Reflections on the dh-ness of my working days

I’ve been thinking over what my day tomorrow at Records of Early English Drama (REED) might involve, and it got me thinking. It made me remember that, although I am the ‘Digital Projects Manager,’ and am focussed on DH issues, REED is not a centre like the Electronic Textual Cultures Laboratory (yet!). REED was created as and still to a large part is, a traditional (and highly respected) editorial project — committed to publishing print collections in an ongoing series. It has realized the importance, indeed necessity, of disseminating its collections on the web (its next collection, Inns of Court, will be its first digital publication, following the print publication), and has recently established a Digital Advisory Committee (chaired by Ray Siemens) as a recognition of this necessity. But its core work involves the production of collections that require highly specialized expertise in early modern Latin, English and Anglo-Norman paleography, translation, and lexicography, and rigorous research and editing competencies. Even in the digital age, employing people with these skills is essential for the work REED does.

As a consequence, our funding efforts of necessity are focussed on ways to fund those people (me and my colleagues) that can do this essential work of REED (and REED survives solely through continual grant applications, besides the generous annual contribution of the Jackman Foundation). However, this means that DH work at REED must look for funding from sources that have not been earmarked to fund the traditional work of REED. Everything is subject to the vagaries of funding: that REED was awarded a SSHRC International Opportunities Fund grant enabled us to develop the London Theatres Bibliography I am the REED project manager for — but if we didn’t get the grant, this project would have to have been shelved. I work on my own proposed educational resources for REED, but without funding, I don’t have the time to devote to developing them, because I have to devote my attention to funded projects where the funders expect deliverables. REED cannot double and triple dip in the same pot. There are always ideas for projects, but they always must not draw funding away from REED’s essential scholarly and editorial work.

Basically, I find as Digital Projects Manager, my job is always in flux. We should hear soon about a SSHRCC Public Outreach grant, which would entail that a substantial portion of my time be dedicated to educational outreach for target audiences in Ontario. My priorities, my focus, my energies, are tied to our success at grant applications. Projects that don’t have funding get sidelined, understandably. But one finds one’s professional life consists of numerous pots on a very large stove, and a very flexible legerdemain, that requires ongoing repositioning according to what gets funding. ‘No, X gets served first!’

All this is to say that, on reflecting on my work life, it consists of very pedestrian activities to produce funded deliverables, and of an imaginative realm where one is trying to develop compelling DH projects that will be ground-breaking and fund the essential work of REED.

Morning: Preparing for SSHRC information session

Sitting here having my morning coffee. Slept in a bit this morning (very unusual) – I often wake up at around 4 or 5 and doze until 6, rarely falling back asleep, but I did this morning and reawoke at 6:30. I usually spend my weekday before-work mornings with some random web exploration and writing – often about things I’ve been pondering before I get up. Then I either go for a 5K run or to the gym. I’ll have to pass on the gym this morning, because the research office at UofT is holding an information session on SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council)’s renewed program architecture, and I need to go through the 54-page briefing SSHRC has prepared once again.

For REED, SSHRC’s new funding structure is a positive development, especially the Partnership Grants, which start at 500K with no upper limit and have a duration of up to 7 years. This means that REED could propose an ambitious 7-year plan that would fund and bring together the traditional and digital work of the project, and make REED’s digital future less of a piecemeal operation dictated by funding for this or that DH component.

Noon: SSHRCC, Email, Booking Meetings, Twitter

Returned from the information session about SSHRC’s new funding structure about an hour ago. It’s clear that there are many ambiguities in the briefing about the new architecture that have be dealt with. There is clearly a great deal of concern about the Standard Research Grants (which will become plain Research Grants), because the amount and the length of tenure have been increased. Apparently, there is a perception that individual researchers who apply for modest grants to do traditional humanities work (researching and writing a monograph), are being pushed out by more ambitious and more cost-intensive projects. This perception was countered by the suggestion that the chance of success was less a question of the amount of the grant, and more a question of how much ‘bang for the buck’ an application promised. And the problem is that an application to produce a highly-specialized humanities monograph with a small print run and a likely even smaller readership will never promise as much ‘bang for the buck’ as a more innovative and ambitious approch that thinks beyond the limitations of the single-authored monograph. Why the chance to get funding for more innovative and collaborative humanities work is not looked upon as an opportunity baffles me.

