STEM-born, humanities-approved

A flower with the words "Not THAT kind of STEM"

S(cience) T(echnology) E(ngineering) and M(athematics), my friends. (Image courtesy Audrey, Wikimedia Commons)

DH and Project Management

Typically, when I explain to friends and family exactly what “digital humanities” means, I rely on examples of what it produces: digital editions of books, thematic research collections, virtual museums, etc. However, equally important to DH projects are the adoption and adaptation of STEM-born research methods. Many of the most successful DH projects are of a scale which necessitates collaboration amongst fields and universities.[1] The result? “Corporate” concepts such as project management are filtering into university research. And as humanists begin to explore these production frameworks, they incorporate pre-existing concepts from within their disciplines, and adapt the methods to emerging concerns in their fields. My interest in project management in particular[2] led me to do some preliminary research about the conversations DHers are having regarding its implementation. This post will focus on three main questions being asked by humanists who are restructuring their roles as researchers within a project management framework.[3]

1) What counts as work?

Some scholars perceive DH as an intimidating or unappealing new field for a mix of well-documented reasons. The question of whether or not a researcher must code to qualify as a DHer has received notable attention.[4] However, the collaborative approach necessary for large-scale tech projects can also frighten away would-be digital humanists. In an article aimed at introducing women’s studies to the potential of thematic research collections, comparative literature scholar Daphnée Rentfrow points out that “collaborative work and team authorship are as yet the exception in the humanities” (310). Only one of the articles I found on project management in DH was co-authored, illustrating the extent to which this trail has yet to be blazed. DHers are also debating what “counts” as academic writing. Tom Scheinfeldt of Found History fame rocked boats by claiming that code itself is text requiring no further explanation.[5] Amongst the pushback which followed, Trevor Owens colorfully argued that writing is, in fact, a critical part of the creation process, even for team members whose primary job is coding:

“If you don’t have at least a one-pager for your project, then you don’t have a project; you are just fiddling around.” (Owens)

In the lifespan of a project, two points are particularly critical moments for reflection: the project’s genesis, and its conclusion. In a corporate context, initial reflections help determine how best to meet the client’s needs. For DHers, who are simultaneously contractors and client,[6] writing about the project before beginning is an opportunity to ensure that the needs of different theoretical frameworks are met. For example, Susan Brown, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, the minds behind The Orlando Project, point optimistically to the reflective process’s potential impact on the inclusion of women’s writing in a larger sphere:

“I believe that this process of thinking through what we are doing electronically can’t help but make the underlying research activity better, and it may have far-reaching impact on the larger effort to sort women into accounts of writing, society, and history.” (Brown et. al. 325).

When a project wraps up, published, written reflection on the completed work is valuable in that it helps each team member quantify what they learned and achieved, and can help guide future work. Writing up DH research helps right another wrong, too. In her article “Evaluating Collaborative Digital Scholarship (or, Where Credit is Due),” Bethany Nowviskie of the University of Virginia Scholars’ Lab points out that tenure committees do not always have guidance as to how to approach digital work. Write-ups of processes, failures, and experiments can educate traditional humanists about the kinds of work happening in DH.

"I thank God for my failures.  Maybe not at first, but after some reflection.  Dolly Parton."  In front of a mountain.

Dolly Parton knows what’s up. (Courtesy Ryan Holliday and Wikimedia Commons.)

2. Who gets to contribute?

As DH work becomes more collaborative, it dovetails with the ongoing conversation in the humanities regarding inclusiveness. In the traditional model of research centered on an individual scholar pursuing his or her own interests, inclusiveness meant diversity in the works taught and studied, not in who was doing the studying. But, as DH began opening the door to a bigger pool of researchers, concerns cropped up that it was too male and too white, repeating the social history of other fields of study, especially current controversies in computer science.[7] Humanists by and large care about including scholars of all stripes, and breaking down traditional barriers to access and recognition as much as possible. Within individual projects, the politics of inclusion often involve title prestige. Nowviskie, an “alt-ac”-er herself, argues that the contributions of those outside of the traditional tenure-track framework are especially vulnerable to elision for the sake of a professor’s promotion. DH work can come with its own sort of reflexive snobbishness, learned from a system that privileges the single-authored monograph and seeks to dismantle the wisdom of the crowd.[8] In her guide to project management for DH, Nowviskie encourages DHers to “seek partners, not services. Seek collaboration, not staff,” a call to common courtesy that requires some serious ego-decentering. Collaboration across disciplines comes with valuable perks—speeding up the work, sharing resources and funding. However, all contributors must work that much harder to understand each other by educating themselves about their collaborators’ fields, an extra step not required in the corporate goods-for-money model of project management. Ideally, cross-disciplinary and cross-career-path collaboration should help make the walls of the university more porous, and its halls more inclusive.

