Project Endings and Precarious Labor

In April 2021 I was asked to participate in a virtual symposium hosted by The Endings Project, a grant-funded initiative interested in “creating tools, principles, policies and recommendations for digital scholarship practitioners to create accessible, stable, long-lasting resources in the humanities.” One of the big questions driving The Endings Project was, as you may have guessed, “endings” in the context of digital initiatives: how to prepare for their inevitability, what to preserve (and where, and how), and what a focus on endings might reveal regarding digital scholarship’s priorities and methodologies.

Many of the presenters of the symposium contributed their perspectives to a 2023 Special Issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly called “Project Resiliency.” I was also invited to contribute to this special issue. I ultimately chose to withdraw my submission during the review process.

As a precarious laborer in higher ed whose time is not explicitly compensated for academic writing like journal articles, I have to be selective and particular about the time and labor I devote to such endeavors. Unfortunately, the revision timeline for revision and final submission did not align with my schedule, and I was unwilling to sacrifice more personal time to meet this timeline. There were complications that were avoidable, like some confusion on my end about the DHQ article submission process for a special issue. But I also came down with COVID at some point in the editorial process. I also had some issues with the tone and explication of some of the reviewer feedback I received during the process (though I did receive useful feedback from one reviewer and from some members of the Endings Project team).

I have previously withdrawn articles for consideration on the basis of what I view as uncharitable peer review feedback, or due to publication and revision timelines seeming unfavorable to work-life balance priorities, or just due to the unpaid labor not being worth the time or the effort. I remain interested in writing about my research interests and academic experiences for academic audiences, but I have grown picky about taking up that work in recent years. I wouldn’t rule out publishing with an academic publication like DHQ in the future: I have enjoyed writing for them and working with their editorial team in prior professional contexts.

I do think it’s helpful to have the perspective of precarious labor in conversations around digital projects and endings, especially given that the contributions of precarious labor may not always be immediately visible in institutional records and archives. So hopefully some of what is written below is of interest to folks doing digital project work, in digital humanities or in other academic or non-academic contexts. I remain grateful to the folks on The Endings Project who thought of me for inclusion in the symposium, and I learned a lot from my peers in those conversations.

Ultimately, my only regret was leaving the second polished draft of the article to rot in the dark in a Google Drive folder. Aside from some light copyediting and formatting, I haven’t substantially revised the text below. Under different circumstances, I would have likely revised and tweaked the piece below. But I’m ready to mark the end of this particular writing project and move on to other things.

Project Endings and Precarious Labor

December 2021

The conditions of labor in higher education make it challenging for many digital humanists to take up project work if they reside outside of tenure-track and tenured hiring lines. I often think about all the exciting digital projects that never came to be because the conditions of academic labor made this work difficult if not impossible for people who occupy positions of precarious labor in higher ed: students, adjuncts, postdocs and recipients of other short-term fellowships, contractors and grant-funded collaborators, among others. For graduate students, they may only have a finite amount of funding from a fixed degree timeline, giving them little flexibility if a project’s timeline gets delayed or its scope gets assessed.  An adjunct may find it challenging to develop projects with little financial motivation, university support, or available hours in the day as they juggle and prioritize other work. A postdoc may not see the value in pursuing grant funding for a project that may extend beyond their fellowship (and organizations reading applications may question whether a postdoc will have reliable access to the resources needed to successfully complete a project)  An anticipated round of funding may fail to materialize if a grant application is rejected. A university may respond to a pandemic with a hiring freeze that leaves its postdoctoral fellows and adjuncts unemployed. It is difficult to plan multi-year initiatives, pursue grants, and devote the time, labor, and care needed to creating and sustaining collaborations if you are uncertain about your job prospects in the coming year or semester.       

As of yet there is not much data on the scale and scope of the contributions that precarious labor makes to digital humanities projects. That being said, I have experienced the challenges of doing this work firsthand, and I have met many peers working within similar constraints who have shared concerning firsthand accounts. In September of 2018 I joined colleagues in the American Studies Association’s Digital Humanities Caucus to co-author a piece on “Precarious Labor and the Digital Humanities.” We were motivated to make the experiences of precarious labor more visible in large part because we had all at various points found that “the value of our labor has been challenged, taken for granted, dismissed outright, or explained away as at best a fad or at worst the manifestation of neoliberalism in its most craven form within the humanities” (Boyles et al., 2018). We noted the “significant barriers” some of us and our peers faced via the “high cost” of attending digital humanities summer institutes, and the challenges that postdocs and visiting assistant professors encountered when these positions were little more than “a way to fill gaps in programming or sustain curricular diversity without committing to a worker’s future prospects” (Boyles et al., 2018). Recipients of postdoctoral fellowships have been particularly vocal about “exploitative, extractive, dead-end positions” and their impact (Alpert-Abrams et al., 2019). It is perhaps telling that the core co-authors of “The Postdoctoral Laborers’ Bill of Rights” were primarily postdocs doing work in and around digital humanities, and that digital humanities is specifically mentioned as a space where precarious labor has “gone wrong” (Alpert-Abrams, et al., 2019).

