Teaching and Learning

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Managing Digital Humanities Associates, week 1

So, I’ve had this new responsibility for one week now, and what a week it has been! And I haven’t even met the student workers yet!

One thing that I think might be a distinct advantage of having a newbie in charge is that it gives all kinds of stakeholders on campus the chance to articulate their understanding of what’s going on and what they see coming down the pike. It’s kind of like having an external review without the external reviewers or the reports or the expense or the… well all of it except for the useful¬†things everyone learns when they have to say their assumptions out loud. Now, I don’t think that people were necessarily in different places before this week or that I’ve triggered any “ah ha” moments or anything like that. I just think that it’s incredibly useful as we get ready to make decisions about the future of digital humanities on our campus to have everyone take a moment and say “This is what has been amazing so far, this is where I see things going, and here’s the stake I have in that future.” I’m going to do my best to document these things for the new librarian, but I also know that when we do hire the new librarian that person¬†will add his or her own facets to these conversations.

I’ve also learned (again) that grant funding is a double-edged sword. We had a grant on campus years ago that was awesome but then left us with all kinds of aspirations and assumptions on campus that are no longer supported or funded. One tiny piece of that is one of the two computers my student workers will use. It’s now too old to function well but was bought with grant money and therefore isn’t on a replacement schedule, so who’s going to pay for it? And can we get it on a replacement schedule this time around so the headache doesn’t repeat itself ad infinitum? These are questions I hope to sort out during week 2. Wish me luck!

I’m also learning that this venture shares a characteristic with many of the exciting campus-wide initiatives that I’ve been a part of or heard a lot about: it is fueled by lots of talent and enthusiasm from many quarters on campus, but it is not (yet) part of a cohesive structure on campus. There’s nobody who “owns” digital humanities on campus, so coordination isn’t as tight as it could be and funding for things like computers (see above) is kind of up in the air. Luckily, solving that is high on the agenda for several of the big stakeholders on campus. Hopefully we can figure out how to get all the benefits of a cohesive structure without losing any of the start-up like innovation of the current semi-structure. (My own view is that this future cohesive structure should actually coordinate and fund the Digital Liberal Arts, not just Humanities, but more on that another time.)

And finally, the breadth and depth of the projects this small but growing group of student workers has contributed to is pretty awesome. And the students themselves seem like they’re going to be quite a team to work with (though I really wish they were all equally good at responding to my request for their schedules). I hope that I can give these students the structure and support they need so that they can keep doing the work they’re so obviously good at doing.

Here’s a little video about one of the projects that the students have worked on in the past.

Taking on someone else’s job (or, Hey look, I’m in charge of the Digital Humanities Associates now.)

As of today, I find myself in charge of the Digital Humanities Associates on our campus, seven exceptional student workers who partner with faculty on digital humanities projects while they also help build the digital humanities conversation, community, and infrastructure on our campus. It’s a temporary assignment until we hire a new librarian, but it’s a weighty one for me. There are so many hopes and expectations riding on this program, so many practical and political, technical and interpersonal aspects. So much room for excitement, engagement, and success. So much potential for failure.

Dutch Boy and Dike

“The Hero of Haarlem” from Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland, by Mary Mapes Dodge (1865)

My good friend and outstanding colleague Heather Tompkins built the program from scratch (not alone, of course, but centrally important), and now she’s moved on to work her magic at St. Kate’s. Walking up to work this morning, everything felt slightly unreal, slightly fractured, as I realized that there’s a Heather-ish hole in our library now, and that I’m supposed to be able to patch one portion of that hole – keep the dike from bursting – while doing some semblance of justice to Heather’s vision for the DHAs and the digital liberal arts at Carleton.

Taking over from someone who has built a program from scratch is a daunting thing. You’d think that with a young program, now entering its fourth academic year, it’d be easier to pick up and move forward. There’s less history to learn, for one thing. But with less history comes fewer people who know that history who can support you as you find your way, more things that lived solely in one person’s memory, fewer stable pieces of infrastructure to cling to.

So today I’m going to pour over the documentation and notes that Heather left for me and the notes I took while she told me about her work, and I’m going to begin the process of wrapping my head around this new project.