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.

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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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ruby slippers

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(Cross-posted from the Praxis Program and Scholars’ Lab blog.)

It’s been an excellent Sunday morning for posts about DH and the profession(s). First, Desmond Schmidt crunches the numbers from a decade’s worth of job postings on Humanist, which is the primary and longest-standing international discussion list for the digital humanities. (If you think there’s a DH boom in the US, check out Desmond’s per-capita analysis.) Interestingly, this survey only took PhD-level positions into account. How have job requirements in this field evolved? Tomorrow’s Humanist should have a response from Dot Porter, citing an #Alt-Academy essay she wrote with Amanda Gailey on “Credential Creep in the Digital Humanities.”

And here’s Kathleen Fitzpatrick in the Chronicle, on what is really required of institutions and departments who encourage junior scholars to ‘Do the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities. Kathleen is amplifying and contextualizing a concern frequently voiced in the past two years, around the spate of “cluster hires” in DH — which sometimes seemed to happen without thought given to the suport structures, both departmental and institutional, that new faculty would need. (I remember Patrick MurrayJohn as the first to start squawking about this on Twitter. I couldn’t find his much-earlier tweets, but there’s this thread at DH Answers.) On the Chronicle piece, Kathleen and Ian Bogost make two important further points that may resonate with our Grad Fellows and Praxis group: regarding “mentoring up,” and pressing forward.

Finally, Natalia Cecire responds with the most acute blog post I’ve read on the whole so-called “rise” of digital humanities and its political and professional consequences: “It’s not “the job market”; it’s the profession (and it’s your problem too).”

And what am I doing on a quiet Sunday afternoon (besides linking together this distributed conversation)? Read the rest of this entry »

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