Here and There: Creating DH Community

Thanks a million to the University of North Texas’s Spencer Keralis for inviting me to come speak at Digital Frontiers, a great conference in Northern Texas! I’m having an excellent time. Here’s the talk I gave today.

Around springtime, when universities are making offers for jobs that start in the fall, I tend to get a few similar emails. I’m junior enough that I know a lot of people just leaving grad school (whether it’s library school, a Ph.D. program, or a master’s program) and as universities continue to build DH centers, these people are getting snapped up to help spark DH activity elsewhere. So around May, they’re emailing me (and probably a lot of other people, too) to ask: Where do I start? What do I need to know?

I’ve been frank, as you may know, about what I think of taking someone fresh out of grad school, giving her a temporary gig, and expecting her to be the sole torchbearer for some amorphous DH initiative. In brief, it’s a bad idea, for a lot of different reasons. It’s not fair to the person you’re hiring, who will spend her entire tenure trying desperately to impress you at this impossible task so she can keep her job. And it’s not fair to your university community, which deserves continuity, focus, and the attention of someone who cares about the big picture.

But a number of people have good gigs that involve an element of community-building. And there are also a lot of people who’ve been working in libraries or other units for some time and are newly tasked with the responsibility of building interest in and capacity for digital humanities on their campus.

So for awhile now, I’ve had a mental list of things that I tell my friends who are getting started on the job of starting a DH initiative on their campus. If at all possible, I try to do it over a drink. This work is not easy, and it’s very sensitive, and I’ve only learned what I know by making terrible mistakes.

So in a minute, I’ll give you that list of suggestions for building and sustaining a digital humanities community at a university.

But first, I wanted to talk briefly about what I think it means to create a community. We often use the term to describe a group of people who are fairly like-minded or are interested in the same goal. But I’m not sure that’s the definition that’s important to me. At UCLA, for example, that wouldn’t necessarily work, because we’re all so different. In fact, my favorite thing about UCLA is that our students come from everywhere. LA is the home of the Korean taco and the bacon-wrapped matzo ball. I’ve been inspired and energized by this diversity, and it’s helped inform my ideas about what it means to be a community.

For me, community happens when people are genuinely invested in seeing each other succeed. This doesn’t happen by being nice to each other — although there’s nothing wrong with that, per se — but by recognizing and rewarding other people’s work. We depend too much in the academy on the currency of prestige and what some have called “hope labor” — the idea that it’s OK for your labor not to be rewarded now, because it may pay dividends down the road. The unpaid internship is the classic example of this. A durable community forms when people’s labor is valued and rewarded, and it worries me that in the excitement of doing digital humanities, people’s labor sometimes gets erased. This is why I won’t circulate unpaid internship announcements to our students and why I won’t accept volunteer help, even though we have no program budget to speak of. If labor is valuable, the university should reward it, and we all should recognize it, too.

There are times when the notion of community seems meaningless or even oppressive to me, especially as it becomes dispersed across time and space and used as a way to determine whether someone is recognizably one of us. But on the ground, with people I work with, then, yes, it does matter. In fact, many days, it’s the only thing that matters to me, including digital humanities or the university as an enterprise or whatever. It’s a way of measuring whether I’m fulfilling my obligations to other people, and they to me. And if I’m not, then I don’t really see the point of continuing. “Creating community” is really a method of asking myself, are the people I interact with recognized, valued, and attended to? Of course, I fail at this all the time — we all do, we’re human — but a durable community, the kind I care about, recognizes that people are fallible but connected to each other, bound by ties of mutual respect and obligation that are stronger than niceness or civility.

That said, beyond rewarding people for their work and recognizing their essential humanity, there are some basic rules I’ve learned over the years for helping people to create connections with each other while building a digital humanities program. A lot of these rules, I think, could apply to building any new program.

It’s too early for a drink, but maybe just pretend we’re in a bar and I’m about to tell it to you like it is.

You are a disruption in the force.