Many people occupying various positions of precarity do end up working on digital humanities projects, navigating these poor conditions while also calling attention to the need for substantial reforms in public writing or in more private dialogue (where possible) at local institutions. Over the last decade I have worked on digital initiatives as a doctoral candidate, a postdoctoral fellow, and an adjunct professor.  This article will reflect on my experiences as a project leader and collaborator on digital initiatives at Northeastern University and Brown University in the United States. I will discuss how conditions of precarity shaped the conditions of possibility on these projects: their scale, ambitions, and long-term preservation, among other factors. I will document where and how contributions from precarious collaborators were described and amplified, often out of necessity due to tendencies to privilege tenured and tenure-track faculty contributions at the expense of other participants. And I will reflect on alternate possibilities and actions that might be taken to improve conditions of digital labor, to prioritize long-term preservation without forgetting the precarious labor that saw these projects to completion, and to consider what happens when best practices in project endings privilege institutions over the needs, interests, and values of precarious labor.

Our Marathon and Graduate Student Labor

In the Spring of 2013, I was hired as a researcher on Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive, a community project that collected stories, images, and other materials related to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath (McGrath et al., 2013-2015). The April 15th bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon was classified as an act of domestic terrorism, resulting in three deaths in the bombings, hundreds of injuries, and a citywide manhunt initated that put Boston on “lockdown” after the suspects engaged in several exchanges of gunfire with local law enforcement across the city.  Our Marathon was initiated by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Ryan Cordell, two faculty members in Northeastern University’s English Department. Dillon and Cordell led a team of graduate researchers in the early development of the project and were instrumental in securing internal and external funding lines for project labor and other resources. In anticipation of busier fall and spring semesters when other obligations and professional priorities would compete for their own time and attention, Dillon and Cordell successfully allocated the necessary funds and permissions to hire myself and Alicia Peaker as Project Co-Directors.

Our Marathon was a rapid response collecting initiative, an attempt to centralize and preserve digital and digitized media about a contemporary event before the more ephemeral material disappeared or became more difficult to surface. The project also encouraged contributors to create new records describing and reflecting on the impact of these tragic events: photographs, artwork, oral histories, written testimonials. We were interested in documenting particular experiences (runners, first responders, survivors) and places (the Boylston Street finish line, the temporary memorial created and maintained in Copley Square), that seemed particularly valuable to the historical record and of interest to our desired contemporary audiences. But we also used the phrase “No Story Is Too Small” to encourage contributions that presented the lived experiences of these events and their reach from a variety of perspectives.

Our Marathon’s ability to live up to this rhetoric was shaped and arguably constrained by our available funding and labor, as well as the newness of this kind of project to the institutional culture at the university. In 2013 Northeastern was still in the process of establishing and investing in the institutional support, staffing, and resources it would go on to utilize as an emerging hotbed of digital humanities scholarship and project activity. The Digital Scholarship Group, an integral hub providing support and expertise to a wide range of initiatives, had not yet been established at the Northeastern University Library when Our Marathon began to take shape. Graduate students in Northeastern’s English Department had traditionally secured funding from the university (when available) through teaching appointments, staffing roles at the Writing Center, or via fellowships or research assistantships, not digital project work. Northeastern’s library and its Archives and Special Collections department had previously encouraged students, faculty, and local community partners to deposit collections materials, but it had not previously supported a crowdsourced digital archival initiative that sought to publish and share collections material as it was added to a live, public-facing website.

