for new knowledge, as well as the semi-applied fields such as preservation and presentation of historical and cultural heritage. This includes the development of virtual museums, electronic libraries, archives, the creation of media projects and startups in the humanities. Our master’s programme also includes an applied track.

Are there many similar master’s programmes in Russia, or is this still what you might call an ‘exclusive’ major?

The number of such programmes has been growing in recent years, and this is great, but, of course, the total is still small. As a rule, only universities that are centres of digital humanities research offer such courses. In Siberia, the Tomsk State University and the Siberian Federal University in Krasnoyarsk have such centres. In the West, such centres include our partners at the Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, the programme for the analysis of cultural data at ITMO University and, of course, the Digital Humanities programme at the HSE campuses in Moscow and Perm.

To what extent have traditional master’s programmes in history digitalised?

There is a general shortage of digital disciplines for history majors at Russian universities, although the situation has improved over the last 10 years, of course. Educational programmes all over the country now include history courses connected with mathematics. They might go by different names, but the idea is that they focus on mathematical methods in historical research and usually include something concerning computer science or digital literacy. There are usually just one or two courses like this. This is due to the lack of teaching staff, a lack of understanding of the importance and need for digital and mathematical methods and issues connected with creating curricula. There usually isn’t enough room in the usual four-year bachelor’s history programme for courses on digital history. The bachelor’s in history at HSE University is now a five-year programme, which makes it easier for us to carry out such specific objectives. 

In your talk at eSTARS, you listed examples of digital history disciplines that universities could introduce. They sound interesting, of course, but is it realistic or even possible for history and humanities students to take more than one or two courses on these subjects?

It depends on the course content. If it is taught the way higher math was taught in humanities departments — a one-size-fits-all approach — then no. It is not so much impossible as it is pointless. It would be meaningless for students, except that it would help them form a few extra neural connections in their brains.

Universities should tailor the methods and content of digital courses to students’ specific fields — history, philology, linguistics, cultural criticism or philosophy.

Are there enough teachers for this? Is it realistic to solve this problem in the next few years? Where can universities find such specialists?

First, the master’s programmes we discussed here could provide those teachers. Second, existing teachers can develop themselves by taking advanced training courses, participating in summer schools, etc. Of course, the universities themselves must be interested in this and they can motivate their employees to develop.

In the future, will there be a place for historians who do not want to master digital research methods?

Of course! The development of digital disciplines in the humanities does not negate traditional methods in any way. Science is beautiful in its diversity and all methods have limitations. As for history education, it is important that students are familiar with a range of methods and are able to combine them. The synergy that comes from combining different methods produces the best results.

Considering how the digital humanities are developing, might incoming history majors one day have to choose between a focus on the pure humanities and a specialisation that combines history and mathematics?

We cannot divide the world into pure physicists and lyricists and, therefore, we will not be able to divide historians into pure humanities majors and historian-mathematicians. I think it’s important that students have the flexibility to pursue their interests through elective courses, projects and thesis papers and shape their individual educational path. History students have a wide variety of interests. Some are interested in the history of the Ancient East while others might prefer to focus on the modern history of Germany. We need to make a curriculum that would enable each of them to receive the knowledge they need.

At the session on Digital Humanities, you mentioned that you and your colleagues had developed a course on digital history that was open to the public. Can you tell us more about it?

Yes, this is a digital history course and it is open to everybody on the Open Education platform. It was filmed by the HSE eLearning Office. It includes 10 lectures covering different aspects of digital history. I am the author of the course and some of the topics were covered by Daniil Skorinkin, Dmitry Dobrovsky and Vladimir Opredelenov from HSE University and Charlotte Tupman from the University of Exeter (UK).

Is this course only for historians?

The course content focuses on history, but a specialist in any branch of the humanities could extrapolate from it and find something useful. It does not require a baseline knowledge of history. A set of exercises follow every lecture and we provide a large list of additional reading materials for any student who wants to delve deeper into the subject.

Can you give some examples of interesting things that have become possible in historical sciences with the help of digital technologies and mathematics?

There are many examples, including textbook ones such as the research by Robert Fogel, for which he received the Nobel Prize. In general, science consists of not only high-profile discoveries but also of small steps, of the daily systematic work of many researchers.

In answer to your question, I’ll mention two interesting things. First, digital technologies make possible a more thorough verification and rechecking of results, meaning that the knowledge gained is more scientific. Verification is always an issue for historians.

Second, digital technologies make it possible to work with large amounts of data such that a single study can now draw on thousands or even millions of individual pieces of information. This is very important. Digital technologies allow us to view a huge number of texts, images or any other sources of information at once, which was not possible before. This isn’t about the macro level. Digital technologies make it possible to adjust the lens through which we view history, to switch from micro-history in all its detail to macro-history, to generalise, test hypotheses and draw conclusions from big data.

Do you think physical archives will be preserved for future researchers or will they be digitalised completely?

Of course, archives will remain in physical form, but an increasing number of sources will be accessed in electronic format. Still, historians definitely need to study the physical features of certain things.

Does the pandemic affect the digitalisation of historical sciences in any way?

It probably has no effect on the development of digital and mathematical methods used in historical research. But this raises two important points.

First, society seems to have realised the importance of mass digitalisation because when archives and everything else is closed, you can only work with what has been digitised and posted online.

The second point is that digital technologies — that are important not only for historians but also for specialists in various fields — enable us to record what is happening right now. They make it possible to efficiently and quickly collect and analyse data not only about patients but also about how people, organisations, industries and countries live and reorganize their activities. This is an important object of future study and the source materials will be in purely digital form.

December 17, 2020