How Humanists Should Use Mastodon

I’m brand new to Mastodon. Many of us are. This might suggest that we shouldn’t have opinions. But I think the opposite is true. If Mastodon is truly a decentralized platform, if it’s truly designed to support distinctive communities and their distinctive needs, then we, as a community of humanists, should decide how we’re going to use it. We should start doing it now, before it gets away from us.

Deciding how we want to use it—what Mastodon will mean to us—means not putting too much stock in the “norms” and “rules” that other communities have established on the site. That is not to say we should be bulls in the porcelain shop (or as Shawna Ross tooted, we “don’t want to go all Kool-Aid man”), or that we should be disrespectful to other, more established communities and their needs and concerns. As always, we should approach our work, our tools, and our public engagements with humility. But it’s legitimate for us to use the technology to meet our needs and concerns, needs and concerns that have for too long gone unmet by Twitter, needs and concerns that may not be the same as other, older Mastodon communities.

In that spirit, here are a few early thoughts on how I think we should use Mastodon to build a supportive, inclusive, interesting, and useful thing for the humanities community.

First, you should join a server (e.g. hcommons.social) where a lot of other humanists can be found, and spend most of your time in your “local” or “community” timeline/tab. It is all well and good to follow people from other servers, and you should keep up with friends and happenings in those other places. But if you’re on the right server, your main source of serendipity, delight, information, and community will come from that local timeline. If your server’s local timeline is not delivering those things, find another server.

Second, and relatedly, you should mostly avoid the “the fediverse” (i.e. the feed of posts aggregated from across Mastodon’s servers found in the “federated” or “all” tab in your app). It seems to me that in time this aggregated feed will just reproduce Twitter, in all its disorienting chaos and vitriol. It probably won’t be quite so bad because it won’t have an algorithm pushing ads and outrage down your throat. But there’s bound to be plenty of ugly distraction nonetheless.

Third, and this is bound to be controversial, but don’t be too fussed about content warnings (CW’s), except insofar as you think members of your local server will appreciate them. That is, I wouldn’t be too worried about sticking to the “norms” or “best practices” that other, earlier communities on Mastodon have established. I appreciate that these norms are in place because Mastodon has been a refuge for marginalized BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other communities—and I think we want to be a refuge for members of those communities too. But we shouldn’t simply adopt the practices of the early adopters because they say we should. We should decide the ways in which we want to use the tools Mastodon gives us to support our aims, including, but not limited to, our aims of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, for example, I think it’s totally fine to use the CW feature to truncate and expand a long toot. One of the distinctive features of the humanities community is its tolerance for difference. Another is its longwindedness. It’s OK to use the tool to support both things!

Fourth, let’s start blogging again. One of the great things about early #DH Twitter was that we were all still blogging. Twitter became a place where we could let a wider audience know that we blogged something and then support a discussion around that something that was more freeflowing than the blog’s own comments thread could support. Let’s bring that practice back! One easy step would be to stop posting long, narrative threads (i.e. tweets “1/27”) to social media. Instead just post a title, a one sentence description, a link to your post with a #blogpost hashtag, and an invitation to discuss. If we could use Mastodon to reinvigorate the culture of humanities blogging, that would be an amazing success.

Fifth, keep politics to a minimum. It’s not that we should never talk about politics, but reworking takes that one can get elsewhere in the media (cable news, the op-ed pages, Twitter, etc.) isn’t going to make this a nicer place to be. If you’re going to get political, clearly tie it to your research, teaching, public humanities practice, or something else that connects you to the community that your local server is intended for. Otherwise, set up another account on another, more clearly political server, and post there.

Those are just some early thoughts. I’ll probably follow up in the next week or so with some more. In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours.

Sourcery: “Disruption,” Austerity, Equity, and Remote Access to Archives

I’ve spent the last 24 hours thinking about and responding to Mark Matienzo’s recent post about Sourcery and its response on social media. I’ve enjoyed engaging in the concerns Mark raises and I’ve learned a lot from the conversation it has spurred. Everything Mark wonders and worries about in connection with Sourcery are things we are actively questioning ourselves. It’s the reason we held a series of workshops with the archives profession this past fall and it’s the reason we’re working with a set of institutional partners to pilot Sourcery while it’s still under active development — so that we can address these questions and concerns in conversation with the community and have those conversations inform the functionality of the application.

These conversations, however, have demonstrated to me that there’s a bit of a misperception circulating, not so much about the app itself, but about the way in which we aim to develop it, a misperception that’s born, I think, more of a learned skepticism of Silicon Valley and university austerity politics than it has to do with a real look at the way in which we’re actually going about things. 

