Broadening the Humanities’ Skill Set

“Broadening the Humanities’ Skill Set: The Role of GIS in Positioning the Humanities Student for Academic and Non-Academic Career Achievement”

This post was originally published on Thoughts Across Time.

The internet seems to be burgeoning with humanities doomsday articles lately. Questioning the sanity of humanities students, particularly of the graduate variety, these articles declare that the humanities student is voluntarily choosing a stark future, fighting for the rare tenure track position, scrabbling over the ever-more-coveted, but less than satisfactory adjunct faculty position. However one may feel about these articles (though their points are usually valid, I take their sensationalism with a grain of salt…but that’s another post in and of itself), it is quite apparent that the job market in every sector is shifting and that the humanities student needs to adjust accordingly in order to increase his or her chances of being gainfully employed down the road. These adjustments must necessarily include the consideration of non-academic career options. Our graduate programs tend not to properly prepare graduate students for a non-academic future, which means that the individual graduate student must often take it upon themselves to expand their skills in order to appeal to both the academic and non-academic job market. One of the paramount ways to broaden one’s skill set is to learn and embrace the methods of the digital humanities.

This past April I attended the annual American Society for Environmental History conference in Toronto, Ontario, during which I sat in on the graduate student lunch. The lunch featured a panel of three historians representing non-academic careers. When asked what skill they wish they had learned that would benefit their current, non-academic career all three responded, “GIS.” Historical Geographic Information Systems involves the application of historical methodology to GIS technology in order to examine the relationship between time, space, and change. GIS can perform similar tasks in other humanities’ fields. For instance, English practitioners can use GIS to map the spatial and temporal literary patterns of an author. Not only useful for one’s graduate research, GIS and other similar skills can be incredibly helpful during the post-graduate job search. As Lauren Wheeler, one of the panelists at the ASEH luncheon, states, “anyone looking for work outside academia needs to have additional skills to get their foot in the door.” Wheeler, who has an MA in Public History from Carleton University and currently works as a Program Lead for the Alberta Museums Association, further states that “with the increasing digitization of industry and communications GIS [is] a particularly useful skill to have as it is not a common additional skill among arts educated graduates.” GIS skills can assist the humanities student in obtaining a job in many spheres of professionalization, including museums, government agencies, non-profits, and agencies that deal with contract work. Examples of the use and integration of GIS technology in these fields and others are many. Three individuals agreed to assist in better illustrating the effectiveness of GIS skills outside academia by sharing with me their own experience with integrating GIS into their humanities background and subsequent non-academic career paths.

The first contributor is Kaitlin Wainwright, another panelist from the ASEH grad student luncheon, who is currently a Plaques and Markers Program Coordinator at Heritage Toronto, an agency that Wainwright writes is responsible for the interpretation and celebration of the city’s heritage. Wainwright has an HBA in History and Communications Studies and a Master of Arts in Public History from Carleton University. She says that she initially came into contact with GIS when she worked for the National Capital Commission in Ottawa. While at the National Capital Commission, she used GIS to study forest management by “track[ing] the species changes in tree stands in the Greenbelt over a forty year period.” In her current position at Heritage Toronto, Wainwright uses GIS to interpret the history of specific neighborhoods and the city as a whole. By using Google Maps, Wainwright has been able to collect, highlight, and manage the position and content of Heritage Toronto’s plaques and markers. Wainwright points out that many public history organizations are creating mobile applications that have a GIS component. GIS allows people to visually connect with history and the importance of place in history. She states that GIS enables professionals to interpret information and present in a user-friendly format. In her opinion, this is “the core purpose of GIS outside of academia and what makes it useful in a career.”

Oula Seitsonen has an MA in Archaeology (2004) and MSc in Geoinformatics (2013). He has held a number of positions in the past at private companies and research institutions that used GIS and is currently a field archaeologist/GIS specialist for the Archaeological Museum at the University of Stavanger in Stavanger, Norway and a GIS consultant company, Arkteekki Ltd., where he mainly prepares land use reports, such as groundwater mapping, for surveying and planning purposes. He has found that his knowledge of archaeology and GIS background assists him at his planning job with Arkteekki, Ltd. because he can skillfully guide planners away from sites that are archeologically rich. Seitsonen first started using GIS in 2002 on an old 1990s Geodimeter total state and has improved his GIS skills by way of a mixture of classes, on-the-job training and self-tutelage. He has been actively seeking GIS positions since 2010 when his five-year contract with the Archaeology Department at the University of Helsinki ended and he began studying for his Msc. Seitsonen remarks that the key to enriching one’s career through GIS is to keep one’s self up-to-date on the most recent methods and technologies and to also learn how to deftly sell one’s GIS skills and your academic background to potential employers.

Brad Duncan holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Science and a PhD in Maritime Archaeology from James Cook University. In the past, Duncan has worked for Aboriginal Affairs, Heritage Victoria, a GPS surveyor in New Zealand and a commercial archaeological contractor. Currently, Duncan is a Maritime Archaeologist for the NSW Heritage Division of the Office of Environment and Heritage in Australia. Duncan learned GIS at his first job in New Zealand and in GIS courses in the Geography and Archaeology Departments at James Cook University. Duncan states that he purposefully learned GIS to accompany his archaeological knowledge and used GIS heavily in both his Honors’ and PhD theses. GIS is particularly helpful in maritime archaeology and ethnoarchaeological investigations, Duncan contends, because it enables one to overlay multiple data sets and view this data from numerous angles, perspectives and themes. Additionally, he states that GIS is also useful for georeferencing old maps in order to decipher where potential archaeological site may be. Duncan write that all of the job positions he has had can be attributed to his background in GIS. According to Duncan, all archaeological students should be required to study GIS analysis.

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