[Last week, it was my privilege to participate in an event celebrating the anniversary of centers and institutes that have — for 30 years — supported digital humanities research, scholarship, teaching, and organizing at my alma mater and first professional employer, the University of Virginia — which is to say, the people and organizations that educated me, sustained and supported my growth, and gave me so many unexpected opportunities and gifts.
A joyous reunion weekend on the Lawn was quickly followed by campus tragedy. My heart goes out to the families and friends of the victims, to students, faculty, and staff at UVa, and to all those impacted by the scourge of gun violence in a country that seems to know no other way.]
I sat down to write this at a loss: how could I put three whole decades of gratitude and indebtedness into a 5-minute opening statement? — and I decided I’d do best in pay-it-forward mode — by spending some of my time on hopes for the future.
But one thing I’m grateful for, as I reflect on the past — sitting among so many friends and mentors, fellow-travelers, students of my own — is the privilege to have witnessed the full sweep of the 30 years of DH at UVa that we’re celebrating today.
I’m not sure how many of you know that I was a 19-year-old undergrad at the founding of IATH and EText — and a work-study student in Special Collections, when we created Virginia’s first online finding aids. I also had the amazing good fortune — a scholarship kid from the sticks, a double major in English and Archaeology — to study with two of IATH’s first faculty fellows: Jerry McGann and John Dobbins. What I was privileged to observe (from these two very different sorts of excavators) was their extreme, glowing intellectual excitement at the methods and techniques they were discovering, at what the prompts and provocations of digital representation and analysis might afford.
The excitement was catching. It brought me back for grad school five years later — to help Jerry design an interface to the Rossetti Archive and build subsequent projects like NINES, to work with John Unsworth on that age-old question, “Is Humanities Computing an Academic Discipline?”, to sit around with Steve Ramsay and ponder what it would mean to be “radical bibliographers” (and could he also please teach me Perl) — and mostly just to try not to miss it — to try not to miss the one magical moment of the birth of the web, of the start of DH, of the sense that everything, everything was about to change.
For me, the focus of that excitement changed as I moved, over the years, into very different kinds of organizing and design — as I became less interested in technological innovation than in concepts of maintenance and mutual aid, and as I encountered communities outside the serpentine walls (and learned of those I had missed within them) that helped me imagine more liberatory, even Afrofuturist, digital library infrastructures. But it never went away.
Later panels will elevate the experiences of students at UVa, grad students especially. This panel honors the organizational structures and institutional investments that enabled so much interdisciplinary and — as Steve Railton reminded us last night — inter-professional exchange, foment, and spread.
But to think about organizations is to think generationally.
I hope today’s celebration encourages us to reflect not just on the power and longevity of centers and institutes, but on what or whom we choose to center when we build them, and what kinds of cultures and ideals we will deliberately institute for the future, as we craft our next iterations — either here or elsewhere.
So, what did I try to institute, when in 2007 (as a young mother of two just coming off a postdoc, and thanks to Mike Furlough, Karin Wittenborg, and so many others) I had the opportunity to direct a brand-spanking-new Scholars’ Lab? For me, it was not only a chance to help the Library imagine a next phase of work, a new life for the several centers and teams that folded into it — it was my chance to revitalize a fading local grad student culture that had given me so much. It was a chance to try to spark up again, in the moment of a little lull, the best parts of what I had felt working in DH collectives that were so different from the solitary striving encouraged of most emerging scholars.
That was our reason for founding the Praxis Program in the Scholars’ Lab — for turning what was meant to be the director’s office into an exceptionally grubby, laughter-filled, interdisciplinary grad lounge —for thinking, as the field struggled to become more diverse, about what’s tacit and embodied in DH learning and how often we continued “Speaking in Code” — and for taking a mentoring and training approach to a laboratory culture that I know endures here: of staff creating projects with folks, not for them — and building up new practitioners even more than building out digital products.
I think, honestly, that’s the story and legacy of all the centers represented on this panel. Or at least that’s where their power lies: in the people who have come up through them — in what they’ve gained or learned from the structures around them — the gaps they’ve identified, and chosen to fill — and in what they’ll do next.