Generous Methodologies and Digital Scholarship (Notes from the 2019 CNI-ARL Digital Scholarship Planning Workshop)

The view from the CNI-ARL Digital Scholarship Planning Workshop at Northeastern University, 18 floors above Boston.

On Monday, March 25th, I spoke on a “Student Panel” at the CNI-ARL Digital Scholarship Planning Workshop (hosted by Northeastern University). While I’m not currently a student (unless this has all been a dream and I still am! Oh no!), I worked at the Northeastern University Library Digital Scholarship Group as a graduate student, in addition to my work on Our Marathon and with Digital Humanities Quarterly. I ended up talking a bit more about how digital scholarship centers support students, faculty, and other collaborators on and off campus, and I decided to share a revised version of some of those remarks here.

I know “outreach” and “programming” become abstract contexts (often made real by limitations of our resources like staffing, space, money), and documentation doesn’t solve all of our problems, but I wonder how we think about “generous interfaces” in digital and non-digital contexts: not just for our digital assets, but “generous methodologies.” Generous avenues of access that extend beyond a well-designed web site, an “open office” policy that is less open than its rhetoric suggests if “office hours” alone are a new, unfamiliar, intimidating and unwelcoming site of pedagogy. Forms of generosity that demystify our communities, our forms of scholarly and non-scholarly output, our ideas of value.

As someone who institutionally resides outside a digital scholarship group but serves as a mediator or collaborator with one at Brown, I think a lot about the legibility and the points of access available to a range of students and how things could be better. Here I’m thinking particularly about students (and faculty) who may not fit neatly with the dominant form of support, service, or collaboration at a particular institution. When we think particularly about students and their interests and needs, how do we move beyond a single abstraction (or beyond a binary like “undergraduates” and “graduate students”)? When we think of particular technologies and methodologies, how might we consider the ways that our investments in particular physical places, our forms of programming, instruction, and documentation, all should be designed to serve a range of publics and attendant contexts and use-cases?

Libraries and their resources are part of the hidden curriculum for many students, particularly first-generation undergraduate and graduate students. Based on conversations with first-gen students at Brown and elsewhere, and my own experiences as a first-gen PhD, it’s not always clear how to ask for help and what form that should take, let alone who to ask or where to look on a web site. Some questions, like “Can I get a web site?” or “Can I have server space?” seem like they have been answered at the institutional level years ago: a protocol has been established, or information is documented somewhere online. But every year we get a range of new students who don’t know the answers to these questions. And while some students have experiences with public libraries, we shouldn’t assume that our institutions are legible, let alone accessible, to members of our community who have used resources in similar contexts. Things have changed in many ways in higher ed contexts: the avenue of resources has expanded significantly, the stakes are much higher, the potential uses of knowledge and tools, particularly technologies, have taken on new forms. I still remember the first time I learned about inter-library loans, the first day I took out archival materials at a campus that was not my own, the first time I came across a collection of available and “open” data sets but had no direction regarding their potential use.

This panel asked us to reflect on the paths that led us to digital scholarship centers and what we’ve learned about the work happening in those institutional spaces. I’ve greatly relied on faculty advisors who demystified the realities of higher education and considered the relationship between my interests and academic networks and forms of knowledge. My mother, who taught in public and private schools in New York City and New Jersey, has a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from Hofstra and worked a second job teaching ESOL at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn when we were kids, but we never talked about how someone became a teacher, or the fact that there were different credentials for different kinds of teaching. I came to Marist College as an undergraduate with no trajectory, no cheat sheet, no professional contexts or network or grooming. My undergraduate advisor, Tom Goldpaugh, was the first person who described graduate school to me and the application process, and that conversation happened pretty late, during the start of my senior year. Our department didn’t produce many graduate students (and I don’t know how many PhDs came through Marist’s English Department, to be honest; I know of one other, but I imagine there are more). Our conversation about grad school came out of my interest in learning how he got to do what he did for a living.

At Northeastern, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon steered me to digital humanities after I gave a presentation on internet poetry and weird Tumblr mixed-media art (“memes” was a term that was less ubiquitous than it is now, but it was in the air). But the path to “doing digital scholarship” wasn’t immediately clear to me: I met some students who were into DH at the Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth (a program that Elizabeth encouraged students to attend and ensured that interested students had economic resources to support these interests). But those interests came out of dissertation projects that had steered them towards data and visualizations, and my own project seemed removed from those interests. It wasn’t until I took a course in electronic literature at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute that I saw a clear line between my dissertation work and DH.

My more visible and direct contributions to digital scholarship began via my role as a research assistant and then Co-Director of Our Marathon. This work pre-dates the creation of the Northeastern University Library Digital Scholarship Group by a few months, but in these pre-DSG times I learned about the network of digital scholarship practitioners and supporters at the library: metadata specialists like Sarah Sweeney, subject specialists like Amanda Rust, technology service specialists like Karl Yee, archivists interested in digital and non-digital forms of preservation like Giordana Mecagni. With the creation of the DSG and the arrival of Julia Flanders as its Director, the avenues of access to these practitioners and their role in shaping forms of digital scholarship support became clearer. Pre-DSG, we benefited from the visibility of Our Marathon and its prioritization, so project team members were not turned away when we sent emails and then materialized in these spaces in the library.

