Collaboration is THE Thing
The following remarks were prepared for the 30 Years of Digital Humanities at UVA conference, as part of a panel on “DH, Graduate Education, Careers.”
My story takes place around 2008—which is, stunningly, 14 years ago now—when as a 4th year PhD student I got my 1st idea for a digital humanities project—though I wouldn’t have known to call it that at the time. People recommended I go chat with the director of the Scholars’ Lab, Bethany Nowviskie. That I was a 4th year PhD student at the University of Virginia who had never been told that either digital humanities or the Scholars’ Lab even existed is a topic for a different talk.
When Bethany and I met, I spun out quite a project proposal. If I remember correctly at this distance, I proposed a comprehensive digital edition of every reprinted story that appears in any 19th century newspaper. And Bethany listened patiently, started her remarks encouragingly, and then applied what she called then “the wet blanket of administrative love”—drawing on her extensive expertise to help me understand what was, and wasn’t, feasible for me to create given limited time, funding, and experience.
I wish I could say I learned from that interaction how to appropriately scope digital humanities work, but my reach has exceeded my grasp many times in the intervening years. But here I want to focus on a different detail of that interaction, one which I hope I have carried forward into most of what I’ve done since, which is this: though I was a grad student coming to Bethany, naive about a field she’d been leading for awhile, she treated me from the beginning as a fellow scholar whose ideas were worthy to be taken seriously. Her advice aimed to help me understand the infrastructural issues of which I was ignorant, but it was neither condescending nor dismissive. She treated me not like a student, but like a prospective collaborator. I left not defeated, but energized to actually begin the project that would effectively launch my career. Though I was well embarked on a dissertation at that point, it was the project that began in that room that has led to every opportunity since. Though I was brand new to DH, these attitudes were why DH was the first academic community I’d ever joined where I didn’t feel like an imposter.
I didn’t realize at the time, but I was fortunate to be introduced to DH through the Scholars Lab at that particular moment, when there was an early but emphatic emphasis on questions of fair collaboration, shared credit, and equitable treatment among teams that included academics in different roles and at different ranks. I can’t promise that I’ve always lived up to the ideals that were being articulated in this place at that moment, but as projects like Viral Texts developed, I worked to ensure graduate students who worked on the project were treated like collaborators. One reason the project may seem from the outside to have veered in so many directions is that we have defined our lines of inquiry around the aptitudes and interests of graduate student collaborators who have joined us for a few years at a time, students such as Abby Mullen, Jonathan Fitzgerald, Avery Blankenship, or Jay Park. Most of the articles we have written have been coauthored. Each chapter of the book that we are currently taking far too long to write is cowritten by at least one current or former graduate collaborator. The “career warping gravity”—as John Unsworth called it this morning—of DH at UVA shapes not only those who studied and worked here, but the students who work with all of us at institutions beyond.
In many ways, I don’t see the Viral Texts project as one big project that we are building over many years—Viral Texts is not a singular thing. Instead, it has become more of a framework for gathering and supporting a series of smaller (dare I say, better scoped?) experiments with distinct, transcriptable outcomes for the collaborators involved with each individual experiment. Among its many technical achievements, I would argue one of the most transformative outcomes of the digital humanities, led by the work done here at UVA, has been pushing the humanities to reconsider normalized—but inequitable and unsustainable—collaborative structures in humanistic fields. A challenge in the coming decade is to take these reconsiderations on board even as the literal infrastructure for collaboration—that is, the departments, programs, and people—are further constrained and constricted.
The past decade has been characterized by increasingly anxious conversations about the outcomes of humanities graduate education. We might think of the conversation about alt-ac careers, and then the backlash against that conversation. One thing I would suggest often gets missed in those anxious conversations is that it’s not really the skills learned in humanities study that are at issue. As humanists insist in departmental mission statements or pitches to prospective students, learning to closely attend to detail—whether of text or data—and express your ideas about those details effectively are valuable skills across both academic and private sectors. Adding technical skills to the mix can be valuable, but that in and of itself doesn’t, I would suggest, change career dynamics much.
Instead, I would suggest that the modes we teach students for using the skills they cultivate in graduate school remain cloistered in ways that mitigate against students using those skills across domains. Most graduate students are not learning how to organize projects comprising team members who come from diverse domains, who bring diverse skills. They are not learning what fair collaboration looks like in practice. They are not learning one important outcome of cross-field collaboration we discuss less often as an explicit goal: how to articulate your goals and vision for a project to partners who bring distinct goals and visions, and identify the intersections. DH has been an exception here. Perhaps more than the technical skills DH students learn, they are more likely to learn how to translate their intellectual work and see its value in contexts beyond their own minds.
Collaboration isn’t just a thing in DH. Collaboration is THE thing.