Author Archives: Jennifer Guiliano

Why you shouldn’t be a digital humanist

So, it is the end of the official workday in that the official day ends when I leave campus. On mondays, because I teach from 4-6 pm, the official work day gets a little long. I leave the house at 8:20 am, arrive at my desk at 9:05 am, leave work at 6:05 pm, and walk into my apartment at 7 pm (depending on DC traffic and whether WMATA is running well).

Unlike most days where I use my commute to triage email or read whatever strikes my fancy, today I thought I’d put together a few thoughts that have been rumbling around in my head for the last few weeks in the form of a top 5 list.  I think they are most appropriate here on the #dayofdh where people are blogging, tweeting, photo-posting, you name it, to reveal the work that they do as digital humanists. I’m unsurprised that a tremendous number of my dh colleagues are spending their times in meetings, completing what my colleague Trevor Muñoz calls “administrivia”, or just trying to move their project goals forward. I’m so pleased that more the labor of DH is being unveiled for others to see. I wish we were open more than one day a year about all the work that goes into being a digital humanist.  I want that openness because I want to put forth a couple of thoughts that I test drove last week during an invited talk at Clemson. (You can harass @sjappleford for the audio feed of the talk if you want to hear more).

So here we go, 5 reasons why you might not want to be a digital humanist:

5) You will spend a tremendous amount of time being asked to “define digital humanities”. And no matter how much you want to grow the number of digital humanists, it can make you feel like a little piece of your soul is dying every time you need to answer the question.

4) It is quite likely that at least once a month (if not more frequently), someone will call, email, or tweet you, asking if you can just take the time to help them figure out how to (fill in your favorite word here: build a center, start a website, blog, make the printer work, send this email, solve OCR). And they’ll ask for you to do it for free, because well, digital humanists are nice people.

3) You ARE expected to understand technology. And no, I’m not saying you must learn programming languages. I’m saying that you need to understand what technology can and can’t do…stay up to speed on changes in technology. And understand the how the decisions that you make impact what you can do. This may sound mean, but if you can’t check your email, set up a basic database, or click install on software packages on your own….you should think twice about the digital humanities as a place for you.

2) Digital Humanities isn’t the promised land of money and resources. I say again, becoming a digital humanist doesn’t give you any more or less ability that your “traditional” colleagues to get money or resources. There are just as many battles for resources (technologies, personnel, infrastructure, funding) in the digital humanities as there are in “traditional” humanities. In fact, after 8 years as a digital humanist and another 5 prior to that as a “traditional” humanist, I can tell you the resource battles in DH are even more vociferously waged….and the field is getting more and more crowded every day. Today, NEH announced the results of its Digital Humanities Start Up competition and a number of others…..many were disappointed. And that disappointment is just going to grow. There is no formula to win outside money so unless you win the lottery and give it all to your DH project, you are going to have to get down in the muck of fighting for resources (no matter how nice everyone is about the fight).

1) It isn’t about making something once. Sometimes, when I talk to new digital humanists, there is an unspoken thread underlying their comments: “if you build it they will come.” Yea, we get to build it….after we plan it out, build it, customize it, break it, iterate it, beat it with a stick…you get my point. Most digital humanities projects involve actually iterating your development. If you think you build something once and then it exists forever (no matter how complex or simple), you shouldn’t be a digital humanist. We iterate, build, rebuild, write, re-write, and all but dig up completed projects over and over again. The lifespan of most digital project is short…and much shorter than the life of that book sitting on the library shelves.  If you’re planning to hold onto this project for the rest of your life, you’ll have to build it again and again as the technology changes…or at least figure out a preservation strategy to make the initial project accessible 20 years from now.

and finally, the one that doesn’t even make the list because it is more important than anything I’ve said thus far:

You shouldn’t be a digital humanist if …..Your university administrator, department chair, or any other person or entity tells you that is where the money/tenure/prestige/etc are. The most dangerous thing right now in digital humanities isn’t the debate over programming languages, the competition for resources, the inability for DH to coalesce around one definition….It is that more and more scholars are “being” digital humanists not because they are invested in digital tools, resources, methodologies, and approaches but because their university tells them they need to be. Sometimes that gets wrapped up in discussions of the future of education (anyone want a MOOC, anyone? anyone?). Sometimes it gets wrapped in rhetoric about jobs (“where’s your DH chapter/article/project/class?”). And most troublingly, sometimes it gets wrapped up with the business of the University (digital humanities as the revenue-generating division of the humanities.) No matter the rhetorical position, you shouldn’t be working in a field you don’t believe in as a scholar, researcher, staff member, student, etc. Digital humanities isn’t a fall back discipline. It is a complex undertaking that can be alternately rewarding and frustrating.

So, if you find yourself on this list, you might want to at least pause for a moment and ask yourself “Do I really want to invest in the digital humanities?”

Day of DH2013

Day of DH2013 starts in about 4 hours here in Washington, D.C. Like last year’s post, I wanted to start the day of DH offering some context to my day tomorrow. Things at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities are busy. We are gearing up for our final major event of this academic year, the Shared Horizons: Data, Biomedicine, and the Digital Humanities Symposium. It features humanists, digital humanists, bioinformatists, biomedicinists, and library science scholars who are interested in the research methodologies of sequence alignment and network analysis. It will be a great event, I’m sure. But as with all MITH events, I get nervous that things should be as close to perfect as they can be. In part, I think conference, workshop, and these types of events are made by the little things (strong wifi, good snacks, even comfortable chairs) as much as the quality of the presentations. So I’ll be relieved on Friday at 830 pm when the last of the attendees have finished the closing dinner and I’ve returned to my massive to-do list.

Like most staff working in a digital humanities center, I do more than just my regular job. I’m currently working 32 hours per week on MITH-related tasks, 8+ hours per week on my own research, and another 4-6 hours per week teaching a class for the Digital Cultures and Creativity program. On top of all of that, I can’t seem to say no to cool opportunities. So, without further ado, here is this week’s to do list. I won’t get it all done tomorrow (or even likely this week) but it gives you a sense of what I’ve got on tap right now.

In no particular order:

1) Complete the digital history syllabus for the graduate/undergraduate split class I am teaching next academic year

2) Read the book I agreed to review for the Journal of Popular Culture and get the review written.

3) Run down the grad student that I’m interested in hiring part time starting next month to help out with my book project.

4) Draft out the 2 chapters for my collaborator on a new book proposal for his comment.

5) Write the slide decks for the two talks I’m giving about a month from now so that I can run them past the university that invited me to make sure they fit what they want.

6) Prepare the slide deck with my collaborator Simon Appleford for the NITLE seminar we are leading in a few short weeks.

7) Complete travel arrangements for the summer travel I’ve agreed to…plane tickets only get more expensive the closer to summer we get.

8) Complete the syllabus for the course I’m co-teaching this summer with Lynne Siemens at the European Summer School on DH in Leipzig.

9) Register for DH2013 in Lincoln!

10) Draft the final report for my NEH funded Topic Modeling project with Travis Brown.

11) Draft the white paper for my NEH funded Topic Modeling project with Travis Brown.

12) Draft a job ad to share with my collaborators on another funded project to hire a student for the summer to work with us producing digital content.

13) Write the intro and closing slide decks for Shared Horizons.

14) Submit the materials for one of the Executive Committees I’m on so that we can move forward on an initiative I’m super passionate about.

15) Write up talking points for our VPR for the Shared Horizons event.

16) Complete special project readings.

and most importantly on my to-do list:

17) Review the proposed contract for my first book from the publisher. (Yea!!!)

So, tomorrow is pretty busy with meetings. I’ll try to blog meeting by meeting so that you get a glimpse of what I do every day as a digital humanists….but to be frank, once the day gets started it is often hard to pause to note down what is going on. Oh well, it should be a fun day of DH!