Found History

by Tom Scheinfeldt

3 Innovation Killers in Digital Humanities

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Here’s a list of three questions one might overhear in a peer review panel for digital humanities funding, each of which can kill a project in its tracks:

  • Haven’t X, Y, and Z already done this? We shouldn’t be supporting duplication of effort.
  • Are all of the stakeholders on board? (Hat tip to @patrickgmj for this gem.)
  • What about sustainability?

In their right place, each of these are valid criticisms. But they shouldn’t be levied reflexively. Sometimes X, Y, and Z’s project stinks, or nobody uses it, or their code is lousy. Sometimes stakeholders can’t see through the fog of current practice and imagine the possible fruits of innovation. Sometimes experimental projects can’t be sustained. Sometimes they fail altogether.

If we are going to advance a field as young as digital humanities, if we are going to encourage innovation, if we are going to lift the bar, we sometimes have to be ready to accept “I don’t know, this is an experiment” as a valid answer to the sustainability question in our grant guidelines. We are sometimes going to have to accept duplication of effort (aren’t we glad someone kept experimenting with email and the 1997 version of Hotmail wasn’t the first and last word in webmail?) And true innovation won’t always garner broad support among stakeholders, especially at the outset.

Duplication of effort, stakeholder buy in, and sustainability are all important issues, but they’re not all important. Innovation requires flexibility, an acceptance of risk, and a measure of trust. As Dorthea Salo said on Twitter, when considering sustainability, for example, we should be asking “‘how do we make this sustainable?’ rather than ‘kill it ‘cos we don’t know that it is.'” As Rachel Frick said in the same thread, in the case of experimental work we must accept that sustainability can “mean many things,” for example “document[ing] the risky action and results in an enduring way so that others may learn.”

Innovation makes some scary demands. Dorthea and Rachel present some thoughts on how to manage those demands with the other, legitimate demands of grant funding. We’re going to need some more creative thinking if we’re going to push the field forward.

Late update (10/16/09): Hugh Cayless at Scriptio Continua makes the very good, very practical point that “if you’re writing a proposal, assume these objections will be thrown at it, and do some prior thinking so you can spike them before they kill your innovative idea.” An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure … or something like that.

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