A dead-simple weekly email: A little workflow for bringing people together

UCLA’s Digital Humanities program, which I coordinate, is interdisciplinary in the extreme. Unlike some other programs, which sit in English or History departments, UCLA DH is an entity unto itself: a standalone minor and graduate certificate housed within the division of the humanities. In a lot of ways, this is great: We have no particular allegiance to any one department, and our students and faculty come from all over the university.

But they’ve all got a lot of stuff going on, and in many cases, they see their primary home as a different department. (I’m the only person at UCLA who’s dedicated full-time to the DH academic program.) We don’t have a dedicated community space just for the DH program, and while I organize as many events as I can on our limited budget, people just don’t have a ton of time to hang out or attend events.

And yet part of my job is to create a sense of community for the program. What to do?

I’m still working on it, but I have come up with one modestly successful tool: a weekly email digest that gathers events, job opportunities, fellowships, CFPs, and resources relevant to UCLA digital humanities, prefaced by a little introduction from me.

Here’s what one looks like.

This is why I do it:

  • Everyone gets too much email.
  • I see tons of events and opportunities that I want to share with everyone in the DH program, but there is no way they’ll tolerate that much email.
  • Most of the people in the program aren’t on Twitter.
  • More are on Facebook, but not all, and (oddly) many people in our UCLA DH group get individual notification emails about everything that gets posted there, leaving me very leery of overposting to our Facebook group.
  • People are always asking me to forward stuff to the program, but, again, there’s no way anyone’s going to tolerate that many emails.
  • People hate opening attachments.
  • Most people won’t visit a link unless they have an idea of what’s there.
  • I need to tell people about things that are important to the program, but have trouble getting them to read announcements.
  • Many people’s default email clients don’t show HTML automatically, so there’s no point in formatting things that way.

I investigated things like MailChimp, paper.li, and TinyLetter, but my sense was that people would be more likely to read a weekly email if it felt like someone had put a lot of thought into curating the content especially for them, and the other solutions felt too impersonal and a little spammy. I know that I tend immediately to ignore emails that look like they’ve been forwarded a bunch of times or sent by a non-human, and I figured everyone else would, too.

The process I arrived at is actually pretty simple and doesn’t take too terribly long.

  • I see something I want to share with the group, usually on Twitter but also through RSS feeds (and, increasingly, tipsters from the UCLA community, which I love!).
  • I save it to Pinboard, using the keyword “dh” and other descriptive tags.
  • I also very quickly extract a summary paragraph from the link and give the link a title that makes sense.
  • This ifttt recipe automatically saves every link tagged with “dh,” along with its summary, to a single Evernote document, while this recipe simultaneously tweets all those links from the UCLA DH Twitter account. (I copied the format for these tweets from DHNow’s twitter account.)
  • On Friday, I paste the contents of the Evernote file into an email, cleaning things up and formatting a bit as I go.

I also write a very brief introduction, which is always an attempt to give the program some kind of voice and gin up a sense of camaraderie. I try to keep it as brief as I possibly can. Often, I write one version, then delete half of the text before I actually send the email. It’s also my chance to alert people to things they need to know about but wouldn’t otherwise pay attention to. My theory is that people will open and read the email if they know there’s something possibly lucrative for them in it (like a fellowship or a job), and my introduction is my chance to get them to eat their spinach — read about the DH program itself.

Some of this labor is redundant, because a lot of these opportunities are posted to DHNow. But not all — I really keep an eye out for things that are relevant to the UCLA community in particular, given what I know about our students and faculty, and I focus on things that happen at UCLA and in the L.A. area.

Assembling the email usually takes me somewhere between one to two hours. This whole weekly email thing has been surprisingly and gratifyingly successful. (I mean, it’s not going to solve world hunger, but it’s mildly successful.) I regularly hear from people that they like the weekly email, which makes me really happy. It’s become kind of a fixture of the program, and I got a big kick out of it when a group of librarians here adopted a similar process for their monthly newsletter.

I experimented with posting the email to UCLA DH’s blog, but it looked terrible; the formatting was impossible to get right, and, anyway, a big list like that doesn’t look right on a website. I would like to get all this stuff posted to our site somehow, but I think that’s going to have to wait for the web redesign that a few of our grad students and I are working on.

I’d also like to get other people involved in the process, much the way DHNow makes use of Editors-at-Large, but I’ve been so pressed for time lately that I haven’t had a chance to make that happen. I also desperately need a better way to manage our horrible, terrible listserv, but, again, there’s that time issue.

But this seems to work well for the time being, I enjoy doing it, and it really has made a noticeable difference in lending the program a sense of cohesion.

(BTW, drop me a line if you want to be added to the list! The emails tend to be somewhat UCLA-centric, but I’m happy to include other people as well.)

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