Checked through my email accounts, read a story from the Chronicle of Higher Education, booked a meeting time and room for an informal meeting of the members of the Research Associates Advisory Committee to discuss employment issues of concern that we want to put on the agenda of future advisory board meetings, booked a meeting time to meet with the lead content developer of the London Theatres Bibliography to discuss search functionality, data display and navigation for the front-end interface, booked a meeting to meet with REED’s Director & Associate Director to draft questions we want to send to SSHRC about the new funding architecture.

Went onto Twitter, gave a quick scan of the #dayofdh page — lots of activity! Read Steven Ramsay’s DayofDH posting about after having had his heart broken over and over by Lisp, he has finally found his code Laura: Clojure (“the most beautiful data abstraction I’ve ever seen”).

I’ve been on Twitter for a couple of weeks, and IT’S AMAZING! It’s like having your own personalized staff of highly-intelligent information managers filtering out all the best parts of the information deluge. I have come across so much useful information, I only wish I had the time to read it all. Prof. Mark Lipton (Dept. of English, University of Guelph), who I first encountered at DHSI in Victoria last year, reccomended it as a way of networking with various communities. I also find Twitter interesting because you can get a read on the social networks of a community of practice, like who’s chummy with who in the DH community.

5ish: Data entry

Wrapping up an afternoon of entering data on patrons biographies from the REED Kent: Diocese of Canterbury collection. Kent is the last published REED collection to have its relevant content entered and uploaded on the Patrons and Performances Web Site. With the exception of some ongoing patron genealogical work and some remaining performance venues for certain counties, the Patrons website will have ‘caught up’ with the print volumes.

Unfortunately, Kent: Diocese of Canterbury has probably the greatest amount of performances for a single collection (around 2200, and that collection covers only 1 of 2 dioceses of the county!) and the greatest number of new patrons for a single collection, so it’s been quite gruelling. And it’s not simply a matter of easily slotting a datum into the relevant field: what one soon discovers is that a structured database demands a level of precision and detail that can be completely elided in conventional textual scholarship. For example, I was entering data relating to the offices a patron held (we collect information on offices because this information may help us to understand the known and possible performance activities of the troupe or troupes a person patronized). One of these offices was a commissioner of oyer and terminer, which usually is for a city or county. This one, however, was for ‘Chancery,’ something which I had never come across before. My problem was that where one can simply write ‘comm oyer and terminer Chancery 1554′ in a biographical entry printed in a text, I had to put Chancery in a particular field, and that meant I needed to know what Chancery meant in the context.

[Just had a conversation here with the Associate Director and Executive editor about process for preparing an NEH grant which will help us towards creating REED's first digital collection, Inns of Court.]

Well, I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but after some research, I determined that Chancery was the Court of Chancery, and that although, the Court was physically based at Westminster, the relevant County/Region was England because the commission (a legal one) was attached to the Court and the court’s purview was national in scope. Having to deal with questions like these can really slow down the process.

This, I imagine, is the less glamourous side of DH.


Arrived home at 6:45. Have been tinkering with a draft of the theme of a workshop for which I hope to apply for funding. This made somewhat difficult by one of our cats — Orfeo or ‘Junior’ — walking over my desk and wanting to rub his head on my chin. Anyway, here’s what I have so far:

“Browse through a REED collection. In its optimal form, what might it and the REED series as a whole look like as an online resource? How might it be navigated? What kind of functionalities would it have? How could it be made accessible to a range of audiences? How might it be personalized for the interests of individual users? How could it interoperate with REED’s other online research resources, and interchange data with other online sites? What new research affordances, new research questions might arise from the serendipity that would come from being able to explore REED’s entire dataset along a myriad of research vectors and from being able to combine REED’s data with other datasets on the web and visualize them in multiple ways? What new partnerships and new futures for REED might develop from this process?