The first thing to say is that we don’t begrudge archivists their skepticism. We share it. A decade that’s seen democracy undermined by social media and labor undermined by “gig economy” apps has made us justifiably skeptical of technology. Likewise, a decade or more of austerity budgets has made archivists justifiably skeptical of “external” “solutions.” But Sourcery is not “external” to these concerns: Greenhouse Studios is based in the library of a state university and staffed by unionized librarians and faculty members. We’re well familiar with austerity budgets, believe me. And we’re not promising a “solution.” What we want to do is engage the field — both researchers and archivists — in a conversation about how some of the technologies of the past decade might be retrofitted to expand access to archival sources. 

Sourcery is not a stealth operation to undermine or “disrupt” archival labor or paid researchers like Uber was a stealth operation to undermine taxi drivers. If it were, we wouldn’t have released a roadmap and half-baked app to the community for comment and reflection in a series of workshops, talks, and pilot projects with institutional partners. (We are very much still in our “planning” phase.) Informed by nearly 20 years of building open source, not-for-profit, community-based software systems for libraries and scholarship, our purpose (and the explicit terms of our funding) has always been to engage the community in a process of conversation and co-creation around alleviating the (sometimes cross-cutting!) pressures of archivists and researchers and then to build something that responds to those pressures. Some may disagree, but I don’t think that just because a technology has been used badly by some means that it’s necessarily bad. Certainly Uber has used peer-to-peer technologies in some very bad ways. But GoFundMe has used peer-to-peer technology in some very good ways (the broader SNAFU that is our healthcare system notwithstanding). Our aim is to work with all the relevant groups to make sure we do the good things and avoid the bad things.

If we haven’t made that clear, that’s on me. This post certainly isn’t intended as defense against unwanted critique or tough conversations.

At the same time, it does offer a challenge to archivists. Just as its incumbent on us to understand the challenges archivists face and to work to meet those challenges in our outreach and our software, the tough conversations must also include an acknowledgment of the fact that the current systems for getting remote access to documents isn’t very good and that it hasn’t kept up with either the possibilities of the available technology or the needs of diverse researchers. The process for requesting remote assistance hasn’t really changed since the advent of email and the simple web forms of the mid-1990s (although the pandemic has complicated that picture). We should acknowledge that existing systems of remote access to non-digitized sources create confusion for researchers who need to learn a new system for every repository they encounter. They create disjointed reference workflows for archivists that can be hard to monitor, allocate within teams, track, record, and report. And their failings cause more visits to the reading room than are probably strictly necessary or desirable for either archivists or researchers. By no means do we want to replace the necessary, sustained, intellectually fruitful in-person exchanges between archivists and researchers and the mutual journeys of discovery that take place in the reading room. But we do aim to replace the unnecessary ones.

Here it’s crucial to point out the perhaps under-appreciated fact that in-person visits are available to only a small subset of the researching population — that is, those with the money and flexibility to make a trip. The same is true of the informal networks whereby friends-of-friends and colleagues’ grad students go get stuff for scholars. Travel and professional networks are a privilege of the rich and well-connected, graduate student labor is often exploited for these purposes, and the “gift economy” whereby junior scholars do uncompensated service on behalf of more senior scholars is insidious. Whether intentional or not, current systems that place an enormous premium on the in-person visit end up providing access on extremely unequal terms. Emily Higgs correctly pointed out on Twitter that Sourcery is responsible for the ill effects of its service, whatever its good intentions. It’s likewise true that—given the possibility of change—the archives profession will be at least partly responsible for the ill effects of the status quo, whether it ever intended them or not. Sourcery runs the risk of creating new inequalities, for sure. But sticking with a status quo that privileges the in-person visit even when it’s not strictly necessary — a status quo that privleges rich scholars and ones with fancy connections and ones with grad students to exploit — runs the risk of perpetuating old inequalities. Not doing something to address the situation is an affirmative choice. That something doesn’t have to be Sourcery … but we should be honest that some things should change.

I’m seriously not trying to call anybody out. I’m just saying that researchers, archivists, digital humanists, software developers, and their funders and administrators need to work together if we’re going to expand access in ways that neither create new inequalities nor perpetuate old ones. That’s the conversation we want to have, and I know the archival profession wants to have, and I’m glad Sourcery is causing it.

Correspondence Course

During the depths of the lockdown in March, I imagined a course for our times that would be completely free of digital technology. I was frustrated with administrative rhetoric that seemed to put means ahead of ends in stressing how best to “go online” over how best to “deliver a quality distance education” regardless of the tools. Like the workman with a hammer for whom all the world’s a nail, the administration had its WebEx and Blackboard licenses and, by Jove, we would use them! Everyone was just trying to do their best, of course, and many administrators and especially experienced educational technologists (who understand better than anyone that delivering quality education over the Internet isn’t just a simple matter of “putting it online”) were just as uneasy with the whole conversation as I was. 