Beyond Our Marathon, my interest in digital scholarship and its forms of project development and support led me to seeking employment at the DSG. I spent my last eight months at Northeastern as DSG Coordinator. At this time in the lifespan of the DSG, forms of labor and communication and ideas of support were being developed, implemented, and assessed, so I was able to learn a lot about the meta-dimensions of digital scholarship group development: how the DSG was figuring out its identity and priorities, its workflows, its programming, its bandwidths, its short and long-term needs. All of this work made me interested in spaces where I could continue to work collaboratively on digital scholarship projects, consult with students, develop programming, pursue forms of public-facing digital scholarship efforts similar to Our Marathon. When I read the job description for the Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities at Brown, I saw a job that would enable me to continue to work and learn in these spaces.

But in the same way that my time as Coordinator was a condition of my standing as an enrolled graduate student, a postdoc is unfortunately a precarious position with a fixed term (at least the Postdoc in Digital Public Humanities here is), so I’ve been thinking about the next step in my career and applying to similar positions. Despite my extensive experiences doing digital scholarship in higher ed contexts at Northeastern and now at Brown, the absence of a library degree sticks out when I have applied to digital scholarship centers that institutionally reside in libraries. For example, once I was described as “the only non-library candidate” at the start a campus visit, which made me wonder how this lack of a credential was the biggest takeaway folks there got from my application materials (and made me wonder if I should write  “YES I HAVE WORKED IN A LIBRARY BEFORE. A VERY GOOD ONE, IN FACT.” in bold at the top of my CV for future library applications.). I think that my own particular interest in project development in management and consulting and forms of archival labor make me look on paper a lot like a person who should have a library degree but does not possess it.

While some digital scholarship centers prioritize library degrees, how many of them with digital public history and humanities aspirations (their own or those held by their collaborators) have staff with the experience and time to think about these particular needs? I think some libraries and centers are really thinking more about programming and interface design needs that make their digital scholarship projects look and feel less like, well, digital scholarship projects, but the forms of collaboration, outreach, and project management involved in many of these efforts could benefit from staffing that has experience on pubic-facing projects, or initiatives with collaborators beyond higher ed contexts.

Sometimes I get dinged (when applying for jobs at libraries and archives) for having lots of teaching experience but not as much experience in other digital scholarship contexts, and I’d argue that libraries and archives could learn a lot about effective forms of supporting and collaborating in pedagogical spaces from people with DH or DS teaching experience (especially if they’ve worked with librarians and archivists on digital scholarship in the past. People like me with these experiences know what’s happening in and around these classrooms and what some of the needs, models, and the ways that professional trajectories in particular majors might be interested in particular digital or collaborative forms. I also think libraries and departments should think about what a staff member with digital pedagogy experience and a departmental affiliation (enabling them to teach and to have a more permanent job than, say, a postdoc) might do to improve a campus digital scholarship community and the visibility of DS there.

And it’s worth thinking about the difference between a long-tenured faculty member who has picked up digital scholarship interests over time and a junior scholar with recent and significant experience in the professional networks of digital scholarship, someone with more skin in the game. Someone who may have a clearer sense of what students invested in digital scholarship might be facing on job markets, at conferences, in professional contexts beyond traditional academic trajectories and spaces in higher ed.


Finally, I think a big question is how libraries are thinking about where the students they support go professionally and how the work they do in digital scholarship might prepare for, or anticipates these later contexts. To be blunt, I think libraries could do more to expand their focus beyond students in explicit DH and DS career tracks. Everyone doing DH and DS should acknowledge the ethical realities of a digital scholarship job market that is getting smaller, more specialized, more competitive, and increasingly dominated by the usual gatekeepers and elite networks. If a digital scholarship center is interested in professional possibilities, networks, and publics beyond academic jobs, conferences, and institutions, what does that look like at the levels of staffing, methodology, use of time and resources, forms of collaboration? How do we go beyond the small step of documenting and making visible the contributions of student labor on our project pages and think more about how we are listening to the ways students define the value of their experiences in digital scholarship? How do we provide resources and contexts for the work of shaping and refining those values? And how do we make sure to think beyond the community of students who have access to hidden knowledge, who benefit from close ties to faculty members, who don’t know where and how digital scholarship might resonate with their interests and research? Who is already doing the work of “generous methodologies” in digital scholarship, and how can we join them?

Thanks to Matt Gold for asking about what a digital project’s “About” page does (and does not do) for the students documented there. Additionally, I mentioned Monica Muñoz Martinez as someone who I align with my sense of “generous methodologies” in the post-panel discussion. You can read about her work with students on Mapping Violence here and here.

Questions, comments? Feel free to email me at james_mcgrath@brown.edu, or get in touch with me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.



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