Reflections on “Capacity and Care”

The final meeting of Digital Scholars for the 2015/2016 year allowed us to reflect on attaining a balance between the fulfillment of potentialities of the projects within the field and the exploration of alternatives and working methods that can lead to sustainable collaborative dynamics. Two Florida State University professors that have been developing Digital Humanities projects spoke about their respective experiences in collaborative endeavors. Dr. Will Hanley referred in detail to the course that he is currently preparing for Fall 2016, where students will work with The Egyptian Gazette, a newspaper from Alexandria, focusing on issues published during 1905. For her part, Dr. Silvia Valisa described her experience leading the Il secolo project, an initiative of digitization of the homonymous 19th century Italian newspaper.

Dr. Hanley emphasized the need to motivate his students, offering them the opportunity to develop a creative work of discovery and reporting. His class’ workflow, as he explained, will consist in four stages or steps: microfilming of the newspaper, conversion of the image into text (OCR), structural tagging and content tagging. Regarding the last one, he added that student will have to tag  three kinds of content: names of people, locations or places and events of some sort that appear in the newspaper. The last third of the class will be dedicated to formulate what he calls a serial question; that is, a question that has to be asked in the exact same way for the approximately 300 yearly issues of The Egyptian Gazette, and that gains relevance and interest based on the different answers it receives.

Students will have to report curiosities, technical difficulties and results to serial questions by blog posting. Grading is based on completion, which means that finishing the task is prioritized with respect to a performance evaluation. At this point, Dr. Hanley mentioned the interesting article “Student Labour and Training in Digital Humanities”; the article questions the discipline of Digital Humanities from the perspective of student labor, paying attention to students’ access, training, funding and collaboration itself in projects of this kind. Hanley considers that some of the good practices suggested by the article are already present in his course: namely, students can, in his own words, “carry their portion of the project through from the beginning to its end”. In addition, students not only collect data for others to analyze it, but they also carry out such task, which is less exploitative as long as the work is published under their name.

This also implies reconsidering the usefulness and specific weight of other more traditional assignments such as papers, which could be less beneficial or interesting for students. Hanley then addressed TAPAS, the service of shared infrastructures, publication and storage of TEI projects, oriented towards serving creators of TEI data who do not have the proper resources for their research projects. Highlighting its positive aspects and good intentions, an objection was raised against the (often) unnecessary mediation that TAPAS entails. Finally, he insisted in the “empowering transaction of training” as the most valuable exchange within the collaborative sphere of Digital Humanities.

Dr. Valisa explained her work with Il secolo, the main Italian newspaper during the late 19th Century, being her primary goal to make this publication more accessible to researchers and students. [See full description of Valisa’s work here.] Such endeavor is framed within the Sonzogno Digital Library Project, dedicated to the elaboration of a digital catalogue of the Milanese publisher; for this task, Valisa and her team employ Omeka software, having harvested and managed metadata from eight different American and Italian libraries and the CLIO catalogue. Valisa also addressed the issue of sustainable collaborative work and the functioning of the small team in charge of the Sonzogno digital library. Such team is based in Florida State University, and is composed by Drs. Sanghee Oh and Wonchan Choi, of the School of Library and Information Studies, with the collaboration of Seungwon Yang (Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia) and the occasional support from FSU’s graduate students Danila Coppola and Abhiram Chitangal.

To conclude, and regarding the problems and difficulties that these projects can pose for students (arguably, the weakest link in the collaborative chain), Valisa points to a lack of training on the main challenges of the discipline. In a similar vein, Hanley expresses the need to develop an ethic of crediting work that gives students full participant status in the different tasks and projects that they undertake. Despite of the preconceptions on Digital Humanities as a structureless, collaborative field where traditional hierarchies tend to blur, professionals within the field must be fully aware of the persistence of these boundaries.

As the authors of the article “Student Labour and Training in Digital Humanities” point out, “the rhetoric of DH . . . can obscure those structures that are already in place . . . A perceived opposition between DH methodologies and traditional humanities practices seems to deny the existence of a hierarchical power dynamic within DH projects”, and, in the end, “structurelessness ‘becomes a way of masking power’.”

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