One constraint that quickly materialized for Our Marathon was its project lifespan. While Peaker and I were funded as Project Co-Directors, it was made clear to us that this funding would run out after the Spring 2014 semester. Our project budget would cover graduate researchers, and we were able to hire undergraduate work-study students during this time period for project labor. We were also awarded external funding from WBUR to compensate two oral historians (Jayne Guberman and Joanna Shea O’Brien), an audio technician (Ryan McDonough, then an MLIS candidate at Simmons University), and an oral history project manager (Kristi Girdharry, then a doctoral candidate in Northeastern’s English Department). We eventually secured some additional funding for the summer of 2014 to hire a team of graduate students to create metadata records for items shared with Our Marathon by the Boston City Archives. But active project work in the form of outreach, programming, the hiring and management of undergraduate and graduate staffing, and the updating of the project’s public-facing website concluded by August 2014.

A year is a very tight timeline for a digital project, especially one with Our Marathon’s interests and lofty ambitions. Our efforts were aided in part by our reliance on Omeka, an open-source content management system that enabled us to quickly organize and publish digital items and collections on a public-facing website. Omeka enabled project team members to create and display metadata records for contributed items. For crowdsourced contributions received via our online portal or at our “Share Your Story” programming initiatives, we made use of a customized contribution plugin (developed by Becky Ferris, a freelance developer compensated for this work out of project funding) that presented users with a short series of questions designed to solicit metadata about materials and contributors.

Omeka was essential to Our Marathon’s ability to solicit and quickly publish content, collections, and digital exhibits, but I would caution similar projects with short project lifespans, limited budgets, and precarious labor about the limitations of this content management system. An Omeka instance can be quickly installed and made public on a server if a project team has access to one, and Omeka also provides a service called where users can work with a “hosted service option” that is designed to alleviate “worrying about installation or hosting” (Omeka). But speed of publication can come with a cost if a project lacks the staffing or funding to devote time and resources to customizing their Omeka instance to align with the expectations of their project’s desired audience. For example, our use of Omeka on Our Marathon enabled us to easily collect individual crowdsourced submissions online or at our events, but our audience had to individually submit each item. While we worked individually with contributors who wanted to share multiple records, we no doubt lost contributions from users frustrated by these limitations. And while we paid a developer to customize the look and design of our Omeka instance to align it more closely with the aesthetics of contemporary websites, the interface, search engine limitations, and metadata-centric layout of item pages likely impacted the reception of the project among individuals more accustomed to the design choices and options presented by social media apps and multimodal collections hubs. So while Our Marathon would not have been possible without Omeka, our interest in speed and the limits of our budget likely limited the kinds of contributions we ultimately received on the project.

Our concerns about these technical limitations and their impact on the stories present and absent in our crowdsourced collections led us to develop substantial programming that got us off Northeastern’s campus and into various neighborhoods and communities in Greater Boston. In the fall of 2013, we presented our project’s aims and intentions to a group of representatives of local cultural institutions in the area, along with a pitch offering to bring “Share Your Story” events to interested parties. Several institutions took us up on this offer, including the Watertown Free Public Library, which was interested in creating opportunities for its constituents to reflect on the impact of the shootout and ensuing manhunt for the bombing suspects that overwhelmed the city and its streets in April 2013. We also ran a series of events at the Boston Public Library’s main branch in Copley Square (located mere yards from the Marathon finish line and the site of the bombings), coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the bombings and the debut of a “Dear Boston” exhibition that displayed physical materials and photographs. Bringing “Share Your Story” events to public libraries helped us reach audiences who may not have come across Our Marathon by other means.

These “Share Your Story” events became opportunities to increase archival literacy in conversations with attendees, as we frequently received questions about the perceived value of particular contributions and perspectives, the labor involved in taking up this work, and the role metadata plays in the creation and dissemination of collections, among other topics. Their success was also dependent upon our project team’s willingness to contribute unpaid time and labor to the project. Our ambitious Spring 2014 programming slate required a particularly large amount of additional hours that exceeded the hours we could bill for project work. Our team contributed this time and labor in part because we cared so much about the project’s positive impact and its value to the audiences we met beyond our department offices and laptop screens. But I imagine that we also undervalued our labor because of the culture of our profession and its investments in forms of exploitation. We also benefited from the relative newness of digital public humanities initiatives at Northeastern and the autonomy we had to shape the project and make decisions about its priorities. Our Primary Investigators graciously trusted our developing experience and our instincts.

