Briefly Noted for February 12, 2009

Showing extreme negligence earlier in the week, I somehow forgot to mention the opening of applications for THATCamp 2009. Last year’s event was great. This year will be (a little) bigger and better.

Another late entry: Our colleagues at the Maryland Institute of Technology in the Humanities have launched their spring series of Digital Dialogues. I’m posting too late for readers to catch CHNM’s Jeremy Boggs (who spoke this past Tuesday), but there’s plenty of time to plan a trip to College Park for Mills Kelly’s provocatively titled “What Happens When You Teach Your Students to Lie Online?” in April. Other topics this semester include Project Bamboo, Shakespeare, and robots.

A somewhat unlikely place for the subject matter, Slashdot nevertheless has a great discussion of How Do I Start a University Transition to Open Source?

Finally, from the New York Times, some tips on how to run better meetings: Meetings Are a Matter of Precious Time . Thanks, Jerm, hint taken.

Tragedy at the Commons

Nat Torkington at the O’Reilly Radar blog has news this morning that George Oates, Senior Program Manager in charge of Flickr Commons and an original member of the Flickr design team, has been laid off by Flickr’s parent company Yahoo! As the person at Yahoo! responsible for bringing together the energy and cultural resources of the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the Powerhouse Museum, the National Library of New Zealand, the Library of Virginia, the Imperial War Museum, and, most recently, the New York Public Library, Oates has quietly done as much as anyone in the past several years to increase and improve online access to cultural heritage collections around the world. It’s sad enough just at that. But Oates’ layoff also raises some larger questions. Is this just one of those things we see in a bad economy, or is it a reason why cultural organizations should roll their own rather than using commercial services for online work?

Torkington believes that the enthusiasm and community Flickr Commons has attracted will sustain the project through the economic downturn and what at best is likely to be a period of neglect by Flickr and its parent. Let’s hope so. A less rosy scenario is that Yahoo! decides that in tough economic times the goodwill and visibility generated by hosting the educational and cultural heritage materials of public institutions isn’t worth the cost of bandwidth.

This story drove home to me a contradiction in my own rhetoric that I hadn’t noticed before. On the one hand I have been a proponent of Flickr Commons, university channels on Google’s YouTube, and the like, recommending them to partners and colleagues as an easy way to reach out to new audiences, build communities around content, and basically just get your stuff up without the hassle of software and sys admin. On the other hand, I have repeatedly criticized the enthusiasm some digital humanists have shown for Second Life, in large part on the basis of the fact that Linden Lab (SL’s parent company) could at any moment go under or simply decide to take another business direction—and in doing so take with them all the hard, largely publicly-funded work museums, libraries, and digital humanists have put into the platform. Only today, when I read of George Oates’ sacking, did I realize that what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. While the long term prospects of Yahoo! and especially Google may be brighter than those of Linden Lab, nevertheless they are still big companies whose first responsibility is to their shareholders and the bottom line, not to cultural heritage, education, or the work of digital humanities.

My guess is that Flickr Commons will be just fine, and I still believe there is a lot of good in the idea. But the news about George Oates, someone who was universally well-regarded in our business and in the web business more generally, should give all of us pause. Specifically, it should let us ask again whether the benefits in ease, reach, and community of using commercial services for presenting cultural heritage collections and educational resources really outweigh the costs in storage, systems administration, and content segregation of rolling your own.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Briefly Noted for October 28, 2008

The Oral History Association has launched a new and improved website, including a social network and an instructional wiki.

Jim Spadaccini has a great post about the special kind of planning involved in building museum and other cultural heritage websites that incorporate social networking features. Jim writes, “While the standard methods of web design—such as wireframes and mockups—are still part of the process, we’ve been concurrently working on plans for social interaction.”

AHA Today points to TimesTraveler, a new blog from the New York Times. The premise is simple: TimesTraveler excavates Times’ headlines from exactly 100 years ago, giving readers a sense of what was happening on this day in 1908. Surprisingly compelling and very well done. For a more entertaining and more creative glimpse at 1908, however, I suggest TweetCapsule—time-twittering life in the last century. (Thanks, Tad.)

