Bethany Nowviskie

too small to fail

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[This (minus the ad-libbing, and skipping a pre-amble) is the text of a keynote talk I gave last month, at the second annual conference of the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities. I was invited to Tokyo to speak on the history and ethos of the Scholars' Lab at UVa. I offer here... the whole scoop, and pretty much my entire playbook!]

The Scholars’ Lab is unusual in many ways—not least in the fact that we are simultaneously almost new and twenty years old. Paradoxes abound: we operate with a great deal of independence, and yet are more deeply and fundamentally inter-connected with other administrative divisions of our institution than many North American DH centers can claim (or perhaps would desire) to be. And, in a way, we’re not a center at all. We are a small department of the University of Virginia Library.

That position in our institutional org chart leads to a further incongruity: in a library that prides itself above all things on providing the highest possible level of service to researchers, we are—with the big, circular reference desk and bright, open, publicly-available computer lab that define our space—a service-oriented department. Yet we also work hard to call under-examined notions of digital humanities “service” into question, as our staff (primarily available to students and scholars for consultation and project development) also develop and communicate their own intellectual, artistic, and scholarly research agendas—and as we conduct collective experiments and host ongoing discussions on the changing nature of knowledge work in the academy.

But let’s not leave the paradoxes just yet—because, when it comes to the Scholars’ Lab, I can also assert that we are big and little at the same time. Thus the title of my talk: “Too Small to Fail.”

This is of course a play on a message we heard around the world in the wake of the global financial crisis, offered in justification of government bank bail-out schemes: a notion that certain corporations dominating our economy have become giants among men. They have been made “too big to fail.” It is an approach some digital humanities centers try to emulate, on their local scenes. But the Scholars’ Lab occupies a different space. Today I’ll give examples of the way we meditate on smallness as a virtue. But more importantly, I’ll discuss our attitude toward the other half of the “too big” equation—toward failure. At the SLab, we like to think we’re always ready to fail well, which is to say, that we’re capable of enabling and celebrating failures that have been executed on the proper scale and with the proper attitude.

Today I’ll amplify—but not necessarily resolve—the paradoxes I’ve laid before you, all of which have shaped the character of the Scholars’ Lab. You’ll hear how we cultivate a steady stream of little risks and open ourselves to public stumbles, as our best path to success. And as I share these notions, you may notice the style in which our faculty, staff, and graduate students respond to trends in technology and the humanities—trends to which we believe the larger DH community should likewise attend.

But I am deeply humbled at the invitation to address such a distinguished group. So I want to be very clear that I agreed to speak about my own center not because I think it is unique, or alone in tackling these problems. I’m too sensible of the long history of structural experiments in humanities computing to make that mistake! Instead, I tell the story of the Scholars’ Lab because it’s plain to me that interesting commonalities exist among its structures and philosophies and basic recognitions, and those of centers, programs, and professional associations that are emerging all over the world, in the culturally diverse and interdisciplinary community of the digital humanities. I think it does us good to pause and acknowledge commonalities, from time to time, just as we strive to learn from our differences. So I can add one last contradiction-in-terms to my list: I hope you’ll find the Scholars’ Lab special in its familiarity.

DH at UVa (1993-2007)

I’ll begin with some institutional history, in order to contextualize our work and explain how I can say that the SLab is both old and new. [NB: Like any overview, the one I can offer is necessarily perspectival—and here I will concentrate exclusively on administrative aspects of our history that led to the digital research-focused Scholars' Lab. Other vantage points (instructional technology, digital publishing, language learning at UVa, specific research outcomes—only some of which I shared) would lend a fuller view. I also never worked at Etext, VCDH, or GeoStat, so can't offer an insider's standpoint on those operations—and welcome additions and corrections. I'll try to share a fuller reflection on the contributions of IATH, SpecLab, ARP, and NINES in a future post!]

The Scholars’ Lab is an amalgam of three pre-existing, long-standing digital centers at UVa, which were combined in 2006 under the leadership of my predecessor at UVa Library, Mike Furlough. The first of these was founded twenty years ago, as one of the American academy’s earliest research- and production-oriented sites for the digitization of books and manuscripts. It lived, of course, in the Library. (In fact, we had scarcely gotten our card catalog into electronic form at UVa, before developing the ambition to digitize major segments of our collection!) And so our Deputy University Librarian, Kendon Stubbs, created the UVa Electronic Text Center—commonly known as Etext. Etext opened in 1993 and was guided in its early incarnations by David Seaman and John Wilkin. Its primary mission was the large- and small-scale conversion of the cultural record that could be found on deposit, in paper form, at UVa—conversion, that is, to electronic formats suitable for transmission and analysis by historians, scholars of literature and languages, anthropologists, and… members of the Mid-Atlantic Rhododendron Society. (These were shrubbery enthusiasts with a surprising amount of documentation in need of digitizing and a local champion in amateur botanist Stubbs—also an aficionado of Japanese and Buddhist texts, and a great supporter of early efforts to encode them.) So, like most collections-oriented groups, Etext had from the outset a diverse audience, an array of content, and a heterogeneous charge.