In my frustration and reactionary pose, I thought about what it would look like to “go offline” and deliver a distance learning experience without any digital tools at all. Remembering that the humanities have a centuries-long history of scholarly correspondence — of teaching and mentorship using the tools of pen and paper and the networking technology of the post office or courier — I imagined my first-year graduate readings seminar as a correspondence course conducted completely via the United States Postal Service. It would be a return to the early-20th century correspondence course or even to the culture of Greek and Roman philosophical letters that animated Cicero and St. Paul

In the end, I decided this plan would be untenable. For one thing, it wouldn’t have been fair to my new graduate students. The first semester of grad school is disorienting enough, even more so this year, and my students didn’t deserve being subjects to some kind of retrotech experiment by their professor. It also didn’t help that in August it seemed like the President was trying to sink the USPS to aid his re-election.  

But I kept the basics of the idea, and I have been teaching my DMD 5010: Digital Culture readings seminar as a correspondence course of sorts. Each week, the students are assigned a pen pal and spend the week corresponding by email about the assigned reading. Each pair copies me, along with another student who has been picked as the discussion leader, on their emails. In class the next week, the discussion leader summarizes the correspondence and kicks off the class, which takes place by video conference. 

Maybe it’s the choice of books. Maybe it’s just these particular students. But I have never had such engaged, informed, and provocative seminar discussions in my many years of teaching. Here I have a group of students whom I’ve never met in person, and who, to my knowledge, have never met each other in person, and each week our video sessions run over time with informed, enthusiastic, creative discussion and debate. I barely have to say a word to keep the conversation running. 

I suspect this unprecedented (for me) level of engagement is due to what we call our “letter writing.” Each student is responsible not to me, but to their pen pal, to do the reading, to think hard about its meaning, and to draw new meanings from their partner’s work. They ask authentic questions. And in addition to being deeply in conversation with the readings, the students’ letters are funny, full of personality, and full of care for their fellow students in these difficult times. The fact that each student has, at some point in the semester, engaged in authentic correspondence with every other student, has created a group dynamic which honors the intellectual strengths and weaknesses of each member of the group and the ups and downs of their work and home life. It’s great, and I think it justifies my initial impulse to meet the challenges of distance learning not with more tech, but with less. I may even teach it the same way (hopefully with a few scheduled in-person meet ups along the way) even after COVID-19 is blessedly behind us.

Collaboration and Emergent Knowledge at Greenhouse Studios

mud cracks

Crossposted from Greenhouse Studios

Since the 1970s, scholars in fields as varied as sedimentology, ornithology, sociology, and philosophy have come to understand the importance of self-organizing systems, of how higher-order complexity can “emerge” from independent lower-order elements. Emergence describes how millions of tiny mud cracks at the bottom of a dry lake bed form large scale geometries when viewed at a distance, or how water molecules, each responding simply to a change in temperature, come to form the complex crystalline patterns of a snowflake. Emergence describes how hundreds of birds, each following its own, relatively simple rules of behavior, self-organize into a flock that displays its own complex behaviors, behaviors that none of the individual birds themselves would display. In the words of writer Steven Johnson, emergence describes how those birds, without a master plan or executive leadership, go from being a “they” to being an “it.” In other words, emergence describes a becoming.

We, too, form emergent systems. Emergence describes how a crowd of pedestrians self-organizes to form complex traffic flows on a busy sidewalk. Viewed close-up, each pedestrian is just trying to get to his or her destination without getting trampled, reacting to what’s in front of him or her according to a set of relatively simple behavioral rules—one foot in front of the other. Viewed from above, however, we see a structured flow, a river of humanity. Acting without direction, the crowd spontaneously orders itself into a complex system for maximizing pedestrian traffic. The mass of individual actors has, without someone in charge, gone from being an uncoordinated “they” to an organized “it.”

Emergent approaches to scholarly communication have long been an interest of mine, although I’ve only recently come to think of them this way. My first experiment in the emergent possibilities of radical collaboration took the form of THATCamp—The Humanities and Technology Camp—an “unconference” that colleagues at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and I launched in 2008. Instead of a pre-arranged, centrally-planned conference program, THATCampers set their own agendas on the first morning of the event, organizing around the topics that happen to be of most interest to most campers on that day. Another example is Hacking the Academy, a collaboration with Dan Cohen, which posed an open call for submissions to the community of digital humanists on a seven-day deadline. From the patterns that emerged from the more than 300 submissions we received—everything from tweets to blog post to fully formed essays—we assembled and published an edited volume with University of Michigan Press. A final experiment with this emergent approach was a project called One Week | One Tool. This Institute for Advanced Topics in Digital Humanities brought together a diverse collections of scholars, students, programmers, designers, librarians, and administrators to conceive, build, and launch an entirely new software tool for humanities scholarship. Participants arrived without an idea of what they would build, only the knowledge that the assembled team would possess the necessary range of talent for the undertaking. They began by brainstorming ideas for a digital project and proceeded to establish project roles, iteratively design a feature set, implement their design, and finally launch their product on day seven.