When people anticipate challenges to getting DH activity off the ground, they often anticipate technophobia (which, as I’ll explain, I think is a fairly misguided fear) or a dearth of technical expertise. But let’s be real. If anyone sees you as a threat, it’s because you represent a shift in the institution’s power balance. Your time is an investment the university is making, and, through no fault of your own, that investment may come from withdrawing an investment somewhere else. Or — again, through no fault of your own — you may be seen as the entering wedge for a new program conceived by a controversial administrator. You can’t control this, but it’s important to understand what’s going on so that you can try to address the real source of people’s concerns.

Go to coffee with one new person every week.

The best way to get to know more people is to be a human being who is interested in other human beings. A lot of us academic types are introverts — myself included — and there is always something kind of terrifying about going to coffee with no particular agenda to talk to someone who may or may not like you. But I find that it’s helpful to give yourself a little quota. Email one person per week and then cross that task off your list. This can seem kind of trivial, but you’d be surprised at what a difference it makes. People really appreciate the gesture, even if the coffee itself is kind of awkward. Months later, they remember that you made the effort and that you expressed interest in what they’re doing.

Promise nothing.

So now that you’re going out to coffee with new people every week, the temptation is to agree to whatever they want you to do, so that they’ll like you. Resist! You’re on a listening tour. You’re sympathetic, you’re interested, but you’re not making any promises. This is not just so that you’ll avoid being burdened with tasks too soon. It’s also because the single most damaging thing a new campus unit can do is to break its promises. Goodwill and reputation are irreplaceable. If you agree to something you can’t actually do, you’ve broken people’s trust.

Obtaining server space is the hardest computing problem in the world.

You’re ready to dig in and want to test something out, so you just need to throw up a quick WordPress instance to test a plugin. All the server administrators have to do is give you some server space. And the next thing you know, it’s five years later and you’re still hammering out details of the M.O.U. and wondering what happened to the person you used to be.

It is the most hilariously awful problem in doing DH at a university, and almost nobody has got this figured out. I know people who are secretly running servers under their desks, buying their own server space, or running projects off Google Drive. On the one hand, it is completely absurd, because how in God’s name are you supposed to do anything if you can’t put stuff on the Web? On the other hand, it’s a problem that goes to the heart of one of the most difficult questions DH is dealing with right now — specifically, who’s going to deal with the damn thing down the road? If your site gets hacked, are you expecting the sysadmins to leap out of bed at 3 in the morning to fix it? My advice — which I believe originally comes from Bethany Nowviskie — is to request a virtual private server and offer to sign a memorandum of understanding stating that you’re expecting no support or maintenance of anything on the server. To this, I’d add that, realistically, I’d expect the process of getting server space to take at least a year. Yes, I’m serious. This is why I encourage people who are negotiating their new DH jobs to try to negotiate for server space in their hiring package.

Work with the existing culture.

When you’re getting something off the ground, it’s a really smart idea to work with models that are already familiar to people at your university. For example, if the humanities center offers working groups, you might propose one on the digital humanities. If there’s a standing faculty meeting, present there rather than holding your own meeting. If there’s an existing program for pedagogy grants, perhaps you can team up with that organization to offer a grant for DH courses. You want your initiative to legible and to fit in with the existing system of incentives at your university.

Nobody comes to workshops.

Does everyone know this? It really seems like people should come to workshops, because they say they want to learn new skills. If you survey people, they’ll say that skill-building is their number one priority. And yet. You offer the damn workshop and no one shows up. It’s the worst. Especially for me, because I actually love giving workshops. So if they say they want workshops, why don’t they come? I think that, even if people don’t articulate it, there are a few reasons workshops don’t work:

  1. It’s a one-shot. Things seem so clear in the moment, with an instructor there, and then you get home and the data hasn’t been prepared or cleaned for you, or you come up with a question, and there’s no one to ask. I’m afraid I think workshops are just of fairly limited utility, in terms of building skills. They can be quite effective in sparking people’s interest and broadcasting what your unit can offer, but for giving people a solid foundation in a new skill, workshops are too brief.
  2. They’re not tied to work people actually care about, when they care about it. People tend not to know they’ll need OpenRefine a few weeks down the road — until it becomes incredibly urgent to clean up a spreadsheet. It’s really hard for people who are starting out to anticipate the obstacles they’ll encounter until they’re faced with them.
  3. Their efficiency works against them. If you’ve put together a workshop, you know how much work it is. You have to get the dataset, clean the dataset, put it somewhere people can find it, troubleshoot the software, plan out the steps, etcetera, etcetera. You have to do this if you want to get through all the material in an hour. But guess what? THAT PREP WORK IS WHAT DOING DH IS. All that garbage prep work is what we spend most of our time doing. This seamless processing of data is a fantasy world!
  4. You don’t have a relationship with the instructor or participants. Most people are basically interested in other people. Most people at a university are kind of desperate for a low-stakes way to get to know and hang out with people. Workshops just aren’t it — you meet with a bunch of strangers and never see them again.