In many respects, Our Marathon quickly became a case study for Northeastern in terms of how it might support and encourage collaborative digital initiatives, and its approaches to project labor, management, documentation, and preservation would go on to influence the forms of project support offered by the Digital Scholarship Group (DSG) and Archives and Special Collections. For example, since 2015 the Digital Scholarship Group has offered the CERES Exhibit Toolkit, an initiative that provides pre-approved collaborators (via an application process) with resources and a workflow that enables projects to store digital collections in Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service (DRS) and curate and contextualize these materials for intended audiences via WordPress exhibit templates. CERES was inspired in part by Our Marathon and a growing interest in developing similar projects that desired to collect and archive materials as well as present project assets in a manner more engaging than a digital repository collections interface. WordPress was identified as a content management system that provided users with “design options” that gave their projects a desired look and feel more in line with contemporary websites than the themes offered by Omeka, while also “giving the DSG the standardization [needed] to ensure functionality in the future” (CERES 2019).  CERES also encourages the use of Northeastern’s DRS and its approach to metadata over the utilization of a content management system like Omeka, which uses Dublin Core standards. Our Marathon’s project assets were stored on library servers before content was successfully migrated to the DRS and published in a CERES WordPress incarnation in 2018, the five-year anniversary of the bombings. Several people involved in Our Marathon work were involved in the early development of the CERES Exhibit Toolkit, including myself.

Giving Our Marathon a proper ending required additional investments in time, labor, and resources by Northeastern beyond the August 2014 end of active project development and outreach. The term “sunsetting” has been deployed at times to describe a project moving from an active initiative maintained by a core team and attendant support staff at institutions (like, for example, library staff checking on updates to project software and security risks, among other areas) to a state where the project’s core assets have been archived (or, in some cases, abandoned due to an inability to preserve due to technical, staffing, or economic limitations). But to watch a sunset is a passive act, while “sunsetting” often entails lots of time and work. So let’s call what happened with Our Marathon the conscious creation of conditions of a project’s ending, for the sake of clarity.

While I stayed on at Northeastern to finish my doctorate and ended up hired by the DSG as a Coordinator due in part to my experiences on Our Marathon, Peaker graduated in late 2014 and the additional graduate and undergraduate labor on the project shifted their focus to degree obligations once project funding for staffing ran out. Because we knew that our time on the project was limited, Peaker and I reached out to Archives and Special Collections early in the project’s lifespan to discuss what they would need to archive and preserve materials in the DRS. Giordana Mecagni in Archives and Patrick Yott, Amanda Rust, and Sarah Sweeney in Northeastern University were integral in ensuring that Our Marathon invested early in the creation and use of a project metadata schema and project documentation. These people were also closely involved in the development of CERES and were key in enabling Our Marathon’s migration of assets and ending as a project under the CERES umbrella.

In addition to documenting the motivations and justifications behind certain project decisions and leaving behind clear and accessible records regarding project data and materials, Peaker and I became particularly invested in documenting the contributions made by our various forms of project labor, given that our time at the institution was finite and that we and our collaborators desired the creation of a permanent and accurate record of our efforts. We had also previously found that, despite the efforts of Dillon and Cordell to center and document the contributions of graduate labor, media coverage of Our Marathon tended to focus on the faculty. For example, a Chronicle of Higher Education article on the project used a photograph of myself at one of our “Share Your Story” events but never mentioned my name or my role as Co-Director (Howard 2013).

A revised Our Marathon project website launched in April of 2018. While our budgeting had allocated a small work stipend for my continued involvement on Our Marathon after August of 2014, I primarily volunteered my time and labor to serve as a resource to the DSG and Archives and Special Collections as they migrated project materials and created the new site. The revised Our Marathon site takes advantage of the CERES WordPress shell and the more powerful DRS search engine to present project assets in a clear and compelling manner. The Site Migration and Relaunch Team dedicated themselves to documenting previous contexts and contributions to the project’s history of staffing, as well as recording their own important contributions. The “Our Marathon 2.0” site provides a lengthy list of project alumni, a timeline of key project milestones, and a record of the project’s original use of Omeka.

Since Our Marathon, Northeastern has played host to a number of digital projects and initiatives that centralize the publication and use of digital collections. Like Our Marathon, several of these projects involve off-campus collaborations. For example, Boston’s Racial Equity History Project is an effort involving Archives and Special Collections as well as the City of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity and The Harvard-Mellon Urban Initiative. In 2018, the DSG began work on the Boston Research Center, a collaboration designed to support several projects connecting archival records of early and developing histories of Greater Boston to academic and nonacademic audiences. Graduate student labor remains an important component of these efforts. That being said, Our Marathon remains a kind of outlier due to the sizable project roles and influence that graduate labor had in shaping the direction of the initiative and documenting its precarious contributors.