Briefly Noted for October 14, 2008

Jeremy Boggs at Clioweb continues his must-read series on design process for digital humanities with some notes (and code) for Front End Development.

Again on front ends and again via Clioweb, the Indianapolis Museum of Art has unveiled a new “dashboard” user interface, a numerical, widgetized overview of how IMA’s online collections, programs, and social networks are being used.

The National History Coalition reports the welcome launch of the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative, a collaborative effort by a dozen federal agencies “to define common guidelines, methods, and practices to digitize historical content in a sustainable manner.” Anyone thinking of applying for federal funding in the next few cycles would be wise to keep an eye on this initiative. The standards established by this group are sure to turn up shortly in NEH, IMLS, NHPRC and other grant program guidelines.

Making It Count: Demographics and Leadership

Many thanks to Elisabeth Grant and Rob Townsend of the American Historical Association for mentioning my recent post on “Making It Count” in the latest edition of their “What We Are Reading” series. Elisabeth and Rob make the great suggestion of reading a new report from the American Council on Education alongside my post. Entitled “Too Many Rungs on the Ladder? Faculty Demographics and the Future Leadership of Higher Education,” the report argues that the current dearth of twenty- and thirty-something tenure-track faculty members will translate into a dearth of candidates for senior administrative positions in just a few years’ time. There are, the authors say say, only three solutions to the impending crisis:

If the current model will not work for those entering the leadership pipeline today, then higher education must find ways to bring more young people into the permanent faculty and advance them through the academic ranks more quickly, alter the career ladder so that people can skip rungs and rise to the presidency with fewer years of experience, or become more open to individuals from areas other than academic affairs.

Personally I vote for all of the above. As I wrote last week, the nature of academic work is changing, and the terms, conditions, and models of academic employment and career advancement will have to change along with it. We don’t have to relegate old models of tenure and promotion to the chopping block. But nor should we stubbornly insist on their unique primacy or fool ourselves that they’re somehow eternal and unchanging. Whether we are the ones seeking or bestowing the promotions, we need to recognize that an institution as diverse and kaleidoscopic as the modern research university can, should, and will accommodate more than one employment model and path to advancement and leadership.

Making It Count: Toward a Third Way

Over the summer there was much discussion among my colleagues about making digital humanities work “count” in academic careers. This included two fantastic threads on Mills Kelly’s Edwired blog, a great post by Kathy Davidson, and an informal chat on our own Digital Campus podcast. As usual the topic of tenure also undergirded discussions at the various digital humanities workshops and conferences I attended during June, July, and August. The cooler weather and tempers of autumn having arrived, I’d like to take a quick look back and commit to writing some of the thoughts I offered on our podcast and at these meetings.

Let me use Mills’ “Making Digital Scholarship Count” series as a starting point. For those of you who weren’t following his posts, Mills argues that if scholars want digital scholarship to count in traditional promotion and tenure decisions, then they have to make sure it conforms to the characteristics and standards of traditional scholarship (though Mills points out that some of those standards, such as peer review, will have to be modified slightly to accommodate the differences inherent in digital scholarship.) At the same time Mills suggests that we have to accept that digital work that does not fit the standards of traditional scholarship, no matter how useful or well done, will not count in traditional promotion and tenure decisions. Essentially Mills makes a distinction between digital “scholarship” and other kinds of digital “work,” the first which bears the characteristics of traditional scholarship and the second which does not. The first should count as “scholarship” in promotion and tenure decisions. The second should not. Rather it should count as “service” or something similar.

I more or less agree this, and I’m fine with Mills’ distinction. Communities have the right to set their own standards and decide what counts as this or that. But this situation does raise questions for those of us engaged primarily in the second kind of activity, in digital humanities “work.” What happens to the increasing numbers of people employed inside university departments doing “work” not “scholarship?” In universities that have committed to digital humanities, shouldn’t the work of creating and maintaining digital collections, building software, experimenting with new user interface designs, mounting online exhibitions, providing digital resources for students and teachers, and managing the institutional teams upon which all digital humanities depend count for more than service does under traditional P&T rubrics? Personally I’m not willing to admit that this other kind of digital work is any less important for digital humanities than digital scholarship, which frankly would not be possible without it. All digital humanities is collaborative, and it’s not OK if the only people whose careers benefit from our collaborations are the “scholars” among us. We need the necessary “work” of digital humanities to count for those people whose jobs are to do it.

