On Getting Started

The FSU Digital Scholars group recently met for an abbreviated local version of the MLA’s upcoming pre-conference workshop “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities.” What follows is my report from our session, digesting the perspectives shared by our panelists as well as our participants.

David Gants (Associate Professor of English) declared he came from a “geek” perspective, first established when digital humanities was still very much “humanities computing.” But he never took such a class and had no formal training. Instead, he learned by doing. He credited that lesson to his graduate adviser who gave him some lasting advice: choose one of your courses and do a textual edition instead of a paper. This unconventional project gave Gants the practical exposure to what would inform his dissertation work, his career in critical bibliography, and his expansion of that work into the digital realm. Gants recommends something similar to grad students now: choose one of your end-of-semester course projects to do something digital.

Gants made a great qualification here: doing an edition did not make him a textual editor. By analogy, doing something digitally does not make you a digital humanist. But it does other important things: it lays the groundwork for more experiments; it helps fit your conceptual horizon to what you can and cannot express digitally; and it provides you common ground to work with people who may themselves be techno-wizards. While Gants recommends learning the basics about markup, programming languages, and systems administration, he also suggests that mastery is less necessary than sympathy with the experts. In other words, if DH is an interdisciplinary enterprise that we conduct in hybrid spaces, it helps to have a shared framework or a common language.

Gants also recommended some practical things, like putting all of your teaching materials—syllabi, study guides, assignments—online, and not as PDFs or elements of Blackboard, but in forms that you actively shape and encode. Gants still hand-codes his personal website to stay fresh with HTML. In his resonant question, do we use the machine or does it use us?

Tarez Graban (Assistant Professor of English) explored that very theme: how we can build digital humanities on the basis of critical inquiry. Graban said she did not consider herself a digital humanist for awhile because she wasn’t building things but was instead involved in critique of digital networks. She changed her mind with her current project that aims to formalize a mode of critique as a tool for digital rhetoric.

Graban also posed a question that anyone new to DH, or anyone early in the process of graduate study, has to reckon with: how do I know if I have a viable digital project? (Alternately, how do I know if this prospectus has potential?) Graban does not want the tools to lead our inquiries by default, but for us to devise digital projects that explore and expand our intellectual horizons. How do the digital tools within our disciplines allow and disallow certain things? What’s missing from their modes of inquiry? What do they presume? How would you test that? How might you formalize an alternative?

Graban offered a provocative two-part challenge for thinking about digital projects:

  1. Build a tool
  2. Argue for how it’s innovative

That challenge makes us articulate what, exactly, we mean by innovation and what are our commitments to moving our disciplines forward. Innovation is not merely an answer to a problem. Innovation requires us to rethink the forms and protocols of our scholarly reproduction. In other words, the consequences of successful innovation are longer-term changes: they concern how disciplines reproduce themselves; they invoke our beliefs for the future of the field, especially concerning what intellectual landscape our students and others might inherit. Unless it effects these changes, a tool is not innovative.

Graban argued that innovation typically happens under two related conditions: when people occupy multiple subject positions or change across different kinds of roles; and when people move through “hybrid spaces” or disciplinary contact zones that effect a similar kind of shift. She then shared several perspectives about what qualifies innovation in the digital humanities, including:

  1. Allowing users to determine the long-term functions of any tool or platform
  2. A need to operate upon and promote trust
  3. Commitment to agility, to the open movement of data
  4. Transparency, shared codes, and forked progress

Stephen McElroy (graduate student in English, HASTAC Scholar) shifted our focus to the physical spaces in which graduate training and innovation might happen. The Digital Studio at FSU – now in two locations – services students and faculty in all kinds of ways, from personalized project help to general instruction. McElroy offered several perspectives on how he got involved with the Digital Studio and how it might shape multiple aspects of our education, research, and teaching. What kinds of work might be afforded by the spaces we have on campus?

1. Composing. Spaces like the Digital Studio can provide the support for new kinds of writing with multimodal accompaniment and support. This can encourage us to remediate our own compositions across print, screens, and the web, as well as composing digitally with blogging, electronic portfolios, and in social networking spaces. The digital urges us to try to publish in different spaces for different audiences.

