Digital media and science communication in the environmental humanities

How to bring history to 21st century? It’s not enough to speak the language of the new generations – one must also use their tools. Paula shares her experiences.

After an intensive stretch of attending international conferences and workshop of varying scope and extent within the environmental humanities, it is a tempting point to reflect on some observations about digital media as a means of science communication. The humanities in general, and history in particular might not be reputed for being in the forefront of applying new technological devices or media in communicating their research. Based on my recent experiences, it definitely seems that in this regard the scholars in humanities have taken within the last few years big steps in operating with digital means in addition and in conjunction with the traditional written papers and oral presentations at conferences.

The environmental history community, which has strong and traditional ties to the natural sciences, has in comparison to e.g. general history, adopted the poster format much wider as an established and meaningful mode of presenting research. As conference presentation slots are limited, a good poster session naturally also enables broader participation. The European Society for Environmental History launched this year a new “Best poster price”, which is a petite, but important gesture to encourages submitting posters, acknowledges good and visually attractive science communication, and invites also to experiment with new ways of constructing a poster. For the first time I experienced a poster that had a QR-code attached to it in order to link the viewer/audience to an oral video presentation with more detailed information on the subject. This innovative way of extending the limited space offered in a poster took advantage of easy-to-use, readily available digital means to bring scholarly communication into a multi-media mode. 

Historians with their narratives embracing winding stories might have difficulties in condensing their research into increasingly short and pithy messages. Nevertheless, tweeting seems to have penetrated also the history community with full force. Live streaming of talks and interactive participation through tweets summarize key points, distribute snapshots and highlight fascinating details of topics under discussion. Scholars missing the actual event are engaged through tweets and during the recent Nordic Historians Conference it seemed to me that the most insightful questions to key note speakers were actually delivered via Twitter. Maybe commenting on a key note in front of a full audience makes some people uncomfortable, and tweeting thus makes contributing easier?

Naturally, this kind of (new?) science communication poses also a new challenge to a scholar, whose training and career has mainly focused on academic writing of extensive narratives. Perhaps we need to rethink our curricula keeping in mind the possibilities and perhaps increasing expectations that new digital forms of science communication poses to us and the future generations of digital native scholars.