Commit to DH people, not DH projects

We’ve seen digital humanities in terms of “projects” since Roberto Busa indexed Thomas Aquinas. But lately it seems to me that the imperative to continuously produce something is getting in the way of how people actually think and grow. What if we viewed digital methods as a contribution to the long arc of a scholar’s intellectual development, rather than tools we pick up in the service of an immediately tangible product? Perhaps we’d come up with better ways of investing in people’s long-term potential as scholars.

It’s natural for DH centers, especially newish ones, to want to spread the word about digital humanities. But increasingly I suspect that issuing a faculty call for projects is not the way to do it.

Why?

  • Most faculty members who are new to digital humanities will not be able to design a sound, thoughtful, achievable project proposal, even with help from center staff, because …
  • The power imbalance between faculty members and staff members within the academic hierarchy means that it requires extraordinary diplomatic skills to dissuade a faculty member from launching full-bore into an ill-conceived project.
  • Novice faculty members often underestimate how much time a digital project will take, and often can’t or won’t commit to showing up to the necessary meetings and providing data when requested.
  • If a project gets off to a bad start, the problems are likely to multiply and deepen as the weeks go by.
  • The customer-client relationship between faculty and technologist exacerbates the institutional and (real or imagined) epistemological divide between the two.
  • Failure is healthy and necessary, but some projects don’t need to fail. They could be done well if approached properly. Or perhaps they don’t need to be done in the first place.

What if, instead of calling for projects, we called for fellows? That is to say, what if we issued a call for people who can commit to a year (or a summer, or a few weeks, or even a week) of training, in the service of understanding and planning digital humanities work? This period of training could be a prestigious honor — something someone could put on a CV — and would come with certain benefits (say, research funds, access to developer time) as well as certain responsibilities (i.e., a commitment to attend regular meetings).

At the end of the period, participants might emerge with a plan for a more ambitious project. Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll just think on it. Maybe they’ll slowly incorporate digital pieces into their existing work — which is an eminently healthy and sensible way to get started, if you ask me.

Of course, many people learn best when they’re applying knowledge to a project they have in mind. But that doesn’t mean that a DH center needs to immediately throw its resources and time into the project.

Places that already do this (or something like it): University of Virginia’s Praxis Program (grad students who work alongside technologists and other staff members on a joint project), University of Maryland’s Digital Humanities Incubator (librarians who work together on a joint project), Occidental College’s Mellon Summer Digital Scholarship Institute (faculty members who spend a week getting training in digital scholarship),  Columbia University’s Developing Librarians program (librarians who work together on a joint project), and the University of Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities (which hosts a contingent of faculty fellows). And I’m sure there are many others that I’m missing!

In my estimation, these configurations have the following benefits:

  • They establish a wider body of DH expertise across campus.
  • They establish a sense of camaraderie among participants.
  • They allow participants to develop shared affinities and find collaborators.
  • Choosing participants based on their potential, rather than their current knowledge, has the ability to introduce much-needed diversity to the DH community.
  • They remove the pressure to produce something immediately, which so often results in poorly conceived projects.
  • They allow non-developers to get to know and understand the way developers work and think, and vice versa.
  • They allow project participants to take ownership of their work.
  • They give people the confidence to keep trying.

Here’s the other thing: What if the group wasn’t (just) faculty? What if it was a mixed group of faculty, librarians, technologists, and students? How much healthier that would be than reinscribing academic hierarchies, which are just so exhausting.

To this scenario, I can imagine a number of objections:

We need to get off the ground with a big, splashy project.

I understand the need to demonstrate your center’s worth quickly and visibly — but I contend that more often than not, these projects fail because of the factors I’ve outlined above. These failures are visible and expensive. They’re particularly costly in terms of goodwill and credibility, which are irretrievable once lost.

How can we justify allocating librarians’ and technologists’ time to this?

Presumably, you are (or will be) allocating their time to DH projects anyway. In this scenario, you’re just investing their time in creating a durable DH community rather than an ill-thought-out project.

It would be impossible to get faculty to commit their time to a training program like this.