2. Research and learning. Like library centers and lab spaces, these learning and support studios can help us utilize electronic and digital resources, discover new tools and platforms, and lower the entry thresholds to start participating in digital research trends. Using these spaces, we learn to use new tools and platforms in support of new research work and further experimentation. They also help us filter, directing our attention to what, in a crowded and sometimes chaotic field, shows promise for research insights or results.

3. Pedagogy. The Digital Studio has tutors to consult about digital options for pedagogy. These tutors will also observe classes and help imagine ways of integrating digital components towards specific goals. Making more use of tutoring and studio spaces can help us re-imagine class assignments in terms of genre, platform, or even their potential for open-endedness. Beyond that, we can re-imagine entire courses based on the available infrastructure. How might your class work differently if you rebuilt it to take place not only in your classroom, but in several related and differently dedicated spaces? Lastly, McElroy recommends that interested graduate students to become digital tutors themselves, leading the way in imagining and integrating not just digital pedagogy, but the effective use of physical and personnel resources on campus.

4. Building and networking. Hybrid spaces can promote an ethos of working collaboratively with students, other grads, faculty, and staff. Furthermore, because they are mixed spaces, they can facilitate new kinds of affiliations and collaborations. We should also develop these contacts beyond our institutions, as anyone getting started in DH should connect with scholars in the field including though social networks and online journals. A feeling of connection to and encouragement from established scholars and the DH community can help motivate us to put tools and skills to work in creative ways.

Micah Vandegrift (Scholarly Communications Librarian) strongly endorses getting connected. He recounted an early experience on Twitter, wading into a discussion with a scholar he respected and getting a near immediate response. As an MLIS grad student, he was galvanized by the experience of a THATCamp, sitting at a table with prominent digital humanists and having his ideas really valued. At these moments, we realize that, within these networks, we too are peers. Those contacts have been formative for Vandegrift and he urges us to make them for ourselves.

Vandegrift (whose presentation notes are here) suggested a trio of commitments in building a digital profile: Share, Communicate, Create. On sharing: become more aware of scholarly communication, open access, and authors’ rights. Fast-moving changes in these areas represent the near future of the humanities and will particularly affect graduate students. On communicating: build an online profile through your interactions with the field. Rather than worrying about, say, blogging in terms of its inherent academic value, see it as one of many opportunities to connect to ongoing and open conversations in the field. Vandegrift mentioned social media as well as participatory and open review projects that allow for smaller-scale interaction to start. On creating: start making stuff. DH has a strong ethos of building, an urge to balance academic yakking with experimental hacking, which Vandegrift links (through chiasmus!) to the name of a recent favorite band, DoMakeSayThink. If DH needs a manifesto—and it doesn’t—it could be this.

Vandegrift also urged us to get out of our comfort zones, to get out of the English department (where our meeting was held), and work in extra-disciplinary spaces. Be ambitious with your communications as they’ll take you into new discourse fields. Work outside of your discipline sometimes. And get to know your librarians—not as service providers, but as intellectual partners. Librarians already model many qualities of an aspiring digital humanist. They think across disciplines, they are digitally minded, they are “access prone,” and they are available and interested to collaborate.

Finally, “Getting Started in Digital Humanities” is not simply a prescription or a road map for newcomers. It is also a challenge to those of us involved in shaping the curricular and institutional contexts where this can even occur. So during the ensuing discussion, we asked the audience: Why aren’t you doing something digital already? What are the challenges or even obstacles to getting started? Though a few people mentioned a lack of technical knowledge, the majority felt they simply lacked the time. This perspective is telling, as most of our suggestions were seen as additional work or extracurricular. Developing digital skill sets seems ancillary to the significant commitments, teaching, and research plans that students already have. One student pointed out that instructors can help not just by encouraging experimentation, but by formalizing opportunities to do it within their courses. Another participant rightly suggested that people cannot possibly pursue every aspect of these suggestions for getting started, but should try those suggestions with the most intellectual and professional appeal. The librarians in the room pointed out several resources already available about starting DH at FSU (including our group’s Resources page and a new Digital Humanities library guide), and also started making tentative plans for skills-oriented training sessions and a “Day of DH” hackathon in the spring.

As the session concluded, we all saw potential avenues to pursue changes: to develop personal skill sets and professional networks, to articulate research projects and pedagogies that do not merely “add” the digital but critically require it, and to build educational environments that materially and programmatically support this work.


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