The Greenhouse Studios design process similarly provides a space for emergent knowledge making. Greenhouse Studios is interested in what new knowledge might emerge when we allow academic communities to self-organize. We are asking what kinds of higher-order complexities arise when teams of humanists, artists, librarians, faculty, students, and staff are given permission to set and follow their own simple rules of collaboration. This mode of work stands in strong rebuke to what I would call the “additive” model of collaboration that draws resources and people together to serve faculty member-driven projects. Instead, Greenhouse Studios provides its teams with the conditions for collaboration—diversity and depth of thought and experience, time apart, creative tools and spaces—and lets them set their own projects and own roles. At Greenhouse Studios, we’re running an experiment in radical collaboration, exploring what happens when you remove the labor hierarchies and predetermined workplans that normally structure collaborative scholarly projects, and instead embrace the emergent qualities of collaboration itself.

In their own words: How tech leaders can help you argue for the humanities

I firmly believe the case for the humanities is best made on its own terms. Rather than bending pretzel-like to explain how the humanities contribute to the prevailing values of techo-industrial capitalism, we should argue first and foremost for the humanities as good in their own right. We should be strong in our conviction that the social and moral goods produced by the humanities are of equal value to the economic goods produced by science, technology, and business. That said, it is sometimes pragmatic to show that even when measured by the standards of science, technology, and business, the humanities are extremely valuable. When arguing our case to decision makers who are themselves members of the STEM fields (e.g. your Dean or Provost) or who have become convinced of the central importance of STEM in the 21st century economy (e.g. legislators or members of your board of visitors), it is often more persuasive to do so on their preferred turf.

One way to do this is to argue from primary data that show the direct economic benefits of arts and humanities in our communities. The American Academy’s Humanities Indicators project is a good place to look for this kind of evidence. Another way is to refer decision makers to the frequent statements of prominent members of the tech community who have spoken out in support of the humanities education and humanities skills as useful in the tech economy. Good examples of this kind of secondary evidence are Mark Cuban’s recent statements warning students off finance and computing in favor of liberal arts; David Kalt’s assertion that “individuals with liberal arts degrees are by far the sharpest, best-performing software developers and technology leaders”; and the example of Slack co-founder Stewart Butterfield’s crediting of his philosophy degree for his success. I’m sure you’ve seen more examples of this type, which I’d love to collect in the comments section below.

Quoting STEM and business types back to themselves is sometimes the most effective way to argue our worth. It’s one thing to say your work is important, it’s another to show that the people your audience respects most say your work is important. It may not be the case we want to make, but sometimes it’s the case we have to make.

When UConn broke up with Adobe: A parable of artists and copyright

One of the things I try very hard to do in my DMD 2010 “History of Digital Culture” class is to teach students that their technology choices are not inevitable nor even determined primarily by what’s “best,” but rather that their technology choices are values choices, reflections of their ethical commitments and those of the communities that create and use those technologies.

When the University of Connecticut’s  UITS (University Information Technology Services) made a choice not to renew it’s Adobe Creative Cloud site license, my students correctly judged that this was a values choice about the relative importance the higher administration places on artistic work at the university. The decision not to support software for artists, while at the same time maintaining support for software for, say, engineers, is a statement about how the university values different kinds of work on campus. I was pleased that the students immediately saw that this wasn’t just a choice about the quality of the software or even its cost, but about the intellectual commitments and identity of the university. What the students didn’t so easily grasp, however, was that the controversy over the Adobe suite also reflects on the values choices of the students, on the values choices that digital artists have made over many years to put the Adobe suite and other expensive, proprietary, closed-source software packages at the center of their creative practice, which in turn stems from set of larger choices artists have made vis à vis our prevailing copyright regime.

Artists have largely chosen think about copyright a something that exists to protect them and their work, and they have generally supported our ever-stricter copyright regime. Moving from a humanities and social sciences faculty to a fine arts faculty when I came to UConn from George Mason in 2013, I was struck by how poorly my storm-the-barricades, anti-copyright, open access agenda went over with my colleagues. Not that anyone really cared, but it was apparent from the beginning that I was coming at conversations that touched upon intellectual property (for example, a conversation about making faculty syllabi freely available on the web) from one side of the fence and they were coming at them from the other.  Indeed, UConn’s School of Fine Arts offers a course on copyright for artists called Protecting the Creative Spirit: The Law and the Arts, which is taught by two lawyers. You can tell from the title of the course where its sympathies lie.