At UCLA, we’ve had better success with immersive training — dedicated days or even weeks that people have set aside to train themselves. After a year of unattended workshops, I was shocked when we announced registration for a two-day grad-student bootcamp and had to close registration in an hour because we were full. The demand is there — we just weren’t offering the training in the right format. This kind of training is effective because it’s intensive and people clear the decks for it — but it’s also effective because it’s fun. People want to hang out with and get to know other people who are interested in similar things, and that’s just not going to happen in an hour-long library workshop. A two-day long bootcamp, and even a week-long training opportunity, isn’t actually the ideal. The ideal is long-term collaboration with people whom you come to know or trust over the years. So I would recommend following up an immersive training event with a working group or some other regular meeting place where people can see each other and continue to build relationships.

What’s your follow-through?

In my experience, people see what places like the Scholars’ Lab and George Mason and MITH are doing and get really excited about stickers and cool websites and T-shirts. Those places have fantastic outreach, and when people are starting up a center, they want to mimic that. But what’s less obvious is that all those places spend a ton of energy building the infrastructure that allows them to actually deliver on the promise of their publicity. You need to know what you can and can’t offer to people before you hang out your shingle. This is another case where I say: Take it slow, take it steady, and really listen to people. What kind of help can you really offer people? If it’s consultations, that’s great — but what are the limits of that help? Can people expect you to be on call for years down the road? If it’s visiting people’s classrooms, that’s great, too — but does that mean you’ll be answering students’ emails and helping design assignments? Be clear about what you can and can’t offer people, and be frank about your limitations. Keep track of people’s unmet needs, so you can make a case to get the support you need to meet them later. Again, take it slow, start small, and stay human.

Go where the deals get made.

If you care about outreach, you need to go where faculty and students are. While it’s a nice gesture to hold a mixer at the library, this is not where the wheeling-and-dealing happens. It happens at department talks and lectures and screenings. You have to go to these if you want people to notice you and take you seriously, particularly faculty and grad students. Showing up to a seminar or lecture demonstrates to people that you’re interested in being part of their community, too, and when you show that you’re engaged and asking good questions, it demonstrates that you do, in fact, get what the humanities is — you’re not just a Twitter account and a smartboard operator.

Survey sparingly and with skepticism.

Libraries in particular love to do surveys, and in some ways it seems like the most natural thing in the world to find out what people want from your DH center. But I will tell you right now what people want: they want you to scan their stuff and enter data for them. I don’t know, maybe someone should do that for people, but it’s not what a DH center needs to be doing. If we just did what people told us they wanted, we’d be answering people’s email and picking up their library books. You need to have a strong sense of the community you want to build, and you need to be forceful in articulating it. Don’t wait for people to tell you what to do — do what you know is right. Here, I find Bethany Nowviskie’s notion of “lazy consensus” really helpful. If no one else cares enough to weigh in on a decision, you make it. You don’t need the entire university to vote on it.