Point A: It’s impossible to get the project done if faculty don’t commit their time to it. Point B: One might explore various incentives; for example, research or technology funds or (and I understand this is laughably unrealistic at most places) a course release.

People need something to show for their time.

OK, but what if “something” is a white paper or a fully developed project plan, not a finished project? Or what if, as in the case of the University of Maryland’s Digital Humanities Incubator program, the team has a project to show for it at the end?

This is politically infeasible at my campus.

I mean, maybe, but one has to wonder, too, about the political costs of a series of strained and unproductive relationships with the people whose support you’re trying to court. What if you saw that training period as an investment in healthy, long-lasting relationships? What if we saw digital humanities as a long-term investment in scholarly growth, not a short-term investment in projects?

33 thoughts to “Commit to DH people, not DH projects”

  1. Wonderful and spot-on piece, Miriam! Thanks for sharing! I’d like to butt-in and throw NU’s hat into the ring of places already doing this—putting people before projects, among other things—with our summer faculty workshop: http://sites.weinberg.northwestern.edu/dh/ … We have modest (though appreciated!) funding for this, but I think, given the right mix of people at an institution (says a guy at an R1), this model is more or less replicable. The key to any success we may have had, I believe, is in recognizing, not knowing, that is, orienting all of us—faculty, librarians, technologists—with each others’ personalities, backgrounds, experiences, intellectual endeavors, and, probably lastly, our technical abilities and needs. No doubt the latter becomes more and more important for many of these projects, but the focus on recognition and orientation, is surely the most important starting out, and not just from the faculty/not-faculty perspective, but also for helping multiple groups on campus to collaborate on and coordinate efforts around digital scholarship. Finally, at the end of the workshop, I think we all recognize the projects, even if we done realize them or know them in some more graspable sense, and that’s the process we too often forget to foreground, or that our institutions don’t properly invest in (digital or not).

    So much more to say and discuss, but I’m also looking forward to hearing what other people have to say!

  2. It truly helps in many situations! (I stole it from Flusser.) I used to meet with faculty and I’d be like, well, I have no tools that do what you do, and I’d feel disappointed, but now the first meeting (or two or three) are about hearing their ideas, them getting to know me and my work, and conceptually and theoretically shaping the idea of the project. It’s an amorphous, hard to document approach, but a human one. 🙂

  3. As always, love your posts Miriam. Always learn from them (and from Josh, who I get to work with online and in person and always feel great gratitude about that). I think one line of thinking that you are developing with this post and your important earlier alt-ac labor post is to ask for a new tempo and rhythm in DH-related work, one that pushes against quick payoff and splashy projects and toward a longer engagement and unfolding of explorations and investigations into what the digital can do (and cannot do too). Away from disruption and revolution and adjunctification and toward a new sense of how institutions might use digital technology to undergird and support long-term investments in people and their intellectual, creative energies (not in projects or technologies directly, then, but back to those those through the attention to people). This would be a very different conceptualization of DH’s possibilities than the current expansion of postdocs and one-year positions appearing on both the staff and academic job markets right now. Thanks!

    Michael

  4. You’ve said this so beautifully, Michael. Yes! That’s what I want to see (and what many of us want to see, I’ll wager), though I never articulated it so well.

  5. As a roundabout way of talking about your post and the ensuing discussion, I want to pull/push a bit on the faculty-technologist dynamic you mention.

    The power imbalance between faculty members and staff members within the academic hierarchy means that it requires extraordinary diplomatic skills to dissuade a faculty member from launching full-bore into an ill-conceived project.

    The customer-client relationship between faculty and technologist exacerbates the institutional and (real or imagined) epistemological divide between the two.

    I’d add/gloss that there’s a work practice divide here and a domain-of-expertise divide as well. We on the technologist side are pretty much supposed to just help, as you note. We have a ticket to close. We have time to record in a timekeeping interface. We have to report to management on how many people we helped and whether they were satisfied with our assistance. We (usually) have our backgrounds and our interests and our specialties, but they aren’t enough to cover every faculty member we encounter, and it’s unlikely that we have subject expertise comparable to any single faculty member unless we are the new breed of always-on alt ac.