What possible solutions might be proposed for the challenges such an undertaking will present? What standards and specifications have to be developed to ensure REED collections are sustainable and interoperable? What kind of web-based editing and publishing environment will REED require to publish print and online collections, which must be both the same and radically different? What aspects of REED’s editorial process are amenable and resistant to automation? How will REED editorial processes and workflow be impacted? What kind of competencies will be required of editors and the editorial support team?

REED’s digital transformation touches on many aspects of scholarly endeavor, traditional and digital:  transcriptions of primary sources (medieval and renaissance) in a variety of languages, encoding standards, bibliography, lexicography, prosopography, editorial problems, cartography, encoding standards, interoperability. It has the potential to make original and important contributions to all of these areas.

We invite you to participate in this exciting exchange about REED’s digital future. We are looking to bring together a group of people with a wide range of expertise who are interested in helping chart REED’s course forwards into the digital, and who want to exchange and debate ideas in a congenial forum.

The result of this workshop will be a collection of essays that document the working through of issues concerning REED’s digital future, and a map for REED’s way forward.”

Sometimes my colleague and office mate Carolyn (who, as an Associate Editor, is much more involved in the editorial process than I am) and I talk about what producing a digital version of a REED collection might entail, and our talk often falters in light of what seems to be the enormity of the undertaking. What would this do to the way REED functions now? How disruptive might the transition be? How would certain extremely complex editorial processes be handled? Will it mean more work, less work or different work? It’s all a great mystery. Although we had an all-day visioning meeting about REED’s digital transformation last year, the dialogue was not continued, so it all seems quite intangible, removed from our everyday work.

This is why the workshop is so important. REED needs to gather together experts in DH to discuss how REED might actually effect this transformation, and where the smooth and rough patches are likely to be. We need reliable guides to provide us with a map forward.

Wrapping up

I just came back from making meatless meat balls (breadcrumbs, egg, herbs) for tonight’s dinner: kefta aux oeufs.

I was hoping to be able to do and blog about more DH stuff than I was able to do today. I was hoping there might be an exciting development with the Digital Humanities Collaboratory I co-ordinate (there was yesterday — an important new member — and there will be next week — a meeting with the Dean of the Faculty of Information). I hoped to have time today to read Alan Galey’s essay “Networks of Deep Impression: Shakespeare and the History of Information,” a forthcoming special issue of the Shakespeare Quarterly, “Shakespeare and New Media,” the contents of which can be viewed and commented on online. For someone who has no budget to go to conferences, this is an attractive alternative and more likely to lead to a published article, and I think it is a model for the way humanities scholars should do their work in the future. I think other online platforms like blogs are an excellent way to record, think through and share ongoing research, and I was doing it for a time with my Recitation: Set Moving Anew blog, which was such a great pleasure for me to do as a scholar but which I have had to put on hiatus for various reasons — however, I tell myself, at least what I have done can hopefully be of use to others. But ah, the day is finite, and dinner is ready….

Reading 155 Days of DH

I’ve just been spending some time learning to program in Python. I feel rather sheepish about the sense of accomplishment I feel for having successfully created a coin-flipping game and a number guessing game. I was thinking of modifying the first game to create a Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead coin-flipping game where the coin always comes up heads, but that’s not much of a challenge.

Well, it’s been over a week since the Day of DH. I finally got around to reading Alan Galey’s essay “Networks of Deep Impression: Shakespeare and the History of Information.” A fascinating view into an aspect of Shakespeare new to me, and one that I feel very unqualified to give feedback on. I do hope this open review of Alan’s essay will get some substantive comments, because I think the practice of open review could be very positive for scholarly communication and practice — and I think the Media Commons Press interface is very user-friendly.

I also spent a part of the weekend reading some of the Day of DH blogs. So, far I’ve read all the blogs by people whose names start with ‘A.’ What I’ve read so far has been both interesting and informative: Alice Hickcox’s summary of a DH talk (or ‘Humanities in the Digital Age’ talk) by Prof. Gregory Crane; the very interesting work Alun Edwards is involved in; Amanda Gailey brought my attention to a collection of essays on alternative academic careers being edited by Betthany Nowviskie; Amanda Visconti wrote about her UlyssesUlysses project, designed to make James Joyce’s great novel more accessible to non-specialist readers. I look forward to reading through the rest of the blogs in the future!