Now I’m not arguing we bestow tenure in the history department for web design or project management, even if it’s done by people with PhD’s. What I am saying is if we’re going to do digital humanities in our departments, then we need something new. It can’t be tenure-track or nothing. With the emergence of the new digital humanities, we need some new employment models.

I myself do relatively little work that would fit traditional definitions of scholarship. Practically none of my digital work would. Because of that I am more than willing to accept that tenure just isn’t in the picture for me. With my digital bent I am asking for a change in the nature of academic work, and therefore I have to be willing to accept a change in the nature and terms of my academic employment.

That said, I am not willing to accept the second-class status of, for instance, an adjunct faculty member. My work—whether it is “scholarship” or not—wins awards, attracts hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding, turns up periodically on CNN and in the New York Times, enables the work of hundreds of other academics, and is used every day by thousands of people, scholars and non-scholars alike. That may not make it tenureable, but it’s certainly not second class. My work requires a “third way.”

Fortunately I’m at an institution committed to digital humanities and willing to experiment with new models of academic employment. Technically I have two titles, “Managing Director of the Center for History & New Media” and “Research Assistant Professor.” That puts me somewhere between an untenured administrative faculty member and an untenured research faculty member. It is a position which would frighten some of my tenure-track colleagues terribly, and I can, indeed, be fired from my job. Sometimes that worries me too. Then I remember that probably 99% of the rest of working Americans can also be fired from their jobs. I also remember that just like that other 99%, if I do what’s expected of me, it probably won’t happen. If I continue to win grants and awards from panels of my peers and continue to produce quality, well-received, well-used digital humanities products, I’ll probably continue to have a job. If I exceed expectations, I’ll probably advance.

Just as important to note are the benefits my job has over more traditional scholarly career paths, some of which are pretty serious. I’m not terrorized by the formalized expectations that accompany traditional P&T decisions. I won’t perish if I don’t publish. I also don’t have fixed teaching obligations. I can focus full-time on my research, and I have greater freedom and flexibility to explore new directions than most of my tenure-track colleagues. I get to work on lots of things at once. Some of these experiments are likely to fail, but as long as most succeed, that’s expected and OK. I manage my own travel budgets and research schedule rather than being held hostage to department committees. I get to work every day with a close-knit team of like-minded academics rather than alone in a library. I have considerably greater freedom to negotiate my pay and benefits. And to the extent that it advances the mission and interests of the Center for History & New Media, this blog “counts.”

Mine is not a tenure-track position, and based on the work I do, I don’t expect it to be. Nor do I care. There are some downsides and some upsides to my position, but it’s a reasonably happy third way. More importantly, I believe it is a necessary third way for the digital humanities, which in Mills’ terms require not only digital “scholarship” but also digital “work.” I’m lucky to be at an institution and to have colleagues that make this third way possible. Other institutions looking to build digital humanities capacity should follow suit. If digital humanities are going to flourish in the academy, we need both to accept and advocate for new models of academic employment.

[Image credit: Dave Morris]

Late Update (10/2/08): I very absentmindedly neglected to list my friend Margie McLellan among the important voices in this discussion. Along with Mills and Kathy Davidson, Margie’s three posts, On Defining Scholarship, Scholarship Update, and Is a Blog Scholarship?, are required reading on these matters.

