November 25, 2018 by Amanda Visconti

Notes: DH initiative scope & practice (Purdue version)

Part of my meta-DH series documenting DH/DS infrastructure: the hows & whys of treating a project team, lab, department, or campus as itself a DH project.

Caveat: This post consists of notes taken during my former DH Librarian role at Purdue (2015-2017), rather than my latest thinking at Scholars’ Lab. I’ll be sharing that updated thinking here soon!

As a followup on my philosophy-focused mission statement post, this post lays out the scope of what DH we would do (and not do), and what long-term success might look like for the Purdue Libraries DH initiative.

Mission and plan

What is DH? The digital humanities is a “big tent” of a field combining humanities research (cultural heritage, literature, history, the arts, ethics…) with the design, building, use, teaching, and theorizing of digital methods (e.g. text analysis) and forms (e.g. blog posts). My DH is also defined as a community sharing interests in methods and tools that cross disciplinary boundaries. This community values open access, diversity and inclusion both in researchers and in their areas of study, a more public humanities reaching diverse audiences, and research that is real-time, collaborative, iterative, and generative of further work beyond the initial researchers. DH’s emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration, methodologies over content, and recognition that all academic fields deal with history of the field, ethics, subjective interpretation, design, and texts will help us further connect Purdue’s CLA and Libraries departments to the university pillar of STEM excellence as well as other campus communities.

What subset of DH should we support? I’d welcome suggestions for projects, goals, or values you think we should include in the DH initiative. Our ability to support specific ideas will depend on funding and hiring (both how many staff we can fund, and the expertise and interests of who we hire). I’ve prioritized projects we can achieve in 1-3 years, while also recording ideas we’d love to support in the future.

Scoping our DH. Even if we achieve strong funding, we’ll want to specialize and focus so that we can develop specific expertise, rather than offering shallow engagement across the broad board of DH. We’ll partner with other campus units to help them develop their own initiatives for DH support (e.g. departments must hire DH faculty if they are sincere about desiring DH scholarship and teaching). We’ll also work to connect anyone interested in an area we don’t support to resources and potential collaborators (e.g. by developing our directory of campus DHers and DH @ Purdue resource website).

Our DH Center would not be a service shop; our closest activities to service would be offering consultations at the beginning of projects, and pursuing DH research that also results in better support for further campus DH (e.g. improving collection metadata for use with specific DH tools). We will frame any DH Center roles as experts rather than staff, and enter into any collaborations with a clear sense of the discoveries and publications we intend to build on the experience.

We will try to do a few specific DH things very well, rather than be everything everyone desires of DH. We will publicly articulate this limited scope, while encouraging and advising others on campus in imagining and addressing areas outside our scope. We will also publicize and support other DH initiatives on campus, designing our DH Center as a hub rather than hoarder of campus DH.

Our initial main partners will be the ASC and Press/SPS, as these collaborations show the most immediate potential: experts ready to partner, past teaching experience and contacts, and realizable specific projects. Eventually, we hope to foster connections throughout the Libraries, and pursue diverse projects not bound to any one area of campus (e.g. working beyond the Libraries and CLA with departments such as CS and the Polytechnic Institute).

Strategic overlaps. I’ll define specific connections to the Libraries strategic plan and University mission after the next round of feedback on this proposal. As a preview, we take the Libraries’ valuing of diversity, inclusion, and access as core motivating ideals, and plan strong demonstrations in all three areas of the latest (2016-2019) strategic plan (particularly 1:3, 2, and 3:2-4). Several of the projects proposed below are currently up for discussion by the DSC.

Mission, refined: proposed DH activity

We should shape what we want Purdue’s DH to be, with an emphasis on access, diversity, inclusion, public and student engagement, and making the humanities open through innovative modes of publication. We should prioritize work that mentors, trains, and supports under-supported campus constituents and/or public audiences; encourage and reward collaboration over solo and silo’ed scholarship; recognize all kinds of scholars as knowledge seekers worthy of support (including undergraduate and graduate students, adjuncts and continuing lecturers, staff); and acknowledge many kinds of knowledge-seeking and -sharing as research (including teaching, coding, infrastructure design, and metadata improvement).

  • Enhancing collections metadata towards use with DH methods
  • Identifying workflows both theoretical (what’s the ideal flow of an acquisition, from donation through to DH research and publication?) and practical (how can we augment existing processing tools to better answer questions related to research and teaching needs?)
  • Creating model DH projects showcasing resources and opportunities
  • Piloting DH+ASC+Press teaching are priorities for our DH efforts

Some of this work doesn’t have immediate payoffs. To quote a colleague, “metadata isn’t sexy”—most people don’t get excited about plans to create and improve metadata, think through workflows for making ASC collections ready for DH methodologies, or making and testing small changes to our publication repositories. But strong metadata and infrastructure are critical to strong DH projects: the things we can make and teach with clean, thorough, accurate metadata and content and well-designed hosting and publication platforms will have broad and immediate appeal.

