February 17, 2023 by Amanda Visconti

What is a job directing a humanities research center like?

I spoke today about Literature Ph.D. career paths for the University of Maryland’s Center for Literary and Comparative Studies. Below, I’m sharing my introduction talk, about what my job as Managing Director of the Scholars’ Lab entails; it’s aimed at giving English graduate students an overview of a possible career path. You can find the list of interesting grad-career links I mention in my last blog post.

I’ll tell you about what my workplace the Scholars’ Lab is, as that explains what my current role—”managing director” of the lab—does. All the links I mentioned are available at in this blog post (used a shortened URL for the actual talk).

The Scholars’ Lab (and yes, we unironically say “SLab”) is the University of Virginia Library’s interdisciplinary center for the critical exploration of technology and its scholarly interventions.

Like UMD’s digital humanities centers and collectives including the African American Digital Humanities initiative, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, and Immersive Realities Lab for the Humanities, SLab specializes in experimental and digital, creative approaches to the humanistic research questions that are found in all fields of study. We have a strong humanities audience; but since everyone has research questions informed by humanities areas including history, ethics, how we tell and understand stories, creativity and performance, we also work with folks everywhere on campus including our medical center.

SLab offers teaching, mentoring, research project collaboration, and safe physical and virtual spaces for anyone curious about learning to push disciplinary and methodological boundaries through new approaches. We’re foremost a space and community for learning together—about anything—by trying new ways of approaching your interests.

Our core resource is 11 full-time library staff who bring expertise in the digital humanities, spatial and 3D technologies, makerspaces, information and library and data science, and cultural heritage approaches to scholarly collaborations with our university and local community. In non-pandemic times, we have around 65 students per year in named roles like fellowships and internships. Our consultations, workshops and events, makerspace, and advanced research tech equipment support a broader audience experimenting with digital scholarship.

I direct the lab in partnership with Academic Director Alison Booth, who is also an English professor. The “managing” part of my “managing director” title is misleading—when I was first approached about the job, my read of managing was negatively Dilbert-flavored, but I’ve both found interesting and good aspects of management (for example), and discovered the role was focused on directing.

This two-director model is actually a fairly common setup for DH centers, though sometimes the staff role is more operationally focused. In our case, what it means is having two collaborating leaders, one deeply aware of academic department needs and possibilities, and another with the same embeddedness within the academic library or research staff. Everyone on the SLab team is amazing and smart and dedicated to helping others research, learn, and teach, so I actually do very very little “managing” or supervising of people.

What I do do is… a little of everything needed to make a library-based academic research center go, meaning a mix of leadership, and research.

For my leadership duties, there’s a lot of meta-research—how do we create an environment where people feel safe and supported experimenting with their scholarship and often initially failing or being bad at new methods?

I act as the point person to make our team of experts in various areas more than scattering of independent experts—finding ways we can collaborate and make a good place for community learning larger than any one of us. That means work like research strategy and policy setting, hiring staff and reviewing fellowship applications, helping research staff make time to develop professionally so they’re always ready to help faculty and students innovate with the latest methods, budgeting (and writing grants) so we have funding for what we want to do, and make our resources go where they do the most good to the most people (prioritizing the people our university most denies resources to). Lots of meeting with and listening to staff and community research needs, advocating upward for those needs. Developing consensus about what we do with our time and where our research themes are evolving. Making sure neat scholarly ideas become actions. I also regularly meet with folks at institutions with less DHy resources than UVA to help them think through starting digital initiatives where they are. On a daily level, this looks like lots of meetings, email, and writing. I recommend checking out Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s syllabus for her graduate course on “Peculiar Genres of Academic Writing” for more on the variety of forms academic writing can take.

For the research part of my job, I pursue a mix of what I’m personally interested in and where I want to support others’ research I see happening at UVA. Some of my research is about how to build good knowledge-sharing communities—my UMD English dissertation developed a digital edition where scholars and amateur readers could read and discuss James Joyce’s Ulysses together—so my personal and community-supporting research interests often overlap.

I do define research broadly: any means of learning and sharing that knowledge with others. So, I do speak at conferences, teach graduate students, and publish peer-reviewed writing. But I also research in a variety of other ways, and I’ll wrap up with a few examples of how that can look:

  • I invite scholars doing exciting humanities and tech work to present in our space, and work with them to design events that fit our student and faculty interests. Most recently, we’ve been talking with a scholar about a future event to help researchers align their work as much as possible with their values.
  • In 2019, I collaborated with my colleague Brandon Walsh trying to increase how our community shares their early and mid-stage DH research. We ran a year-long biweekly blogging hangout and advising time for UVA folks who wanted to share their work on the Scholars’ Lab research blog, which helped our community write and publish 64 research and teaching essays on our site that year. (Year of Blogging)
  • I worked with a team developing our Neatline software, a suite of tools for “telling stories in time and space” that helps you create interactive websites where a research essay can be accompanied by maps, timelines, and other media—e.g. you could use it to create a digital edition of historical letters, with the manuscripts getting a side-by-side view of a map zooming around to different locations as they’re mentioned in a letter.
  • I collect and review zines related to intersections of the humanities, tech, libraries, and social justice—such as feminist approaches to teaching coding—as part of making our physical space’s reading collection reflect the work we value and who we hope sees themselves as part of DH.
  • And since I want people in our physical space to be just as aware of interesting scholarly blog posts and DH projects as they are of the physical books on our shelves, I tinker on a variety of makerspace projects that experiment with ways to make digital and non-book scholarly works just as visible and readable from our shelves.

One of the good aspects of my job is being a proud member of Virginia’s higher ed wall-to-wall union, so I’ll end with a shoutout to any members of UMD’s grad student union in the room, who I know are currently organizing on behalf of all UMD workers and community members.