    We also don’t generally set our own schedule in a large sense of things. My group is supposed to spend 80% of its time on basic services and only 20% of its time on projects. That’s one day each week, not enough to be involved in deep partnerships and mutual building. Further, if my boss (or that person’s boss, or even the VP of Finance in our case) decides we should go in a different direction, that’s where my time has to go.

    My speculative take on one way around/through/over this thicket is to embrace notions of both rapid iteration and long-term building. The first can be useful in satisfying calls for frequent results and the second for cultivating relationships. Overly specifying Michael’s representation of your line of thinking as tempo and rhythm, this would be thinking about a relationship almost as a fugue, with theme and variation. This also could be seen as different kinds of groupings of people in their relationship to a center or a robust network. In fact, in the latter case, a structure where nodes of the network could come together for shorter or longer times as available would be another way of making awkward metaphor out of what I’m trying to say. That is, if a cohort of people attached to an entity (and I’m trying entirely too hard to not just write about this as a DH center, since many of us have no such thing) contains the elements of moderato, perhaps other more fleeting elements can participate as well.

  6. Great intervention, as always. I completely agree that putting resources into building the capacities of particular people is a solid strategy. Of course, it runs counter to the ethos of the neoliberal university so it might be difficult to implement. Or it might be an strategic way to fight back, or both. I think the comments above about tempo and rhythm are apt–good to have a mix of big and small projects.

    I have a somewhat different relationship to the term “project.” Some years ago when I was shifting between jobs, I sat down with a leader of the emerging digital humanities world. I told him about some of the digital “projects” I had been working on at a prominent research library and where I thought they might be headed. He told me in no uncertain terms that the kind of digital humanities that counted was “research” not “projects.” The stuff I was doing was nice, but not serious.

    I didn’t have much of a response at the time, but I’ve pondered that distinction ever since. As a social historian, I was familiar with many exciting digital “projects” that collected and presented untold stories, and curriculum projects that helped people teach these stories–and I had modeled my digital history on these “projects” (like the Pacific Northwest Civil Rights History Project). I’ve come to the conclusion that these “projects” are part of the scholarly research and communication cycle. They are akin to “basic research” that really ought to be done, do not require technical gymnastics, and can (indeed require) large numbers of participants over relatively long periods. But I am pretty sure that digital humanities, as a field, doesn’t see this as “research” (i.e., as serious work).

    So I would modify what you’ve said ever so slightly: we need more “projects” and less “research.”

  7. Too true, Toby. Maybe we’re just in a period of novelty and churn. It has to become OK at some point to just do great work and use technology thoughtfully — whether or not the technique or platform itself is technologically innovative. There is a lot of great work like this being done, but we’re often so focused on the shiny new thing that we’re not great at recognizing it.

  8. Totally agree that this would be best at most schools. The basic problem is that faculty have less expertise in this area than anyone involved wants to admit openly.

    To sell a DH center in the first place, local advocates often have to pretend that computers are going to be merely instrumental. This is going to let you do what you already do — only better! Sometimes that’s true, but often, for digital methods to really make an impact, they need to be accompanied by a deeper rethinking of research agendas. Faculty don’t enjoy hearing that, but I totally agree that it’s better to rip the band-aid off.

    This is at a tangent, but — I think cluster hires have worked well for related reasons. A school that decides to do a cluster hire has admitted to itself that it’s acquiring something actually new for which local expertise does not yet exist in quantity. I think that’s a wise place to start.

  9. You know, Ted, you’re pointing what may actually be a couple different lines of thought with regard to digital work. It seems to me that I come in contact with a lot of people who are already doing great scholarship but really could benefit it from augmenting it with something digital. Historians are likely candidates for this kind of thing, since they often have big collections of sources that are natural fits for, say, mapping. To me, this seems like a really natural, organic way to get started with digital tools. No need to do something crazy-fancy, in most cases.

