Week 5: Scholarship Through Design: Communication, Collaboration, and Knowledge in Digital Humanities Projects

This week is all about digital humanities as scholarship, through communication, implementation, and collaboration in the field. As scholars and historians move into an increasingly web-based world, it is vital to ask “reporter questions” of the Digital Humanities, analyze examples, and see how we can implement it in our own scholarship, as means of changing modes of historical scholarship, while making sure to maintain a practice of “good” history.

As a means of analyzing the Digital Humanities, one should look no further than the almost encyclopedic examination of the Digital Humanities in Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities Fundamentals. By asking simple, yet important questions, the reader can get a sense of what the Digital Humanities are, what they can be utilized for, and a way to effectively engage in the field, which the Short Guide argues is as far back as World War II. Digital Humanities “stands not on the opposition of the past, but on its shoulders” (Short Guide, 123). As is argued, these projects are both nouns and verbs; they move along the study of the humanities, work to evaluate scholarship, foster an open dialogue between a collaborative number of scholars, and is more inclusive than print alone. The Digital Humanities fosters the growth of interdisciplinary and collaborative work, culminating in an increased level of scholarship and usefulness of the field.

Perhaps the best example of the Short Guide’s explanation is if we look at NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grants as a case study. Perusing the guidelines can initially make your head spin, but each section was created to uphold and support the pursuance of digital scholarship. These grants come in three levels (I,II, and III). Level III assumes that you have already had a previous grant through Levels I or II, but these latter levels are used for mainly start-up costs. The “Narrative” section within these proposals include long term goals of the grant, the environmental scan, the project history, a complete work plan, and the final period including dissemination of the finalized product. As the website mentions, the goal of these proposals is to ensure the finalized product is accessible and free to the public, which mirrors sections of the Short Guide that state digital humanities should promote “citizen scholars” and public knowledge (Short Guide, 126). Below is an example of Stanford University’s Level III Table of Contents for their grant proposal, which not only includes the general subcategories within the Narrative and Abstract sections, but also notes the “user-tester base”, an addition for Level III grants:

While the grant process in particular and digital humanities in general may seem like a complicated process, Matthew Kirschenbaum brings up an excellent point in his article “Done: Finishing Projects in the Digital Humanities”. When is one of these Digital Humanities projects truly finished? If we consider what both the Short Guide and the NEH guidelines state, these projects hold an open and continuous dialogue. And as Kirschenbaum argues, the inherent fluidity of the web and digital products in their very nature are constantly evolving. If this is true, can one ever really finish a digital project? Or is this another aspect of digital scholarship that should be celebrated for its fluidity. Tom Scheinfeldt’s article, “Omeka and Its Peers”, perfectly exemplifies this. Not only does Scheinfeldt notice the changing nature of the web, but he argues free and collaborative projects such as Omeka celebrate the increase of knowledge to not only the public but to different areas of scholarship (i.e. librarians, archivists, editors, programmers).

And if these readings were not in depth or clear enough, Dan Brown’s Communicating Design will certainly fill any void. This “cookbook” of information on the process of web design works as a road-map for anyone interested in design projects. Brown takes the reader through a very complicated process in a simplified and easy-to-follow manner. Specifically, he talks about the documentation that goes with web design, or “deliverables”. He stresses the importance of representing these deliverables by going through three parts of the book: User-needs documentation, Strategy documentation, and Design documentation. Each part includes what he calls “layers” on delineating importance of each task and those involved. While not the same as the NEH guidelines or the Short Guide, one can see that by reading this book there is an extensive process that goes into not only web design, but the communication involved. Through each of Brown’s examples, we can extrapolate that among all of the fine details, communication and collaboration are key to the success of web-based designs and the Digital Humanities as a whole.

While reading these rich texts, we should be thinking about furthering the conversation and continuing to engage with the scholarship:

The Short Guide focuses heavily on where the Digital Humanities began and where it could be going in the future. What is the benefit of understanding where digital humanities originated, where it is now, and where it could be going?

Kirschenbaum celebrates the fact that digital projects may never be “done” completely, but do you agree with him? What are the benefits of the fluid and ever-evolving process of digital humanities projects?

Many of the texts for this week focus on the interdisciplinary and collaborative work that is involved in the Digital Humanities. What are the positives of such work? And what, if any, could be the potential pitfalls?