The second of our precursor centers was called GeoStat—the Geographical and Statistical Information Center. GeoStat was opened just down the hall in Alderman Library, only a few years after the founding of Etext. Together, these two Library-managed offices supported wide-ranging work. As you might expect, Etext activities centered in the humanities—but through GeoStat, the Library also addressed fields requiring social science data analysis (like economics, psychology, sociology, politics, and education) and digital mapping technology (like the environmental sciences, and architecture and urban planning).

Concurrently, a third research-oriented technology center was established at UVa. It came not from our Library, but from our University-wide IT division—a center for Research Computing Support, which handled all site-licensed software for academic computing at the University. Over time, it began not only to distribute this software, but to advise on its use, and built up a small group of staff with great expertise in stats, computer processing, and mathematics. Finally, “ResComp” gave UVa scholars and scientists access to hardware for computationally-intensive analytical work—that is, for complex statistical analysis and high-performance computing.

These three, centrally-resourced services operated separately, but in occasional collaboration, for a number of years. They also partnered with a series of other groups and faculty-led centers that emerged over time, largely from our College of Arts and Sciences. These included (among others) the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), the Speculative Computing Lab (SpecLab), the Virginia Center for Digital History (VCDH), the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship (NINES), and its light-hearted R&D wing, Applied Research in ‘Patacriticism (ARP). Some digital projects (like the Rossetti Archive, the Valley of the Shadow, and the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library) became small centers of gravity in their own right. Over time, most of the major faculty-led humanities initiatives at UVa were granted space by the Library and their projects received some level of staffing support. Library space, guidance, labor, and leadership were hugely important for the cultivation of DH at our institution. In fact (again through the person of rhododendron fan and Etext visionary Kendon Stubbs), the Library was a primary instigator in creating and nurturing IATH, the earliest of these groups, and one of the first dedicated DH centers in the world.

IATH was where I received my own training as a digital scholar, project manager, and designer. In fact, I was at Virginia in the earliest days of all of these centers, so I’ve been privileged to observe first-hand the institutional evolution I describe to you. I have particularly fond memories of IATH and nearby Etext and VCDH in their late ‘90s humanities-computing heyday, when they were inhabited by a number of emerging scholars who would later become prominent theorists, creators, and organizers in the field. These included my classmates, colleagues, neighbors, and friends: Steve Ramsay, Lisa Spiro, Matt Gold, Mike Furlough, Tanya Clement, David Gants, Will Thomas, Scot French, Chris Ruotolo, Amanda French, Matt Kirschenbaum, and many more.

Over time, partnerships between the Library and our central IT division became closer, and conversations began about the value of combining Etext, GeoStat, and ResComp services. And as centers proliferated, Virginia began to appreciate anew the value of a library as neutral, interdisciplinary ground. Meanwhile, the fortunes of all the groups I’ve mentioned waxed and waned. Grant-funded projects ended, as grant-funded projects do. Leadership changes at our primary faculty-led centers and subsequent shifts in focus in the mid 2000s left some of our early adopters feeling at loose ends. And at least one cause of a change in tone for UVa digital humanities was strongly tech-driven: the emergence of the Google Books project, in which the University Library was a partner.

Mass digitization radically altered UVa’s conception of the work of an Electronic Text Center. For better and for worse, Etext as a hand-crafted TEI production shop no longer seemed as necessary as it had some ten to twelve years before, and it entered a slow decline. Meanwhile, foremost in everyone’s minds was the need to assist with a coming data- and text-mining revolution, and to foster tool-building as much as archive-building. (This, by the way, was the primary motivation of a small group of faculty, staff, and grad students—McGann, Martin, Drucker, Nowviskie, Laue, Piazza, et al—in founding the SpecLab think-tank, which spun off from IATH ca. 2001 and was active for three years in our Media Studies department.) So, the work that was to come at UVa would not just deal with digitization and preservation, but with what to make of our “inherited humanities.”

In 2006, the west wing of our main research library was renovated to create a sunny new space for digital research and scholarship, now extending to about 7,000 square feet. This area combined a public computer lab set up for solo and collaborative work, with seminar rooms and offices for the former staffs of our Etext, GeoStat, and Research Computing Support centers. A reference desk I can best characterize as aggressively large was installed. Serious discussion of the proper placement of the apostrophe in our name was concluded, and the doors were opened to the plural Scholars’ Lab—with some fanfare about its becoming UVa’s “one-stop shop” for all things digital. On Furlough’s departure, the Library conducted a search for a director, and I took up the post in 2007. To our three melded centers (which were by that time operating with skeleton crews—intensely short-staffed), over time we added a fourth group, which has been key to our self-conception and, I think, our success: a dedicated Research and Development team. Scholars’ Lab R&D are a small division of humanities-trained software and web-applications developers who collaborate with faculty, students, and other technologists on forward-looking DH experiments and infrastructure. Their work also focuses on usable and elegant design, and on the testing of sustainable approaches to digital projects across a variety of disciplines. All together, and including staff dedicated to walk-in services, we’ve never been more than a dozen FTE.

