What I Do All Day

It’s been about seven months since I started at Emory, and sometimes I feel a world removed from my life as a grad student in New Haven. My day-to-day life has changed in a thousand different ways: I have new colleagues, new friends, a new kind of work.

Collection of name tags
My collection of name tags continues to expand

I sometimes have trouble explaining my work to other people, so, for the benefit of my family and friends, as well as for other grad students and academics who might be considering alternate academic careers, I thought I’d talk a little about what it’s like to be doing what I do.

What do I do? My job title, “Postdoctoral Fellow,” doesn’t really tell you anything. My job, really, is to help build a new digital scholarship program for Emory, from the ground up. There are two of us dedicated to working on this (though we’ve called on a lot of people for help).

Our feeling is that there’s a lot of expertise within university libraries that hasn’t been fully exploited in digital scholarship. So we’ve been trying to devise ways to harness librarians into digital scholarship projects. We’re hoping to get the digital scholarship program, which is called the Digital Scholarship Commons, or DiSC, fully up and running by September 2011.

Day to day, that means I talk. A lot. And listen a lot. We really want to make sure that people’s voices get heard, that we explain what we’re doing, that we listen when someone needs to tell us something. I charged in to a totally new environment with the task of building something new and potentially disruptive. So it’s really important to me that I listen and meet and explain and hear as much as I possibly can.

I also research like a crazy person. I did as much as I could to acquaint myself with the digital humanities while I was in grad school, but it was not my full-time job. My full-time job was getting a Ph.D. at a pretty conservative institution. So I’ve had a lot of catching up to do. I read Ithaka reports, I read CLIR reports, I read journals, I read blogs, I talk to everyone willing to give me a minute.

I write. In the last few months, I’ve mostly written grant narratives, because DiSC’s initial round of funding will hopefully come from a grant.

We present all the time, because it seems as though everyone’s curious about what we’re up to.

We do a lot of planning and thinking. We ask ourselves what kind of program we’d want as grad students, what kind of scholarship the world needs, what funding model is realistic and sustainable, what’s politically feasible.

I really like this work. I like that I don’t do it alone; I do it with people I like and trust. I like that I get to use a lot of the same skills I honed as a grad student, but with much greater variety. I like that people listen to what I have to say and that my work challenges me to listen to what other people have to say. I like learning new things. I’ve discovered talents I didn’t know I had and I’ve become addicted to the excitement of building something new. I think we’re all ready to stop planning and start doing, but that’s the way it should be.

One of the biggest changes has been the switch from a life in which I had exquisite control over every detail of my work to one in which many decisions require approval and compromise. This isn’t surprising. I’m not writing a monograph; I’m building a new institutional entity. Still, it’s a big change. I do wonder sometimes if it’s such a stretch to compare the work that I’m doing now — the wheeling and dealing and politicking we do while trying to maintain the integrity of what we’re building — with what I’ve always done as a historian; that is, to wrangle the unmanageable mess of history into something that makes sense.

People ask me about “my own” work. Increasingly, I feel weird using “my own” as a synonym for “real” scholarly work, the stuff of my dissertation. But I know what they mean. Much as I love what I do, I do perceive a difference between building a DH center and creating scholarship. I’d really like to find a way to balance the two — and, in fact, my “scholarly” work chugs along, just on evenings and weekends. Ideally, I think, I’d like to form more scholarly collaborations.

You know, when I took this job, I didn’t really know that there was a thing called #alt-ac, and that people were doing it and it was OK. But I did, and I’m glad I did. If you’re thinking about getting into it, well, here, I give you permission. It’s messy, but it’s really fun, and the people are awesome.

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