My DMD 2010 students (most of whom are freshman and sophomores studying in the department of Digital Media & Design which resides within the School of Fine Arts) are no exception. When I teach the unit on copyright, the first question I ask the class is, “What is the purpose of copyright.” Inevitably, students answer with some version of “to keep people from ripping you off.” My next move is to put the copyright clause of the Constitution up on the overhead and explain to them that, in fact, the purpose of copyright is to “Promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and that protecting an author’s exclusive rights for a limited term is simply a means to an end.

What is more, I tell them that the ever-stricter copyright regime we live with today wasn’t really designed to protect artists artists at all, although some may have used and benefited its protections. Instead, it was designed by and for big corporations, and it does a much better job of protecting those corporations than it does of protecting individual artists. It is true that many of these corporations employ artists (several former DMD 2010 students are now working for Disney), but those artists’ works are works for hire. The works may be protected by copyright law, but they are protected to the benefit of the employer, not the employee.

It is telling that the feelings of outrage and abandonment regarding the UITS Adobe announcement weren’t evenly distributed among my students. Digital Media & Design students at UConn choose from six different “concentrations,” electing to focus on either 2D animation/motion graphics; 3D animation; game design and development; web design and development; digital media business strategies; or digital culture, learning, and advocacy. (Students from all concentrations are required to take DMD 2010.) Especially hard hit by the news were the 2D/motion graphics students, for whom Adobe After Effects sits at the heart of their practice and for which there really isn’t a substitute, commercial or open source. Letting the Adobe license lapse was basically going to kill their creative practice, or, at the very least, put them out several hundred dollars.

My web design and development students, on the other hand, felt sympathy for their colleagues, but were pretty blasé about the whole thing. For them, letting the Adobe license lapse wouldn’t really change anything. The Adobe corporation has very little leverage over a web developer. To drive the point home, I challenged these web development students to think of a single piece of software that, if taken away from them, would affect their practice in any significant way. A few came up with TCP/IP, but quickly corrected themselves: TCP/IP is a protocol not a piece of software and is an open standard in any case. Apache was another, but, again, it’s open source, and there are serviceable alternatives. Certainly, they couldn’t name a corporation that exists that could raise its prices and bring their web development work to a halt in the way that Adobe was threatening to stop the work of our motion graphics artists. The difference, of course, is that our web developers rely on an open source technology stack and our motion graphics artists rely on proprietary software protected by a copyright law that was written in part by the very companies that produce it. Our web developers are not captive to copyright. Our motion graphics artists are.

Far from protecting artists, this is the best example I have of how our overly restrictive copyright regime harms artists. Rather than teaching our students how to situate their creative practice within a framework of intellectual property protection and thereby reinforce a copyright regime that wasn’t put in place for them in the first place, we should be encouraging our students to resist this regime. We should be teaching them to advocate for open access and open source software. In the longer term, we should be helping them to develop open source and open access alternatives themselves. This is an especially important message for my digital media and design students who, with their considerable skills, will be in a position to effect the longer term project of building the open source tools that will be necessary to free artists’ creative practice from propriety software. In the long term, maybe the very long term, this is the only way we can keep digital artists from being held hostage to corporations as Adobe held my students hostage this semester.

Fortunately, we’ve sorted out the Adobe license issue for now by cutting a licensing deal (shall we call it a hostage negotiation?) apart from UITS for students enrolled in the School of Fine Arts. For now, our students are safe. But only for now. You can bet I’ll be screaming this example over the fence at my colleagues in the School of Fine Arts the next time we talk about copyright.

My new outfit: Greenhouse Studios | Scholarly Communications Design at the University of Connecticut

Looking down the page, it seems I haven’t posted here on the ol’ blog in nearly three years. Not coincidentally, that’s about when I started work on the initiative I’m pleased to announce today. It was in the fall of 2014 that I first engaged in conversations with my UConn colleagues (especially Clarissa Ceglio, Greg Colati, and Sara Sikes, but lots of other brilliant folks as well) and program officers at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation about the notion of a “scholarly communications design studio” that would bring humanist scholars into full, equal, and meaningful collaboration with artists, technologists, and librarians. Drawing on past experiences at RRCHNM, especially One Week | One Tool, this new style digital humanities center would put collaboration at the center of its work by moving collaboration upstream in the research and publication workflow. It would bring designers, developers, archivists, editors, students, and others together with humanist faculty members and at the very outset of a project, not simply to implement a work but to imagine it. In doing so, it would challenge and level persistent hierarchies in academic labor, challenge notions of authorship, decenter the faculty member as the source of intellectual work, and bring a divergence of thought and action to the design of scholarly communication.