So that’s us—old and new at the same time. In many ways, the Scholars’ Lab was the Library’s response to a moment of great need at UVa. This had not only to do with technology shifts, like the advent of mass digitization and the opening-up of new possibilities for computationally-intensive research. We also emerged at a moment approaching institutional emergency for DH. A proposal to create a master’s degree in humanities computing at UVa had foundered. The pioneering generation of faculty administrators for our digital centers and initiatives had departed. And except for me, a malingerer (read: young mother and tenure-track skeptic who stayed for a post-doc and joined the local research faculty) and a couple of ABDs likewise pulled into full-time jobs—our first, vibrant generation of computer-nerd humanities doctoral students had moved on, too. In the space of a couple of years, the University rapidly declined from being the major U.S. destination for and distributor of digital scholarship, to a place (not to put too fine a point on it) largely resting on its laurels and hoping that no-one would notice.

The Scholars’ Lab at a Moment of Need

How could this happen so quickly? Perhaps the prime reason is that Virginia’s pattern of funding and assigning responsibility for humanities computing has always been highly distributed, with some centers reporting to our Provost, others to the Dean of Arts and Sciences, some to the Library, and some to central IT or other offices, including directly to the President of the University. The steadiness of support for digital work varied across these units at different times. But more: this also meant that great attention had been paid to projects operating within their own, narrow channels—but very little unified and coherent thought had been given to the sustenance of our overall intellectual community. Most crucial of all, from my point of view (an admittedly biased one; see above on perspective), was the fact that almost no attention had been paid to nurturing and renewing our community of young scholars, which in retrospect we can see as the primary product of the work at UVa in the 1990s and early 2000s. An aligned problem was that no attention was paid to celebrating and administratively sustaining the playful and experimental spirit that characterized that period. To be clear: our institution’s greatest contribution had never been in digital projects, but in emerging scholars, and in the mindset they promulgated and shared.

The benign neglect of our graduate students as a community could happen so easily because they gained their expertise not as part of any formal curriculum—therefore not on the radar of department chairs and deans—but by working as employees of our digital centers, or as research assistants on humanities computing projects. When the centers and projects dried up, so did opportunities for students to acquire needed methodological training in DH at early phases of their programs of study—and therefore to have the time to master their craft, and to position themselves to do transformative things when they moved on to new institutions and professions. Likewise, our highly distributed model of centers and projects meant that there was no group that felt special responsibility for mentoring young scholars in community, or as a community, rather than as individuals—and we all know that, more than in any other area of the humanities, the work of DH requires sustained cooperation and fellow-feeling.

None of that is instilled, much less extended through magic—particularly in an environment like an institution of higher learning, where people are meant to come and go over time. Instead, developing a positive institutional ethos for DH requires perpetually building up and bolstering a community that can welcome new students and colleagues in. At UVa in the early 2000’s, we experienced a single, large and cascading exodus of key faculty and administrators. Students departed more or less on schedule, graduating and moving on as they were meant to do—but no-one had laid conscious groundwork for the regular, healthy turn-over of DH faculty and staff or of graduate students. We were therefore especially unequipped for a sea-change.

Perhaps some of this could have been mitigated by upper administration, but not without a concerted and shared effort at awareness-raising—of the value of digital humanities and its deep history at Virginia, among our deans, VPs, and members of our governing board, which was not done effectively. (It still remains a challenge.) However—as everyone recognizes and we have recently been reminded at UVa—“corporate, top-down leadership” is not the way to run a great university. What we needed to weather future change was the nurturing of a broader, and less project- and center-siloed intellectual community. A community that feels a common mission and a responsibility for its junior members has to grow from the grass roots.

Grad Fellows at the Grassroots

When I joined the Library to direct its digital research and scholarship efforts in 2007, shortly after the opening of the Scholars’ Lab, I came knowing all of this history—and I decided to make a special kind of grass-roots attempt. If it failed as a small, collective project (and it might well have), I was keen that our work should be articulable as a concrete experiment from which others in the DH community could learn, and that it still result in benefits to individuals, and to institutions beyond UVa. The experiment was to try to re-build intellectual community in the digital humanities from the bottom up, almost entirely by lavishing attention and resources on graduate students and early-career scholars. If this were a success, it would mean that we’d effect change at UVa through the vehicle of these students and junior faculty—but that they would drive it, own it, and benefit from it individually and as a group. It seemed to me like a set of little gambles and cumulative investments that were too small to fail.

