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. Continue reading “what’s next”
This week marks the release of a new version of Prism, a web-based tool for “crowdsourcing interpretation,” constructed over the course of two academic years by two separate cohorts of graduate fellows in our Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab.
Praxis fellows are humanities and social science grad students across a variety of departments at UVa, who come to our library-based lab for an intensive, team-based, hands-on experience in digital humanities project-work, covering as many aspects of DH practice as our practiced Scholars’ Lab staff can convey. Continue reading “prism, for play”
[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 gave an opening plenary talk at the 53rd Annual RBMS preconference in San Diego. RBMS is a conference for people professionally interested in rare books and manuscripts. Here’s the text. But first—I want to make clear that the views it expresses are mine alone. They may not reflect those of my co-workers at the University of Virginia, and my employers had no prior knowledge that I’d be giving such a talk. I didn’t have much warning, myself. I re-wrote it late into the night on Monday, before joining (for a couple of hours, anyway) the crowd in the dark outside our beautiful Rotunda—a night documented here.]
At the University of Virginia Library, we begin our regular directors’ meetings with a round of “hot topics”—a chance to make pressing announcements or insert late-breaking news into the agenda for the day. Now, readers of such obscure periodicals as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chronicle of Higher Education may have noticed that UVa is having… kind of a rough week. So when my colleagues and I gathered most recently, I had a fairly good guess at what our meeting’s “hot topic” might be. Instead, the first hand to be raised was that of our Director of Facilities Management, who made an earnest and concerned report: at least—two rats!—had been sighted!—in the grass outside, not terribly far from our wonderful Special Collections Library.
The question, my friends, was obvious. Were these rats coming—or going?
When I sat down to draft this morning’s presentation, I found it very difficult to disentangle what I had intended to say to you, from what I felt newly compelled to say. I had my title. As a more physical-collections-focused companion piece to Matt Kirschenbaum’s “Bit by Bit,” how could this talk not be called, “Reality Bytes?” But I meant, at first, for it to have a narrower scope: to be purely about the shape and trajectory of the most bookish side of what has come to be called the digital humanities. I’d discuss how rapidly-advancing analytical and presentational technology might impact our thinking about bibliographical research, paleography, and special collections librarianship. Just as Matt would cover the born-digital archive, I had planned to talk about new opportunities to be found in the changing relationship of scholars and students and humanities software developers to their historical, paper-based archives and research collections.
I was going to razzle-dazzle you with demos and slides. I threw them out.
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.]
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).