Erase the words “Luddite” and “technophobia” from your vocabulary (unless you study the 19th-century British working class)

There are a lot of reasons people may not be super-stoked about a new DH center, and it is frankly lazy to attribute these concerns to a fear of technology. In my experience, people who truly just fear technology are pretty few and far between. I’m not even sure I’ve ever met someone like that. The much more likely scenario is that people, especially faculty, consider digital humanities flash-in-the-pan dean candy. [1]1. I am humbly indebted to the great Natalia Cecire for the term “dean candy.” This is probably the most pressing criticism you’ll face, and you need to take it very seriously. DH has been complicit with some of the over-the-top rhetoric about what it can do — if not by outright making exaggerated claims, then by not objecting when reporters and administrators call us the next big thing. Understandably, there’s now a lot of fallout from that inflated rhetoric. So how do you respond? By being a human being. By demonstrating that you care about the humanities more than you care about the digital. By going to people’s talks and asking good questions and continuing to read and think and demonstrate that you care about being a good citizen of your university. Most importantly, by not assuming that people who don’t like DH are being irrational. You won’t win everyone over, but that’s OK. Your job is not to win a popularity contest, and you can respond much more substantively to people’s concerns if you don’t take them personally. I often have to repeat to myself, “People’s beef is with digital humanities; it is not with me, Miriam Posner, the human being.”

Find your librarian allies.

Some DH jobs are based in the library, and some aren’t. Either way, librarians can be your best friends. They know how the university works, they are the world’s experts on the art of gentle persuasion, and they know how stuff actually gets done. In addition to all that, they know things that you need to know. If you’re going to do a digital project well, you need to adhere to basic principles of information science, like metadata standards and the organization of data. Librarians know this, and you need them to help you with it. Librarians are your natural allies, even though, as I’ve said elsewhere, the library as an institution isn’t always the most congenial place to do DH.

Beware the flash.

There’s this anxiety in the air right now about coming up with the best, brightest, shiniest DH project that gets featured in the New York Times. This is particularly acute if your DH unit is trying to prove itself, and even more pressing if your own job is contingent. You need people to notice what you’re doing so that they’ll keep paying you to do it. There are some great projects out there that are really eye-catching and big and cool. But for the most part, I don’t think these projects are the right choices for places that are just starting out.

In a way, this is a question about what you want. Do you want a small set of superstar faculty with awesome projects? Or do you want a community of people who learn together, support each other, and trust each other? My preference is for the latter, even though it’s not as shiny. You don’t get NEH start-up grants for showing people how to build Omeka exhibits and make maps, but why on Earth are we building these tools if we don’t want people to use them? So when, in your first year, someone comes to you with a sprawling monster of a project that will eat up all of your resources? I say, run. Or, more precisely, don’t run — but work with that person to come up with a plan for starting very small and scaling up as your capacity grows. This means, incidentally, that your institution needs to have some tolerance for a ramp-up period, which is part of why I think hiring a contingent person to start a DH program is a bad idea.

Remember why you’re doing this.

I know as well as anyone that in the jostling for prestige and budget that comes with working in a university, it’s easy to forget why you got into this in the first place. But teaching reminds me why I’m doing this at all. For me, my job is about the students. Everything else is noise. Loud noise, sometimes, but noise. There are other reasons universities exist, like to support research and preserve knowledge and serve the larger community. And maybe those are your reasons for getting into this. The important thing is to remind yourself that you’re not doing this to build one project or your center’s brand or whatever. You’re doing this to serve these larger functions that universities are supposed to perform. This helps me prioritize my work and, at the end of the day, when I’m tired and frustrated, it keeps me going. In the end, my loyalty isn’t to the digital humanities — it’s to knowledge, and sharing knowledge.

They say if you love something, you need to be prepared to let it go. I love the digital humanities — it’s been incredibly generous to me professionally, and I have mentors who care about my success with a warmth I neither anticipated nor deserve. But I have responsibilities on the ground, too, to the people in my immediate community. And if digital humanities as it’s articulated elsewhere isn’t right for what my community needs, then there are times I need to let it go.

And of course, the nice part is, that can only make DH as a whole stronger, and weirder, and more durable. Slow, small, and human are strange watchwords for a field that’s distinctive for its speed, size, and technology. But they’re not bad guidelines for connecting people together.

[Post-facto P.S. Since I noticed this post is coming up in conversations about DH infrastructure, I wanted to be sure to point to two resources that the infrastructure-curious should know about: 4Humanities’ “Check IT Out,” a fantastic checklist for DH infrastructure; and the new Ithaka report Sustaining the Digital Humanities, which, in spite of its title, actually has a lot to say about getting digital humanities off the ground.]


1 1. I am humbly indebted to the great Natalia Cecire for the term “dean candy.”

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