3. Who counts as contributing?

As humanities work incorporates more voices into the mix, its methods of recognizing research contributions must adapt as well. Citing collaborators presents unique challenges for DHers. For example, does every grad student who helped encode a text go in the by-line of an article? If not, how is their work recognized (if at all)? In a recent conversation with my brother Evan Beauvilliers, a doctoral candidate in chemistry,[9] he explained to me that in STEM fields (which involve big labs and lots of collaboration), there’s a clearly-stated protocol for providing credit, and dire consequences for failing to do so. In the humanities, where scholars are used to acting alone and the stakes for name recognition can be as high as tenure, the protocol is less developed. Nowviskie points out that recognizing graduate students, junior faculty, and alt-ac contributors has the very basic benefit of encouraging everyone involved to contribute their best to a project.[10] The kinds of work called for by DH projects differ from the traditional work of the humanities, and therefore the head researcher (/project manager) needs to take the time to develop a plan for recognizing all contributors.[11] Critically, distributed recognition also helps address the traditional, and according to its detractors, outmoded hierarchy of the academy as it stands. In “Evaluating,” Nowviskie calls for charters of professional ethics in the humanities which are as clear as those in STEM, “not from uncertainty about digital humanists’ ability to negotiate interpersonal relationships, but from a recognition that our institutional policies […] codify inequities among collaborators of differing employment status.” Ideally, clearly articulated guidelines for providing credit on collaborative projects would attract more alt-ac scholars to DH—researchers would be assured of credit for participating in collaborative research, and therefore the kind of professional development needed for success in the university setting. Appropriate attribution affects early-career scholars, too. According to Rentfrow, junior faculty “are likely to be concerned about devoting much time and energy into a collaborative project at the cost of more traditional single-authored monographs and essays.” This concern can be alleviated, she claims, if DH projects “build into their (human) infrastructure a system by which all contributions can be recorded and quantified” (313).

Conclusion: the tenure question

totem pole post card illustrating pm hierarchy

In which I illustrate the amount of perspective I have on these things, and recommend taking my statements with many grains of salt. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

The evolving use of project management techniques in large-scale DH work feeds into current efforts in the humanities to rethink the tenure system. During my chat with my brother, he told me that the research director/project manager in a lab is not solely responsible for performing the research foot work, as is often the case in the humanities. Instead, s/he is similar to the boss of a company, generating ideas, applying for grants, publishing, and directing a team of researchers. Perhaps this lab structure exists in the humanities and I’ve just never been high enough on the totem pole to see the guy at the top, but I doubt it. In STEM fields, a differing workflow means different expectations come tenure time—more focused on papers in peer-reviewed journals than on a monograph. Perhaps, just as STEM models are helping rethink how some humanities work is done, they can also aid in rethinking how it should be evaluated.

Endnotes

[1] Think the Walt Whitman Archive, NINES, the Women Writer’s Project.
[2] The end of this program is looming, and it’s time to make some career decisions. Speaking of, if you know of any work opportunities …
[3] For a great introduction to project management specifically aimed at humanists, check out Brian Croxall’s article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “12 Basic Principles of Project Management.”
[4] See “The Digital Humanities Moment” by Matthew K. Gold in Debates in the Digital Humanities.
[5] Twitter evidence here!
[6] See Croxall’s discussion of this quirk of DH projects at the end of “12 Basic Principles of Project Management.”
[7] See “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White?” by Tara McPherson
[8] Think of all the effort gone to dissuade students from using Wikipedia even though it is about as accurate as print encyclopedias (see the (in)famous Nature article.
[9] At UNC Chapel Hill. He is helping design more efficient materials for solar cells. Yeah, I think he’s pretty excellent, too.
[10] “You just do a better job, now and far into the future, with things that have your name on them” (Nowviskie “Evaluating”).
[11] From Nowviskie’s “Evaluating,” check out INKE, which created a “corporate authorship convention” specifically describing how to give radically inclusive credit to every member of the team.


Bibliography

  1. Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. “Sorting Things in: Feminist Knowledge Representation and Changing Modes of Scholarly Production.” Women’s Studies International Forum 29.3 (2006): 317–325. CrossRef. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
  2. Croxall, Brian. “12 Basic Principles of Project Management.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs: ProfHacker. N.p., 3 Mar. 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
  3. Nowviskie, Bethany. “Evaluating Collaborative Digital Scholarship (or, Where Credit Is Due).” Journal of Digital Humanities. N.p., 19 Dec. 2012. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
  4. Owens, Trevor. “Please Write It Down: Design and Research in Digital Humanities.” Journal of Digital Humanities. N.p., 9 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
  5. Rentfrow, Daphnée. “Thematic Research Collections and Women’s Studies.” Women’s Studies International Forum 29.3 (2006): 307–316. CrossRef. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

(This is the first time I’ve generated a bibliography in Zotero!  How did I/it do?)

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