Project Fatigue: Learning The Wrong Lessons About Endings and Precarious Labor

I have continued to work on digital public humanities projects since Our Marathon. Most recently, I was Public Humanities Lead on the Rhode Island COVID-19 Archive, a collaboration led by Kate Wells at the Providence Public Library’s Archive and Special Collections department and Becca Bender from the Rhode Island Historical Society. As with Our Marathon, Omeka enabled a team of collaborators who either volunteered time or had very small amounts of paid staff time (5 hours per week out of a 40-hour work week in some instances, for example) to quickly create a website that could solicit contributions, create item and collection metadata, and organize submissions into collections. But unlike Our Marathon, the Rhode Island COVID-19 Archive gathered larger collections of materials via targeted outreach that often involved contributors sharing files and contextual data via Google Drive folders, Google Forms, and Google Sheets. This content would then have to be migrated over to the project’s Omeka instance by project team members using Omeka’s CSV Import Tool and other resources. Because our team was made up of previous Omeka users like myself as well as trained archivists like Wells, Bender, and others, we were able to navigate the limitations of our project’s funding, staffing, and web design expertise. Jeremy Ferris, Providence Public Library’s Digital Content Manager, worked with Dana Signe K. Munroe, Registrar at the Rhode Island Historical Society, to make design choices that worked well within the limitations of Omeka’s built-in themes.

The Rhode Island COVID-19 Archive has ended up collecting over 1500 submissions (as of this writing), and the project won the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities 2021 Innovation in The Humanities Award. Our Marathon was also an award-winning initiative, winning the 2013 Digital Humanities Award (an award given to candidates who receive the most votes from visitors to the DH Awards website) for “Best DH Project for Public Audiences.” These commendations were useful forms of validation and recognition that project team members could use in job materials and in making the case for future collaborative efforts in digital public humanities. But I am struck by how little has changed between 2013 and 2021, in terms of the lack of permanent or more stable lines of employment, financial resources, and time afforded these kinds of projects and their architects. There seems to be a clear disconnect between the value institutions receive from hosting these award-winning projects and the value assigned to the people responsible for their labor. I worry that projects like Our Marathon and the Rhode Island COVID-19 Archive demonstrate that these efforts can succeed in spite of the absence of more tangible and sustainable resources. And I do caution graduate students and early career scholars from getting involved in similar projects, in large part because they tend to exploit their precarious laborers even when staffed by team members who are aware of these contexts. In many ways these projects are labors of love, but such an approach is arguably both unethical and unsustainable.

I have come to experience what I have begun calling “project fatigue” in the specific contexts of digital humanities, public humanities, and public history, after spending the last eight years working in and around these academic terrains and initiating or collaborating upon several projects. “Project fatigue” has been an unpopular term in some of these spaces, particularly when I have used it in reflections where I have hoped to think critically about the professional development of graduate students interested in digital humanities and digital public history. There are many examples of graduate students with digital project portfolios who have gone on to experience great success in higher education or in “alt-ac” careers, I am told. As someone who has at times been held up as one such example, having been awarded a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities at Brown University after completing my doctorate in English at Northeastern University, I have a few asterisks and wrinkles to add to some of these digital project success stories.

To be blunt, I think these narratives are often more emphasized by project collaborators with the comfort of long-term job security, by the institutions and departments looking to entice new graduate student applicants, and by earlier waves of digital humanists who, if they were graduating in the last five or six years, would be navigating job markets with fewer long-term positions and more “competition” in the rising numbers of early-career scholars with similar sets of interests and expertise. One’s perception of project endings – their necessity, their protocols, their investments in archiving and preserving long-term assets for re-use – is perhaps contingent upon one’s institutional vantage point, and in the ability to dictate the terms of an ending rather than have those conditions be dictated to you.