And this is why a community-oriented program for Graduate Fellows in Digital Humanities became part of the signature approach of the Scholars’ Lab. We have now supported 26 ABD PhD candidates from a variety of academic departments—with a year’s worth of fellowship funding and a platform for sharing their scholarship with a large and varied public (that is, with needed practice in the work of the public humanities). We also give them an open door for all the consultation and training they require, to realize projects related to their dissertation research.

Our student Fellows have a strong say in the Scholars’ Lab’s intellectual programming—in helping to choose the outside speakers and workshop leaders we bring in to the University. (In fact, next year, we are turning the entire organization of our lecture series over to an interdisciplinary student committee.) Their needs and the needs of the undergraduate population drive the teaching and training our staff offer to the larger community through the course of the year. They’ve transformed our physical space, too. We’ve turned a large office into a Grad Fellows’ lounge, full of bookshelves for their stuff. And we give our students a steady supply of caffeine and free run of our little staff kitchen. This means they not only have an intellectual home in the Scholars’ Lab, they have a place that feels like home, and they see a good deal of us and of each other, no matter what academic department they come from.

This approach has not been without risks—and I don’t only mean to the state of housekeeping in the kitchenette. It is typical for almost any center at an institution of higher learning to focus its energies on the needs of powerful faculty, who have the ears of deans, provosts, and chancellors or presidents, and who can speak up for increased funding or needed policy or organizational changes in a way that students and junior faculty seldom can. But we were willing to risk starting with the little guys, full of energy and enthusiasms, at once so big and still too small to fail—and on the unacknowledged degree to which established faculty, particularly in matters of technology-enhanced scholarship, trust and follow the brightest lights among their students and junior colleagues.

So far (although we continue to struggle to make the SLab as well-recognized within UVa as it is outside the Serpentine Walls), our expectations have been borne out: faculty learn of us through the advocacy of our Grad Fellows, and they stay for the lectures and workshops we host. They then come to us for conversation and for advice on their own growing set of digital project ideas. As we’ve succeeded in this oblique outreach strategy, we’ve cheerfully expanded our definition of “early-career” to include some quite senior faculty who are nonetheless brand new to the digital humanities—some, even, who once seemed skeptical and uneasy about the digital transformation of their disciplines—which is a happy development.

But despite a steady stream of collaborations with faculty, the Scholars’ Lab remains best known for its support for graduate student research. While this was begun as a way to address a local problem at UVa (if DH were baseball, we’d call it our “sophomore slump”)—our focus on graduate students had a broader impact on the North American scene, in part, because of its timing. The timing, it turns out, was perfect for a public reconsideration of the ways in which universities prepare graduate students to engage with and represent humanities problems, values, and humanistic disciplines.

Here’s why. The dreadful world economy is finally forcing research institutions in the United States to come to terms with the diminished job prospects facing PhD students who seek careers as traditional, tenure-track faculty members, and with the implications of their struggle for the structure of the modern university. After many years of head-in-the-sand responses—including continued over-production of PhDs trained for a world that no longer exists, and an exacerbation of the problem by increased hiring of temporary or adjunct faculty—we now are seeing policy changes in American graduate admissions and experiments in curriculum design. We are also seeing motivated advocacy work by large professional organizations in the humanities, like the MLA and AHA.

Perhaps the most hopeful message our academic leadership can offer—one we hear far too seldom—is that this so-called crisis comes at a moment in which highly-trained humanities scholars are in fact most needed. They are needed to help grapple with the wholesale digital transformation of our cultural heritage. They are needed to help organize and preserve and begin to interpret the deluge of born-digital data that will form the primary material for scholars of art, literature, and history for years to come. Of course, they can only do these things if they are properly prepared, and graduate humanities programs are frustratingly slow to transform themselves into places that provide this kind of training. This is why the digital humanities—from little laboratories like the Scholars’ Lab to projects like 4Humanities, to regional associations like JADH and large, international organizations like ADHO—can make a wonderful contribution to the larger humanities at a crucial moment. Such work is particularly appreciated by younger scholars who are feeling most unsettled now. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: the DH community would do wrong to advocate for the content and methods and not for the people of the digital humanities.

We can make a contribution not only through the technical training and carefully evolved theoretical perspectives on digitization and digital culture that only experienced DH practitioners can impart. We also have something to say about our institutions and our professions. This is because so many of us in DH moved purposefully and voluntarily toward hybrid (or non-traditional or “alternative”) roles in and around the academy, long before the job market might have forced us to. We’re the volunteer corps.

Alternatives

Mobilizing this level of internal DH leadership was the rationale for a set of conversations I started with some colleagues a couple of years ago, which—to my surprise—has taken on a life of its own and the quarrelsome characteristics of a rag-tag movement. It’s known by its Twitter hashtag—#altac, or “alt-ac.” #Alt-Academy is the title of our open-access MediaCommons publication on the subject of new and hybrid scholarly careers—a collection of essays and personal narratives by 32 authors, largely working in the digital humanities, including a few from the Scholars’ Lab. We chose that name for the collection in order to re-frame the problem—not to label their positions an alternative to academic employment (which is an occasional misunderstanding I hear), but to attempt to call forth a creative, fringe, parallel world: an “alternative academia.”

