April 15, 2019 by Amanda Visconti

DH Dissertation to Director: Notes connecting my student and staff experiences

Originally posted on the Scholars’ Lab blog on February 21, 2019.

A colleague recently asked me about how I draw on my DH dissertation experience (dr.amandavisconti.com) in my work co-directing the Scholars’ Lab. Below, I share the rough notes I typed up in response about the first couple such dissertation-director connections that came to mind:

Digital humanities < experimental humanities

Getting to do an unusually shaped dissertation meant doing a lot of meta-dissertational work analyzing and synthesizing precedents for making as scholarship, dissertations that didn’t produce written chapters, and experimental scholarly methods and formats more generally. I not only needed to prove that such work could reach the goals of a dissertation, but that my research design choices also fit tmy particular research questions. It was profoundly useful to work through what I thought was the best research design for my questions, and then also find the language to convince others of this as well. I do not want to add more barriers to the dissertation process for anyone, but it does seem mildly unfortunate to me that most humanities dissertation creators aren’t encouraged and supported to explore multiple research aproaches and argue for why their project format is the best fit for their research questions, rather than treating written chapters as the only choice.

The Scholars’ Lab has historical prominence as a DH center, but we also offer strong expertise in other areas, such as GIS/spatial reasoning and cultural heritage informatics. Some of my work as a Lab director has been collaborating with my colleagues to update our understanding of what’s most important to us, articulate that in a concise and memorable way, and relaunching our Lab website (ScholarsLab.org) to better communicate that updated mission. I think my dissertation experience helped me do a better job of hearing and synthesizing our staff’s visions for the Lab: rather than forcing everything to fit under the rubric of DH, we’ve identified a shared lab commitment to questioning assumptions around the methods and publication formats of scholarship, to cultivating a readiness to experiment and create new approaches where existing ones don’t best fit our research questions. It’s the experimental mindset of DH that drives us and connects our team members’ many skillsets—as you can see in partially or wholly analog work like our Makerspace and campus community design work—rather than something particular to the Digital.

Passing it on

I have been extremely lucky, from the MITH and UMD English Department smart and caring mentorship that allowed me to realize my unusual dissertation, to getting to work at the Scholars’ Lab, where the amazing staff have long, successfully made it their mission to model and nurture a generous and human-centered digital humanities.

My dissertation experience was an extremely lucky one: I had incredible mentors as my dissertation committee (Matt Kirschenbaum as advisor; Kari Kraus, Neil Fraistat, Melanie Kill, Brian Richardson). They met with me throughout the dissertation process to give me feedback and help us make sure that, for a very non-traditionally shaped dissertation, we were all on the same page as to expectations for the final outcome. They all had this unusual combination of innovative scholarship mixed with humanity and generosity. I’ve heard people say that either your advisor is nice to you but doesn’t push your work forward, or they’re mean (how is this not just a thing, but a fairly common one?) but make your work better. Every interaction I had with my committee was a kind one, and yet they constantly challenged me to do better, with their full faith, and both the support and space necessary to figuring out what scholarship is to me.

Having mentors modeling this approach to scholarship made me determined to pass on the impact of their gift to other folks I encounter, as best I can. To work so that the luck and privilege that allowed me to do my dissertation might become standard resources for anyone. To put my heart into Scholars’ Lab’s goal of training the next generation of scholars to be the scholarly community we want to exist, and to take responsibility for my tiny snowflake in the storm of what DH is (e.g. think through the impact of my doing my dissertation around a canon work by a white, male, Anglo, cis author; and change my scholarly trajectory to respond to the problems that investigation raised for me—please note that I no longer agree with that blog post, but haven’t yet written up how my thinking has evolved since then…).

Scholarship is people

I read Mark Sample’s excellent “When does service become scholarship?” while dissertating, and I’ve paraphrased his argument into my preferred definition of “scholarship”:

one part critical thinking + one part communicating the results of that thinking

Critical thinking can be accomplished through many methods, including research, writing, coding, building, designing, experimenting, and play. Communicating critical thinking can take the form of traditional publishing or other forms of “making public” such as tweeting and blogging, teaching, sharing open source code, or any other way for your intellectual community to learn from, critique, evaluate, and/or build on your work.

Decompressing this definition:

  1. Anyone trying to think well and share their work is part of the scholarly conversation
  2. Making research just half of scholarship rather than synonymous brings the scholarly community into focus as the goal of our research work—with the implicit belief that the work of care, respect, mentoring, amplifying of your community members is not just a “nice” characteristic taking second place to the completely broken concepts of “rigor” or “brilliance”, not just “eulogy worthy”, but definitionally a necessary part of being a scholar
  3. I don’t have time for a definition of scholarship that doesn’t recognize the brilliant contributions of project managers, teachers, students, librarians, fanfic writers, book club members, more folks than I can list: all as much a part of building intellectual communities’ knowledge and abilities as academic faculty.
  4. A scholarship that fits with the Scholars’ Lab’s unofficial moto of “people over projects”: focusing on community knowledge and health as the goal, and research as the means, rather than the other way around.

Documentation of scholarship’s process is scholarship

I spent around six months of my dissertation building something on an Islandora-based framework, and then ended up not using those months of my server and code work in the final digital edition I produced. But because I documented throughout why I was making certain technical and design choices, how the technical work developed my critical thinking, I had that research to share with my intellectual community, and I wasn’t six months behind on my dissertation.

In my work today, I encourage others to share their notes, design choices, and other documentation as they go; it’s better for the community, and I think it’s also better for scholars new to a method to know they can start giving back to the community right away (e.g. What do you know now that you didn’t understand a week ago? Write for that person).