Six Tips for Hiring Good Programmers

1864823746_d6bb92c305.jpg There has been a useful discussion on Twitter (of all places!) among some of the THATCamp participants about how to write a good help wanted ad for programmers for digital humanities projects. Here are a few of the suggestions, mostly from the programmers in the bunch:

  • “All depends on what you’re looking for: a real programmer or just a code secretary? Good coders show up for fun real problems … code secretary = comes to meetings, takes orders, transcribes them into code without creative insight.”
  • “Regardless of the title, make clear if people will have the authority to use their own creativity and do things in new ways.”
  • “One suggestion is to get tied in to local user-group communities—especially ones that attract freelancers and learners.”
  • “But good programmers also get paid a bit better, and thrive on a community of other programmers (which means other area employers).”
  • “Another thing to tout is the ability to choose the technical stack, & freedom to explore new languages/frameworks, if true.”
  • “Also, is there any chance you could offer a referral bonus to univ employees? No better applicants than that.”

Good tips. Good use of Twitter.

[Thanks to Karin Dalziel, Adam Solove, and Ben Brumfield for allowing me to republish this conversation! Image credit: Matt Wetzler.]

Thoughts on THATCamp

2539671619_45e0d02289.jpg Last week CHNM hosted the inaugural THATCamp to what seemed to me like great success. Short for “The Humanities and Technology Camp,” THATCamp is a BarCamp-style, user-generated “unconference” on digital humanities. Structurally, it differs from an ordinary conference in two ways: first in that its sessions are organized by participants themselves (ahead of time through a blog, but mainly on the day of the conference) rather than by a program committee, and second in that everyone is expected to participate actively—to present a project, share some skill, and collaborate with fellow participants. We first started thinking about THATCamp as many as two or three years ago, and I was thrilled to see it finally get off the ground, thanks in large part to the extraordinary efforts and energy of Jeremy Boggs and Dave Lester, who will be presenting their own thoughts on the matter in a forthcoming episode of THATPodcast.

To begin with let me say the sessions were fantastic. I particularly benefited from conversations on F/OSS design and development processes, event standards, and sustainability. Nevertheless I have to admit I was just as interested in the process of THATCamp as I was in its products. Throughout the weekend I was paying as much attention to how THATCamp worked as to the work that was actually done there. I’d like to share three observations in this regard:

  • First and foremost, I think it is very important to stress that THATCamp was cheap. The cost of the weekend was around $3000. Total. That included a fairly lavish breakfast and lunch buffet on both days, lots of caffenated drinks, t-shirts for everyone involved, pretty badges and lanyards, office supplies (post-its, pens), room fees, and a couple student travel stipends. Those modest costs were paid through a combination of sponsorships (the GMU provost’s office, NiCHE, NYPL, and CHNM’s own Zotero project) and voluntary donations from THATCamp participants (we suggested $20 and passed a hat around on the first day). Most participants had to fund their own travel, but still.
  • Second, THATCamp was honest. Mills has already pointed out how the unconference sessions at THATCamp were so much more engaging than the standard “panelist reads at you” conference session model. That’s certainly true. But it wasn’t just the format that made these discussions more useful. It was the attitude. At most scholarly conferences, everyone seems to have something to prove—specifically, how smart they are. We have all seen people shouted down at conferences and how destructive that can be, especially to a young scholar (I have seen people in tears). But at THATCamp, instead of trying to out-smart each other, campers came clean about their failures as well as their successes, their problems as well as their solutions. By admitting, rather than covering up, gaps in their knowledge, campers were able to learn from each other. This honesty made THATCamp truly productive.
  • Third, THATCamp was democratic. In large part because Jeremy and Dave (both students as well as kickass digital humanists) did most of the work, but also because of the transparency, informality, and openness of the process and discussions, professional status didn’t seem to count for much at THATCamp. Full professors, associate professors, assistant professors, research faculty, museum and library professionals from big and small institutions at all levels, and graduate students seemed to mix easily and casually. More than once I saw a student or young professional challenge a more senior colleague. Even more often I saw the groups laughing, chatting, sharing ideas. That’s good for everybody.