A planning grant from Mellon in 2015 allowed us to explore these ideas in greater depth. We explored models of collaboration and project design in fields as disparate as industrial design, engineering, theater, and (of course) libraries and digital humanities. We solicited “mental models” of good project design from diverse categories of academic labor including students, faculty members, archivists, artists, designers, developers, and editors. We visited colleagues around the country both inside and outside the university to learn what made for successful and not-so-successful collaboration.

Greenhouse Studios

The result of this work was a second proposal to Mellon and, ultimately, the launch this week of Greenhouse Studios | Scholarly Communications Design at the University of Connecticut. Starting this year with our first cohort of projects, we will be pioneering a new, inquiry-driven, collaboration-first model of scholarly production that puts team members and questions at the center of research and publication rather than the interests of a particular faculty member or other individual. Teams will be brought together to develop answers to prompts generated and issued internally by Greenhouse Studios. Through a facilitated design process, whole teams will decide the audience, content, and form of Greenhouse Studios projects, not based on any external expectations or demands, but according to their available skills and resources, bounded by the constraints they identify, and in keeping with team member interests and career goals.

Stay tuned to see what these teams produce. In the meantime, after three long years of getting up and running, I plan to be posting more frequently in this space, from my new academic home base, Greenhouse Studios.

Elevator Pitch

Last week I had the pleasure of serving as facilitator at the first Mellon-funded Triangle Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) in Chapel Hill. For the better part of the week five diverse teams of scholars, librarians, developers, and publishers came together to advance work on projects addressing challenges ranging from data visualization and virtual worlds to providing computational research access to large newspaper collections to building curriculum resources for understanding Sikh religion and culture. It was a great week.

At the end of the event, the teams were each asked to deliver an “elevator pitch” for their project. Quite what this pitch should entail remained something of an open question going into the final day of the Institute, so the project organizers, me included, came up with the following structure, which we shared with the teams the evening before their presentations, on the spot:

  • “The What” What is your project? What needs does it meet or problems does it solve? How does it meet those needs/solve those problems?
  • “The So What?” Why does this project matter? What are its implications for the field of scholarly communication? What are its broader impacts for the way scholarship is produced and disseminated?
  • “The What Next?” What is your plan for implementing your project? What will be the first thing/s you do to advance your project when you leave SCI? How will you maintain working communication between team members in the weeks and months ahead?

It occurs to me that this is a formulation that I have used in many elevator pitches, planning documents, grant proposals, etc. over the years and that it may be useful to others. When you’re trying to convince people to do something, buy something, or support something, these are generally the things they will want to know — What am I buying? Why should I want it? How will you deliver it? Most RFPs, grant guidelines, and the like are variations on this theme. So, when you’re at the early stages of planning a new project, where ever it may end up, this structure may be a useful starting point.

Happy hunting.

Getting into Digital Humanities: A top-ten list

Today I’ll be joining a roundtable discussion hosted by the New York Council for the Humanities for its incoming class of public humanities fellows. I was asked to prepare a “top-ten list” for public humanists looking to get started in digtial humanities, and with the help of friends on Twitter, I came up with the following:

  1. Stop worrying about the definition of DH: One thing people like you, who are starting out in digital humanities do is worry an awful lot about the definition of digital humanities. Is what I’m going really digital humanities? Does it count as digital humanities? I’m here to tell you to stop worrying about whether what you’re doing is or is not digital humanities. Stop worrying about the definition of digital humanities. Digital humanities is not a thing, it’s not a discipline, it’s not a field. Digital humanities is a community of practice and once you enter that community of practice, once you starting working with other people who call themselves digital humanists, who are in that community of practice, once you start attending events where digital humanists frequent, once you start doing those things, once you start entering that community of practice, you are a digital humanist and whatever you’re doing counts.
  2. Enter the circle: The first thing you should do is get yourself on Twitter. I know people are skeptical of Twitter and for some very good reasons. But when it comes to digital humanities that’s really where the community is so I would suggest getting a Twitter account and then getting a couple of other things. Next thing you should do is get a Feedly account. Feedly is an RSS reader. There are other RSS readers that you may want to use. Feedly is a web-based service that’s very easy to get up and running with. Get a Feedly account. Start subscribing to blogs. Start reading those blogs. Start Tweeting the link that you find there. The way that the digital humanities community uses Twitter is to share links to interesting resources, interesting readings, and other things that they find on the web. You start doing that, you’ll start getting followers and you should start following some people. Find a digital humanist you know and whose work that you like on Twitter, find out who that person is following and follow the people that she’s following. Once you start doing that, you’ll start seeing the kinds of issues that digital humanists are interested in. Then what you should start doing is blogging yourself. Go get yourself a WordPress blog. Either host it yourself or host it at wordpress.com. Start writing down your own thoughts, Tweeting links to that. Other people will start putting your feed from your WordPress blog in their Feedly accounts. They’ll start subscribing to your blog, reading your blog, tweeting your links. This is what I call entering the circle. Really, the digital humanities, and I’m going to say this several times during the course of this video, digital humanities is really a community of practice. That’s all it is and so you need to enter that community of practice and the best way to do that, the first way to do that, is online through these social media, that sort of virtuous circle of blogs, Twitter, and RSS feeds.
  3. Start with partners: An interesting thing happened to me when I was preparing this list that I think illustrates the last point on the list and leads us to the next point on the list. When I started writing this up I posted an update to Twitter asking for suggestions from my followers, the community of DHers who I engage with, what they thought were the top 10 lessons that a new digital humanist like yourselves could and should learn. I got a lot of great feedback, some of which is in this talk. I ended up in a long discussion with two colleagues, Jason Heppler and Trevor Owens, and we were debating the merits of whether we should advise people to start with a particular tool if they were looking to get into digital humanities or whether they should start with a research question and find a tool to match that. Should they let the tool determine the research question or should they let the research question determine the tool? And we talked about that back and forth. I tend to lean on the tool side. Other people lean on the research question side. But, in fact, I don’t come down really on either side. I actually think you should start with something else, a third thing, and that’s with collaboration. All digital humanities projects are collaborations or nearly all. There are very few digital humanities projects that you can do fully on your own. Most things require a team of people or at least a couple of people because there’s a lot of different skills involved with digital humanities projects and it’s very rare that one person brings all of those skills to bear, that all of the skills necessary to carry out the project are contained in the skillset of one person. So most projects, almost all projects, are collaborations and what I like to do – and this is my practice, this is the way I work – is I like to find the partners first. I like to find people who I think are doing great work, who I think are interesting, who I think I really want to work with, who are cool, whatever and I look for the spaces between our work, the spaces between the partners where we intersect, where we overlap, where interesting work can be done.
  4. Attend THATCamp: So who are these partners? Well, if you’re a technical person you probably should want to seek out some content folks to provide you with the stuff that’s going to fill the database, that your project is going to be based around. If you are a non-technical person, well, you should probably be searching for some technical assistance, some people with a more technical bent. Those are often the pairings that we find. Where do you find those people? Well, a very good place to find those people if you don’t already know them, and you may. They may be your close collaborators and that’s always the first place to look but if they’re not one place to look for them is THATCamp, The Humanities and Technology Camp. THATCamp started in 2008 at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University as an unconference, a very informal gathering of people with an interest in the humanities and technology. A very low overhead gathering and a very informal and non-hierarchal gathering where people of all experience levels, all skill levels, all technical interests and backgrounds, all humanities interests and background could get together in a very non-threatening environment to find one another and connect. Since 2008, these events have grown virally and there have now been more than 150 locally organized, grass roots THATCamps around the world. There’s surely one near you. Go to thatcamp.org. You’ll find a map there on the home page, which lists upcoming THATCamps in an area near you. I know there are several going in the Northeast in the next several months and I encourage you strongly to start there as a place to look for partners, educate yourself, and especially to connect.
  5. Write grants, not papers (or write grants and papers): Digital humanities is a projects-based field. What that means is that people and institutions in digital humanities are known more for their projects than for their publications. That means that it’s often more important to write a grant proposal than it is to write a paper. Writing a grant proposal forces you to describe what it is that you’re going to do. Describing what you’re going to do is the first step to getting something done and being done is the goal of every project. So if you want to finish a project, start with a grant proposal. Start with a description of what you’re going to do, not with what you think.
  6. Release Early and Often: When you’re starting a project, sometimes it’s useful to think about the smallest version of that project, the smallest possible version of the project that will still be complete. So let’s say that you were thinking about building a vast archive of digital primary sources. Well what’s the smallest possible version of that project? Well maybe it’s a list of the 10 most important of those sources. Maybe it has some dates, some call numbers, and an image or two pasted to a piece of paper. That is still the project, it’s just not the fully realized, the most elaborate version of the project that you can think of. We sometimes call this the minimum viable product. Then what you do with that minimum viable product is you get it out there as quickly as possible. You get it out there to the audience so that you can receive feedback, bug reports, and then roll that feedback back into the next version of the product, the next minimum viable product, which will have gone some way towards your fully realized version of the project. We call this strategy of minimum viable products and releasing early and often, agile development and it’s how the best digital humanities projects are built.
  7. Digital is always public: One thing this notion of community of practice and release early and often points to is that digital humanities is essentially public humanities. All digital work is public. When you put something out there on the web it is a public document and it will be found by people who you never intended to find it. Means you have to be very careful when doing digital work to think first and foremost about audience. When starting a digital humanities project audience should be uppermost in your mind and as you continue to release versions of the project, to iterate, to work in an agile fashion on the project, always keep in mind the audience for the project.
  8. Try.New.Things: One of the hardest things about digital humanities to me is that the technologies keep changing out from under you. What that means is you always have to be willing to try new things, to try, to fail, to pick up a piece of software, a new method, to work with it, to figure it out on your own. Most digital humanists are self-taught. You can’t wait for someone to train you. The politics of intellectual property aside, one of the reasons that digital humanists love open source technologies and standards like the Web and Firefox and other open source software packages is because you can open them up and you can change the code, and especially because you can break them.
  9. Break something: Breaking things and then fixing them is one of the very best ways to learn a new technology. The ability to break open source software, to figure out what you did wrong, to go in and change it, fix it, and maybe even make it better, is one of the best teaching methods out there.
  10. Lather, rinse, repeat: You will never stop learning. The situation of trying new things, breaking things, fixing them, learning how to do that is something that you’ll have to do continually in digital humanities. The technologies are always changing out from under you. The methods are always changing, evolving. You have to evolve as a practitioner with them.