The “alt,” in alt-ac, in other words, indicates a challenge to the prevailing notion that, for graduate students, there is one straight and narrow, tenure-track career path to fulfillment and to meaningful contribution to the humanities. Too much of the discourse in American universities, confronting our students in the Scholars’ Lab suggested that, if you are not in a tenure-eligible position, you may either be an adjunct instructor, presumed to be seeking a “real” academic job, or someone who has sailed off the edge of the world, into a corporate or other “non-academic” career. The signal was that any employment outside the traditional professoriate marked those who chose it as academic failures.

But graduate students would come to the SLab and see an office full of people who had higher degrees in the humanities and stable, interesting, intellectually-satisfying jobs—jobs beyond the professoriate, to be sure, but which they were coming to see as equally vital to the future of the scholarly disciplines they cared about most. So, as part of our work with grad students, our staff took on the side role of career councilors—more qualified, often, than many professors to mentor students into fulfilling and transformative positions, and certainly among the best people in the University to help address the special challenges and opportunities facing digital scholars who choose to keep their talents within the academy, but outside the narrow zone for which grad school prepared them.

I turn now to a related experiment. This is the Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab—just now entering its second year as a pilot project with support from the Mellon Foundation. The project stemmed from consideration of the future employment prospects of our Graduate Fellows (who were going forward, in almost equal numbers, to academic and “alt-ac” careers). That thinking combined with an analysis of what our Fellows most needed from us—and what they said they were not getting elsewhere in their programs.

Technical training in a variety of DH tools and methods was of course high on the list. We had discovered that our Grad Fellows spent more of their award year on basic training in digital humanities techniques (like GIS, text analysis and encoding, website maintenance, and database design) than they did actually working on their projects. Perhaps because of the great upswing in visibility of the digital humanities at mainstream conferences, more and more late-stage PhD candidates were arriving in the SLab with great ideas, and a great desire to do DH, but no practical experience. We did what we could to boost their progress, but kept wishing that more of them had come to us year or two before they were ABD and eligible to apply for the award—or (better yet) that more of them had had the opportunity to work on a digital project before conceiving one of their own. The present landscape was entirely unlike the situation at UVa in the glory days of Etext and IATH, when large teams of graduate students were employed on projects together. Responding to UVa’s slump, and perhaps in line with grant programs that could offer seed money to many but major follow-through funds to few, our faculty were undertaking smaller digital projects than the Rossetti and Blake Archives of old. Their ambitions seemed limited to work that employed only one or two students at a time.

We were therefore concerned about our Fellows’ lack of experience not only in terms of concrete technical skills—but in the context of the “softer skills” of collaboration that are gained in DH and so hard to pick up elsewhere in the humanities (as the academy currently constructs the humanities). In other words, we realized that—as nice as our Grad Fellowship program was—it had a fatal flaw. It was replicating a structure that so many of us in DH had long left behind: the every-man-for-himself model of individual striving in scholarly careers—or, put more gently, the Romantic myth of solitary genius so deeply instilled in us by our reading and our academic practice. Because our fellows worked alone, on digital projects related to their private dissertation research, we had inadvertently reinforced the notion that scholarship is a solitary endeavor.

So we founded a new fellowship program, which we have begun to run alongside our existing one. The Praxis Program is a dedicated, year-long, paid internship in which we bring six early-career graduate students at a time into the Scholars’ Lab, and make a team of them. In the course of an academic year, team members gain the skills they need to conceive of and execute a moderately-ambitious digital project. The basic principle is learning-by-doing, and this learning extends to a programming and web development boot camp, sessions on project management and principles of collaboration (including the notion of shared credit for digital humanities work and the drawing-up of a project charter), and sessions on design, user testing, and connecting with humanities audiences. It is partly formalized as a weekly seminar, but students also spend an average of 10 hours per week in the grad lounge of the Scholars’ Lab, actively working together on their shared project in a self-structured way, and getting help from our staff.

Praxis has been wonderful—exciting and exhausting. Last year, our students (mostly novices at DH) implemented a prototype collaborative annotation and visualization concept that I and other UVa scholars had only talked about, for a decade. Their open source tool is called “Prism,” and we helped them position it as a response, from the interpretive or hermeneutic side of the humanities, to a current vogue for what we saw as somewhat mechanical crowdsourcing.

This year’s Praxis Students (who come from the departments of English, History, Sociology, Music, and Philosophy) are just beginning their year with us—so it remains to be seen what they will build and do. They do plan to take last year’s Prism project further, which will be a very interesting experience: not to fashion something from whole cloth but, like most of us have done, to enter into the middle of an ongoing project and see what refinements, advancements, and course corrections can be made.

