Bethany Nowviskie

toward a new deal

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A New Deal for the Humanities[This is the cleaned-up and slightly expanded text of a talk I gave last week, at a University of Illinois symposium on the future of the humanities at state-funded, US-based research universities. My paper was called “Graduate Training for a Public and Digital Humanities.” The organizers of the symposium, Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed, framed its goals in a New Republic essay and positioned the event deliberately between two significant anniversaries: of the Morrill Act, establishing land-grant universities in the US, and the GI Bill, extending higher education to the American under-classes.]

Today, some 20 years after its first formulation, there is little question of the validity of Jerome McGann’s core and repeated argument: that we humanities scholars and publics stand before the vast, near-wholesale digital transformation of our various and shared cultural inheritance. This transformation – more properly, these remediations – are fully underway. They open new avenues for the work of the liberal arts in all of its spheres: for our ability to gain access to, to analyze and interpret, and most importantly to vouchsafe to future generations, the words, images, sounds, and built and material objects that crystalize in our archives and which we so carefully position to refract little, mirror-like understandings of what it has meant, for the blink of an eye, to be human.  Read the rest of this entry »

what’s next

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As we end an amazing 11-year run of the Mellon Foundation-supported Scholarly Communication Institute (the last six years of which it was my privilege to witness, learn from, and help to engineer at UVa), I am looking forward to new chances and challenges. Today, CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, announced my appointment as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow. (I’m still a little stunned.)  A couple of days ago, I accepted an invitation from our wonderful Provost to join his office in the part-time role of Special Advisor, assisting at the institutional level in the advancement of digital humanities scholarship at UVa.  And on Tuesday I turned forty!  Quite a week.   Read the rest of this entry »

cats and ships


I’m writing just ahead of the main deadline for proposals to DH 2013, the primary conference of the international digital humanities community. It is my great privilege to chair the program committee for this year’s conference, which will be held in Lincoln, Nebraska. The PC are the stalwarts who design and coordinate peer review for the conference, pitch in to cover for delinquent reviewers, make final decisions on its intellectual program, and partner with local organizers in selecting invited speakers (we’ll look forward to a keynote from David Ferriero, chief Archivist of the United States, and it’s a Busa Award year, so we’ll honor and hear from the wonderful Willard McCarty).

“DH” is a new name for an old gathering. When I first encountered it in the 1990s the conference was called ACH/ALLC, after two professional associations (themselves dating to the ’70s) that had been sponsoring a joint meeting on computer-assisted humanities scholarship since 1989. The Digital Humanities name came in the mid-aughties, with the formation of a broader Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations. ADHO has expanded, over time, to include Canadian and Australasian DH associations, as well as an international consortium of digital labs and centers. Shortly, we’ll welcome a Japanese association to the fold as well. (For a whirlwind history of big moments in DH, see John Unsworth’s “What’s ‘Digital Humanities’ and How Did It Get Here?“)

DH is my home conference — the (only) one I look forward to all year, and have attended most religiously since I was a grad student. This event, and the welcoming, rollicking, inventive, pragmatic, learned, egalitarian, global humanities computing community that coalesces around it, are without a doubt the reason I finished my doctorate, stayed in the field and in the academy (not, interestingly, self-identical in DH), and do all the things I do at places like the Scholars’ Lab, ADHO, ACH, NINES, SCI, RBS, MediaCommons, and MLA.

So, I’m pretty invested in getting things right as conference chair.

I’ve reviewed for DH since I was a child (well, almost), served as a program committee member for the conference twice before, was its vice-chair in 2010, and have had helpful conversations with several of our past smart, thoughtful, hard-working chairs — so I know this weekend, as proposals flood in and I gear up the system for the next phase, is one of several moments in the process when I can expect to be biting my nails. To assuage my nerves, communicate some of the good work the PC has been doing so far, and to make things a little less opaque for everybody, I’m writing this post. The cats in my title need herding. The ship is a slow one to turn around. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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praxis, through prisms

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This is just a quick post to share two bits of news about our Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab. The first is that I’ve written an op-ed on Praxis and our Fellows’ practicum project for this year’s Digital Campus special issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The piece was originally titled “Praxis, Through Prisms” — now “A Digital Boot Camp for Grad Students in the Humanities.” It’s pay-walled, for now, but I’ll re-publish it in open access format in 30 days. [UPDATE: now available in PDF format in UVa’s institutional repository.]

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by Chad Hagen for The Chronicle

Check it out to learn more about the program, get a sneak peek at Prism (launching this Tuesday, which is the second newsflash! congrats, team!) and find out what I see as the great project of humanities computing / digital humanities. Spoiler: it’s “the development of a hermeneutic — a concept and practice of interpretation — parallel to that of the dominant, postwar, theory-driven humanities: a way of performing cultural and aesthetic criticism less through solitary points of view expressed in language, and more in team-based acts of building.”

Or, in other words, the kind of thing our amazing grad students and diverse crew of scholar-practitioners are working on at Praxis. Through Prism(s).

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Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.