Presenting at Digital Humanities (DH) 2015, July 1, 2015, Sydney, Australia.


Organizational Practices in Digital Humanities Centers

This paper addresses organizational practices and potential future developments of digital humanities centers (DHC). The paper draws on findings of an ethnographic study carried out between 2011-2013 at eleven DHCs in the US and Europe (to leave room for the empirical findings, contextualization in relevant literature was intentionally omitted from this abstract). The analyzed centers were founded from the early 1990s to present date. All centers are affiliated with research-intensive universities, have a dedicated space, and employ between five and fifteen.

A significant difference is the bottom-up character of the early DHCs contrasted against the top-down nature of newer centers. This difference was also evident among the contemporary DHCs. In the top-down cases, university administrators often wanted to establish a hub of scholarly innovation without a clear sense of what that innovation entailed, what the center’s function would be, the range of services it should provide, and who would comprise the primary user-base. At one center, housed in the university library, new glass walls represented visually transparent boundary between the print and the electronic materials. Flexible workspaces with standing stations equipped with high-end technologies were designed to adjust to user needs. But while design, ergonomic and technical features were meticulously considered the goals for the center and thoughts about the user community were given less attention:

That’s really a big question for us, figuring out what kind of services we want to offer.We’re still trying to figure out what our outreach will have to be to scholars to get them to use this. We’re not sure what’s going to happen on the first day when we open the doors. Are people going to know what to do? Are they going to come in, sit down and check email?

Another campus of the same university system simultaneously launched its DHC using a different organizational strategy. The idea to establish the center came from humanities scholars rather than from the administration. This group of scholars began the planning phase with a university-wide dialogue. They included their colleagues from the humanities division, information technologists, computer scientists, librarians, and other potential stakeholders. They prioritized talking to humanities students and faculty about their visions, wishes, and potential points of resistance related to the center. These early conversations and comprehensive planning helped identify which organizational strategies and design possibilities were consistent with their goals for the center and resulted in well-defined goals and clear mission statements for the new unit.

In a number of the analyzed centers, the main goal was to support humanities scholars in their current research and to gradually introduce them to digital tools and methods. These centers target the widest spectrum of humanists rather than rely on scholars who were already well versed in, or inclined to use digital tools. These centers bridge the critical gap between technologically advanced and less advanced scholars, but with such diverse user community they sometimes struggle to profile their activities. Some centers thus adopt a more precisely defined approach when establishing goals and characterizing potential user communities.

Parallel functioning of disconnected DHCs of the same institution is a significant problem. DH units are often differentiated according to the areas of work that they support, and according to their funding sources. This organizational system can help DHCs formulate clear goals, but it can also lead to user confusion: “They don’t know which center is best for them and it may just turn them off from going anywhere.”

Considering resistance toward digital scholarship sometimes held by traditionally trained humanists, DHCs develop an outreach strategy that involves two preparatory steps: 1) making humanists aware that they already rely on digital technologies; 2) explaining that DHCs are offering digital tools and methods rather than imposing them. In their outreach activities, DHCs frequently stumble upon the users’ lack of time:

These are very busy people, and their concern is primarily what is their current research about. And very often they are ultimately making choices between do they go and pay attention to our offer of a demonstration about digital tools, or do they spend that hour and focus on their own research questions. We’re competing with natural priorities in a scholar’s life.

DHCs also rely on word of mouth to reach potential users; exchange of experiences among peers is one of their most successful outreach strategies:

If you can reach the right people out in the faculty or even grad students, that’s a much more compelling argument than anything that we can say. Even though we may have PhD’s and may use technology for our own research, we’re not in the same role as they are. So, hearing from someone who lives a life just like they do in many ways is very compelling.

User support is an important, but not always clearly anticipated part of activities in DHCs. Growing effective DHCs involves keeping regular office hours, organizing talks and workshops, answering user inquiries, but also balancing disciplines within the user community so that no single discipline dominates the center’s activities and conversations. An important element of maintaining user communities also involves shaping user expectations and clarifying the nature of partnership with users. Users often view DHCs as serving humanists’ requests rather than collaborating with them:

They see us as the programming shop that will do whatever they tell us to, and that’s not really how we’re trying to approach this. It’s more of collaboration, and we actually get something back out of it also.

DHCs often employ hybrids—traditionally trained humanists who also have good computer skills. They are seen as a necessary link between “the two cultures” who can adeptly translate epistemological and methodological concepts and approaches. “Smart organizations will have more of me,” remarked the Head of the R&D team at one of the centers who also happens to be a historian with good programming skills. The advantage of speaking both “programese” and “scholarese,” as this interviewee put it, is the capacity to help humanists grasp digital tools and methods while simultaneously helping programmers understand humanities work. DHCs have found an efficient way of employing hybrids through engaging humanities graduate students, who are usually early adopters of technology. Graduate students who participated in the study liked working in DHCs. It allowed them to advance their research skills and to build expertise through participation in important research and decision-making activities.

The reversal of instructional roles, in which students were teaching teachers, facilitated students’ understanding of some of the didactic principles motivating them to develop their own pedagogic strategies.

Hybrids as a type of scholarly workforce are linked to the concept of alternative academic careers. The interviewees described alternative academic paths as intentional career choices scholars make. Although this choice allows scholars to continue working in their preferred field, the transition is nonetheless perceived as difficult and consequential:

“You can’t just yank somebody out of the faculty and out of years or decades of training without some accounting for how they conceive of themselves as a scholar.”

The respondents argue that from an administrative point of view, thinking about people’s time and labor might be the most important issue DHCs will need to engage with, because the internal inherited systems of classifying employees are not well suited to DH practices.

Traditional organizational systems for classifying scholars are not only inefficient for addressing contemporary issues of academic labor and knowledge production; they are also potentially detrimental to the future of scholarly work:

If we can’t get this generation of graduate students comfortable with alternate modes of work, not feeling like they are failures if they don’t get a tenure-track position, and seeing good career paths for themselves within the DH, we’re going to lose that generation of scholars.

Among the respondents, two related but disparate theories of the future of digital humanities and DHCs emerged. One line of thought suggests that digital tools and methods will progressively become a standard part of humanities research. DH should thus be marked as a transitional moment in the humanities disciplines rather than as a distinct field. The distinction between digital and mainstream humanities will diminish over time, even though certain methodological differences might remain. Another group held that DH already ranks as a distinct field. The field will retain its autonomy because the need for innovative work and thinking with technology in the humanities will never cease. Although the use of digital tools and methods will become increasingly mainstream, there will always be a need for research groups on the frontier of innovation.

The far-reaching presumably rhetorical question of whether digital scholarship in the humanities will be designated as DH or “just” humanities will have important implications for the future. Both scholars and administrators are musing about whether DHCs will be needed in the future, or digital scholarship will blend into the existing disciplinary and departmental structures. Overall, the respondents agreed that we will see a wave of interest in DHCs, some of which will persist, while others will peak quickly only to fade away.

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