We will also be spending this year, with the support of the Mellon Foundation and the Scholarly Communication Institute, using the Praxis Program as a focal point for wider conversations on graduate education reform. Because we believe that extra-curricular organizations like digital labs and centers have a clear role to play in graduate education, we are bringing together two groups to discuss the topic. These are centerNet, an international consortium of digital humanities centers, and CHCI, the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes. The goal for our conversations will be to generate ideas for further action-oriented pilot projects, perhaps like Praxis, perhaps entirely different.

The other way we’re scaling up the Scholars’ Lab’s experiment (trying to turn our small work in to something larger) is by drawing together a small number of like-minded graduate-methods programs from around the world—many of which operate, like us, in an extra-curricular or internship-based way—to compare notes and share experiences. This is just (slowly) getting started—a little, ad-hoc group called the Praxis Network. Its first project will be a response to the kind of public excitement we heard at UVa when we first began talking about our Praxis Program. Our offices were bombarded with requests from other universities for information on the program—how was it organized? how funded? how many hours of staff time did it take per week? what was the minimum skill set for instructors or mentors? What would it take to start this program here? A Praxis Network website—out next year—will aim to offer some mix and match answers from a variety of similar programs, mostly as a way to stretch administrators’ imaginations and help other institutions with their planning efforts. We’ll offer it in recognition that work like this is never one-size-fits-all.

Thinking Out Loud

One reason we had such an overwhelming response to our Praxis experiment is, I think, because we were so open and transparent about what we were doing. “Iterative and public” are the watchwords of the Praxis Program, a philosophy that truly informs all we do in the Scholars’ Lab.

Last year’s Praxis students were nervous about the concept at first—when they heard that we would be expecting them to blog about their experiences in the program, every step of the way, and to share the products of their work before they were “perfect.” Humanities grad programs train us to polish and position and jealously guard our scholarship like precious gems. But the open source software community in which the Scholars’ Lab operates teaches generosity to the point of promiscuity: to share, commit code frequently, to fork and merge, and release early and often. And much can change even in the course of a single year. This year’s Praxis students met recently in the Scholars’ Lab and told us that the daring, open, performing-without-a-net approach we’re taking was one of the things that most attracted them to the program. They, like the rest of us, are strong believers in the notion—brought home powerfully to the annual Digital Humanities conference audience in a 2010 keynote talk by Melissa Terras—that we are a global community always operating in public, in the modern panopticon, whether we do so intentionally or not.

So one of the lessons of Praxis and of our other projects has been to make our communications in social media and open publication venues more intentional. This is another kind of paradox of scale: many assume that conscious engagement with the public humanities and energy devoted toward making other scholars and a broader audience aware of your work requires big, sweeping announcements about major projects. We do find there’s a place for the occasional trumpet blast, but much more often the Scholars’ Lab simply nurtures a low hum: a small, but fairly steady stream of little blog posts from different voices, comments and images shared on Twitter and Facebook, newsletters, and podcasts of our talks.

I can attest to the value of the institutional thinking-out-loud you do (and you enable on the part of others) when your organization’s daily practice includes free and open sharing—in small, imperfect increments. It can help you find partners in unexpected quarters. It also helps to reinforce what I think is good practice for a digital humanities shop like ours: the framing of big ideas as small, relatively low-risk, but very public pilot projects. The potential embarrassment of any failure you encounter is, to my mind, more than offset by the potential benefit of having shared a little idea that may well succeed somewhere else. This is the story of Praxis—which started on a shoestring budget, barely enough to get us through the first semester, before securing wider and more stable support, and which I believe has helped to inspire initiatives at other schools. It’s also to be seen in the germ of #Alt-Academy: a few casual tweets and blog posts, which came along at the right moment to blossom into something bigger.

This same low-risk “pilot project” model also helped us launch a program we called Spatial Humanities. It began in 2008 as an exploratory faculty-grad seminar led by the SLab—in part for internal reasons, as I worked to meld the three digital centers I’ve described to you under a single roof. We started formal conversations under this rubric to bring together the scholars who had been attached to the old Etext Center with the GIS specialists and mapping-oriented researchers of GeoStat, at a moment we recognized as the cusp of a spatial turn in the humanities. Our conversations resulted in a major, 2-year institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities at the Scholars’ Lab, which was the first NEH training program on GIS for humanities scholarship. It also led to a 3-year project (supported by NEH and the Library of Congress) released this summer: Neatline – a platform for geo-temporal storytelling and the interpretation of humanities collections through timelines and maps. We’re taking a similar low-key approach as we gear up for the launch of a Scholars’ Lab “Maker Space” in the coming year.