When I reference “project fatigue” I am not suggesting that digital humanities practitioners stop initiating and collaborating on these kinds of efforts. But I do think that the precarity of some potential, desired, or even essential contributors to digital projects should be more explicitly acknowledged. Here are some areas where I have aspired to address conditions of precarity in the development, management, and endings of digital humanities projects:

Contributor Roles and Responsibilities

Job titles are an important component of digital initiatives, especially when the time and labor investments of precarious project team members are motivated by professional development and informed by time constraints like available staffing hours or undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral funding timelines. Job titles are also important elements of projects that the caretakers of projects and their endings should include in documentation and preservation materials. When discussing with students the ways that online content is not simply changing but also eroding, (digitally) rotting, and disappearing, I often ask them to read “All My Blogs are Dead,” a 2015 blog post by Carter Maness that describes the loss of clippings many online journalists have been forced to navigate when publications they once wrote for go out of business, get sold, or simply neglect to care for their archives. Despite years of experience, Maness came to find, when it came time to apply for new opportunities, that “my writing resume is now oddly incomplete and unverifiable” (Maness 2015).

All laborers on digital projects, precarious or otherwise, should have a clear sense of where and how their contributions will be documented, as well as how that documentation will be preserved and maintained. In an ideal scenario, a project may have institutional contributors who will remain to share and record this information. But not every project has that luxury. As a precarious laborer who was also a project co-lead on Our Marathon, myself and Alicia Peaker made sure that records of staff, collaborators, and volunteers (as well as contact information that was not explicitly dependent upon our employment at a particular institution) were shared with Northeastern’s Digital Scholarship Group and Archives and Special Collections before our time in this institutional spaces was up. Project narratives that provide additional context on the roles of certain contributors over the course of an initiative may also provide information of interest to future employers (as well as peers and academic researchers). Other projects at various scales may review options for archiving both digital assets and contextual metadata at institutional repositories. If these options are not available, project leads may consider creating some records of websites whose preservation is beyond their control via resources like The Internet Archive. Some of these records will inevitably be incomplete, but some of this material may prove useful in later professional contexts.

In my experiences on digital projects, I have been fortunate to work in environments that privilege transparency and open dialogue on job titles and project roles. The job title of Project Co-Director of Our Marathon arose after conversations with supportive Primary Investigators who wanted our contributions to be documented and recognized in ways that would prove valuable to our career trajectories. The project roles on the Rhode Island COVID-19 Archive were all discussed and arrived at via consensus early in the project’s lifespan. It is not enough for a tenured academic to rattle off the many different skills that students might acquire on a digital initiative if they are not also doing the work of creating titles that reflect the skills those precarious contributors value. Project leads should have these conversations with staff and volunteers and act upon this information. Opportunities should be available for participants to revise these titles as needed, and in some cases there may be discussions of how to anonymize, pseudonymize, or even redact names and titles, depending on the permanence of documentation.

Citation and Professional Development Opportunities

Records of staff and volunteer contributions can and should be productively complemented by citational records of value to these contributors. Some of these records may be short-lived, or their capacities for long-term preservation may be beyond the control of the project. But encouraging precarious laborers on projects to take ownership of their contributions and be strategic about where and how they discuss their roles can aid the positive reputations of projects and their collaborators in their afterlives. For example, a project’s social media presence may make it easier for contributors to highlight their work, while also amplifying the particular mission and aims of this initiative in these online spaces when relevant. These approaches often benefit from the documentation and long-term preservation efforts previously discussed.

For example, after the Our Marathon project began to receive attention from media outlets like The Boston Globe and The Chronicle of Higher Education, our Primary Investigators recommended that we consider documenting our project on Wikipedia. My initial attempt to create a Wikipedia page for Our Marathon was quickly stymied by my lack of understanding about systems of value and citationality in this space. Fortunately, I was able to connect with Amanda Rust at the Northeastern University Libraries, a seasoned Wikipedian who was willing to help me navigate these digital waters. The Our Marathon Wikipedia page went live in April of 2014 and it remains online as of this writing.

Peaker and I were encouraged to discuss our contributions to Our Marathon at academic conferences like the 2014 international Digital Humanities Conference held in Lausanne, Switzerland. More importantly, our faculty mentors worked to secure funding for these kinds of travels, given their tremendous costs. Kirsti Girdharry was encouraged by her dissertation committee to write about her contributions to Our Marathon in her dissertation, and Boston City Archives Collection Project Team member Kevin Smith wrote about his experiences in a peer-reviewed article published in the academic journal Computers and Composition.