5 Replies to “Week 5: Scholarship Through Design: Communication, Collaboration, and Knowledge in Digital Humanities Projects”

  1. I agree with Kirschenbaum, when he questions when/if proejcts are ever truly complete. It’s been mentioned in previous discussions, but with constantly changing technology, digital projects need maintanence in order to keep up. With new technology, there is always something more that can be done and added to a project as well, something that wasn’t available when the project first started. It goes to show how flexible digital projects can be.

  2. The Short Guide really cleared up some questions I still had on the Digital Humanities. I think that understanding the origins of Digital Humanities is crucial to defining what truly is the nature of the field. While first reading, I started to wish that this was assigned earlier to give a formal overview of this new topic that I had honestly never heard about. As I got into the later sections though, I started to think that I would not have understood the reading as clearly without the vocabulary we have developed over these last few weeks. Therefore, looking back on the evolution of this field can help us to understand how we got to and where we are in the present world of Digital Humanities. As far as where Digital Humanities will go next, I think we can speculate based off of trends we have seen through its existence thus far, yet I think we will not have a clear picture since new technologies are constantly being created. In that sense, Digital Humanities are never done like Kirschenbaum contends by these constant updates to the systems we currently use. However, through the last few readings there seems to be a general consensus that Digital Humanities and the accompanying History fields are traveling towards a more collaborative approach across various fields of study. I think this interdisciplinary perspective will further our understandings of different topics, and I love that we are in the midst of these exciting times of epistemology.

  3. I really liked the Short Guide about the definition of Digital Humanities. I think this is really helpful because we are defining “digital humanities” and not necessarily digital history which are two different things and things I’m constantly interchanging. The benefit of understanding the origins of digital humanities and where it’s at currently, is that we can better project where the field is going but also the historiography of the field.

    Another aspect that really stuck out to me from the readings was also from the Short Guide:

    “the mere use of digital tools for the purpose of humanistic research and communication does not qualify as digital Humanities. nor, as already noted, is digital Humanities to be understood as the study of digital artifacts, new media, or contemporary culture in place of physical artifacts, old media, or historical culture.”

    This is crucial to remember as we go about trying to dip our toes into the water of digital humanities but also as we read scholarship on digital humanities. This is also vital when taking historical knowledge or historiography we’re already doing in our academic lives and adding a digital component? How can we tie these two together? How can we incorporate digital media while making sure we’re accurately using digital humanities?

  4. I find Brown’s book an interesting choice because it is written by a web design professional and not a historian. This is directly related to your question of the pitfalls involved in collaboration. Earlier in the semester Rosenzweig warned historians not to hand over too much control of their projects to “experts” and through Brown’s book one can see why.

    It is a business-oriented field manual, and echoes many of the dangers historians have to always be cognizant of when dealing with the online format. It is of course important to know what is happening in the field, but to put historical projects in the same context as market competition and you lose collaborative efforts to the viral-hysteria that motivates so many online efforts.

    Historians will have to remember their priorities, particularly when dealing with tech experts who may have other goals in mind. It is merely a caution.

  5. Kirschenbaum brings up an interesting issue within the digital humanities that I hadn’t fully considered before: When is a project “done”, or can it ever be done? When I turn it a paper, it is done. I may get comments back on it and make a few changes, but from that point on, I am done. However, on a digital platform, the finished paper is only the beginning, as comments and updates are as much a part of the digital platform as the finished product is. This issue reminded me of the HistoryWired page from last week’s practicums – that’s one way for a project to be done, but I don’t think that’s ultimately the goal of most digital humanities projects. It also reminded me of either the first or second week of class, when we were discussing reasons to study digital history and one of the articles said we had to keep up and stay relevant or be left behind and forgotten. This is part of the problem with being “done” with a project with digital history, once you stop working on the project, it becomes outdated and eventually overtaken. And maybe that’s ok. For example, the blog for this specific class will likely stop being updated over the summer and we will no longer check it, and it will fade from relevance in our minds, but it served its purpose for our class. Being “done” with a project may never happen with a site you want to continue forever like Wikipedia, but being “done” depends on the purpose of the project. And maybe it’s ok for a site to simply be retired and “done”, like with HistoryWired. Maybe the site dies a hero or live long enough to see itself become a villain (looking at you Facebook).

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