And just to offer a final example, “too small to fail” is also how we started something called Project Blacklight, which is now well known in the digital library community as the premier open-source search-and-browsing system for diverse library collections—a catalyst for the multi-institutional Hydra Project, and used by organizations as diverse as HathiTrust and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In this case, for a technical project, the public experimental mode we chose was the code sprint. This is a brief, one- or two-week all-out, all-hands-on-deck programming effort to test a model or simply to see how far one can get with a certain idea, if all other distractions are pushed aside. Confidentially, I will tell you that code sprints are my #1 trick for making an institutional case for an experiment for which not everyone can yet see the value. If it turns out you’re wrong, it was a small investment of time, and open analysis of your low-cost failure is a positive result. No harm done, and you get the good sportsmanship trophy! If you’re right, you will have also validated the very idea of small investments and insistent little experiments.

Scholar-Practitioners

Project Blacklight—which went on to solve a serious problem for libraries dependent on expensive and inflexible vendor-provided catalog interfaces—was inspired by work I did with Erik Hatcher on NINES, a digital humanities content federation for 19th century studies. Moving this DH project into the library domain was the brainchild of the first member of the Scholars’ Lab’s R&D staff, Bess Sadler. I am dwelling on it for a moment, because Blacklight was one of the earliest internal research projects of the Scholars’ Lab, and it’s the project that brought home very clearly to me the value of independent R&D time for staff of DH centers. Bess started this work not because she was asked to, or because it was written into her job description, but because she was a librarian with a burning desire to solve a library problem. Before we started the code sprints that produced a proof of concept for our colleagues in other departments (and which ultimately resulted in the creation of a brand new department at the Library!), my staff tinkered with Blacklight independently, voluntarily spending the one day each week that every member of the Scholars’ Lab team is granted to use for their own research.

Formal, protected “R&D time”—on the 20% model that Google introduced in industry—had not made many inroads into the staffing of library departments and digital humanities centers, before we started sharing the little and big successes we were having with it at the Scholars’ Lab. In fact, it is policy in the Scholars’ Lab, across the board. My only request in exchange for granting the time is that people be able to articulate the connection of their work to the larger mission of the SLab, and that they share its results with a broader public—whether by making formal publications, committing code to an open source repository, or writing and speaking informally about their work. I’m very pleased to see how rapidly the concept of R&D time has taken off at other institutions, and how often it is now cited as a best practice, for ensuring that the people hired as service providers of one sort or another (consultants, software developers, librarians, and even administrative assistants) have a protected and regular amount of time they can call their own. For software developers, who can command larger salaries outside the academy, it’s a much-valued perk. For alt-ac staff, who trained as scholars, it is almost a psychological necessity. (So if you are having trouble convincing your administration to try this, tell them it’s good business in the Scholars’ Lab!) And I think it’s just good. Although I have to chase after them some of them to hold the time free from other commitments, it’s how I make sure that all of my staff have the opportunity to develop professionally along the lines of their own interests. This makes them more productive and us a richer place, intellectually. I like the way it helps us find and nurture valuable ideas everywhere, regardless of where they emerge in the hierarchy. And it’s how I remind myself that I should preserve time for my own scholarship, too.

20% R&D time has helped us create new projects and advance existing ones—including those that we undertake in collaboration with UVa faculty—sometimes along unanticipated lines. Alongside our practice of hiring people who have deep backgrounds in the humanities (our software developers, for instance, trained as historians and literary scholars), R&D time is the thing that ensures that the Scholars’ Lab, ostensibly a service unit, can become an interesting intellectual community in its own right, and be perceived as such by our colleagues on the teaching faculty. It also allows us time, as a group, to be reflective about our collaborative practice. For example, the staff of the Scholars’ Lab are engaged now in discussions and experiments related to method, craft, and the notion of tacit understanding in DH codework. We are seeking evidence in our intellectual labor together, of the emergence of a new, non-discursive hermeneutic of “making” in the digital humanities.

I believe we’re able create room for this kind of freedom and exploration, in part, because of another principle that keeps us too small to fail: no regular staff member of the Scholars’ Lab is paid with so-called “soft money.” In other words, none of our colleagues’ involvement is contingent on grant funding: we are all stable, long-term employees of the University of Virginia. That’s not to say that I haven’t brought staff in, initially, on grants—but we intend to grow no faster than our institution is prepared to sustain. This fundamental stability keeps us (individually and as a group) from feeling risk-averse, on the one hand, and—on the other—from worriedly chasing “the next big thing,” with no time to think it through. So far, we’ve been happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish for the Library and for UVa while still adhering to this principle.

Finally, this attitude toward growth has become a matter of principle in the Scholars’ Lab because I’ve watched too many digital humanities centers and projects balloon and then seem to lose their direction, getting caught up in soft-money scrambles and taking on work that is less than ideal for them, just to keep good staff employed. My soft-money allergy is the single greatest factor now keeping the Scholars’ Lab relatively small. Whether we maintain the pattern in the long term, and whether it really makes us “too small to fail,” remains to be seen—but, for now, we know that we would rather spend grant funding, when we can get it, on participants in programs that serve a wider community, rather than to grow our staff too quickly and and waste time worrying about maintaining operations and keeping members of our team employed.

It also helps the SLab along in our ambition to function as a team of equals—a family, with shared, long-term commitments to our mission together.