I’m not going to lie. THATCamp was a ton of work, and it wasn’t perfect by any means. I’m not sure, for instance, how many publications will result from the sessions. But I do think it was a truly different and useful way of forging new collaborations, building a community of practice, making connections to people with answers to your questions, supporting student work and thought, and solving practical problems. The model is particularly appropriate for a very hands-on discipline like digital humanities, but the three observations above suggest it should and could easily be extended to other, more traditional disciplines. Mills has already called on the American Historical Association to dedicate 5% of its program THATCamp-style activities, and Margie McLellan is hoping to encourage the Oral History Association to do the same. I’d also encourage humanities departments, graduate student committees, and other research institutions to try. We all lament the lack of community and collegiality in our profession and decry the cutthroat competitiveness in our fields. It seems to me that THATCamp is a cheap and easy antidote.

[Image: “Dork Shorts” session sign-up board, credit Dave Lester.]

Twitter, Downtime, and Radical Transparency


Listeners to the most recent episode of Digital Campus will know that I’m a fairly heavy user of Twitter, the weirdly addictive and hard-to-describe microblogging and messaging service. But anyone who uses the wildly popular service regularly will also know that the company’s service architecture has not scaled very well. During the last month or so, as hundreds of thousands have signed up and started “tweeting,” it has sometimes seemed like Twitter is down as often as it’s up.

Considering the volume and complexity of the information they’re serving, and the somewhat unexpectedness of the service’s popularity, I tend not to blame Twitter for its downtime. As a member of an organization that runs its own servers (with nowhere near the load of Twitter, mind you), I sympathize with Twitter’s situation. Keeping a server up is a relentless, frustrating, unpredictable, and scary task. Yet as a user of Twitter, I still get pretty annoyed when I can’t access my friends’ tweets or when one of mine disappears into the ether.

It’s clear, however, that Twitter is working very hard to rewrite its software and improve its network infrastructure. How do I know this? First, it seems like some of the problems are getting better. Second, and more important, for the last week or so, Twitter has been blogging its efforts. The Twitter main page now includes a prominent link to the Twitter Status blog, where managers and engineers post at least daily updates about the work they’re doing and the problems they’re facing. The blog also includes links to uptime statistics, developer forums, and other information sharing channels. Twitter’s main corporate blog, moreover, contains longer posts about these same issues, as well as notes on other uncomfortable matters such as users’ concerns about privacy under Twitter’s terms of service.

Often, an organization facing troubles—particularly troubles of its own making—does everything it can to hide the problem, its cause, and its efforts to fix it. Twitter has decided on a different course. Twitter seems to have realized that its very committed, very invested user base would prefer honesty and openness to obfuscation and spin. By definition, Twitter users are people who have put themselves out there on the web. Twitter’s managers and engineers have realized that those users expect nothing less of the company itself.

As a Twitter user, the company’s openness about its difficulties has made me more patient, more willing to forgive them an occasional outage or slowdown. There is a lesson in this for digital and public historians. Our audiences are similarly committed. We work very hard to make sure they feel like we’re all in this together. We should remember this when we have problems, such as our own network outages (CHNM is experiencing one right now, btw) and technical shortcomings.

We are open with our successes. We should be open with our problems as well. Our audiences and partners will reward us with their continued loyalty and (who knows?) maybe even help.

Briefly Noted for April 11, 2008

A few quick notes from the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Louisville, KY.

Bill Turkel has a terrific post on the nonlinear character of many academic careers, comparing planning our professional trajectories to solving nonlinear optimization problems in mathematics. “Nonlinear” definitely describes my own career path, and Bill provides his own poignant nonlinear story. Students, especially those interested in careers in digital history and humanities, should hear more of these stories.

The Powerhouse Museum joins the Library of Congress in Flickr Commons. Though not officially part of the Commons, the Boston Public Library also added its own photostream to the online image sharing site. Maybe this Flickr thing has legs. 😉

Jeremy Boggs is starting a much needed new series on the nuts and bolts of doing digital humanities work. I am first to plead guilty when I say that too much of the digital humanities blogosphere is taken up with reflections on the discipline, project announcements and press releases, and wishful speculations that will never bear fruit. Jeremy is boldly taking us down the path of real work, by explaining the basic methods, processes, and tools necessary to produce quality digital history and humanities projects.