What we could do

  • Build a culture of digital scholarship: connect new and experienced DHers, create institutional memory, model best practices in DH, experiment, showcase DH on campus, raise public and campus visibility of DH work
  • Work that engages audiences beyond other faculty, including students and underserved publics, and that translates and motivates the humanities for these audiences. Work that welcomes and incorporates these audiences’ participation.
  • Work that makes the shiny, engaging stuff go. We value and support as scholarly work often-hidden innovations increasing capacity, care, and ethical design, including metadata improvement, documentation, and other infrastructure improvement.
  • Work that is generative and transformative: we invest in making things better for more people.
  • Work that includes explicit mentorship or learning opportunities for others, especially in the often-hidden variety of intellectually fulfilling career paths available to students.
  • Work that values diversity, inclusion, and open access. We’re particularly dedicated to supporting under-supported Purdue researchers, including undergraduate and graduate students, all levels of staff, and adjuncts and continuing lecturers.

What we wouldn’t do

Our DH Center would always interested in learning about digital humanities activity or curiosity on campus. To guard our time and focus, here are some things we wouldn’t tend to do:

  • Redundant tool or website building. We prioritize work that is reusable or extendable to support alternative uses in other fields and/or for other audiences, or otherwise innovates in line with our values.
  • Hosting DH projects long-term (or otherwise beyond the length formally contracted in the mutual contract we sign with any faculty or other collaborators), unless the project has been appraised and selected for inclusion in the archives (subject to ASC interest, time, funding, and appraisal).
  • Replacing the need for humanities departments to increase hiring of faculty and staff with DH expertise. We might position ourselves as an incubator (a place to connect with others, polish ideas, hear about tools and methods, and otherwise jumpstart your DH involvement). I concur with Carly’s suggestion we focus on teaching transferable skills and values rather over specific tools (e.g. making learning BitCurator about learning archival values and digital materiality, making learning Omeka about learning the interpretive nature of archives and the scholarship that goes into building humanities tools).
  • Non-research service shop work (e.g. we won’t build your idea for you or set up your class blog). We can help you understand the scholarship and critical effort underlying digital work that you don’t yourself do, and we can assist you in identifying funding and experts to collaborate with on projects needing additional scholarly expertise.
  • We currently do not guarantee free ongoing consultations beyond the initial consultation. If you’d be interested in a more in-depth collaboration with us, we recommend inviting us to be credited project collaborators.
  • We currently consider but do not guarantee class visits, one-shot instructional sessions, or course design help. If you’d be interested in a more in-depth collaboration with us, we recommend inviting us to be listed co-teachers for the course. In all cases, we require at least one academic term of notice before any requested classroom involvement.

Long-term goals

Some examples of what success might look like:

  • Large external grant support for a DH Center in addition to individual, interdisciplinary project grants
  • A good workflow for projects connecting ASC -> DH -> Press (e.g. everyone involved learns and enjoys the collaboration, and we can accurately estimate time and money needs)
  • A workflow to easily support common training requests (e.g. using an ASC master timeline, Neatline exhibit spin-ups)
  • A change in university structure allowing for-credit listing of undergraduate and/or graduate courses taught by DH Center staff and other Libraries experts.
  • Experimentation with faculty and dissertation fellowships, seed funding, or other models to jumpstart promising DH collaborations, making sure that we pay special attention to those doing maintenance and scale work, teaching and service, and filling in humanities silences. Emulating MITH’s DH Incubator series, we could require applicant attendance at a previous “Intro to Collaborative DH” intensive workshop (preparing collaborators and letting them demonstrate longterm interest in DH engagement). This series would provide introductory training in basic skills such as using GoogleDocs to write collaborative grant proposals, creating a data plan, and proposing a project.
  • A sustainable model for teaching student cohorts on DH project-based courses/fellowships/internships, including co-teaching with the ASC and Press.
  • Gathering DH and related courses (possibly with a theme such as DH, curation, alternative academic careers, and/or information studies) into a certificate, minor, major, or dual DH+ graduate degree.
  • A visible DH community (connected via a physical space with events, listserv, directory) energized through frequent events aimed at inspiring (e.g. speakers) and teaching (workshops, classes, seed funding).
  • Increased access to and involvement with Libraries and campus resources for students and alumni through interactive digital projects.
  • A reputation for ethical, useful DH work, shared widely with the public and making an impact within DH and Libraries communities.