What I learned from the Scholars’ Lab and the Center for History and New Media

"Embroidered Digital Commons," by Bethany Nowviskie

A big part of my new job at Emory is researching models of digital scholarship. The idea is that by getting a sense of what’s out there, Emory can benefit from others’ experience when it launches its own center for digital scholarship. So my colleague, Stewart Varner, and I have been going on field trips to centers whose work we admire.

So far we’ve hit the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab and George Mason’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM). Next up is the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities. (Before I got to Emory, staff members visited Duke’s Visual Studies Initiative and the Maryland Institute for Technology and the Humanities.)

Staff at both CHNM and the Scholars’ Lab were unbelievably generous with their time and expertise. Really. One of the things that’s drawn me to the digital humanities is its practitioners’ intellectual generosity, and the people we met confirmed that impression tenfold.

Stewart and I expected to be impressed by the Scholars’ Lab and CHNM, and we were — specifically, we were impressed by the smart, thoughtful, creative people we met. We were surprised, though, by how deeply the visits affected our own thinking about the kind of center we want to build at Emory. Here’s my attempt to capture what I took away from our trips.

Community is essential.

In order for a tool or project to gain traction, it has to fulfill a real need, and it has to develop a passionate community of users. To do this, a center has to form meaningful, honest, and generous relationships with people in both the DH and the larger academic worlds. CHNM, for example, has staff members dedicated to outreach, who monitor forums, advocate for tools, and listen to suggestions.

An innovative center resists the service model.

Yes, absolutely, faculty members’ research and exhibit websites are an important part of what a digital scholarship center can do. But they shouldn’t be all the center does. A DH center should position itself ahead of the curve — that is, its leadership should not only respond to what academics tell it they want, but also push scholarship and technology forward. For example, did a faculty member instruct the Scholars’ Lab to build Omeka plugins that can hook into a Fedora repository? Probably not. But it’s tools like these that will allow the creation of sustainable, graceful exhibit websites.

A center’s leaders must be recognized as scholars.

This principle closely follows the preceding one. If a director is going to claim the autonomy to push a center away from a simple service model, he or she needs to possess — and remind others that he or she possesses — academic credentials. Though I’m always wary of easy humanities/sciences parallels, I do think of this model as akin to that of a scientific lab. Would the dean of faculty instruct a chemistry professor where to focus her research? No way. Nor should an administrator define the entirety of a center’s activities.

Don’t duplicate effort — unless you can do it better.

Rather than focusing on one-off boutique websites, both CHNM and the Scholars’ Lab have chosen to spend resources developing tools that can serve many people’s needs. So instead of building tons of individual exhibit websites, CHNM has built Omeka, a platform with which scholars can build their own sites, and ScholarPress, a set of course-management plugins for WordPress. I think this approach is really smart, and I think it solves a lot of problems. Omeka and WordPress aren’t going anywhere: they’re widely used platforms with active communities of users, and they’re built with widely used programming languages. Updating, then, is relatively simple, and websites have a much better chance of persisting in a usable state.

Hire creative, curious developers — who may not be CS majors.

Both the Scholars’ Lab and CHNM have staffs of developers whose backgrounds were humanities-heavy. And they are awesome and funny and smart. Everyone I spoke to stressed that a serious CS background pales in importance next to a genuine commitment to the larger project, a willingness to learn, and a grasp of why the humanities matter. Once these components are in place, you can give developers the autonomy they need to build something really cool.

Stability is important in a funding model.

Tom Scheinfeldt, CHNM’s managing director, has written about the viability of running a DH center on soft money. And he makes a good point that getting paid from a grant isn’t really all that different from the at-will employment that most people enjoy (or suffer). And yet neither he nor anyone else makes any secret of the fact that hard money is nice if you can get it. CHNM has been absolutely ingenious is obtaining grants and finding ways to keep talented people. But its staff must devote a huge amount of time to grantwriting. In contrast, the Scholars’ Lab enjoys funding from the university itself, and it benefits from an endowment. This has been a great benefit for the Scholars’ Lab: its staff is stable, it can choose projects at will, and it needn’t devote hours and hours to writing grants.

The Scholars’ Lab’s endowment itself originated with a grant, and the Lab still seeks grants for certain specific projects. If Emory is very lucky, our own digital scholarship center will receive a start-up grant, with which we’re determined to prove our worth. But in the long term, I do hope that we’ll enjoy the security and stability that the Scholars’ Lab can claim.

Marketing matters.

If I needed convincing, Tom’s recent blog post really laid out the importance of marketing a tool or project in order to cultivate an active and passionate community of users. Except in rare cases, we academics are probably not natural marketers, but it’s clear that we need to develop these skills.

… And so does design.

No one wants to use an ugly tool. Moreover, thoughtful design is not only pretty; it has scholarly and pedagogical integrity. Someone like Jeremy Boggs, CHNM’s creative lead, combines aesthetic sense with academic cred to build an architecture and feel that convey an idea with real rigor. Internet users often like their information in bite-sized pieces. Scholars, on the other hand, often want to convey complex ideas that build on series of principles. Someone smart needs to be thinking about how to combine these two tendencies in order to create meaningful, pleasurable experiences.

3 thoughts to “What I learned from the Scholars’ Lab and the Center for History and New Media”

  1. These are great insights, Miriam, gleaned from two exciting places. I believe that the idea of community is really key for developing not only a Digital Scholarship center here at Emory but also our place within a larger, international sphere of Digital Scholarship. Community means that we can learn from one another, and, as you note elsewhere above, it also means that you need to know what role you can best fill within this international ecology.

    The resistance to the service model is also quite important. One interview I had this year put me in a room with a PI who wanted to know what I would do to help him as a “customer.” My every attempt over the hour that we spoke to put the Center where I might be working and his scholarship onto parity was summarily rejected in favor of this service model. I believe some of this insistence on his part was due to his grant having just been rejected, and he wanted to make sure that the new guy would know that the “customer is always right.” What it added up to, however, was a feeling that I did not in any way want to be working with him in the future. It’s strange that people in such staff-like positions seldom get recognition, even when they have the same advanced degree and other specialties besides.

    One of my big take-aways from #clir camp was this importance of recognizing alt-academics in the roles they occupy. We need to broaden the idea of what scholarship is and what scholars look like. What’s more, forward-thinking universities will work to put people like yourself, Bethany, and Tom into joint appointments within “regular” departments. Such actions need not mean that these individuals go on the tenure track–Tom’s vision of the third way should be preserved. Instead, what these appointments would do is help to create a vision of multiple futures for those graduate students who enter a program. Universities are in a position to provide more role models given the people that are already working there. Why not maximize them?

  2. Hey Brian,

    Thanks for this thoughtful reply. The question of service is an interesting one. I do recognize that faculty and students need things from us, in ways that resist my science lab analogy. And it’s really important to me that the university feels that we’re providing a benefit. It’s just that the way to provide the greatest benefit is clearly not to incubate a profusion of one-off sites.

    Your CLIR take-away was also one of my big take-aways, especially after talking to Bethany. I hadn’t put the pieces together before, but after speaking with her, I think I get the importance of insisting that people recognize me as a scholar. No, I’m not shielded from the necessity of day-to-day politics, responsibilities, and hierarchies, but neither are professors, really, and neither are adjuncts, really really.

    Anyway, thanks again, and sorry for spamming you. Try to be more corporeal, OK?

    Miriam

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