New Ignorance

Before I traveled here, I sat down with the Scholars’ Lab team to offer them veto power over any piece of this talk. I asked them what they’re sick of hearing me say. I asked them what I get wrong about our work. They’re a generally outspoken crew, so I was a little surprised not to be asked to delete anything from my repertoire. (I’ll check again now that this is published!) I was glad to hear general happiness at the philosophy that keeps us small and community-focused. But what they especially encouraged me to convey is what one person characterized as “a sense of optimism that comes from being encouraged to take risks,” and another as “excitement to share even failures as a positive outcome” (that is, as a learning experience for everybody–a scholarly and social contribution we can all make, when we are not asked to hide our messes or mistakes).

This conversation reminded me powerfully of the opening line of an essay John Unsworth published in 1997, in the Journal of Electronic Publishing, subtitled “The Importance of Failure.” Some of you will know it well. He wrote: “If an electronic scholarly project can’t fail and doesn’t produce new ignorance, then it isn’t worth a damn.” John was and remains one of my most valued teachers. Another is the literary scholar Jerome McGann, who taught me to learn by breaking, warping, deforming, loving, and above all by playing with things in a lighthearted way—with objects of our shared cultural heritage, to be sure—but also by playing with and within the institutional structures that shape and circumscribe or enable our work. I hope you can see how the lessons both these men taught me underlie our approach to digital humanities at the Scholars’ Lab. Fundamentally, we endeavor not to take ourselves too seriously—while undertaking the fostering of our intellectual community as our most sacred duty—and all that, with a recognition that we are most serious and productive and on top of our games, when we feel most playful and open to a fall.

The early, experimental days of humanities computing at UVa taught me to see openness to failure and openness itself as our best paths to learning in DH. And the guidance I find myself offering now stems from a conviction that lots of little things, a happy smallness—made safe for failure through their scale and the intrepid spirit in which they’re undertaken—can add up to something big.

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7 Responses to “too small to fail”


  1. Burnable Books | “Too small to fail”: Bethany Nowviskie on the institutional politics of digital humanities
    on Oct 14th, 2012
    @ 7:32am

    [...] This is a really thoughtful post by Bethany Nowviskie offering the text of her keynote address at the second annual conference of the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities in Tokyo. Nowviskie is the Director of Digital Research and Scholarship at my own institution, the University of Virginia, and one of the leading figures nationally in the field of digital humanities. What’s particularly compelling here is her frank assessment of the specificities of institutional structures–reporting lines, org charts, struggles for physical space, the arcana of budgeting, and so on–as they bear on the intellectual products of digital research. She offers some reflections on the institutional history of DH at UVa (“inherited humanities” is the incisive phrase she uses) while describing some of the newer initiatives that have emerged from this history (such as the Praxis Program, a paid internship program for early-career graduate students funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation). Her conclusion: The early, experimental days of humanities computing at UVa taught me to see openness to failure and openness itself as our best paths to learning in DH. And the guidance I find myself offering now stems from a conviction that lots of little things, a happy smallness—made safe for failure through their scale and the intrepid spirit in which they’re undertaken—can add up to something big. [...]


  2. Ted Underwood
    on Oct 14th, 2012
    @ 11:44am

    Just writing here to thank you publicly for this view inside the Scholars’ Lab and Praxis Program. I’m one of many people looking enviously at these institutions and trying to figure out how to recreate them at home; every bit of institutional history and administrative insight is helpful.

    Ted Underwood, Univ. of Illinois


  3. Simon Tanner
    on Oct 15th, 2012
    @ 7:28am

    Bethany, thank you for this fascinating and insightful text. Thank you for sharing and I wish I could have been there to hear it in all its glory.

    Simon


  4. Andrew Prescott
    on Oct 15th, 2012
    @ 2:23pm

    Dear Beth,
    A wonderful lecture, which I think raises many fundamental questions. I was particularly impressed by your forensic analysis of the nuts and bolts of institutional structures and finances and by the important conclusions you reach. We need more analysis of the institutional structures facilitating digital scholarship. Too often, we have built up ramshackle ad hoc structures to just try and get something started and not worried about their long-term stability. The Scholars Lab shows the value of trying to build on surer foundations.


  5. Bethany Nowviskie
    on Oct 19th, 2012
    @ 4:57pm

    Dear Ted, Simon, Andrew, and Bruce — a belated note of thanks for your kind words! Here’s hoping (as usual) that the talk is helpful. — B.


  6. abrennr
    on Feb 7th, 2014
    @ 2:14pm

    I’ve always liked @nowviskie’s history of the scholar’s lab as counter-argument to the library-service tunnel-vision http://t.co/FQuX9ugVn1


  7. asking for it « Bethany Nowviskie
    on Feb 8th, 2014
    @ 10:32pm

    […] described elsewhere how this works and what has come of the practice. But I’m not sure if I have clearly and explicitly stated […]

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