Ten Tips for Budding Digital Humanists from RSA 2013

I kicked off day two of RSA by attending the ‘Renaissance Studies and New Technologies Roundtable’ in which panellists from the previous DH sessions came together to articulate the themes emerging from this year’s sessions; goals for RSA 2014; and what they saw as pressing issues to tackle in their institutions, classrooms and in the DH community at large, in the meantime.

The roundtable was chaired by Ray Siemens (University of Victoria Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, Devonshire Manuscript Project), and organized by Diane Katherine Jakacki (Georgia Institute of Technology) and Michael Ullyot (University of Calgary). Discussants included William Bowen (University of Toronto Scarborough), Janelle Jenstad (University of Victoria), Daniel Powell (University of Victoria, graduate student and contributor to the Devonshire Manuscript Project), Scott J. Schofield (University of Toronto, University of Victoria, who presented his idea for a ‘digital interleaf’ at a previous session: an ap that will enhance the process of reading in an electronic medium by allowing readers to create layers of annotations and save them), Andie Silva (Wayne State University), Mara Wade (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaig, Emblematica Online project) and Rebecca Welzenbach (University of Michigan, EEBO-TCP). Audience members included the Project Investigators for the Queen’s Men Editions who would speak later in the conference. Gathered together in a single session were members and associates of at least ten online projects, each very different in terms of content, interface and working group, but each unmistakeably collaborative and thriving. It was a genuine pleasure to be in a room with so many enthusiastic academics, editors, librarians and creators—perhaps one could think of each of these speakers and participants as creators first and foremost, academic, librarian, teacher, second.

The panellists raised topics for discussion among themselves, including: how do we manage crowd-sourcing? How do we attract new funding for old projects? How do we teach palaeography to the next generation in order to crowd-source transcription for larger projects? And how do we integrate digital creation into our curricula? they opened discussion up to the audience. After hearing about several panellists’ and audience members’ fascinating projects, I asked ‘What advice would panellists give to someone in the early stages of planning a large digital project?’ These are some of their responses:

1) expect to have to build the infrastructure for your project within your working group—it is unlikely that you will be able to buy something off the shelf that does everything you want it to.

2) “It will take at least twice as long as you expect”

3) Break the project down into manageable chunks and identify an element of it that you can showcase to funding bodies and your department along the way. Even if you have done a lot of work on something, it is hard for your colleagues and/or donors to grasp what you are doing unless you can show them a piece of it along the way. This element is also something you can showcase at poster sessions and conferences along the way.

4) “Surround yourself with smart people.”

5) “Trust your collaborators.”

6) Post material early and often and use source control—“everyone should know git! (a freely available source code management system)”

7) Create a transparent working method with your project team  in which you clearly delineate each person’s jobs, goals and responsibilities.

8) Identify elements of your project that students (undergraduates, MAs and PhD candidates) can contribute to. This should not be mere monkey work, but something they can put on their cvs and which genuinely advances an element of the project.

9) Develop and publish a succinct and clear statement as to why you have chosen one design and delivery system over other possible systems. In other words, acknowledge the limitations of your project: what does it not do that it could have done with a different application of resources (time, funds, manpower)? This will help people to understand your choices and, hopefully, help them use the tool you have created to its utmost.

10) When you find that people are asking you questions about your project and particularly your methodology, it’s time to write an article or create an output of some kind. Share your findings along the way, including failures. What didn’t work? Why? How would you advise faced with similar problems or choices? Failures are findings, too.

During the remainder of RSA I enjoyed the opportunity to speak informally with various participants in the DH strand. Their generosity and eagerness to advise were impressive, and I walked away from RSA full of new ideas for my post-PhD life. More on that in the coming months as ideas and plans take shape! Towards the end of firming up a digital project proposal I’ve signed up for the Oxford Humanities Digital Summer School. It has been highly recommended to me by a number of RSA attendees, and by participants at the Describing, Analysing and Identifying Early Modern Handwriting: Methods and Issues conference in Oxford on 25 April, 2013.

In a future post I will consider the disjunction between medieval and early modern palaeographical practices which came up at both RSA and the Early Modern Handwriting conference. I will try to outline the issues and propose some solutions. Coming up: a list of online palaeographical tools!

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