too small to fail

[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

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.]

prismatic badge
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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lazy consensus

[This is a roughly-edited version of a keynote talk I gave last month at #code4lib, a fantastic annual conference for software developers and systems folks working in libraries. If you want to hear my bad jokes and attempts to pander to the crowd (or at least to let them know that I was conscious of the back-channel), or if you’d like to see what happens when I indulge my nerdiest tendencies in slide production, I recommend the archived livestream. I’m skipping a long pre-amble that included the Super Friends, hostile IRC bots, and a description of my own professional background – in which I slowly moved from literary and bibliographical scholarship to working with independent DH projects in scholarly think-tanks and projects that sat alongside libraries, to working in and for a library, and as a part of the blended digital humanities/library community that many of us inhabit now.]

The biggest surprise I had about my emigration to Libraryland will be of no surprise to those of you who have been here longer, or who came out of an I-school, or otherwise basically grew up in the culture. And that is that the shift radicalized me. Coming to the Library woke me up: on matters of privacy, on labor conditions and class issues in higher ed, on the sucky practice of training of humanities grad students for non-existent jobs, on free & open access to information, and (especially for those of us who work at publicly-funded institutions) on the rights of taxpayers to expect quality work for the public good out of what they help pay for.

So it may sound like I’m going to give an activist talk. That’s true to some degree, but I’m mostly going to give an impatient one — a talk that comes from where I am now. Although I used to be on the design and development side of things, I am now a soulless administrator, and therefore I thought the most useful function I could perform at code4lib would be to bring something back to you from that perspective. My title will therefore not immediately suggest an activist agenda.

Welcome to… “Lazy Consensus.”

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DH wonks, step this way.

Here’s a post meant for the pretty small audience of people who care about the inner workings of digital humanities professional societies. The rest of you may carry on talking about the Emmys, or badges, or honeybadgers. Or honeybadgers at the Emmys. Or badges for honeybadgers. DH wonks, this way.

The Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH) was founded in 1978 and is the primary US-based professional association for practitioners of the digital humanities. I’m currently serving as vice president of the ACH, and am a new steering committee member of the umbrella group to which it belongs, the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO). ADHO consists of three aligned, international societies: ACH, ALLC (the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing), and SDH-SEMI (the Society for Digital Humanities/Société pour l’étude des médias interactifs). Soon, a fourth organization will join us: centerNet, an international consortium of digital humanities labs and centers.

I’ve been a member of ACH for much longer than I’ve been active in its leadership or involved in the ADHO umbrella organization — so my encounters with its budget sheets and expenditure records are recent enough, perhaps, to make me conscious of how opaque its doings must seem to the larger DH world. This is exacerbated by the explosive growth (since 2005, when ADHO was incorporated), of the broad humanities computing community these associations aim to serve. I’m hoping to share some information here that will help members and potential members understand how these organizations fit together, and what — particularly from the ACH point of view — we’re up to, in an era of great expansion (and not a small amount of navel-gazing) for the digital humanities. Continue reading “DH wonks, step this way.”

a skunk in the library

[This is the text of an invited talk I gave at the University of Nebraska in April. I’d like to thank my amazing hosts in the UNL Library and CDRH!]

I’m going to back into my talk today, perhaps in part to counter the way I have imagined all of you instinctively backing slowly away from the brilliant and hilarious and slightly horrifying posters I’ve seen advertising it.

My title is “A Skunk in the Library: the Path to Production for Scholarly R&D.” Now, why (oh, why) the skunk? It’s because I’ll be introducing you to the R&D unit within my department, the Scholars’ Lab at the University of Virginia Library, as a quintessential “skunkworks” operation – and I’ll describe what I mean by that in just a second. It’s also because I am not unconscious of the wrinkled noses that can result from an airing of some of the ideas I want to share with you.

To that end, I plan to save plenty of time this morning for conversation, because above all that’s what my gestures here will call for. And I’ll be asking you to help us think together through something of importance to librarians and software developers and scholars alike – namely, the role of libraries and library-embedded digital humanities centers in helping to beat what we might call a “path to production,” both for innovative scholarship and for its supporting technical and social frameworks.

IT staff in the audience will hear that phrase, “path to production,” and think immediately of a set of well-established Web development and release practices. I’ll rehearse those a little bit here, so that we’re on the same page, before I complicate (or possibly just pervert) them. Continue reading “a skunk in the library”