    But then, of course, there are other people, like you, for whom the digital does go much deeper. Maybe calling everything we do a “project” makes it harder for us to observe these distinctions. I don’t know, still thinking it through.

  10. Miriam,
    This is _such_ a useful piece. Something that has particular implications at particular kinds of institutions.
    I’m very interested in thinking through what those implications might be for small colleges other than Occidental, where the Division of Information Resources of has been developed exceptionally well over the past decades. There are, of course, numerous other examples within the four-year college cohort, and I wonder what folks like Angel Nieves and Janet Simons at Hamilton might have to say as well.
    Thank you so much for a very timely intervention.

  11. I have written about this and spoke about this in a similar fashion, that researchers are infrastructure, and that infrastructure is often unused equipment. In Europe several centres receive grants for computers but no money to train, staff and service. I feel the word infrastructure needs to be split off, I have built roads that were rebuilt (and not because they were faulty) almost instantly (I suspect budget politics). I would not call roads infra-structure if they are never used, and I would not call equipment infrastructure if it does not help people connect ideas, data, people and outputs.
    Similarly, you cannot build top quality research infrastructure if you don’t have an idea of what top-quality research is, and where it needs to go.
    I also wonder if there is a vast discrepancy between what people think of as (serious) research, and the word they have to undertake to create that research. Perhaps our notion of what constitutes research can be too restrictive?

  12. Another thing that’s been on my mind lately, and to which I think resonates with this post and Trip’s comments, is that—and here comes Morozov’s solutionism—that often times we seek technological solutions without understanding fully what those will mean for people and work of our institutions. For instance, we implement infrastructures and platforms that foreground digital preservation, sustainability, interoperability, etc.—and here comes Chun’s enduring ephemeral—without realizing that such implementations both demand, and in some ways determine, the kinds of work we need to always be doing and the amount of people we need to be doing it. In other words, we implement a philosophy technologically, but without proper human involvement, that philosophy rings pretty hollow, mostly because—and here comes Flusser’s post-history (again)—it privileges the not-human.

    (Can you tell who I’ve been reading lately? 🙂

  13. Great ideas! CDH (at UCLA) used to have a call for Fellows in addition to a call for Projects. The Fellows program included librarians, grad students and faculty–and enjoyed joint support from UCLA Library and CDH staff. (Talk to Marta Brunner who was a Fellow from the library.) I think the main issue was that these fellowship(s) seemed to extend and it became difficult to set boundaries. Moving to project-based support was a way of defining what researchers wanted to accomplish and what types of support could be provided to reach those goals. The shift was, in my opinion, more of a response to demands that DH scholarship demonstrate “scalability”.

  14. That’s a great point, Zoe, and such useful information. I can see why the shift would make sense from the perspective of an organization oriented around service-and-support, but I think it also may have had the effect of defining success in terms of projects rather than learning.

  15. Actually, I think the issues were that the learning was not mutual. Perhaps these other institutions have articulated terms of engagement that are more reciprocal–which is fantastic and exciting!

  16. Glad to see your post on this subject, Miriam.

    Here at the National Humanities Center we are launching two two-year summer institutes next year for humanist scholars who wish to participate in, and understand the implications of, the digital humanities. They will run consecutively, the first in 2015 and 2016, and the second in 2017 and 2018. The first institute will be led by Willard McCarty and will be devoted to issues and tools associated with the study of language, and the second will be led by Caroline Bruzelius and Mark Olson and will be devoted to issues and tools associated with the study of objects and spatial representation.

    The institutes will be designed to enable productive and ambitious humanistic scholars to conceptualize and execute projects that require technological expertise, to encourage them to reflect on the larger questions that arise from the application of digital technology to humanistic scholarship, and to envision opportunities for collaboration. They will also seek to give participants a sense of what can and cannot be done, and how limitations imposed by pre-existing conceptions of computing technology may be negotiated or overcome.

    If anyone is interested in these interested in participating, they should contact Elizabeth Mansfield, Vice-President for Scholarly Programs at the Center: emansfield@nationalhumanitiescenter.org.

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