N.B. As my mother always told me, “do as I say, not as I do.”

Innovation, Use, and Sustainability

Revised notes for remarks I delivered on the topic of “Tools: Encouraging Innovation” at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Digital Platform summit last month at the New York Public Library.

What do we mean when we talk about innovation? To me innovation implies not just the “new” but the “useful.” And not just the “useful” but the “implemented” and the “used.” Used, that is, by others.

If a tool stays in house, in just the one place where it was developed, it may be new and it may be interesting—let’s say “inventive”—but it is not “innovative.” Other terms we use in this context—”ground breaking” and “cutting edge,” for example—share this meaning. Ground is broken for others to build upon. The cutting edge preceeds the rest of the blade.

The IMLS program that has been charged and most generously endowed with encouraging innovation in the digital realm is the National Leadership Grants: Advancing Digital Resources program. The idea that innovation is tied to use is implicit in the title of the program: the word “leadership” implies a “following.” It implies that the digital resources that the program advances will be examples to the field to be followed widely, that the people who receive the grants will become leaders and gain followers, that the projects supported by the program will be implemented and used.

This is going to be difficult to say in present company, because I am a huge admirer of the NLG program and its staff of program officers. I am also an extremely grateful recipeint of its funds. Nevertheless, in my estimation as an observer of the program, a panelist, and an adwardee, the program has too often fallen short in this regard: it has supported a multitude of new and incredibly inventive work, but that work has too rarely been taken up by colleagues outside of the originating institution. The projects the NLG program has spawned have been creative, exciting, and new, but they have too rarely been truly innovative. This is to say that the ratio of “leaders” to “followers” is out of whack. A model that’s not taken up by others is no model at all.

I would suggest two related remedies for the Leadership Grants’ lack of followers:

  1. More emphasis on platforms. Surely the NLG program has produced some widely used digital library and museum platforms, including the ones I have worked on. But I think it bears emphasizing that the limited funds available for grants would generate better returns if they went to enabling technologies rather than end prodcuts, to platforms rather than projects. Funding platforms doesn’t just mean funding software—there are also be social and institutional platforms like standards and convening bodies—but IMLS should be funding tools that allow lots of people to do good work, not the good work itself of just a few.
  2. More emphasis on outreach. Big business doesn’t launch new products without a sale force. If we want people to use our products, we shouldn’t launch them without people on staff who are dedicated to encouraging their use. This should be refelected in our budgets, a much bigger chunk of which should go to outreach. That also means more flexibility in the guidelines and among panelists and program officers to support travel, advertizing, and other marketing costs.

Sustainability is a red herring

These are anecdotal impressions, but it is my belief that the NLG program could be usefully reformed by a more laser-like focus on these and other uptake and go-to-market strategies in the guidelines and evaluation criteria for proposals. In recent years, a higher and higher premium has been placed on sustainability in the guidelines. I believe the effort we require applicants to spend crafting sustainability plans and grantees to spend implementing them would be better spent on outreach—on sales. The greatest guarantor of sustainiability is use. When things are used they are sustained. When things become so widely implemented that the field can’t do without them, they are sustained. Like the banks, tools and platforms that become too big to fail are sustained. Sustainability is very simply a fuction of use, and we should recognize this in allocating scare energies and resources.