 It is also important that project leads discuss where and how one might describe and reflect on project contributions, and what concerns there might be about centering the role of project staff at the expense of a project’s aims and ethos. For example, the Our Marathon team frequently discussed concerns about the potential extractive dimensions of this project, in the sense that our project motivations should center investments in community reflection, in creating an online space where contributors felt comfortable sharing their experiences. We also talked about word choice in descriptions of these experiences: for example, people injured in the bombings tended to favor being described as “survivors” rather than “victims,” and our investments as a community project led us frequently to align with these kinds of rhetorical desires. The work of preserving and contextualizing project materials was often directed at these specific goals, given that many contributors valued sharing their stories with us because of our expressed desire to expand the historical record of the bombings and their aftermath beyond news media coverage of these events. So while contributors were encouraged to discuss their roles, we also reflected on the implications of doing so in particular ways.

Precarious Labor, Project Development, and Collaboration

I agree that students who work on digital humanities projects have been able to demonstrate proficiency in marketable skills related to design, programming, and project management (among others). I think the two ways that I have most benefited from my work on digital public humanities projects have been my experiences in project management and my experiences collaborating with people at different institutional and career contexts on and off-campus. After Our Marathon, I received more formalized training in this topic via a course taught by Jen Guiliano and Simon Appleford at the 2014 Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching Institute (HILT), passed on some of that knowledge to graduate students I taught as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities at Brown University from 2015-2020, and currently utilize those skills myself in project management contexts as an Instructional Designer at Salem State University. My positive experiences working with archivists and librarians on Our Marathon led me to seek out similar collaborators during my time at Brown, which led me to my frequent collaborators at the Providence Public Library Special Collections Department. At one point I even seriously considered following up my doctorate with a degree in information and library sciences.

I learned about project management in large part because on Our Marathon, we had no other choice but to learn. I would not subject students to similar “sink or swim” scenarios. But I do think students can learn about best practices while working at smaller scales, provided there are appropriate scaffolding and support measures in place to make these conditions generative. And these conditions do not need to be confined to the classroom. For example, one of my favorite digital public humanities projects from my time at Brown was Public Work, a twelve-episode public humanities podcast that I co-created with Amelia Golcheski, then a Masters Student in Public Humanities, in the fall of 2017. Brown’s Center for Public Humanities had never had its own podcast, and in my role as a Postdoctoral Fellow I was able to devote time and resources to piloting what one might look, sound, and feel like. Golcheski was a paid fellow at the Center who was interested in gaining digital project experience, and after some conversations about the scope and approach we might take, we landed on the podcast idea. Golcheski’s role as co-creator and co-host was clearly legible and documented, and we collaborated on the project management needed to complete our season: learning to use audio equipment, communicating with potential collaborators, creating a schedule, publishing episodes on major podcasting platforms, moving copies of episodes into Brown’s digital repository, and other responsibilities. While Golcheski and I both decided not to pursue Public Work after its first season despite our positive experiences on the project and its warm reception, we were both able to refer back to this initiative as a fully-formed effort that we can still reference and cite today.    

Collaboration can be much more challenging to participate in or initiate when working in a position of precarity. During a brief sojourn as an adjunct in Northeastern University’s History Department in 2020-2021, I was fortunate enough to have access to financial resources as a Faculty Fellow in the university’s NuLab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. I successfully applied for internal NuLab funding to develop a prototype of a photogrammetry public history project about a particular space in the Boston neighborhood of Lower Allston. Unfortunately, the conditions of precarious academic labor, magnified by the challenges of meeting new collaborators and doing field work in the midst of a global pandemic, ended up preventing even a project with relatively modest ambitions to get off the ground, so the money was not able to be used. Doing adjunct work in digital public history and digital public humanities means that you are not always afforded the compensated time and attention one needs to align your work with best practices, even when you do have access to financial resources for project development.

With this particular project, I knew that I did not want to embed it in a public history course, in part because I was concerned about my ability to complete it, even in a more nascent prototype stage. But collaborative experiences are often greatly desired and valued by students in digital humanities courses, especially ones with public history or public humanities components. Many departments and universities could do more to support instructors and students who are navigating the challenges of precarity. For masters students in particular, their shorter degree timelines require innovative and student-centered approaches to project development and to facilitating opportunities for collaboration. Some instructors tend to de-emphasize these latter elements, developing assignments that ask students to work independently on project prototypes and require them to be proactive in seeking out their own collaborators. These conditions do a disservice to our students, especially given the costs of degrees and the financial resources exerted on cost-of-living needs. All of us who work with such students can do more to create resources and spaces where precarious laborers reach endings on their own terms, experiences that they might look back on fondly and productively build upon after our time with them has come to its own end.

You can email me at jimmcgrath[dot]us[at]gmail if you have questions or comments about this post (or about my work more generally).